March 2009, Statuephilia @ The British Museum

Mark Quinn, Siren, Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe


Statuephilia at The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London, WC1B 3DG

Centuries of cultural relics from all over the world stuff the British Museum. Egyptian mummies, chipped marble statues from ancient Crete, African masks, Babylonian death spears and thousands more compile their multifarious collections. Statuephilia is the modern sculpturephile’s homage to the ancient and enduring power of the sculptural medium. In this permanent installation, contemporary British sculpture giants created pieces inspired by these primeval works. The dialogue between the archaic and the now is fresh and loud as ever.

Anthony Gormley credits the British Museum with setting him on his life path. According to him the museum’s Assyrian winged bulls made him become a sculptor. Similar to his most famous work Angel of the North, a 200-tonne statue that lords over the fields of Gateshead northeast England, Case for an Angel I dominates the museum’s entrance. The elegant, human-sized figure of an angel made out of plaster, fiberglass, lead and steel has a Boeing jet sized 8.5 metre wingspan. The statue gives flight to the imagination. It feels magnificent, larger than life and achingly human. The angel could break its wings at any moment. 

Rotting rat corpses stabbed with jagged sticks is the work of artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. The pair collected carcasses of various dead animals that their cat brought home to them. They put the cadavers in a box for a rainy day. After visiting the British Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection it suddenly dawned on them what to do with the rotting pieces of animal flesh: make a sculpture. Dark Stuff is a heap of mummified beast tissue on spears. When spotlighted these death mounds form shadows resembling the artists’ faces on the white wall behind them. This piece is an offering.

Ron Mueck’s gigantic, hyperrealist head lies sideways on a table next to Hoa Hakananai’a. The mixed media head of Ron Mueck juxtaposed with the mammoth stone Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai’a is representative of humanity constantly striving to be greater than what we are. It symbolizes our need to be monumental. Mask II is detailed to an incredible level of accuracy, but the head is hollow and it is obvious that the face is fake. Scale, in this instance, is synthetic.

Siren, Marc Quinn’s statue of Kate Moss, is plated in pure, tawdry gold. The supermodel is tangled in a pretzel; full frontal golden crotch. Located in the ancient Greek art section this statue screams louder than any of the old school Mediterranean sirens memorialised on gold-plated plates. Like these ancient mystic creatures Kate Moss is deified. She is an idol, a modern day goddess of our time. Her crotch has sonic thrust just as enticing as the voices of those half-bird half-women who sang sailors into rocks in the time of Zeus. The mythology of Moss is pervasive in this posture.

The result of the conversation is clear: sculpture is still kicking. The medium is alive and well. In fact, it never fell ill. The British Museum has successfully persuaded the viewers of their collections that interpretation of contemporary art can be enriched by historic, global and cultural contexts.

Clarissa Dolphin

Clarissa Dolphin is a freelance writer living in London.

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