IAt the turn of the 20th century, a young Barbara Hepworth watched ‘the granite backdrops, the rugged hills of industrial Yorkshire, the race of the mill maids in their shawls’ and’ imagined ‘pictures’ of stone coming out of the ground. These reflections, captured in 1966 in Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, detail how the towering figures and shapes that would define Hepworth’s practice came straight out of the rolling fields and industrious communities of Yorkshire. The region is also said to be raising that other influential British sculptor, Henry Moore, and that YBA interested in controversial monstrosities, Damien Hirst.
With such a legacy, Yorkshire Sculpture International’s claim of “Yorkshire as the birthplace of sculpture in the United Kingdom” seems much less presumptuous. Especially when the county still produces a roster of emerging sculptors and artists, four of whom are participating in Yorkshire Sculpture International’s 2021 program. Taking place in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, the three-month festival – which culminates this week, now all sculptures are in place – includes new commissions from Shezad Dawood and Ariel René Jackson alongside Yorkshire practitioners (Akeelah Bertram, Claye Bowler, Nwando Ebizie, Ashley Holmes) who are part of the YSI Sculpture Network.
Nestled in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Bothy Gallery is Bertram’s Return. Dark chamber of voices and lights, it is a tomb on a hill, which questions how we memorize bodies, especially bodies that have been reluctantly moved. On the wall, a projection of names from slave travel documents rotates, with the inmate’s age and gender. Opposite, data from over 36,000 slave trade trips are superimposed on swirling images of body traces recorded by the Leeds-based artist. My own figure in space is captured and reconfigured into tiny little dots on a screen, placing me in the work. As my form transforms into a digital phantom, I recognize the enslaved individuals reduced to data on the walls. Despite the fact that the work responds to my movement, I still find myself present, with my feet on the ground, reflecting on the suffering of those who are stolen, sold and displaced.
Meanwhile, Ebizie’s The Garden of Circular Paths at Hepworth Wakefield soothed me to a daze where I could have been dancing, jumping, and melting without even realizing it. Over the headphones, the calming voice of Todmorden’s artist commands me to wiggle my toes, stretch, and close my eyes. It is a kind of guided meditation, an alternative artistic visit through the Barbara Hepworth Art and Life exhibition which marks the 10th anniversary of the Wakefield gallery. For 37 minutes, I am lost in the peaks, valleys and holes of Hepworth’s creations, listening to Ebizie retract like poetry. Sounds of breaking waves, a cutting scalpel, rubbing hands accompany Ebizie’s monologue, which switches between familiar and melodic.
Much of the sound was recorded in Yorkshire and Cornwall, where Hepworth’s sculptures took shape. Rather than distracting, the tutorial adds depth and color to the works, placing them in the place they were born from and revealing Ebizie’s personal understanding of each place. In a room of metallic works inspired by St Ives, the murmuring sea transforms every sculptural twist and curl into the crescendo of a wave.
Distend by Sheffield-based multidisciplinary artist Holmes is hidden behind the Leeds Art Gallery. Wrapped under Victorian arches and submerged in blue light, Holmes’ two sculptures are adorned with a mossy blanket and cradled by a muffled soundscape of voices, samples and field recordings to suggest they are domestic relics languishing at the bottom of the ocean. The artwork references the 17th century earthquake and landslides in Port Royal, Jamaica, and Holmes’ combination of the organic and the human brings out the personal cost of natural disasters.
The problem with Yorkshire Sculpture International is embodied in the concert by Dawood from Bangladesh. Without a doubt, the film – which features captivating performances by Bangladeshi artists combined with kaleidoscopic and colorful visuals – is a wonderful recreation of the original 1971 event that raised funds for refugees. But the sculptural references of the work and the Yorkshire connections continue to elude me. The play is presented as an “immersive audiovisual journey”, but the physical element begins and ends with a QR code that momentarily activates my phone. And it was clearly received with gratitude by the Yorkshire-based Bangladeshi community – Leeds-based artist Thahmina Begum was thrilled to be ‘seen’ during the Q&A – but just projecting something in the area seems a blast. little tenuous.
The crux of the matter with Yorkshire Sculpture International is that there was not enough sculpture. It might be old-fashioned, but this reviewer would have liked to see more images of stone come out of the ground.