MEMORIAL TO THE FORGOTTEN

BY ANDREW FROST

 

Marble has a special place within Western art. Imbued with tradition, history and a sense of importance, this malleable rock is a challenge to even the most skilled of artisans and artists. Yet an enduring form can last centuries, even millennia. Trophies of classical culture such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace carved in 220BC, and which has stood in the Louvre since 1884, owe their cultural importance as much to the skilled craftsmanship of their making as they do to the very rock from which they were carved. Marble remains the material of modern monuments and our most important buildings, contemporary office blocks and hotel foyers surfaced in marble hark back to this long historical association with classical civilization.

By contrast Alexander Seton’s work memorializes impermanence and the transitory. His marble sculptures give permanent form to fleeting cultural moments and fashions, capturing icons of the contemporary world. In Elegy On Resistance Seton has arranged around a central figure [the Soloist] a group of CCTV cameras [The Quartet] and hanging hoodies [The Chorus]. The naming of these objects implies a relationship, like a musical performance, an ensemble that bears witness to the resistance of the individual against the apparatus of surveillance and control. The central track-suited man might be a heroic figure, but, in reality, the cities of the modern world are full of such figures, faces shrouded and bodies stooped, faceless everymen who habitually pass through train stations, shopping centres and the outer zones of the non-place. These hooded figures are ambiguous citizens, often feared as potential criminals, or as wild youth gone wrong. In Seton’s work, however, the figure recalls the pose of a Buddha, but with its substance – the body within – missing. There are connotations of religious art here, but in the generic striping of the tracksuit, the hands in pockets, the crossed legs and the unmistakably casual pose of a street beggar, a skillful conceptual play between the ubiquity and invisibility of an instantly recognizable, yet largely ignored figure.

In past works Seton has used marble to investigate meaning and association in everyday objects. His early sculptural installation Bean Bag Suite [2004] gave that most uncomfortable of domestic furnishings the patina of sculptural respectability. Other works such as Wear Me (Male) and Wear Me (Female)[both 2004] recreated generic clothing -  a nominally “male” t-shirt and “female” boots. Sculptures such as Soft Sequence [2005] and Reward [2005] were exact reproductions of old, worn out pillows, and a folded mattress, the distressed and fading fabric of the originals painstakingly simulated in the folds and ribs of sculpted and polished rock. What was destined for landfill now remains with us for the ages, for perhaps as long as the Winged Victory herself, as beautiful and inscrutable to future generations as the goddess Nike is to us now. 

The nature of experience in objects left behind after a political demonstration has also been a subject of interest for Seton. A sequence of sculptures created at the time of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation summit held in Sydney in 2007 and exhibited as part of the exhibition Panoply sought to give forms of social control such as the barrier – which are erected overnight and just as quickly removed – a more solid presence, their plastic constructions transferred into crystalised rock. Barrier (proceed about your normal routine) [2007] was a full-scale recreation of a barrier erected across the gallery space, the words of the title carved on each of five marble barriers. Although playfully ironic, the work nonetheless highlighted the impossibility of obeying the command – the barrier barring the right of way. Seton has revisited the barrier-form, sometimes in miniature, sometimes at full scale. His sculpture Barriers II [2008] bore more ambiguous text spaced across three marble bollards: always, secure, mine. Recalling the Latin texts inscribed on the socles and plinths of ancient Greek and Roman statuary, Seton’s sculptures highlight the tension between reality and mimesis, from domestic objects to street security apparatus, a simulation that suggests the real but a simulation that is always redirecting the viewer’s interpretation away from what the object literally represented to metaphorical and allegorical readings. 

As these words are written, news from the United States arrives about the murder of a black teenager in Florida under controversial circumstances. The boy was shot and killed by an adult who suspected him of preparing to break into local houses, but the only compelling evidence was the fact that the 17 year old was wearing a hoodie pulled down over his face against the rain. This event underscores in a dramatic way the ways in which the underclasses of society are demonized by the signifiers of status and income. Elegy On Resistance has taken on another layer of meaning, one that might seem only viable in this moment, but in Seton’s work the figure – and the hoodie - reposition the symbol of empire and privilege into the tangible presence of the moment. 

This practice of creating objects and figures hitherto considered too ephemeral or unimportant for memorialization hints at another aspect of Seton’s work. It isn’t the materials that matter here so much as the concept of transference. Where value and importance of a cultural object is often thought to be bolstered by the richness of a material – marble, gold, diamond, platinum etc - Seton’s work points to the chimerical nature of value where “low” or common place objects are magically rendered as objects of importance. This act of democratization is palpably humanist, decoding the language of fear and control, giving the faceless everyman a place in history.  

Elegy On Resistance brings together the many concerns of Seton’s practice that the artist has explored over the last decade –the experience of the everyday and the forces of political control. But what here is really momentary? The tradition of figure sculpture in the West has traditionally been to valorize the great and the good – saints, politicians, royalty, sometimes even animals – but as Shelley’s poem Ozymandis reminds us, even the greatest monument will crumble to dust. The only thing to remain will be the human experience of time.