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New art in 2008 feels little need to launch itself with publicity-seeking manifestos. Young artists today sometimes enjoy collaborating, but they no longer subsume their singular identities in collective groups – the contemporary scene may seem strangely devoid of catchy new “isms”.
That is why I decided, when curating an exhibition of young artists at Lismore Castle in Ireland, to highlight their diversity. The show’s title, A Life of Their Own, celebrates unpredictability. Far from knowing what the exhibition is like even before they enter, visitors will find themselves ambushed by an extraordinary array of stimulating, unruly experiences: also in contemporary style, it’s a mixed show in that some of the works are on loan from collectors but quite a number are for sale, including works by Conrad Shawcross, Matt Calderwood and Roger Hiorns.
Anyone approaching Lismore Castle, a turreted fantasy surging vigorously from a river in County Waterford, might expect to find its interior lined with historical portraits of the Devonshire dynasty. In the grounds, though, recent work by Antony Gormley, Richard Long and David Nash is adroitly installed with a site-specific awareness of its particular outdoor location. And William Burlington, the present Duke’s son, has converted a capacious, multi-chambered gallery in the West Wing into a luminous and minimal showcase for contemporary art.
Invited by William Burlington and his wife Laura to curate the castle’s 2008 exhibition, I proposed a show about young sculptors who have emerged in the 21st century. Sculpture enjoys a centre-stage position in contemporary art: the artists selected for my Lismore show are the fortunate inheritors of this renewal. The sheer richness of materials and working strategies available for sculpture seems limitless. Almost anything can be pressed into service. The work displayed in A Life of Their Own ranges from film, coloured threads and machine-powered metal to light, papier mâché and water – or new approaches to a substance as traditional as carved stone.
Running through all these highly contrasted exhibits, however, is a unifying awareness of instability. Take Matt Calderwood, who grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland yet now immerses himself in urban images. His series of large “Projection” pieces may look like concrete supports pulled out of the fly-overs they once held up. In reality, though, they are made of timber encased in grey plasterboard, while plastic containers filled with water seem barely capable of preventing them from toppling over.
Eva Rothschild is equally preoccupied with vulnerability. She gives her exhibits ominous titles such as “Stalker” or “Black Window,” and they turn out to depend on a precarious sense of balance. Rothschild is a very linear sculptor. Although her stripped minimalism possesses an innate sense of toughness, it can easily look fragile as well. Growing up in Dublin, she must have been conscious of the unrest afflicting everyone across the border.
Since then, of course, dangers of other kinds have become rampant across the globe. Kate Atkin, who spent her childhood on the south coast of England, is another obsessed by dystopia. As well as executing immense and vigorous pencil drawings of nature at risk, she makes sinister reliefs where darkness presides. The form thrusting out at us from “Pyramid” was inspired by the idea of a vast, rusting structure rearing from the sea to gash any vessel passing by.
Conrad Shawcross’s exhibit is every bit as haunting. His work will transform a space at Lismore with a dramatic fretwork of lines playing ceaselessly across all the room’s surfaces. They emanate from a cage-like structure in the centre. He calls it “Slow Arc Inside a Cube”, and a metal machine tipped with a point of light makes the cage cast fierce reflections on walls, ceiling and floor.
If Shawcross’s machine is impossible to identify, Roger Hiorns makes no secret of the fact that he uses a BMW engine in one exhibit at Lismore. But it has undergone an unlikely metamorphosis. Hiorns immersed the BMW in a copper sulphate solution, which encrusted the entire engine with blue crystals. They glitter in the light, quite unlike the severity of his tall steel sculpture coated with disinfectant.
Not all the Lismore exhibits deal with solid objects. Kate Terry, who is transforming her room on site, uses ordinary threads and pins to create a mood of wonder. Working with astonishing skill, patience and geometrical precision, she takes the threads on journeys through the air. The result is at once ethereal and powerful, changing our spatial awareness as we negotiate a path through these clear-cut yet mystifying veils of colour.
Daniel Silver brings us back to the ancient sculptural tradition of heads on plinths. They originated, grimly, in his involvement with internet photographs of prisoners on death row. But Silver then went out to Zimbabwe, where his mother spent her childhood, and worked with local artisans on carving black springstone as well as green soapstone. An immense quantity of heads was produced, ranging from gaunt figuration through to sinister near-abstraction. The feeling of death here is omnipresent. But when Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer invaded New York’s Metropolitan Museum at night, they brought Silver’s exhibits to life. Filming ancient carvings of animals, warriors and princesses, they illuminated the heads and figures with a flashing strobic light. The sculpture seems reborn, and takes on a vitality as unexpected and challenging as anything else in the Lismore show.
‘A Life of Their Own’, at Lismore Castle, April 26-September 30. For full details contact email@example.com