Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture’ considers how objects transition from simple physical matter to become thought of as artefacts or art works. Curated by Pavel Pys (a contributor to frieze), the exhibition brings together four 20th-century pieces – each of which, in different ways, redefined the parameters of sculpture – with four ancient objects and forms, alongside a newly commissioned work by British artist Steven Claydon.
Modestly sized and installed over three galleries, ‘Indifferent Matter’ opens with Untitled (Placebo) (1991), a signature candy piece by Félix González-Torres, comprising hundreds of foil-wrapped sweets which visitors are invited to take. The work, as is typical of these pieces, is contingent on a set of formal instructions: in this case, it’s restored daily by gallery staff to the equivalent weight of an average adult. So Untitled (Placebo) remains in constant flux, set within a continuous cycle of renewal and regeneration. Close by, a glass vitrine houses a collection of small neolithic jade discs and mysterious t’sung columns dating from 3400–2250 BCE. Discovered amongst burial sites in northeast China, the original purpose of the objects are unknown.
Also in this gallery is Hans Haacke’s Grass Cube (1967), a tray containing soil and seeds from which grass grows, placed upon a Perspex cube. Similar to Untitled (Placebo), the work is dependent on daily maintenance, as well as specific lighting conditions; it forms part of a larger series of cube structures, produced by the artist during the 1960s, exploring natural and social systems. Haacke’s work is paired with a newly discovered mineral species, which will be named in the coming months, taking its place within the classification system of the International Mineralogical Association. Together, these works mark out the trajectory of the exhibition. Both objects and art works resist straightforward classification, their relative mutability being reliant on the apparatus of display or classification.
In the second space, Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds(1966) drift and slowly circulate, while Claydon’s metal display structures house fragments of Roman sculptures borrowed from The British Museum. Placed at the base of these structures are various items used for shipping and conservation. Bisecting the gallery is a structure from which large black strips of plastic extend from the ceiling to the floor. The intervention transforms the space into a visual depository, one in which the historical periods are collapsed. Claydon’s practice readily incorporates the language of museological display in order to chart the process by which objects accumulate value.
The works presented in the third space meditate on how meaning can fluctuate over the course of time. Displayed on a large plinth, Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Lump (1969) is installed alongside 13 small eoliths – pieces of chipped flint discovered in the 1890s. The latter were originally thought to be manmade, but were later found to occur naturally. The most pertinent questions raised by ‘Indifferent Matter’ extend beyond exploring how objects resist the origins, names and histories humans accord to them, to take account of the fallible and flexible nature of the framework involved in validating objects. For exhibitions, much like history, consume objects as allies and markers in composing their narratives, whether minor or grand.