Sculpture, You Ask?

Rethink sculpture? The question is addressed to us, obviously, those of us who reflect on art. Critical thought, somewhat like the fire brigade, always comes late: we try to keep up to date with reality’s transformations, its upheavals. But when we realize that critical thought no longer holds true, we tend to want to reinvent reality, when in fact it is thought that is reinvented in the hope that it will correspond to reality. This is fortunate, for that matter, because nothing is worse that a paternalistic position that gives directions about methods and techniques. If in art history and criticism we must rethink sculpture, it is because sculpture has been transformed. This metamorphosis is interesting, because it henceforth emphasizes how fragile the term “sculpture” is for describing some of the strongest contemporary art works.

Often, we write “sculpture,” because we have to find a synonym for “object” and “work,” yet without considering this word’s history and possible connotations. We know very well what the medium of sculpture is, though only retrospectively when we think about it: this history and its connotations no longer have much to do with our current view of the works and their effects. Such and such a work may well be a sculpture, but this category is no longer useful, revealing or functional. Everything takes place as though it is no longer truly a concern of sculpture, even of mediums that are problematic, the implications of contemporary practices.

I remember being shaken when I saw Massimo Guerrera’s work Porus, created in collaboration with stage director Olivier Choinière. The work was shown as part of the lovely exhibition Chimères/Shimmer that Anne-Marie Ninacs curated at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.1 The work is very simple: a text shown on a table covered by a sheet of Plexiglas. Under the table, a small creature has been discreetly placed, a stuffed monster with a horrible maw. Choinière’s text describes the events surrounding his brother’s death, which occurred almost at the same time as Olivier’s birth. He describes or, more precisely, stages through the blanks in the text, his family’s silence about the terrible accident and his brother’s absence, which Choinière can’t help but intimate with objects and through silence as something negative. The monster set under the table evokes a detail from Choinière’s life and transforms the mystery, silence and drama.

Is this work a sculpture? This monster? “The monster, probably yes,” someone will say. It corresponds to a certain definition of sculpture; it even appears to be handmade by the artist, which is an irrefutable criterion. But the table? Choinière’s text? And can we separate the monster from the table, the text? “An installation,” another will say.

We quickly grasp that these questions don’t make sense. Let’s agree on this: they are not important. The work and its impact rest elsewhere.

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the one that prevailed when Rosalind Krauss wrote “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” when modernist definitions were being undermined by practices aspiring to reinvent the limits of art.2 Krauss’ essay owed its success to its ways of framing these new practices, making sense of them, mapping out their scope or, more exactly, their critical position. It truly was a good period for theory, a naïve moment in a certain sense, in which we still believed thought was capable of encompassing and dominating practices and objects.

Unfortunately for us, we no longer have the same confidence in theory’s ability—particularly structuralism and semiotics—to provide us with organizing models made of binary oppositions and semiotic squares. We can no longer base our reasoning on the logic of the foil or of negation—the famous “neither-nor.” This is indeed why we are assuredly no longer postmodern: we have discarded, both in theory and in practice, the logic of reaction, liberation and opposition to modernity. Krauss then wrote in a later work about Marcel Broodthaers that we were entering in a post-medium age,3 such an expression now seems dated and marked by this logic of the “post.” We are no longer for or against modernism, nor for or against mediums; henceforth, this question will not hinder us. To put it bluntly, and perhaps plainly, these works have been conceived by focusing on the viewer and not by looking back over one’s shoulder at art history.

It is revealing that we now speak more about installation than of sculpture—although these terms are not perfectly synonymous. What this transformation illustrates is the shift in attention from the objet to the experience it produces in the viewer. The installation tends to focus attention less on a specific object, on which we could cast an aesthetic gaze, than on the idea of a space (espace)—this is undoubtedly the secret meaning of this magazine’s name—that produces an experience.

If experience is the concern and objective of the work—often its place of origin as well—the medium is important only for its capacity to render the work possible. This is why we see artists increase the “mediums” according to the experience to be evoked, and thus the type of experience the work opens up is gradually replacing the matter of the type of medium used. Thematic exhibitions are already symptomatic of this shift.

The term “sculpture” has now lost some of its obviousness and familiarity, which clearly demonstrates that contemporary art is concerned with other tensions and implications. However, we still lack words when we consider this new reality.

“Post-post-medium?” someone will say.

We can do better.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei


Sociologist and professor of contemporary art history at Université Laval, Maxime Coulombe’s work concerns the new contemporary imagination. His publications include: Imaginer le posthumain : sociologie de l’art et archéologie d’un vertige (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009), Le monde sans fin des jeux vidéo (PUF, 2010) and Petite philosophie du zombie (PUF, 2012).


  1. The exhibition ran from November 11, 2010 to April 3, 2011.
  2. Krauss, Rosalind E. “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” In Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, London: Pluto Press, 1985, p. 31-42.
  3. Krauss, Rosalind E. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.