16 July 2019 When I visited Frieze Sculpture, it had not yet been fully installed, but already its public impact was evident.
Jodie Carey, Cord, 2019, Edel Assanti, frieze sculpture 2019, ph Stephen White
A child rushed up to a Tracey Emin reclining figure. Another ducked under the bell skirt of Leiko Ikemura’s standing hybrid figure, with a woman’s face and rabbit ears. An elderly couple perused the panel alongside an enigmatic Bill Woodrow cello encrusted in gold-leafed bees, thinking aloud, trying to fathom its mysteries. A woman looked bamboozled amid Robert Indiana’s circular ONE through ZERO, a numerological steel Stonehenge.
I’m not sure Frieze Sculpture would have had the same immediate impact before it became a summer event two years ago. The shift recognised what has always been true: that this is the most public facing element of whole Frieze shebang. Yes, droves of people come to the fairs in October, but they’re still unabashedly about selling art. And while the sculptures here in Regent’s Park are mostly for sale you could happen upon these works and never know.
Its curator, Clare Lilley, is very public-facing, too, as director of the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park. And her selection, as with previous years, is judicious given the breadth of people that will see these sculptures, the right balance between obvious crowdpleasers and more challenging work. And it’s a diverse group of artists, geographically and generationally.
But with such a breadth of work comes unevenness. There’s much here I don’t like. No matter how many times I see Barry Flanagan’s Nijinski hare — pirouetting here on a platform atop three elephants — I don’t think I’ll ever understand why he abandoned such a rich early sculptural practice to devote himself to these leporine whimsies. Emin’s bronze figurative sculptures like When I Sleep (2018), a vaguely foetal reclining woman, are admired for balancing an intimacy and vulnerability with weight and monumentality. But I find them curiously flat and unaffecting — any intensity in the small sculpture Emin originally crafted is lost in the translation to big bronze.
But there’s much here, by the established and the emerging, that’s stirring and thrilling. Jodie Carey’s Cord (2019) is the subtlest but among the best: a bronze rope cast directly in the earth, with fine filigree-like splashes where the metal seeped into the mud and hardened. Cord symbolises human bonds, with an exquisite balance of fragility and toughness that the Emin lacks.
Although dotted at a distance from each other around the gardens, works talk to each other.
There's a playful figurative trio by women artists, for instance. Ikemura has been making Usagi Kannon, the rabbit-eared woman with the bell skirt, in various incarnations since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It appears like a fairytale hybrid but is in fact a symbol of mourning, a protective shelter, triggered by Fukushima’s mutant animals. Huma Bhabha’s monstrous Receiver (2019) is part sci-fi golem, part Picasso, part ancient totem, crudely formed yet endlessly mysterious. And LR Vandy’s Superhero Cog Woman (2019) is both a playfully reduced female form and vastly enlarged machine part, a metaphor for women’s strength across history.
Works that riff on the park as playground work tremendously. Vik Muniz has blown up a Matchbox E-type Jaguar to the scale of the original car, an exercise in the uncanny.
In Strange Temporalities, Ghazaleh Avarzamani takes sections of a blue children’s slide and attaches them to geometric metal frames. Its joy isn’t just in the forms you see, which clearly play on abstract sculpture’s history, but in what isn’t there: the loops of the slide that your imagination fills in. Meanwhile, Peter Buggenhout’s crumpled inflatable form held up by a giant steel arm on concrete blocks feels like the aftermath of some cataclysmic action involving a bouncy castle.
As I left Regent’s Park, I overheard a woman extolling the joyous wonder of Lars Fisk’s Tudor Ball (2019), which encapsulates a thatched Tudor cottage in a sphere with extraordinary precision. It’s an absurd idea, of course, but wondrous? Not for me. It made me think about how innocent images of the British countryside and vernacular architecture, like all symbols of our nation, are made fraught by Brexit’s vice-like grip on my perceptions of Albion. It feels oddly sinister.
Such different responses to a single work show why Frieze Sculpture matters; this public forum for art deserves its status as a fixture of the London summer.