Six months of public and academic events that featured world-leading voices exploring the intersection of two of the world's oldest art forms.
Sculpture and poetry are two of the oldest known art forms. Both are continually redefined in different contexts by the people who practice them, the communities who celebrate them, and the cultures they spring from. Such capacity for reinvention is key to the durability of all art forms, but it also complicates any attempt to usefully define them. Both sculpture and poetry are often discussed and taught as if they were fixed craft forms with self-reliant histories, which is not wrong but is too simple to be right.
Between October 2021 and February 2022 this six-month online programme turned attention to their overlap to study what happens when sculpture and poetry merge, and to ask how we can best understand their merger, critically and imaginatively. It did so through two strands: At the start and end of the season, we discussed the varied historical and global legacies of this overlap during two conferences. The first supported postgraduate and doctoral research. The second was open to academics of every career stage. In between those conferences, we explored the contemporary entwinement of the two art forms in practice through four public discussion events. Each event paired together a renowned artist and a renowned poet, both of whom have some profound connection to the other’s field.
‘Poetic’ is an elastic description. It can be used as an everyday metaphor for anything whose effect or impression is enigmatic, symbolic, meditative or indirect. Such elasticity always risks being stretched so far as to mean very little – or at least nothing clearly – and to absorb contradictions unhelpfully. Its meaning finds a reflexive anchor when it is used to describe literature: ‘the poetic’ describes certain qualities of linguistic expression that are associated with poetry. From this more anchored sense of the word we derive ‘poetics’ as a label for those frameworks used to analyse and discuss poetry, its criticisms, and its role in larger narratives (like social history, economics, etc).
It is in this sense – of poetics as a way of thinking and talking about those qualities of linguistic expression associated with poetry – that our programme explored the poetics of sculpture, or how we might think poetically about sculpture’s horizons. Our hope was to find ways of questioning dominant traditions without being dismissive. Throughout, poetry was acknowledged as something varied and changing, something like "language at full stretch", as critic Winifred Nowottny so brilliantly put it. The stretching discussed came in any number of directions – often at the same time – from the written to the spoken, across languages, and between mediatic forms and cultural registers. We wanted to champion the practices of people who may or may not identify as poets but who stretch and materialise language in ways that invite poetic attention.
The general sense of the adjective ‘sculptural’ has much the same slipperiness as ‘poetic’. It describes some sort of expressive quality to the arrangement of things in time and space. In this case, too, we can pinpoint a more specific history of use without being dismissive. In art history and theory, ‘the sculptural’ describes certain qualities of objects whose morphological presence exposes a shaped interplay between materiality and content that we are invited to experience as art, whether it was made for art’s sake or for some grander purpose like devotion or ideology. In this more specific sense, as a verb and noun, ‘sculpture’ describes both the shaping of such objects and their shaped presence, putting different degrees of emphasis on form, content or context in different traditions of practice and reception.
Just as this programme invited everyone involved to think poetically about sculpture’s horizons, it simultaneously explored the sculptural horizons of poetry, or how we might think sculpturally about languages at full stretch. We hope it shows that the shaped interplay between the plastic and linguistic qualities of words is not always a sum of 1+1=2, as it should be in good information design, but can also be 1+1=?!, as it is in good language art. Our aim was to discuss the overlap between sculpture and poetry wherever it appears in practice or reception no matter how obvious or hidden, be that on the front page or in the margins, through the most literal reference or as part of a secret studio habit.
No single programme could be a comprehensive survey of such a big topic. As some of the clarifications above should indicate, we curated a research season that spotlit just some aspects of the overlap between sculpture and poetry. As well as celebrating moments of merger, we hope the impact of the project will turn attention to the relative lack of accessible scholarship on a topic that seems to have hidden in plain sight of both art history and literary studies, stuck in a margin between them and neighbouring discourses like word and image studies. To do so, our series facilitated three types of public conversation...
The two academic conferences showcased new research on some of the critical histories that can be thought through this intersection. The first was a collaboration with the Association for Art History as part of their annual New Voices series, which gives a platform to postgraduate and early doctoral research from around the world. This conference zoomed out to examine the relationship between sculpture and literature, embracing fiction, drama, non-fiction, and poetry. Our two keynotes took very different approaches to the topic. Hannah Black is a Manchester-born artist and critic currently based in New York. She talked about the back-and-forth between writing and making, words and objects, in her working method. Eleanor Dobson is a literary scholar who looks at the Western interpretation of non-Western artefacts through the lens of Egyptology and the nineteenth century. She talked about the Anglophone reception of objects from the ancient Middle East, where sculptural and literary understandings were often entwined.
Our second conference zoomed in to focus on the particular relationship between sculpture and poetry. Our two keynotes both drew directly on personal, professional and many-layered connections to the topic. Olaf Nicolai is a German conceptual artist who works with sculpture, music and publishing, but whose studies and doctorate were focused on the politics of radical poetry. His keynote traced his recurring fascination with the poetic act as a foundation for making art. Slavs and Tatars are an art collective whose work involves exhibitions, publishing and lecture-performances. They explored two key themes in their work: transliteration and the social history of languages.
In between those two conferences we presented monthly public discussion events. All four were a kind of intellectual ‘blind date’ between a poet and artist – both of whom are highly acclaimed in their field, and both of whom have a profound connection to the other’s field that may or may not be obvious in their work. The poets involved were Raymond Antrobus, Vahni Capildeo, Maggie O’Sullivan, and Tan Lin. The artists involved were Luis Camnitzer, Simone Fattal, Simone Forti, and Heather Phillipson. They come from four continents and five generations. Each pairing was based on a shared concern around which both practices orbit: the body, performativity, materiality, and mediation. A short solo presentation or provocation on the topic by each speaker was released one week before their public discussion, to anchor the audience and conversants when they met.
Digital programming is always a mixed blessing. It cannot replace the unique magic created by being together in person, but it does enable us to engage a spread of speakers and audiences we could never normally reach. This microsite has two URLs, which flip back-and-forth the assumed order of priority between the titular art forms: sculpture-poetry.net and poetry-sculpture.net. We aimed to offer a programme that is equally welcoming to enthusiasts and scholars of literature and art alike. We hope that fostering such a shared space of experience will set a precedent for the way that this under-researched overlap can become a focus of diverse attention.
As well as being a hub for all the live digital events, this microsite now serves as a public archive for the whole programme. You can create your own connections between content and themes, find comprehensive bios, event overviews, and reserve tickets, all via these pages. Reference material on the work of every guest can also be found in the Resources section, filtered and pinned to the event page that guest appeared as part of.
During the research season, Corridor8, our media partner and co-producer of this microsite, published four newly-commissioned responses to the themes, outcomes and debates of the Public Events by writers and artists from the North of England: Emii Alrai, Jazmine Linklater, Nicola Singh and Callan Waldron-Hall. Links to all four responses are embedded in the event pages.
University of Leeds
Henry Moore Institute
Henry Moore Institute
Design & Development:
Ashleigh Armitage & Andrew Robinson
Standard by Bryce Wilner