The work is called Balzac ‘athlete’ (Study F) (1896), a headless bronze about a metre high. In it, Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) twin passions for sex and male genius are cast together – literary heroics merging into untameable physical urge. Balzac’s left hand holds down the forearm of the right hand, clutching an oversized erection as if it were a wild beast. Beyond the bravado, there’s something tortured here, the way the chest both puffs out and caves in as if under the pressure of a petanque ball. Perhaps it is a reflection of Rodin’s all-consuming addiction to sex.
The work appears midway through Versus Rodin, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia until July 2, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death, curated by Leigh Robb.
Xu Zhen’s Eternity (2013-14) comes into partial view while entering this exhibition down a staircase. Sculptural traditions butt heads, or shoulders rather, in a work comprising a series of fragmented Western figures conjoined with upside-down Eastern examples of similar stature and condition. Viewing the work while in descent makes the inverted figures drag our eyes up towards the ceiling, which hovers a metre or two above the work and in doing so capsizes any simple equation of weight and gravity.
At ground level Eternity, alongside Danh Vō’s Untitled (2015), gave me the feeling of being in an enormous storeroom – a backstage where objects get strewn and dismantled from the comfort zones of cultural and historical classification. Vō’s lopped-off lion eating a horse, a reabbreviated marble fragment from second-century Rome, appeared incidentally, as if having been pushed aside by the cleaner.
The opening stanza for this exhibition, with its focus on weight and fragmentation, history and abbreviation – the reassembling and collaging practices of museums, not to mention Rodin – was an excellent way to begin a conversation around Rodin’s work. Which is why it was disappointing to find – beyond Eternity – an exhibition seemingly unable to grasp the uniqueness of the objects in its care.
Vō, an artist who brings poetic austerity and precision to an art culture governed by excess on the one hand and obscene efficiency on the other, is instructive for my criticisms. Untitled (2008), a work not shown here, involved a mediaeval sculpture of St Joseph being cut up according to the dimension requirements of onboard luggage. Mothertongue, his exhibition in the Danish pavilion at the previous Venice Biennale, teased open the way objects and architectures talk across culture, geography and time; a few flawlessly timed cuts and interventions gave the experience of being deep within the matter and mysteries of human endeavour. As part of that exhibition, Vō also cut up the budget, eliminating a lion’s share of funds going towards marketing and the afterparty.
Art thrives according to negativa, or the space between works. Artworks can either bring energy to each other – striking a note of uncanny unison or tension – or affirm a reality of isolated things furnishing hollow rooms. My measure of this success finds equivalence in Helen Garner’s “rule of thumb” for judging the value of a piece of art: “Does it give me energy, or take energy away?”
Versus Rodin is an exhibition suffering from too much stuff. For a show taking place around sculpture – initiating “surprising dialogues” around Rodin’s bronzes by, in the curator’s words, “prompting achronic duets or polemic duels” – it has too many images and a strange tendency to push gravity towards the walls. The overrepresentation of artists whose works block and draw energy out of the show reveals a likewise unfortunate and confusing state of affairs.
The turquoise paint covering the second and third rooms of Versus Rodin – including the plinths – is presumably intended to evoke the blue-green patina of oxidised bronze. The use of this colour seems a reasonable enough design concept for the catalogue – a stack of similarly tinged copies adorns the foyer upstairs – but in the museum spaces it inflects works with a tone much too specific, often robbing them of weight and deflecting attention away from their substances and surfaces.
Some works withstand the clutter and gaudy tint of the opening rooms, Rodin’s The Walking Man, large torso (c. 1905) being one of them. This is an abbreviation of an earlier work, The Walking Man (1878), itself a reworking from the cast of Saint John the Baptist Preaching (1878). Less affected and smooth than counterparts such as Pierre de Wissant, monumental nude (1886-87), The Walking Man, large torso demonstrates fallacies around incompleteness in art. Rodin’s preparedness to hone and rework his sculptures has seen him reappraised in recent decades as a very modern artist rather than one enslaved to antique predecessors.
Positioned so as to force the viewer to get close and walk around it, the slightly larger than life-size hunk reduces walking to essence, compressing our attention into the lower abdominal twist of moving bodies. The surface is polished though lumpy: the way its sinewed flesh engages with seams left by separate parts of the mould makes Rodin’s interest in process over formula very clear. An atelier anecdote has Rodin instructing assistants to piss on sculptures to help patinate them.
Something in the weight and texture of this form kept me close. My disbelief at a proposition about human mobility and material malleability becoming so skull-crackingly hard eventually led me to stroke and tap a flank while the guards weren’t watching.
Standing a couple of metres away, as if on guard, is Janet Burchill’s Balzac (1989), a slender rosewood flitch with a backward lean resembling Rodin’s famous sculpture of the writer draped. This is one of half a dozen works that, with more space, could have helped prise open Rodin’s hard surfaces. But having it positioned between an entrance, a green wall and an LED work by Seth Price, reduced something physical and very much of the body to a mere shadow – a coat rack on which to stub one’s toe.
It wasn’t so much the use of red in the neighbouring erotically themed room that concerned me – obvious though that might be – as the choice of red. The fire-engine red plinth supporting Balzac abuses our eyes before we have a chance to take in the oversexed figure. A subtler, less bright shade of red, closer to those found in the row of Rodin lithographs and watercolours decorating this room, would have had the works, rather than the Bunnings swatch, leaping forward.
Balzac draped (1897), the sculpture to which Burchill’s delicate slab refers, appears in the middle room of the exhibition, surrounded by a locker room of hefty teammates, including a couple more Rodins and three of the five architectonic Antony Gormley figures in the show. These works are raised on platforms, having us look up at the taller sculptures like we might one of the explorers lining North Terrace. It’s a nice idea, if one that is undermined by the density and positioning of work. Particularly strange, but consistent with a policy that clearly sometimes has art as the sideshow, was the way this room drew me towards one so empty – hollowed out for the purposes of lectures, I later realised. Exactly when momentum was gaining I’d hit an air pocket – a lacuna.
As in previous rooms, my mind was led to assassinating superfluities in the room of raised figures. I tried, for a moment, to imagine the blow a few of the 16 works might have had in the company of their Rodin muses: Phyllida Barlow’s untitled: bahausledge (2014-15), Ugo Rondinone’s nude (xxxxxxx) (2010) and Sui Jianguo’s The Blind #14 (2014) leapt out as obvious examples to spare.
Unlike so much of the work in this exhibition, Barlow’s sculpture talks directly to Rodin but, like Burchill’s, had its potential frustrated by its treatment in space. A stack of timber boards about the size and shape of Rodin’s walking man torso have been skewered by a clutch of stilts, the surface speckled with paint, plaster and cement, giving it the quality of geological strata or a sea crustacean. The distribution of weight and physical tension in this work is very much that of Rodin: heaving and discharging like a mare in oestrus. It might have achieved this, too, if it were afforded more room.
St Augustine (354-430) defined God as “other, completely other”, which is an experience I feel like I’ve had in the company of art. It’s when things and edges and trivialities disappear; it’s nothing like the hokey religiosity of Bill Viola’s videos, of which there are three in this show. In rooms where I found myself murmuring “another, yet another”, Versus Rodin lived up to its title. This was a fight art was rigged to lose.
Patrick Hartigan travelled with the assistance of the Art Gallery of SA.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Full figures". Subscribe here.