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Material Evidence:
Use of the Figurative Fragment in the Construction of a Social Sculptural Subject

Sheila Gaffney


This paper will describe how within my art practice strategy and materiality are used to achieve the contemporization of the figurative sculpture. In my figurative sculpture I aim to present the construction of a social sculptural subject. At the point of aesthetic encounter I intend that the sculpture as object 1 mediates a subjective which is positioned within a social moment and reflects the complexity of the postmodern condition. That is, I am paradoxically positioning the ‘world in general’ within the very fabric of the accepted sculptural trope, the gazed upon lump. I will describe my approach using my most recent work, I Saw What You Did . . . ,2 and reference two earlier projects Locale (fig. 1) and footNOTES (fig. 2) to demonstrate this.


My desire to contemporize and to create a social sculptural subject is framed by my specific social situation at my entry point to an undergraduate course in sculpture in a British fine art department in the early nineteen eighties. It is the point at which I moved from being a consumer/viewer of sculpture to a participant, viewer, and agent. At the point where I was concerned to understand the expanded field of sculpture my reading of it was also framed by who I was at that point: female, working class, child of immigrants, an outsider about to make the cultural move to insider.3

As I studied sculpture, and found and stood in front of celebrated examples,4 I found I had no vocabulary for the reading I made – figuration tended towards memorializing, allegorizing, or was bound within the formal pursuit which Albert Elsen describes as ‘revitalizing the nude as well as dethroning the figure by sculptural enfranchisement of objects and abstraction’.5 Floor-based object-based freestanding sculpture (but not exclusively – also plinth-based works), through the mediation of the forms that they took, the scale, the materials they were made from, and the ideals they espoused coerced me into a position for an engagement that was submissive in order to view them. I perceived that within the modernist canon the implicit message was ‘know thy place’.

What I saw as common to this form was the coercion to take up a positioned reading, one in which the artwork dictates to the viewer look at, look up to, listen, absorb, and learn from, enforcing a didactic relationship with the viewer rather than a discourse. However open the field, I still saw at this time a sculpted figure which was likely to be a female muse, an architectonic trope, a sexy spectacle. This was not the sort of sculptor I wanted to be. I established my art practice as a space where I aim to make a place of questioning not a place of assertion. I wanted to place in this space an opportunity for reflection on the complexity of the human subject.

Although I have looked for a long time to materialize this concern I have covertly positioned it within my practice amidst the constructed layers of other readings. This has been a key approach in the development of my practice. The thematic and physical contexts have played a key role in the socializing of my subject. I have privileged at different times different issues: feminism, participatory practice, museology, and commodity – all have featured at different moments as the driving force of my projects. An example of this is Locale (fig. 3).

The decisions I have made consequently are to invite the viewer to join the questioning which makes up the work using the strategies of open structures, installation, objects as signs. An example of this is footNOTES (fig. 4).


As an artist I articulate my ‘theory’ constantly through demonstration and what is seen is a moment of plastic demonstration of my ideas. Through the work I move towards a clearer articulation of such.

My key strategy in this contemporization of the figure has been to resist the dominance of the whole figure and use only fragments – this is neither a new preoccupation nor an isolated one. Albert E. Elsen asserts in his 1974 text citing the work of Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Umberto Boccioni, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Jacob Epstein, and Henri Gaudier-Breska that ‘parts of the human body are dispensable to the sculptor’.6

In 2005 the statement ‘It is as if the figure is given legitimacy as a subject by having something missing from it’ 7 brings artists, academics, educators, and students together from around the globe to debate the freshness and currency of this sculptural trope. But do I really mean fragment? The definition of fragment reads:

n 1: a piece broken off or cut off of something else; ‘a fragment of rock’ 2: a broken piece of a brittle artifact (syn: shard, sherd ) 3: an incomplete piece; ‘fragments of a play’ v: break or cause to break into pieces; ‘The plate fragmented’ (syn: break up, fragmentize, fragmentise)8

Within this definition there is a suggestion of a part left over, residual and remaining from something that has been before. This implies a previous different state introduced to the sculpture. I do not consider that I use fragments in my work. There is no incidental reason in the construction of my works and no accident in the use of these body parts (fig. 5), (fig. 6), (fig. 7), (fig. 8), (fig. 9), (fig. 10).


I suggest that rather than using fragments I use breaks in the body reference (clearly materially defined as if cut through at the point of cross-section). There is no accident at the moment of separation and I do this deliberately to disallow the development of a narrative. My position as maker is consciously anti-narrative. I seek neither the confessorial intimacy of Tracey Emin’s works, which the introduction to her monograph defines as ‘that convergence of biography and creativity’,9 nor the lyrical essentialist situations of Kiki Smith and the inviting filmic narratives of Robert Gober. I don’t want my viewer to get lost in the wider possibility of the scenario. I want to engage the viewer empathetically and at the level of the sculpture.

I also use these breaks in the body reference to position the work outside of language.

Sculpture is the language of the physical: and as with any living language, new thought finds form by stretching the medium itself, not by learning an alien language, or by attempting to invent a wholly new one.10

This iconic statement from William Tucker is still being effectively played out. If you compare Sarah Lucas’s Au Naturel (1994) with Henry Moore’s King and Queen (1952-3) you may observe (in addition to the formal development of the use of construction and bricolage over modelling) an efficient shift to vernacular language manifested through sculpture of the man/woman, male/female form. My insistence on an empathetic reading through the breaks in the body reference is my strategy to bypass this aspect in figuration.

The materials that I use and the materiality of the works are integrally embedded within my strategy to use the body referents. Wax dominates the materiality of my work. I use it because

wax is the soft ‘other’ of sculpture, a mutable material, never static. It melts and congeals, it is vulnerable to heat. It takes impressions, it is the volatile medium of transferences, the unseen container, giving birth to form through flux.11

Making casts is a constant method in my work. Using the process of casting I have initiated the form of the body referents by taking a negative imprint of the fabric or body in plaster and lifting a waxy index from it establishing a corporeal limit to this rendering of the subjective. In her 1999 essay to accompany Locale Ursula Szulakowska predicts the development of the use of indexes in my work.

Casting is the most ancient replication process, acting as a mirror for the sitter and giving them the opportunity to step outside their own bodies to view themselves dispassionately. The process is a confirmation of being: the proto-type of the photograph. It has always had a charged magical quality, like the clay handprints found in the first cave-paintings.12

In my project Witness13 I advance the plastic and material state of the cast further and use film footage. I Saw What You Did . . . (fig. 11), (fig. 12), (fig. 13), (fig. 14) is the first completed piece in this series. In this work I determined to pull the subjective referent from simply generating discourse or being a sign in the text and position it within a sculpture which referenced a more primal role. The referents of the indexes become part of the muscular consciousness of the sculpture, triggering the body memory which is exercised in the phenomenology of figurative work.


My question at the outset of my project was, how can I give form, a material state, to the subjective? how can I materialize embodied subjectivity? What could be a materialization of the subjective, this idea by which we offer an ideation of that which defines my or your humanity in an age when we know so much about what it is not, and see past the convention of religious iconography?

To action this, and as a sculptor equipped with my strategic portfolio, I needed to imagine the subjective. To do this I considered the notion that we are aware of our subjectivity as being subjects who have memory.14 I drew on the concept of subjectivation, that is, focusing on how we go through the process of ‘becoming’ who we are, and considered how memory works within this. I am suggesting it is a feature of this ‘becoming’ that each individual is affected, stained, or altered by what they see or experience. I saw this as an idea that could be evidenced, could be quantifiable, could be materialized.

As a result of imagining the subjective as a something with a form which is absorbing events throughout a lifetime, whether passively or actively, and therefore constructs memory and knowledge, I made a decision to use film footage, the indexical record of lived experience, as the metaphor for this – moving, fluttering, virtual at the point of being able to be viewed, made visible through the addition of light. It was also a key feature of the project that I sourced film footage which was not my own, for the subjective is not hermetic. I Saw What You Did . . . is constructed from a conflation of the indexical referents of lived experience, that is, the saved family memory film, and cast object, with the mimetic ability of modelled material (video clip 1), (video clip 2), (video clip 3). As a presentation of mixed-up memories the experience of the piece is physically mixed indexes working on the viewer’s subjective empathy, body memory, eye, and mind. In this project, as a maker, I determined to pull the referent of the memory from simply generating discourse or being a sign in the text and position it within a sculpture which referenced a more primal role. The referents of the indexes become part of the muscular consciousness of the sculpture, triggering the body memory which is exercised in the phenomenology of figurative work.



I am deliberate in my use of pieces or parts because they are the indexes of original moments and it is intended that they act as referents15 for these rather than a trace of something previously present. The index signifies a present not a past and therefore shifts the interpretation of the work into the actual moment of viewing. Thus I see my works as constructed from elements which are body referential rather than body parts or figurative fragments. In Locale I use the cast of a hand as the index of a life lived. In I Saw What You Did . . . the use of the index is materially expanded to include the wax casts of a used button or worn knitted cardigan and a sequence of lived events on film. I want the indexes to be understood in the manner which Rosalind Krauss defines the power of Eva Hesse’s sculpture: ‘manifested through an experience of matter itself’.16

Reflecting upon the writing of this paper I realize it is a testimony to an aspiration. My aspiration is for an empathetic reading of artwork which stands squarely in the face of a universal dematerialization of the real. My references can be deemed ‘out of date’ and ‘formal’. But, continued and interrupted with a scrutiny and questioning informed by living in a time of contested meanings, I am satisfied to have taken a step closer to a connection with a very ancient sort of sculpture such as the Venus of Willendorf and the Cycladic idols. We surmise that at the moment of their origination these sculptures did not stand separately from their cultural moment and I believe they each embody a social, sculptural, subjective.


  1. I am referring here to William Tucker’s definition of the object: ‘an ideal condition of self-contained, self-generating apartness of the work of art with its own rules, its own order, its own materials, independent of its maker, of its audience and of the world in general’ (William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, London, Thames and Hudson, 1974). back to text
  2. I Saw What You Did . . . was exhibited at Patrick Studios in Leeds as part of ‘Situation Leeds: Contemporary Artists and the Public Realm 0505’. back to text
  3. This notion of positioning the artist was outlined in greater detail in the paper ‘ The Changing“Class” (not Classification) of Sculpture’ which was delivered at the AHRB Congress CATH2002, Translating Class, Altering Hospitality, at Leeds Town Hall, 21-3 June 2002, and subsequently developed as the conceptual basis for the footNOTES project at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2003. back to text
  4. Examples of such can be referenced in the following texts: Albert E. Elsen, Modern European Sculpture 1918-1945: Unknown Beings and Other Realities, New York, George Braziller, 1979; The Alistair MacAlpine Gift (catalogue of an exhibition held at the Tate Gallery), London, Tate Gallery, 1971; A Silver Jubilee Exhibition of Contemporary British Sculpture 1977 (catalogue of an exhibition held at Battersea Park), London, Greater London Council, 1977; Phillip King (catalogue of an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery), London, Arts Council of England, 1981; The Condition of Sculpture: a Selection of Recent Sculpture by Younger British and Foreign Artists (catalogue of an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery), London, Arts Council of England, 1975. back to text
  5. Albert E. Elsen, Origins of Modern Sculpture: Pioneers and Premises, Oxford, Phaidon, 1974, p.155. back to text
  6. Elsen, Origins of Modern Sculpture, p.74. back to text
  7. ‘Background to the Project’, The Fragmented Figure Conference, Cardiff School of Art and Design, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, June 2005. back to text
  8. WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University. back to text
  9. Chris Townsend and Mandy Merck, The Art of Tracey Emin, London, Thames and Hudson, 2002. back to text
  10. William Tucker, ‘The Condition of Sculpture’, in Gravity and Grace: the Changing Condition of Sculpture, 1965-1975, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1993, p.35. back to text
  11. Johanna Dahn, essay to accompany the exhibition ‘Penumbra: Skirting the Shadow’, 5 November – 31 December 1994, Crossley Gallery, Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax. back to text
  12. Urszula Szulakowska, essay to accompany the project Locale, 27 September – 29 October 1999, Gallery II, University of Bradford. back to text
  13. This project of 2005, funded by Arts Council England, focuses on how we go through the process of ‘becoming’ who we are. It continues my practice of community facing. Using donated home movie footage, I use sculpture and film to suggest a child’s experience of ‘witnessing’ events in the world. The film footage was gathered in response to press coverage of the project. back to text
  14. I acknowledge an awareness of Kaja Silverman’s text, ‘Back to the Future’, Camera Obscura, 27, 1991. back to text
  15. referent n 1: something referred to; the object of a reference 2: the first term in a proposition; the term to which other terms relate 3: something that refers; a term that refers to another term (WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University). back to text
  16. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Eva Hesse’ in Nicholas Serota (ed.), Eva Hesse: Sculpture, Trustees of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1979. back to text

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Material Evidence • Issue 8