Stepping into the small gallery – it was once a hairdressers – and you get confronted by human sized objects, larger than human size in fact, larger than life, just like my friend Adam Zoltowski, the artist that made them. These objects – the Foreign Bodies – seem purposeful and even though they’re bright and pop, have a slightly daunting seriousness, like the heads on Easter Island. From where they stand on their shipping container plinths a whole flood of associations streams down. Tintin – in particular the edition Flight 714, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum which is the Ashmolean’s evil cousin, or sepia photographs of Egyptologists next to opened tombs and not forgetting Indiana Jones. The Foreign Bodies are artefacts, not of any one single myth, but of the idea of myth. And it’s hard to think about imagining myth without thinking about the Romantics: Byron demanding silent reverence at sunset on the Grand Tour, crumbling ruin silhouetted against the sky. Or Turner imagining the last days of monolithic Carthage.
Foreign Bodies explicitly references the Romantics and their pre-occupation with the classical world with Anubis; a freestanding mask of the eponymously named Egyptian deity who was guardian of the afterlife and the god of embalming. Anubis is placed in the corner, watching like a guard dog, and it’s hard not to see it as a loaded reference with its connotations of preservation the physical body and of legacy. Anubis is also interesting in its construction. In contrast with the two heads on crates it’s made of angular planes and has no volume as such. In that sense it’s similar to the flattened out representation of figures in ancient hieroglyphs. Giacometti says that it’s as if other views cease, and only in memory does the illusion of volume exist. All this is free association, but as such it adds up towards understanding Foreign Bodies as something like a documentary, as much a reflection on the history of sculpture as anything else.
Although Anubis is the least volumetric of the sculptural works, it shares with the other pieces the primacy of heads over bodies. The mask-like heads on crates – Portrait of Monica and Blackbeard – present a grandness and scale that again returns us to the monolithic works of the classical period collected in the 18th century. On the Grand Tour hacking off a head from an ancient marble as a souvenir was the thing to do because the volume of cargo that the tourist could bring back on the ship was limited. This seems an important thing to think about with regard to Foreign Bodies and in fact it’s something that Adam talks about a fair bit – that the crates were born out of the necessity of safely transporting the heads. What the crates undoubtedly do is re-vitalise the conviction of the plinth – that age old sculptor’s concern. The other quality of crates is that they’re easily stacked away, in a warehouse patrolled by Nazis, or in a lock-up in South London as the case may be. Also, like the shape of a coffin they’re handy to place in a tomb. Meanwhile going around the Ashmolean with Adam we find out that the reason sarcophagi resemble the features of the dead person is so that the Ba or ‘personality’ recognizes itself and returns to reside there to live after the body dies.
All this research and investment begs a question which Adam doesn’t answer yet: Is Foreign Bodies romantic per se, or is it about romanticism? Perhaps it’s disingenuous, or over-sighted, or even not possible to be both. There’s also the question as to how earnest the show is. The big question about the legacy of the sculptor and the afterlife; does Adam really mean all that? These questions however, echo a crucial aspect of the Romantic gesture which is an elastic relationship with belief. Romantic literary critic Friedrich Schlegel writes that poetry ‘should forever be becoming, and never be perfected’ and is characterized by an oscillation between ‘enthusiasm and irony’.