I recently visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We encountered sculpture of all manner of forms: only a fraction of what was there and we stayed outdoors. I will have to go back again!
Sculpture parks are frequently non-commemorative, and some pieces might be regarded as counter-commemorative by critiquing or adapting particular uses of sculpture in pre-existing commemorative traditions, including standardised forms and figural dimensions. Rather than serving as media for memorialising events, institutions and people, this public art has other agendas. Indeed, in the descriptions and discourses on modern sculpture, art is often regarded as above commemoration. Commemoration is seen as a ‘function’, and only one limited traditional function of art. Indeed, art aspires to float free from such conventions, instead provoking interactions with landscape and other themes about being human and being alive, for the living visitor, primarily through sight and to a lesser extent through touch and other senses.
From my Archaeodeath perspective (i.e. not from an art perspective), you might think much of it is a useless waste of space. Still, some modern sculpture explicitly seeks to prompt memory, but not of a single subject, but as a process for those engaging with it in its landscape setting. Gormley’s One and Other might be regarded in this light: a human figure upon a tree-trunk both subverts traditional ideas of a commemorative column for a specific subject, and yet allows engagement within the landscape to become a focus of memory for visitors. That’s my limited understanding of it, at least, but I’m happy to be corrected.
Yet even the most counter-commemorative sculpture does, of course, serve to commemorate the artists. As artists die, this role intensifies. All sculpture therefore becomes commemorative in the end!
Moreover, sculpture can work as an assemblage, linked by the memories of observers within and between landscapes, connecting those engaging with the artist, if not via a shared meaning.
Sculptures might operate to commemorate each other: linking together artist’s works through their installation in the same landscape. For Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy and others with multiple pieces on display at the YSP, this isn’t about the specific form of a single piece of sculpture, but how they interact with each other, as well as the works of other artists.
Still, I could really take or leave the sculpture. Instead, I found myself far more interested in the memorial dimensions I encountered away from the ‘sculpture’. My kids did too. The non-sculptural memorials constitute another form of assemblage at the YSP: memory created through an assemblage of installations with a similar function and form, but not regarded as ‘art’. Here I’m referring to memorial benches.
It was clear to me that the memorial material culture was situated to facilitate views over the designed landscape more broadly, but also to punctuate embodied engagement with the sculpture: walking and sitting. In doing so, we also found some memorial elements that are supposed to be ‘not art’ and yet for me they epitomise the modern art of memory in early 21st-century public spaces. From an Archaeodeath perspective, the ‘sculpture’ was en route between the memorial benches, not vice versa!
YSP is situated in the grounds of Bretton Hall, a former country home and subsequently (from 1949) an HE college closed in 2007.
First up, we encountered in the park a circular tree bench surrounding what is now simply a stump. Its text runs around the circumference of the top of the back-rest. It commemorates Sir Alec Clegg, Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire and founder of Bretton Hall College. We also found a tree commemorating an individual’s 12 years as Principal of the college. A further memorial plaque was upon a stone bench and commemorated the gift of land to the YSF. Unsurprisingly there were commemorative trees too.
Still, wood was the medium of the most widespread memorial form: the bench. Carved into the front of the seat, rather than upon an appended plaque, was a message about the dead, some clearly commemorating individuals linked to the YSF, others clearly mourning loved ones.
Benches, Memory and Repose
I would like to suggest my visit and my photographs created our own unique ‘installation’ at the YSP, but not through interacting with the sculpture, but instead with the memorial benches. My son was instrumental here and against my initial intentions, he decided to photo-bomb my recording of the memorial benches. As we walked around the YSP, he conducted a pilgrimage of repose, lying down on each memorial bench we encountered.
The result is our own piece of living sculpture linking movement to memory.
I shall call this photographic montage: Tobias upon Benches.
This series of works photographs taken on the same day at YSP, reveals the way memory can punctuate designed landscape through the material culture of walking and sitting. As we walk and encounter ‘art’, we absorb memories through the kinetic engagement.
In Yorkshire, it’s called ‘going for a walk’.