Here and Now 2015: Sculpture in an ever-expanding field: Shannon Lyons: I’m always looking around (you’re always looking away).
This is part of a small (and what will be incomplete) set of thoughts on Here and Now 2015.
By Graham Mathwin
Positioned in the same room as Alistair Rowe’s work, Lyons work operates on many similar levels, to the benefit of both. Lyons work is, typically, extremely subtle and highly self-referential.
The structures of the world that support us, and that we depend on, often go unseen. They pass beneath the surface, or simply unnoticed, and we don’t often look back to appreciate or reflect on them. It is this space which Lyon’s installation investigates - the unremarked structures that inform how we encounter the world. The installation probes gently at the edges of our conscious perception, and undermines our certainty in them.
The ‘expanded field’ of Krauss’ essay was a response to the development of Land Art. The absence of any actual works of Land Art in this show is something that Lyons has perhaps picked up on: the disappearance of the landscape paintings in her curation-within-a-curation forms a parallel ironic gesture. Land Art is often presented as landscape’s culmination, and progression into a more engaged field of practice. Yet Lyons’ choice was deliberately not to present - not only a piece of land art - but landscape paintings themselves. In context, this move seems highly appropriate – Land Art, which is quite inaccessible, is usually presented through landscape photographs. The similarity of this language to painting, one of the languages that Land Art sought to escape from, exposes a certain failure in the movement into an ‘expanded field’. The gallery space, rather than other spaces, became the final resting place of the movement, as with so many other attempts to leave it. Lyons, clearly familiar with the histories (amongst others) of institutional critique and Land Art, positions her own interventions in what is arguably the more important structural space. Rather than intervening in the Landscape in what are often abstract, arbitrary, or rather naïve ways, she is complicit in, yet concurrently challenging and revealing, the systems of the structure of the gallery.
This is not to suggest that Lyons work rests solely in institutional ‘critique’, a bad label if ever there was one. The work is not explicitly critical – it is much more subtle, and much more engaged, than presenting a critique of what it is inherently implicit in. Lyons does not draw any easily read judgements for us. In a way, the non-didactic nature of her work is one of its strengths. Though it deals with the structures of spaces and systems, it does not attempt to signify and represent this, rather it seeks to embody its own becoming. This permits us an access to the work that is not only intelligible, but also sensible. It is here that the work comes into its own: it presents us with an experience that asks us to examine our experience of a structure. It is quite different from experiential light and space art, as it is about a certain structural experience, accessible through the sensory. This means we are given something much more engaged in the politics, rather than just the experience, of the space.
Experiential art takes, often for granted, that by foregrounding our experience of space we will become aware of our operations in space in our everyday. Lyons seems to suggest a case for an understanding and experience of the systems that inhabit and inform spaces. The function, not just the experience, is brought to the fore. Perhaps, in our world, where the functionalist doctrine of spaces is so powerful and pervasive, this attitude bears more relevance to how we comprehend ourselves. To uncover systems is to give them room to be understood, and then perhaps critiqued or upheld, but primarily and importantly, to become aware of them. As we inhabit a world that is made predominantly of systems, this strikes me as highly appropriate. It is a shift in another direction, away from (whilst still pertaining to aspects of) the subjective, relative nature of phenomenological, experiential art, and into the relational, negotiated, structural world that exists in tandem with it.
The principle difficulty in understanding the complexity and intelligence of Lyons’ work is that it rests in the very subtlety of its production. The wall plugs made of bronze, the cast plaster blu-tack beside the information panel – a significant part of the richness in Lyons’ work is to be found in its subtlety, in its elusive materiality – yet these elements are what is perhaps most difficult to perceive. The translation of materials, and their respective properties, is highlighted; yet rarely encountered without close observation. Perhaps it is this difficulty that Lyons’ title refers to? It also seems appropriate. Many people walked by the bronze wall plugs, embedded in the wall with only their tips visible, and remained unaware of their subtleties.
The bronze though, when it is seen, adds to the work a material understanding – for it is the material of monuments, reduced to a wall plug. Yet it is simultaneously a monumentalisation of the act of plugging a wall. It is both a dissolution of the values ascribed to traditional sculpture, and their recapitulation into valorising a wholly different language. It is as if Lyons is suggesting that it is the systems of production, and systems of operation that we now should prize, or recognize the value of, rather than their objects. Yet the objects of the production of this system are what she has monumentalized. The object that is valued, and given weight, is the tool, the operative object. There is then a troubled relationship with the object present in Lyons’ work. It is skilfully, beautifully, and imperceptibly crafted, yet it seems to suggest that we should value a system of production, negotiation and presentation rather than what is presented itself. Perhaps then, it is the crafting of these systems that Lyons places importance on. If they can be created well, if they can be applied with deftness and technical precision, perhaps they become something more than simply systems of use, but also systems to appreciate, and ways of being in the world that are beneficial to us on a sensory and structural level.