Publication: Horizon, Greg Johns, Sculptures 1977-2002
Author: John Neylon
Title: Chapter Seven, Make or break : Reading the work
The driveway seemed more crowded than usual. Johns had been working hard, preparing sculptures for a show at Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney. Two medium-sized works became the subject of discussion, then the artist strode to a vertical structure, half-lost in the gloom of the shed. He swung it around and stood behind it, as if together they might dance a Military Two Step. I knew the usual drill, step back and wait for him to rotate the sculpture. He propped it up and we both stood back to check it out. There would be no upfront explanations - the forms would have to speak, first of all, for themselves. The observer is watched and the artist expects a reaction. There is too much to absorb in a hurry. This form is very figurative, about life-sized with a tall head- dress like an Aboriginal ceremonial dancer. It stands and stares back at us. Will contact occur?
Ideally, most of Johns' sculptures should be placed on revolving plinths to show viewers that reading the volumetric and linear transitions is the most important thing to do in the presence of the works; more impor- tant, even, than puzzling about their symbolism. The viewing becomes a ritual. Johns' sculptures actually invite the spectator to circle them as if executing a ceremonial dance.
I comment that I think he is intent on addressing the sensory, on emphasising the transitions and creating tensions between stillness and movement. Johns responds by reference to the circle. He says, "In my earlier work I used the circle a lot because of its amazing potential for expressing both constancy and change. The circle is a symbol of perfect wholeness, but according to the angle from which it is viewed, its elements are in constant flux. This is a reminder that paradox is always present; that movement and stillness co-exist."
Johns says, "When I'm working on a piece I probably drive any associates crazy. I ask them to come and give their opinions on the details of the work. It is a mysterious process. Over a period of time observers develop the necessary skills and can see that an extra five milllimetres can make or break a work. A point is reached when the proportions of a sculpture are right and, with practise, people come to recognise that".
Then there is the matter of scale. Henry Moore claimed there is a correct physical size for every sculptural idea. Johns believes that scale is critically important and involves very refined and difficult decision-making. He says, "A sculptor can scale the work up directly from the maquette but often subtle changes need to be made. Then, when the box sections of a very large work are being assembled, many hours are spent re-assessing the volume and mass."
Somewhere along the journey of becoming an artist, Johns adopted a set of values about aesthetic properties which has had a major influence on the course of his work. Where did this come from? His teacher, Bert Flugelman used to insist that sculptors must look hard at their works to see if they adequately support the ideas they purport to express. Johns also finds himself in agreement with Henry Moore who once said, "This is what the sculptor must do. He must strive continually to think of, to use, form in its full spatial completeness. He gets the solid shape, as it were, inside his head - he thinks of it, whatever its size, as if he were holding it completely enclosed in the hollow of his hand. He mentally visualizes a complex form from all around itself; he knows while he looks at one side what the other side is like; he identifies himself with its centre of gravity, its mass, its weight; he realizes its volume, as the space that the shape displaces in the air". 1
Johns believes that modernist sculptors, particularly Giacometti, Brancusi, Noguchi, Moore and Hepworth, have contributed to his own development. Despite the process of distancing himself from European sculpture by responding to the Australian landscape, he retains a firm belief in those systems of visual critique that govern the appearance of a work both in terms of its internal morphology and its relationship to its surroundings. This attitude locates Johns within a distinctive sculptural tradition. At its heart is a belief in studio practice as the basis of all work. And, at the heart of studio practice is a strong belief in the concept of sculptural form. This concept embraces a recognition that the form a sculpture adopts has the capacity to lead the viewer into a state of intensified perceptive awareness.
This thinking is essentially in line with the doctrines of modernist abstraction which were badly shaken in the years following World War II and the subsequent development of conceptual art. Rosalind Krauss has com- mented, "As the 1960s began to lengthen into the 1970s ... the word sculpture became harder to pronounce". 2 What exactly had happened?
The momentum and sense of artistic unity established by the earlier modernists had ebbed away. The next generation in Europe empathised with the writings of Jean Paul Sartre who argued that human beings do not have a predetermined nature which automatically makes them what they are. What we are is more likely to be something realized by direct experience than by recourse to a concept of absolute truths or values. Existentialism undermined abstract theory, which came to be seen as obscuring the roughness and untidiness of actual life. If there were to be no given rules for moral behaviour, then it stood to reason that art might be subject to the same principle. Critics began to subscribe to the idea that art should not be made or judged by reference to pre-established aesthetic criteria, and that artists should make statements about individual human conditions rather than try to reveal essential truths about humanity as a whole.
Andre Malraux viewed this departure from previously accepted and clearly defined standards in art and culture as the 'twilight of the absolute'. 3 The aesthetics of closure were replaced by the aesthetics of ambiguity and incompleteness. In the uncertain, absurd world described by the existentialists, the search for personal identity mattered most of all. There would be many variations on this theme over the next thirty years as artists made art which was framed by this new imperative. Allan Kaprow wrote, "Once the task of the artist was to make good art, now it is to avoid making art of any kind. Once the public and critics had to be shown; now the latter are full of authority and self-doubt." 4
Regardless of the style or medium adopted during the post-war period, a broad-based assumption art was about exploring self and the unknown dimensions of human experience. Johns is an artist who takes a long view of human history. He still identifies with the idea of a reality that is thought to lie beyond the material world of fleeting effects. It is a position which acknowledges absolutes in the fields of ethics and aesthetics while remaining open to contextual factors. One re-affirmation of this position shared by Johns and others, such as some American painters of the New York School, is to look beyond Western civilisation and find affiliations within the cultures and of ancient and traditional societies. In this way such artists could more confidently develop and speak a language of abstraction - by seeing circles and squares, for instance, not only as symbols of absolute completeness or spiritual perfection but as archetypal forms which have spoken to many minds, across much time and many geographic boundaries, about their relationship to the earth and its natural cycles and universal rhythms.
But the real predicament for figurative sculptors such as Moore, Hepworth and Giacometti, as much as for non-figurative sculptors such as David King and Anthony Caro, remained one of the individuation. The works these artists made depended on form but were intended as individual statements. The morphology of each work, or group of works, represented a grammar of personal utterance, which the attuned eye could learn to read. However, in these works, and those of Johns, the visual relationships still matter. While it is never sufficient to manipulate proportions or define shapes simply on the basis of aesthetic niceties, many sculptors still believe that satisfying form is a valuable quality in the process of delivering conceptual content.
For Johns, sculptures can continue to operate as monuments which sit in particular places serving commemo- rative functions and referring to the meanings and uses of those places. However, this approach has suffered subversive forces for almost a century. The process started with Rodin's incomplete Gates of Hell and has been continued by any number of statements: Claus Oldenberg's 'Ghost' Toilet (1966); Andy Warhol's piled Brillo
Boxes (1964); Carl Andre's Lever (1966) and, in Australia, by many of the sculptures shown in the Mildura Sculpture Triennials from the early 1960s. More locally, for Johns, the de-materialisation of art was most evident in works shown in the Experimental Art Foundation's 'Post Object Show' in Adelaide in 1976 and that organisa- tion's combined program of performance and installation art across the period from 1974 to the present. 5
The shift towards the conceptual was to isolate the term 'sculpture' and the practice of making sculptural objects as 'monuments'. This left the modern sculptural object in a homeless state. Underlying this condition was sculpture's perceived failure to be relevant to the contemporary human condition or to contemporary social issues - except to act as a metaphor for spiritual yearning or as an echo of artistic paths once travelled.
Johns' response to this perception and his sense of being somewhat marginalised by virtue of his chosen medium and lines of investigation, was to turn to the studio and continue to work. And there lies a curious contradiction. Steel is not only 'old-fashioned'. It is inert, dumb and brutish. Some see it as a gendered medium and regard the act of welding as a heroic, masculinist pastime. But the medium's very physicality offers advantages to this artist who has found a way to use it conceptually, as a symbol for the Australian landscape and its iron-laden skeleton. Another essential contradiction lies in the state of rigid fixture of the welded metal sections and the impression of movement that they create.
Johns' imagery feeds off this sense of nexus between the material and the abstract. Then his predilection for entwinement, transition and curvature adds a further dimension of visual and conceptual complexity which, in his most powerful works, translates into a curious perception of 'stillness in movement'. All Johns' decisions about proportions, transitions and scale refer to his idea that all the forms, despite being captured in steel, are endlessly negotiable - like the variations in a fugue.
In the minimal, simplified geometric structures of works made up until late 1980s, the aesthetic code adopted by the artist appears to have offered few opportunities to follow his intuition in the balancing of elements such as mass, space, line and shape. Many of the earlier works seem to function as mantras made of steel and chanted in the face of post-object nihilism. However, when the viewer approaches these works and moves around them, less formal exchanges usually occur. The negative spaces between two great curving, linear forms, for example, might squeeze themselves into a lozenge shape or, with a last flicker of angular defiance, a square form might suddenly flip into a swelling circle artistry. Johns is of the opinion that the only constant is change.
The difference between the earlier sculptures and those of the mid-1990s is not simply the emergence of figurative and landscape elements. The later work, shown since the Solander Gallery exhibition of 1994, has a different physical presence. It doesn't so much settle, as float. The viewer's kinaesthetic sense is stimulated by the closer resemblance to limbs, heads and torsos that many objects bear. The Horizon forms actually resemble figures of a kind, their linear elements echoing the behaviour of muscles and joints. Not only do the later works require the viewer to approach them in a curving or circular motion, but they also invite identification with their particular stances. Guardian Figure (1987) is balanced on tip-toes, while Horizon Figure (1999-2000) is walking a tight rope with arms out-thrust.
We had been talking in the Eden Hills workshop for several hours. The focus shifted to a new 'boat' form in which the striations forming the hull were beginning to buckle outwards and inwards. There was a palpable sense of the form creasing, folding and swelling like the muscles and sinews of a human limb. As I moved back to better view the work, something tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to find a floating figure, or rather a figure on stilts, immediately in front of my face. In this one-to-one encounter primal instincts drove the reading and proved the power of such forms to bring the ghosts of ancestors, long gone, back into the present.
It is no accident that in the later nineties Johns began to mention the sculptures of Antony Gormley and the charismatic presence of his sculpture. Angel of the North (1985). This awe-inspiring public sculpture, which spreads its wings over the northern England industrial city of Newcastle, has continued to haunt Johns' imagination. It resonates with his own belief in the place of guardian spirits within human experience and the artist's ability to locate archetypal symbols in physical material. There is a persuasive similarity between Gormley's use of out-thrust arms to signify an embrace, and similar gestures in Johns' Horizon Figure variations. Gormley has said, "For me, sculpture uses physical means to talk about the spirit, weight to talk about weightlessness, light to refer to darkness - a visual means to refer to things which cannot be seen". 6
Working back from the present to the geometric forms that characterised the first decade of his public sculpture production, it is possible to engage in a re-reading which recognises a much tighter relationship between it and the later work. It is based on kinesthesia, the sensing of sudden changes in the sculptures' volumetrics and the paradox of massive steel structures whipping themselves into ecstatic dance routines and assuming a dynamism which counter-balances their reliance on the mathematical formulas and geometric sophistry. While not professing any particular interest in dance forms, Johns accepts that the acknowledgment of human movement - be it stillness, gesture or rapid action - is consonant with his intention to tap into a ground-spring of collective memories based as much on remembered experiences of walking or dancing on the earth as it is on more intellectual concepts.
Try reading the sculptures yourself. Stand in front of Origin (1999) at Chadstone and feel the gathering force of a massive wave which, as you move closer to the work, can swallow you entirely. Then stand under one of the larger boat forms and look upwards. It becomes the rearing, stone-studded prow of a mysterious vessel about to crash down and plunge deep beneath the waves. Walk through the trees in silver moonlight and glimpse the almost three metres tall Floating Figure I (1993). Feel the wraith-like movements of this perpendicular structure as its interwoven wave-patterns create a sense of shimmer which causes it to almost disappear from view. Approach the large packing crate in which an Excavator sits, waiting to be freighted to an exhibition in Singapore. This zoomorphic form, made seemingly larger by its confines, broods like the last dodo in captivity. Stand close to From the Horizon to the Horizon (2001) at the Marion Cultural Centre and begin to believe that you are at the bottom of the ocean and a forest of bull-kelp is drifting overhead. These are the visual experiences lost on viewers who choose to believe that an art based on a dialogue of spatial arrangements will always be cold and unyielding.
Art at Work for the Public
While sculpture may look interesting in the artist's driveway, studio or gallery space, this is no guarantee that it will have the necessary visual impact. Will it ' work' in an open-air site as intended? But what work is this? It is a nonsense to use the terms 'public art' or 'public sculpture' without defining the kind of role it will play. If it is to serve as community art then its purpose may have already been realised in the process of involving a diverse group of individuals in its planning and making. It may function more as a memento of this coming together than as an object which addresses the eye. Community art projects can be linked to issues or events which are quite transitory. For instance, a billboard which occupies a prominent city site might carry an important message for a period of just few weeks. A laser-light show could provide a public art experience in a public place for two hours. A soon-to-be-demolished building can act as a canvas for an activist artist until demolition.
Another artist might intend to provide viewers with an experience of discovery. Chris Booth, for instance, installs his works in landscape settings in such a way that they are gradually modified by natural processes such as flooding after rain and the accumulation of debris. Makers of streetscape art, a category which includes such items as benches, railings, tree-grills, lighting supports, signs, footpaths and archways, usually want these items to be visually appealing, but not dominating, while the British artist. Bill Heine, in siting his outsized shark to appear as if it was 'crashing' into the roof of his Oxford terrace house in 1986, had every intention of attracting maximum attention and publicity. With each new project the challenges and options are many and various,requiring constant consideration of the relationships between content, form and context.
Then there are the site and its identity to be considered. If the artist's brief declares that a proposal must incor- porate references to local history and cultural perspectives, then some of the artist's creative energy will need to be channelled accordingly. If an early decision is made to incorporate literal elements - to the point of replicating or parodying objects, people or creatures - then the artist will need to understand the considerable risks involved in relying on the viewing public's capacity to be re-amused or re- surprised by works that declare themselves at first sight.
If the artist is too respectful of the brief or the site or of community expectations or, conversely, is disrespectful or indifferent to community usage, then the integrity or perceived integrity of the work may suffer. Too bland, too inclusive, too literal, too obscure, or too insensitive - these are all criticisms which will be levelled from time to time. So who would want to be a public artist? A local community may hate or ignore a work while the art community admires it. Which is right? If the giant fruits, marsupials and ruminants dotted across this land claim public art status, should they be taken as seriously as objects made by professional artists?
Regardless of the work, the site and the circumstances, the visual dynamics of sculptural objects are of great importance. Artists who lack the courage, acuity and inventiveness to provide dynamic outcomes run the risk of producing pedestrian or under-performing works. Artists like Johns, who make 'permanent' works, take on even greater burdens than those artists who work towards 'visual events' of relatively short duration.
In essence, Johns' main focus as an artist is on placing sculpture in public spaces. He argues that his works mediate or interpret their sites and, in particular instances - such as his first public work Rhythm (1978) at Gleneig or the Mount Lofty Gardens railings and entrance gates - this is true in the sense that as structures they have an obvious, critical relationship with their surrounds. But Johns' approach to site-specificity often has less to do with the work fitting the site and more to do with snaring the viewers' attention in ways not possible in a gallery environment. His claims for the legitimacy of his public sculptures rest on his determination that the works address central issues - particularly the quest for human identity. By employing and exploring what he regards as archetypal forms and symbols, his expectations appear to be linked to the idea of restoring public sculpture's ancient role of commemorating and encapsulating truths about the nature and needs of humanity.experience. The scale he found to be correct. The work does not dominate the wall, nor is it lost within the large open space. Space is critical when designing for metropolitan sites because space and bright sunlight can combine to overpower large outdoor works. If, in the factory, the work looked truly monumental, on its site it exists on equal terms with its surroundings.
Take, for example. Origin (1999) now installed on a prominent site in front of the Chadstone Shopping Centre. Visualising how the design would work effectively when installed involved much careful planning. The position and angle of siting needed to be established in advance of the sculpture's arrival from Adelaide. Base-plates needed to be cemented in place because when it was finally being positioned by the crane there would be little room for last-minute manoeuvres. Johns visited the site twice, once to decide on the selection of a design, and then to make decisions about the placement of the work. He took the maquette onto the site and moved it around through 360 degrees to be absolutely certain of the sculpture's final angle. Small variations of angle can be crucial to a sculpture's effectiveness.
From the outset Johns was very comfortable with the site, a large area backed by a long, curved wall. Visibility from the highway was good. The building had been designed with the intention of putting a large sculpture in front of this wall. The landscaping of box hedging, grass and pathways was designed to create minimal visual interference. Visiting the site gave the artist an opportunity to consider such things as the optimum height of the grass, which was set at 100 mm. Origin would be placed so that it appeared to sit on top of the grass. At the more practical level, the pre-installation visit also allowed him waterproof the base-plates, giving them an extended life of some twenty or thirty extra years.
When the installation was complete Johns came back to make a final assessment. He was surprised by the paths that ran at a different angle to the wall and the central axis of the work. They added energy to the visual experience. The scale he found to be correct. The work does not dominate the wall, nor is it lost within the large open space. Space is critical when designing for metropolitan sites because space and bright sunlight can combine to overpower large outdoor works. If, in the factory, the work looked truly monumental, on its site it exists on equal terms with its surroundings.
Once Origin was installed observers were better placed to engage with and read the work. The interpretation of it as symbolising the birth of the universe was immediately apprehended, but Johns did not expect the many viewers' comments regarding interpretation of the work as a reclining figure.
Each project has presented challenges and opportunities in which relating the work to the site has been a critical factor. Johns' decision-making appears to operate on two levels. The scale of the work in relation to its surroundings is the prime consideration. This was particularly true for Origin and most of the other large outdoor works where the possibility of them either dominating or being diminished by their surroundings is always present. In the development of From the Horizon to the Horizon (2001) at Marion, a lot of time was devoted to getting the work's height right and placing this vertical sculpture in such a way that it could read as an 'I' but at the same time have a degree of visual independence from the building. A series of CAD projections were produced by the architects. They showed the visual effect of the sculpture at 6, 7 and 8 metres. Johns decided on a height of 6 metres, based on the height of the building's roofline. Reaching this decision was only part of the process. The design was then scaled up using a grid drawn onto sheets of composite board. A calculator was used to determine the grid coordinates. The drawing was almost five times larger than the original model. Once drawn, the shape was cut out with a jigsaw and temporarily assembled. In this state the full-scale model was hauled into an upright position and lashed to a tree. The most difficult part was determining the final shape and size of the cloud-form at the top of the vertical components. The focus shifted from attention to scale to how the sinuous forms might be seen from a notional pavement.
This work also presented a huge challenge in terms of collaboration between the artist and the fabricators. Because of the organic elements of the design, it was not possible to deliver the maquette and assume that the cutters could simply follow a scaled-up line. The studio-prepared wooden panels provided templates for the scribing and additional chalk lines assisted the oxy- cutters in their task. The test is always the final viewing. From a distance, the verticals flow languidly and then bunch with sprung rhythms as the viewer moves closer and begins to look upwards.
Then there is the matter of interpreting commission briefs. Having stated that it is impossible not to incorporate some reference to the site when making a public sculpture, Johns has consistently resisted the idea that the work be visually or conceptually over-cognisant of its surroundings. With his very first public work, Stepdown (1977), the siting of the work and its formal characteristics were intended to echo some of the visual character of the university buildings nearby. This kind of subtle acknowledgement was sustained in another early work, Rhythm (1978), where the original siting of the large wave form was intended to work with the jetty and the horizon. His Shrines also exploited their siting to amplify their intended readings. The Forgotten-Remembered Figures (1998-99), in their office forecourt setting, responded to the building's provision of access for visitors by being placed as they are within and outside the glass wall dividing the lobby from the street.
The minimal, linear character of the Magistrates' Court railings was an act of deference to the classical lines of the nineteenth century sandstone building. In contrast with this tightly integrated approach. Returning Figure II (1999) at the former Faulding headquarters, reveals its own animated dialogue with the viewers according to the level from which it is seen. A similar dynamic informs the viewing of Fractal Mandala (2001) on the plaza in front of the Adelaide Convention Centre's extensions. In developing ideas for this site, Johns considered the architectural character of the building, which is defined largely by its glacier-like, north-facing glass walls and the curvature of its roof gabling. But the work's primary intention was not so much to act as a counterfoil to the architecture (in the manner of some large scale corporate-space sculptures of the 1960s) but to present itself as a symbol of humanity's obsessions acted out in public.
In determining the design for the Marion project, Johns spent considerable time researching the Aboriginal and European stories associated with the site, as well as responding to its natural history. But for the final design he relied on his own instincts in choosing the forms. He wanted to meld the stories into something new which was layered and hybridised. It is possible to discern different symbolic elements, such as the curved linear elements representing the Sturt River and the inscribed vein-like lines referring to termite tracks in the gumtrees nearby. The stone-filled boat doubles as a reference to the Europeans' arrival and subsequent building of homesteads and also to Aboriginal 'coolamons' used for food gathering. The cloud refers to the physicality of the Marion site, open to Adelaide's bright skies. With most of Johns' site-specific works it is possible to unpack the symbolism to a degree, but viewers (or selection committees for that matter) in search of more literal references are unlikely to find them.
Perhaps the Waite Institute work presents Johns at his most literal, with the figure of Peter Waite and his Cairn terrier advancing through an ivy-clad arbour into a landscape of strange and terrible beauty. The pod-like forms at one end of the installation, and the enigmatic ruin-stones set into the ground nearby, rescue this ambitious work from symbolic over-statement. On the other hand, the intention behind Returning Figure I (1999), at the new Regency Gardens estate in Adelaide, was to enliven a new living environment with an emblem of human dynamism. Johns' secret wish is that the presence of this form will invoke.in some way, the tradition of a guardian figure from which a yet to be formed community will draw solace.
As Johns knows, this hope will not be realised if the viewer has to read it inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of the work. Its interpretation will be determined in terms of how, over time, locals come to regard the work. If it exists in the local imagination as a bit of architectural embellishment, then as a public work it has probably failed. This burden of community responsibility and a quest to re-connect contemporary communities experiencing fractured relationships, explains Johns' strong advocacy of artists deriving public work from their studio practice.
The integrity of the work flows from every diverse aspect of studio work as well as the artist's respect for the business of making public art and his desire to produce something which might make a difference within the community. In the final analysis, the relationship of Johns' outdoor sculptures to their sites has invariably been based on this self-imposed responsibility for re-sensitising the viewing public rather than simply creating visual ornaments or filling empty public spaces.
The very choice of such an 'unfashionable' medium - rusted, welded steel - combined with the cabbalistic nature of his investigations, ensures that there will always be a sense of otherness, timelessness or remoteness about the work which will colour viewers' individual responses to it.
1. Philip James (Ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture, Macdonald. Loncion, 1966. p 62. For additional reference to the philosophical arid aeshetic frameworks related to British modern sculptue see, David Hepworth (Ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool University Press and Tate Gallery, Liverpool, I 996 ref., Anne J. Barlow, 'Barbara Hepworth and Science', pp. 95 - 107.
2, Rosaland Krauss, 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field', Post Modern Culture Hal Foster (Ed.), Pluto Press. London and Sydney, 1985, p.33.
3. Andre Malraux Quoted in Herscnei B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, University of California Press, p. 589.
4. Allan Kaprow quoted in, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Univeisity of California Press, I996, p 5.
5. For background on the 'experimental' 1980s with an Adelaide flavour see Stephanie Britton (Ed.), A Decade at the EAF 1974-84, The Experimental Art Foundation, 1984
6. Nairne, ibid p.50.