Ephemeral Sculpture

Publikáció: 2015. April 20. Monday

Before introducing ephemeral sculpture as a form of artistic expression it is inevitable to describe the process that lead to the legitimatisation of temporal materials by the millennium and a widespread usage of them in contemporary fine arts at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Apart from its mere and accidental decorative function sculpture had to fill sacral functions until the renaissance that secured it a basic privileged role. However, there was not always a direct proportion between the “financial value” and the ritual function of an artwork, which latter enhanced the importance of these works against other everyday objects, and granted them a higher position due to their sacral character.


The process that provided the artist with exceptional power, i.e. that his sculptures can be exchanged to material goods and financial offset started in the renaissance. During the enlightenment the sacral and ritual function of sculpture gives way to its aesthetic and financial values. In the emblematic institutions of collective memory, in museums with their collections that are designed to preserve the memories and historical merits of the ruling classes sculpture’s role is to document the past. The self-representation of the powerful elite have always had the utmost importance; it is not by chance that the foundation of the Louvre coincides with the French revolution, the birth of a radically new world order.

With the establishment of museum collections the basic issue was beginning to be that which pieces are involved in such collections and which are not. And this is the issue that haunts the whole fine arts scene ever since. Boris Groys writes about this in 1997: “Museum might be regarded as a characteristic institution of modernity. People have always collected things, but the museum as a state collection acquired central significance in modern times. […] the main source of museum exhibitions is the junk-heap of history. Objects are taken from reality into collections at the moment when the old social order collapses, when the documents and symbols of power, the signs of cult, ideology and everyday life lose their former functions; in a word when they are transformed into historical garbage.

In the “white box” spaces of modern museums (think of MoMa for instance) the work is not an architectural part of its environment, so there could be only a minimal interaction between work and environment based on primary visual sensation. The object freed from all bounds is closed to its own aura like a high-class shoe installed in a luxury shop which might be equal in all its parameters to regular shoes but still, it receives an exceptional dimension due to the simple reason that it is not among mass products, but stands on its own in an exclusive place so different from averageness. The thought of getting rid of museum space occurred even in the beginning of the twentieth century. Brancusi for instance placed a number of his important sculptures in the public park of a little Romanian town of rural atmosphere, where the relation between the work and its environment was enhanced in a way most uncommon in public sculpture (Table of Silence, Endless Column, The Kiss).


So-called sculptural landscape designs by Isamu Noguchi might be interpreted as an intention to broaden the boundaries of the sculptural field, placing his works on the confines of sculpture and landscape architecture. It is a telling fact that right before designing his sculptural landscape plans in the thirties the American-Japanese sculptor-designer paid a visit to Brancusi’s Parisian art studio.

It is a discernable aspiration of the well-known representatives of classical avant-garde (Bauhaus, Dutch and Russian constructivists), too, to make art a part of everyday life. As Werner Hoffmann proposed in 1974, “the new allocations of creative activity advance to such borderline areas, in which the work of art does not simply become questionable, but rather non-existent as an independent entity. Their aim is to create a total reality and not merely the interpretation of an aspect of reality. Whether there are works of art created in the meantime or not, is an issue of secondary importance”.

After the war, in the newly constructed system of galleries the financially invigorated group of collectors gets rid of its passive role, and stopped being mere buyers and sellers, instead they started to act as competent persons who are able to decide in important artistic issues. Sometimes they determined the size, the materials, the style and even the theme of realizable works, they were able to establish trends due to their financial power, considering only the financial potential of the works; aesthetic factors were deemed secondary. For some artists this process proved to be rather deteriorative to their artistic sensitivity, while others, realizing the dangers of such an influence, looked for other forms of expression, and even positioned themselves consciously against this mechanism.


The European artists of arte povera protested by the anti-aesthetic outlook and provocative character of their works in the sixties and seventies; they compared themselves to magicians, shamans or alchemists who reject modern industrial technology, and choose the most simple, poorest means to establish contact with the spiritual sphere. They realized this idea by the boycott of the artistic market, and by a rather romantic and demonstrative exodus from over-organized society. Works are frequently made of corruptible materials, so with time they perish causing a deliberate confusion in the art trade. Artists of the arte povera movement were quite attracted to so-called “primitive” lands far from human civilization, and their works were often realized at such almost inaccessible sites. In this aspect they resemble American land artists whose distinctive feature was also their avoidance and refusal of the white cube.

Two important motives of the act of moving out were the modernist and expansionist aspiration and the disgust with art trade. This expansionist-activist attitude, in accordance with the rebellious behaviour of the beat generation, aims at the extermination of fetishized and market-centred cult of the artwork, at the elimination of itself as art, and tries to create a whole new total reality. In spite of the intention of destroying traditional frameworks of art this aspiration preserves its aesthetical character. In other words, though it “aims at the realization of total reality, it created new art altogether”[1].

[1] Loránd Hegyi, 1983. „Trans-avantgárd” http://www.artpool.hu/Al/al03/ Hegyi.html


It shows the power of gallery industry (claiming itself to be the “lord of culture”) that it managed to incorporate in its profit-oriented circulation such movements like arte povera, whose use of cheap materials came about against gallery-elitism in the first place; or that it managed to canonize land art by photographic documentation. There is no proper answer to the question to what degree were gallery-emigrants motivated by the refusal of gallery-requirements, by their nausea, to what degree they considered nature such out-of-the-way area where their activity would not be confronted with the ethos of any financial system. It is most probable however, that later on the escape from aesthetic narcissism and the alienation from sellable fetish-objects urged a lot of artists to create in nature. Mostly those artists were urged to do so who were disturbed by the limelight in achieving the necessary intuitive depth for the creative process. The cardinal issue concerning works of both arte povera and land art is reception: due to their size or location or most of all their evanescence these works are hard to exhibit. As a result, the value of photographic documentation increases even to such extent that sometimes “the photo documentation splits itself from its object and lives an autonomous life; or the object itself is made for the sake of documentation”[1].

These photos are no longer mere “documentations”, or propaganda material. It is not only the ephemerality of the works that made them necessary. For instance Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking in 1967 is a photograph taken of the traces of a walk along a straight line in the grass. The walk is a means to create the work, but the work itself is the photograph that remains.

For some artists in the European art scene, like Andy Goldsworthy, Udo Nils, Giuliano Mauri and David Nash, as opposed to the first generation of American land artists, the most important is to develop a symbiotic relationship with nature. The relation between creative work and nature comes at the first place for them, establishing an area where experimenting is not merely formal. By their aesthetic reflections these artists have reached a point where politics proved to be ineffective, and thus they have made evident the close connections between culture, art and nature.

By the nineties we might witness the viability of a coherent mode of expression. There are more and more artists for whom nature does not a mean a theme of description, but they seek to re-establish the harmony with nature, they directly use natural materials, objects, energies and sites in their creation, in other words they are labouring to make direct physical contact with nature. The resulting work is actually a “sign” emphasising the special features of a given landscape; the intertwining of work and land is unchangeable, the work would not be able to exist out of its determined environmental context. These works are realized far from the urban context; usually in the wilderness or in some rural environment.

In the realization of such works the artist uses natural materials found on spot, which are usually perishable; they dissolve, so the work gains an ephemeral character. Time is concretely manifested in the work as even at the moment of creation a certain duration of life is encoded in it. In this case the conventional myth of the artwork intended to exist eternally is abolished – the work exists in the time of the cyclical alterations of nature. In the implementation the artist depends on the techniques of craftsmanship – jointing, spinning, binding etc. – and s/he avoids mechanical manufacturing. The nature artist respects folk art, non-Western art, and would not divide them from their own context.

[1] László Beke, Miért használ fotókat az A.P.L.C. Fotóművészet, 1972/2


To some extent such works are born against mainstream as they could not be moved, and thus could not be exhibited in emblematic museums of the world. They could not be concentrated so they evade the interest of collectors, too. The novel expressive force of these works, the need of canonization, and the strengthening of “green thought” might have inspired some European museum experts to come up with the idea for the museums to finance and ultimately exhibit nature art works and ephemeral sculptures. This was the point where I think that the originally well-intended initiation lead astray. By the end of the nineties it was probably not clear that the important and immanent characteristic of such works is their freedom consisting in a distantiation from the institutional system, economic pressure, popular preferences and changing trends. For museum logic, however, the financing of uncontrolled works unfit for the hierarchized system of the museums is unimaginable. Not to mention the fact that for these works the issue of owners’ rights is impossible to grasp as the work in its physical reality returns according to its own laws to nature, and it is the authors’ rights only that the artist might vindicate. That is why the institutionalization and economization of ephemeral sculpture could not have taken place; that is why it preserved its independence and resisted all pressures. Its “institutionalization” consists only in the establishment of an international network that serves as means of spreading information, and its motto is rather cooperation than competition. As I summarized above, by the end of the twentieth century the autonomic tendency of art resulted in the self-analysis of fine arts and sculpture, in the formulation and broadening of their boundaries. With the elimination of representation and the fading of sacral characteristics the traditional role of sculpture has changed, has been redefined. This process culminated in the re-clarifying of the essence of sculpture. The point was to investigate its own physical characteristics; as for example non-figurative sculpture questioned the quality of the material, the form, the space, the mass and the gravity, or the surface.

By the millennium sculpture incorporated all novelistic aspirations: environment, installation, land art, different (even gas or liquid) materials, light and fire, or the use of the human body.


As a result the boundaries of sculpture have become so blurred that sculpture seems to liquidate itself. Those characteristics vanished which made sculpture a discernable branch of art. In the light of this I propose that in the beginning of the twenty-first century art history should investigate how contemporary artists relate towards the traditional concept of sculpture, and what is the role of this relation in their artistic activity. Contemporary sculpture might presumably be caught in this relationship, and made discernable from the rest of fine arts.


                                                                                                   Dr. István Erőss