A New Life as Screen Effects: Sculpture as Photography in Liquid Antiquity and Modern Classicisms

It seems equally intuitive to align Classicism with Classical sculpture, as it is to investigate Classicism in contemporary art almost exclusively through the appropriation and transformation of Classical sculpture.

Two recent, multifaceted projects – Liquid Antiquity and Modern Classicisms – which aim at bringing artists and Classicists together, are both grounded in this reactivating of Classical sculpture by contemporary artists.

The book Liquid Antiquity, edited by Brooke Holmes and Karen Marta, and published by the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, is divided into the topics of “Body”, “Time”, and “Institution”. Yet, before reaching the topic of the “Body”, the use of images in the book establishes an emphasis on the remake of Classical sculpture, through the works of Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Kiki Smith and Urs Fischer (apologies for the poor reproductions).

As for Modern Classicisms, on looking at its website, alternating through three different images, and the poster for its upcoming conference (this Friday), again we find that the interface between the Classical and contemporary art is established by images of Classical sculpture re-imagined by Contemporary Artists.

Yet amid this focus on Classical sculpture as the most visible and obvious meeting-point of the ancient and modern, what does it mean for the image itself, either in the physical book or online?

At least two artists whose work would fit perfectly into the pages of Liquid Antiquity and on the website of Modern Classicisms – Sara VanDerBeek and Barry X Ball – challenge the relationship between the sculptural object and the photograph in terms of an engagement with Classical sculpture.

For example, Sara VanDerBeek’s Roman Women series (here seen on the website of her gallery, Metro Pictures) were framed behind blue-tinted plexiglass, which has the effect of viewing them as much as related to the history of photography (and cynotype techniques) as to the systems of display of Classical sculpture.

Sculptor Barry X Ball has developed a photographic practice that engages with his own sculptural work, which itself is engaged with Classical sculpture, and its sites of display.

When working on the possibility of his participation on an exhibition called Young Marble Giants (still yet to be realized), Barry X Ball suggested showing a photograph of this work (as seen above, from multiple perspectives as a screen grab from the artists website), with the incredible title (which would send any Classicists wild!):

you are here hot young amateur skewer the display problem recidivist head of a barbarian alive with pleasure saint sebastian sausage herm unicorn blobs give instructions rape of the sabine women utmost humiliation life enhancement marital aid there but for the lodge buddy failure of stoicism it’s all ostentation feeling no pain bienfait total trail’s end metropolitan home tammerlane popsicle speculative habeas corpus prick (Lucas Michael)

Barry X Ball’s photograph of the work, re-inscribes the sculpture (and, I would argue, its excessive title) into another context of Classicizing display.

On revisiting Barry X Ball’s photograph, I am reminded of the words of Ina Blom, in her essay on VanDerBeek:

As VanDerBeek’s photographs constantly zoom in on the mottled surfaces of buildings and sculptures and out again to the various architectures of image/object display, we are implicated in precisely such pliant screen realities. Even classical sculpture – the Greek and Roman busts that were among the first love objects of photographers – is given a new life as screen effects.

Amid the explosion of interest in the dynamic between the Classical world and Contemporary art, is there still a space to understand and account for the “new life” of Classical sculptures via these “screen effects”?

This may not merely be achieved by adding the self-aware photographer-sculptors and sculpting-photographers, like Barry X Ball and Sara VanDerBeek, to the list of Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Kiki Smith, but by us, as Classicists, if we are willing to pay closer attention to our own manipulation of and implication within, the “pliant screen realities”, from images in books to websites. If we can allow ourselves to expand the Classical beyond the sculptural, we might be able to demarcate a less limiting perspective on the scope of the interface (an appropriate word in this context) between our discipline and contemporary creative practice.

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