Stepping into the small gallery (it was once a hairdressers) and you get confronted by human sized objects. These objects – the Foreign Bodies – seem particularly purposeful and even though they’re bright and pop, look like they’re meant for some kind of non-modern liturgy such as the heads on Easter Island. In fact, on their shipping container plinths they furnish a whole stream of associations, from Tintin – in particular Flight 714 – to Ashmolean or British Museum dusty artefacts, and to sepia photographs of Egyptologists next to opened tombs. They’re like the artefacts, not of any one specific 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 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, similar to the flattened out representation of figures in ancient hieroglyphs. It’s Giacometti who says that it’s as if other views cease, and only in memory does the illusion of volume exist. All of this is a reverie, but it’s a reverie that adds towards understanding Foreign Bodies as documentary-like; Romanticism as a marker in the history of sculpture.
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 has a bearing on Foreign Bodies in that the crates likewise seem born out of the necessity of safely transporting the heads. In any case what they 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 or a lock-up, and like a coffin they’re handy to place in a tomb. Meanwhile, museums tell us 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.
There’s the question as to whether the show is Romantic or about Romanticism, and there’s also the question as to how earnest the show is regarding the legacy of the sculptor and notions of the afterlife. 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’.