Beyond sculpture, the shadow ?

While it might seem futile to search out an exhaustive and unilateral (re)definition of contemporary sculpture given the varied directions it takes, it would appear a contrario necessary to rethink sculpture based on studies1 that together elucidate the scope of this constantly broadening field. By looking at specific current productions it will be possible to consider some new pluralist perspectives and issues raised by contemporary sculpture.

“Shadow sculptures” are sculptures in which the principal material, a material that is also inseparable from the theoretical and plastic understanding of the work, is the projected shadow. A small but revealing selection of works will help us introduce certain issues of time, space, material, the body and the placement of the body in space, which are specific to sculpture.

Although “shadow sculptures” are particularly significant for both their plastic aspect and their political and social implication in the contemporary world, it is curious that no analyses can be found either in the field of critical studies on sculpture (the focus tends to be on light) or in research on the shadow.2 What is so antithetical between shadow and sculpture to have made them the subject of such few connections when everything calls for this?

The shadow has always been part of the vocabulary of art and sculpture, and in Antiquity, Greek artists began representing shadows in paintings that were called skiagraphia. The shadow also has held a particular place in art theory since its inception, which is confirmed by the creation myth that Pliny the Elder recounts in the 35th volume of his Natural History. Although “the question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain” he explains, “all agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow.” “Modelling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter of Sicyon, at Corinth. He did this with his daughter who was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew an outline of the shadow of his face thrown by a lamp on the wall. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of the pottery.” 3 Already in these few lines, Pliny associates the birth of art with modelling, even if, consequently, this myth has been invariably linked with the history of painting and occupies only a limited place in the theory of sculpture. Similarly, “sculptors from archaic times and the Early Middle Ages […] generally ignored the optically effective techniques of relief and the cast shadow.” 4

Since the 15th century, and more specifically in the Baroque period, in the work of Rodin, and later in the work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Russian Constructivists like Antoine Pevsner, the shadow has served an essentially perceptive role in the field of sculpture, and has been used to emphasize motion, energy and depth. It is only since the 1950s and 1960s, with the kinetic art movement, that shadow and light have become favoured materials of artists, and are still widely used by today’s contemporary artists such as Christian Boltanski, Michel Verjux, Olafur Eliasson and Mona Hatoum. Still, the shadow’s absence from the recent exhibition catalogue for Dynamo – A Century of Light and Motion in Art confirms the quasi-exclusive absorption of shadow by light in the field of sculpture theory, even though they are inseparable.


Though we may not yet have all the elements in the scholarship to date for understanding this divergence between shadow and light, one element, however, appears particularly compelling. While the use of light brings together works that are “exclusively abstract,” 5 to use Marianne Le Pommeré’s wording in the Dynamo catalogue, “by relying on the eye’s experience and by exploring visual phenomena apart from any literary, psychological, emotional or metaphysical considerations,” 6 “shadow sculptures” bring images into play, particularly figurative ones. All “shadow sculptures” have the characteristic of being based on a specific and immutable device: a projection apparatus, consisting of a light source, an intermediate object that obstructs the light rays and a screen (that can be a wall, the floor or a stretched canvas) on which the shadow appears. Thus, these sculptures paradoxically show the viewer the passage from the third dimension to the second dimension, from volume to image. Through anamorphosis, the shadow-image is figured or disfigured from initial volume to suggest a double reading, a double meaning. The reading is at first “literal” when the gaze focuses on the volume, and then symbolic when the gaze moves towards a framed space that exceeds the volume and goes beyond the sculptural object towards the image. Yet, to what end do sculptures make images visible? Why do they resort to the image? Why project rather than “sculpt”—in other words model, carve or assemble? What do these two visual levels of reading contribute to the understanding of sculpture? Why does the paradoxical (de)figuration necessarily pass through the image and not the volume, even though for centuries sculpture has almost exclusively represented the human body and figure?

These are some of the paradoxes that perhaps explain the missed encounters between shadow and sculpture. Though perhaps the converse should be understood: how this paradox and especially this passage through the image and this double reading question the medium of sculpture itself.

This is the case for Dirty White Trash (with Gulls), a work the artist-couple Tim Noble & Sue Webster created in 1998, which, at first glance, shows us an a priori formless heap of trash. However, a projector placed on the floor in front of the heap shines a beam of light on the sculpture, creating the heap’s shadow, which proves to represent two silhouettes of the artists, sitting back to back. At first, we are fascinated by this anamorphosis, this technical exercise that makes a spectacular, illusionist game visible. Next, we understand the work’s political aspect, which takes up the principle of “junk sculpture” as put into practice by artists such as Richard Stankiewicz and John Chamberlain, in which the works, initially “lacking in aesthetic qualities,” 7 transpose the urban refuse into art objects laden with ideological connotations of the urban consumer.8 “Junk sculptures” and Noble & Webster’s works all present a critical look at consumer society, although their political and social contexts are different. However, Noble & Webster’s decomposed sculpture also holds the bodies’ presence, even though the bodies are absent. With the silhouetted figures of the trash’s projected shadow, the artists emphasize the fragility of existence and suggest humanity’s inevitable disappearance through the parallel drawn between the derelict consumer objects and the evanescent and intangible ghost-like bodies.9

Contemporary vanitas par excellence, this work makes the viewer gradually experience a feeling of wonder, caused by the illusionist game that then evolves into a more melancholic state, marked by a return to reality, a growing political and metaphysical awareness of our mortal condition. Through the game of anamorphosis and the sculpture’s processual development, the artists suggest that humans are nothing more than the shadows of a trash heap who consume themselves—as evoked by the two taxidermy seagulls pecking at the refuse in the foreground—and gravely note the heritage that contemporary society is leaving for future generations.

This passage from object to image, from heap to figure, places observers in an active position, and invites a double reading of the work, between wonder and melancholy, illusion and reality. “Contemporary sculpture is indeed obsessed with this idea of passage,” 10 affirms Rosalind Krauss, a passage that, above all, serves as a dialogue between media, but also between states of consciousness, as this piece confirms.

… In Space and Across Time

Indeed, it is by drawing inspiration from the performing arts such as theatre and by using its modes of presentation—projectors, specific lighting effects, mise-en-scène—that artists have questioned the “relation to the context of the viewer as a tool to destroy, to investigate, and to reconstruct” 11 the medium of sculpture, in particular its relation to space and time. Rosalind Krauss adds that “these images of passage […] transform sculpture from a static, idealized medium to a temporal and material one,” 12 at the same time as visitors are relinquishing their positions as passive viewers.

From this perspective, “shadow sculptures” are notable because they have a specific relation to space and time—the space and time of the exhibition and that of the viewer in the world in which they take place. Their reading is accomplished in at least two phases of time—the time of the image and the time it takes to return to the volume—and in two spaces—the space of the wall and of the object—thus broadening the modes of seeing and taking into account a new temporality and spatiality. In addition, viewers are often able to “walk around” and see their own shadow mixed in with the work. The viewer thus fully inhabits the sculpture’s spaces and its various temporalities.

A different mode of time is presented in Meditation, a work the American artist Mac Adams created in 1996 and installed in the gardens of the University of Strasbourg. A few rocks laid out on metal platforms, attached to a slanting pole three metres from the ground, create Buddha’s shadow. In contrast to Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who used controlled and glaring stage lights, here it is not artificial light projecting an image of the body but sunlight revealing the silhouette of the divinity. The sculpture belongs to the cyclical time of natural light in which the intensity is changing constantly: like on a sundial, the shadow materializes, fleeting and fragile from May to July, between 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., in this peaceful spot in the garden. Contrary to the previous work, trash and taxidermy animals no longer serve as bodies, but instead there are rocks, which, in a certain way, can’t but evoke tombstones, a place of silent contemplation par excellence.

Furthermore, the softness of the light, the wait for the divinity’s apparition and the ephemeral quality of this apparition invite viewers to live in the present moment in tune with nature’s cycles and seasons, rather than reflect on a possibly painful future. The rocks, the work’s title and especially Buddha’s evanescent presence, which is slowly revealed, evoke a more mystical and spiritual contemplation of the work, placing the viewer in the conditions for prayer. Lastly, the shadow resonates here with the traditional role it has had in religious iconography, Christian particularly, as proof of the divine Incarnation that great painters since the Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca, have each in turn materialized through painting. According to St Luke’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the text explicitly states that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” 13 a shadow which, emanating from the divine figure, will give body to Jesus, the Son of God, and thus God will be made flesh and rendered visible. In this game of appearance and disappearance, absence and presence, Mac Adams’s Meditation likewise places the viewer in the present moment, awaiting the Incarnation and divine Revelation.

Commemorative Sculptures, Figurative Sculptures: Being and Illusion

Thus, by using shadow, which alters the spatial and temporal conditions of a sculpture’s visibility and summons the iconography of memento mori, “shadow sculptures” help us reflect on the place that the viewer occupies before the sculpture, in its space, as well as in the world.

Save Manhattan 01, a sculpture mounir fatmi14 created in 2004, is composed of books and their attendant shadow on the wall, representing New York’s skyline before September 11. The books, carefully arranged in stacks on a table, are all on the subject of September 11, except for two vertically placed copies of the Koran, which symbolize the twin towers. The books, written in the frenzied aftermath of the event, advance various theories on this dark chapter of contemporary history and its hidden aspects, setting out On the Trail of Ben Laden like Mohammed Sifaoui or following the example of Noam Chomsky in 9-11: Was There an Alternative? These two books are part of mounir fatmi’s selection testifying to the uneven quality of the abundant literature written in the wake of the catastrophe. By using a projection apparatus, or rather by “bringing to light” a comparison between the Koran and the twin towers, the artist denounces, in an eminently political—and polemical—manner, religious extremism and the dangerous weight of words, especially when these are badly interpreted, taken literally or when they express harmful ideas. Concurrently, he denounces the over-mediatisation of the event and the incomprehension this produced, as well as the sad amalgamation of the Muslim religion and terrorism, which the shadow and the books jointly symbolize. mounir fatmi thus created a votive monument in memory of this contemporary tragedy when thousands of bodies fell. Yet, by giving this monument the form of an altar, he emphasizes its presence hic et nunc, and continues a discourse that, still today, gives us pause in a world in which the same amalgamations and incomprehension repeat time and again, in which terrorism, intolerance, fear of the other and of other places persist.

In 2010, in a survey of contemporary sculpture, Anne Ellegood states that “the most noteworthy sculptural production of recent decades has come out of artists feeling free enough to loosen themselves from the tethers of artistic tradition, to cross over and combine media, and to propose new possibilities for their chosen medium.” 15 By drawing on the world of theatre and its lighting effects, by emphasizing the projected image in all its bi-dimensionality and its proximity to the world of film, and by proposing a double reading via the image and the volume, “shadow sculptures” are freed from certain constraints of the sculpture medium.

However, the projection apparatus particular to “shadow sculptures” also responds to some of the medium’s concerns, relative to an investigation of space, time and the relation between materials and the body. That which is then fundamental to the works we’ve explored, and which could be the main thread connecting the mythical or real origin of the term “sculpture” to our time, is the central place that sculpture grants to the human being. Sculpture invites the viewer to take a position in the work’s specific time and place, in order to lead the viewer towards an invisible, unknown beyond and elsewhere, between the past, present and future.

As Paul-Louis Rinuy asserts, “through its relation to space and to the viewer, sculpture is the medium that most significantly bears the question of the human being in their reality,” 16 and “shadow sculptures” exemplify this essential and existential aspect of the medium. In his book The Sculpture of This Century, Michel Seuphor writes that “sculpture is the learning of erasure,” 17 of our erasure. It is evident that sculpture continues to make us reflect on our place in the world and thus, perhaps, instils in us an awareness of our bodies and our selves in the present.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei


Claire Kueny studied art history at the University of Strasbourg, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Paris 8, under the supervision of Paul-Louis Rinuy. Her thesis is on the projected shadow in the extended field of contemporary sculpture. She has experience working in regional art centres, teaching (at ESADS, Université Populaire) and writing art criticism, which has given her a variety of skills. She has written conference papers and critical texts, and is a regular contributor to Novo and Mouvement magazines.


  1. Paul-Louis Rinuy. La sculpture du XXe siècle, une histoire à construire. Dossier d’habilitation à diriger des recherches : histoire de l’art contemporain. (dir.) Eric Darragon. Université de Paris I, 2001, p. 89.
  2. Theoretical works on the shadow have focused more on painting, photography and film. Books by Victor Stoichita, Michael Baxandall, Ernst Gombrich, Jacques Aumont, and Max Milner, among others, could be consulted on this subject.
  3. Pliny. Natural History. Vol. 9, XXXV. Translated by H. Rackham. London: William Heinemann LTD, 1938, p. 271.
  4. André Chastel, Jacques Thirion [ss dir.]. La sculpture : méthode et vocabulaire. Ministère de la culture et de la communication, Inventaire général des monuments et des richesses artistiques de la France, Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1978, p. 392. (My translation.)
  5. Dynamo. Un siècle de lumière et de mouvement dans l’art. 1913-2013, Grand Palais, Paris, 10 avril-22 juillet 2013, p. 40. (My translation.)
  6. Serge Lemoine. Dynamo, op. cit., p. 11. (My translation.)
  7. Sandler, Irving. The New York School: the Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties, New York: Harper & Row, 1978, p. 143.
  8. Ibid., p. 140-143.
  9. For thousands of years, the shadow has been synonymous with the soul and ghosts in numerous cultures, as much in Christianity, exemplified by Dante’s Divine Comedy, as in non Western cultures. An incomplete—due to the absence of a chronological and geographical logic—yet compelling list on this subject can be found in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which elucidates numerous human beliefs about the shadow.
  10. Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981, p. 282.
  11. Ibid., p. 242.
  12. Ibid., p. 282-283.
  13. Luke 1, 35.
  14. The artist has chosen to have his first and last names printed in lower case letters so as to not subject them to a typographical hierarchy.
  15. Ellegood, Anne. Vitamin 3-D. New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation. London, Phaidon Press, 2009, p. 7.
  16. Paul-Louis Rinuy. « 3e Biennale de Sculpture. Inventer des mondes singuliers », dans Art absolument, numéro spécial 3, 2011, p. 21. (My translation.)
  17. Michel Seuphor. The Sculpture of this Century. Dictionary of modern sculpture, New York: George Braziller, 1959. (My translation.)