What it is. And what it can do.
A sculpture is like a sentence. It makes a statement about the conditions of its own possibility. It says: “This is how things can work out between objects in space. But it can also work out like this. Or, under certain conditions, also like this…” This statement connects the different parts of the sculpture as well as the sculpture to the space that surrounds it. To do a sculpture means to make a statement in space. A sculpture can be a claim, a comment, a joke and many other things: a means to embrace a given situation or create a new one. Sculpture can do all this. In principle. Its power to actually do it, however, depends on the fact that—and if so, how—someone activates its potentials.
Lieke Snellen does that: She activates sculpture as a means to assert material claims to meaning in space. Her works are like sentences. Clear sentences. Yet not necessarily simple ones. Let’s take these for example: A mint green jalousie hangs down, unrolled, from the ceiling and appears to cut through a smaller, half open white box which is held up by four metal rods. The rods are inserted into stable concrete blocks—installed on a black wooden base, the size of the box’ bottom—that enable the rods to carry the box safely and firmly hold its two halves together.
That much is certain. Isn’t it? Sentence by sentence the sculpture determines the condition of its parts in relation to all others. Two verbs are crucial in this regard: to hang and to lift. Two directions correspond to the verbs: down from above, up from below. Hanging meets lifting, down from above meets up from below, and vice versa. Further to that, however, things cease to be that straightforward. Hanging here also happens to be a form of unrolling. But rolling back up is a problem. Even if the chord to roll it up hangs right beside it, the jalousie is stuck in the box. Stuck? It actually seems to cut through the box in its downwards motion. Almost like the blade of a guillotine. Almost? You cannot cut a box with a jalousie. You need something with a sharp edge for that. Yet, here it seems as if it were actually possible. So, even if all the sculpture’s properties are defined in the most concrete way imaginable, an as if comes into play at this point. This is the point when assertion becomes representation. The sculpture represents an activity of a jalousie that goes beyond the limits of what jalousies are normally capable of doing. As an actor the jalousie transcends itself.
Likewise, the box has peculiar characteristics. As it is lifted up from below, it has an air of being quite dynamic. The physical force required to lift its weight is the strength that it appears to exude. Beholding the box is like looking into the face of a strong person who declares: “Look, this is what I can hold.” This is how it affects you. But then again the box doesn’t really hold anything. It is is being held. It is passive. The metal rods are active. Like outstretched arms they hold the box up in the air. But whose arms are these? Those of the base? Who is the base? Not only is the relation between the passive and active form of the verb ambiguous in this case but also the definition of the subject of the action: Box or base? Who’s acting here?
So, even if the active subject in Snellen’s works happen to be objects, they do indeed have—if you seriously consider the force they acquire through their function and effect as part of the sculpture—a certain animated character. To apply terms like action, character, force, activity and passivity to a sculpture, means to look at it in an anthropomorphic way. Snellen’s works do elicit this mode of looking. They address anthropomorphism as their theme and suit. On the one hand this is because Snellen derives the logic of sculpture from performance. Her performances in turn are simple, logical (and precisely because of their cogent inner logic, to an outside observer seemingly absurd) acts, in which she, often using simple objects as props, sets her body in a relation to a space or thing. These exercises in physical orientation are like studies for possible sculptures. Conversely the sculptures, in their own particular way, come to represent the possibilities to act explored in the performances. The anthropomorphic perspective then effectively foregrounds the question: What is it that people can do in their environment?
On the other hand—and this brings us back to the notion of sculpture as a sentence—there is no actual dependency of sculpture on performance in Snellen’s work. The sculptures stand for themselves. As sentences in space. In doing so they formulate a possibility which is first of all a genuine possibility of sculpture, which nonetheless, however, evokes abstract ideas of action. Snellen relates objects to one another in such a manner that they demonstrate the urgency of certain fundamental issues of force (of weight, of motion, of lifting and being lifted, of rolling up and down…). Thereby she insistently inquires into: what something is and what it can do. And shows: what it presumably couldn’t but now indeed can do. On the level of this humour—which could not be more fundamental in its philosophical and artistic implications—it is then not even that necessary anymore to speak of the anthropomorphic and compare things to humans. The things are doing alright all by themselves. As things, however, they are equally always also elements within a constellation, which, like parts of a sentence, makes them components of the description of a particular state of affairs: This can lift that. That can cut through this. This can move that. That can be moved by this. And so on.
This can do all that. Because this is how it is. Yet also despite the fact that it is so. Building blocks made from ceramics are made to be built on one another. If they are, however, painted and arranged on a pallet with rolls in a particular manner, they can indeed appear as if they were rolling towards you, looking at you contentiously, shouting: “Watch out! Here’s some heavy stuff coming your way!” As such, building blocks cannot do these things. When they are activated as a sculpture, however, they can. Despite the matter-of-fact way in which they present themselves, Snellen’s sculptures thus mock the laws of facticity (which, in the spirit of Anglo-American positivism, Minimal Art indeed still glorified): As if something was and could only ever be what the first gaze identifies it as! Couldn’t it just as well be or do something completely different? It has the force to be or do this. That it has this force needs to be realised, practically and conceptually. Snellen does precisely that, by activating the force of things to be both themselves and something completely different, through specific sculptural statements in space.