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Crush. 2014, high-definition video, 6 minutes, edition of 5
(preview shown)

 

CRUSH and the Art of Unknowing: Robert Hague's Recent Sculpture

Nothing is forever. Not materials and certainly not meaning – all are subject to the drift of time and the changing attitudes of society and cultures. Art works especially are open to reappraisal and reinterpretation and, given enough time, a reversal of their original intention. Everything eventually disappears.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the 2nd century BC sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike, is a headless fragment that was originally sited in a much larger installation of altars and other sculptures. Through archaeological detective work – and the slow accumulation of other parts found in the dusty drawers of European museums - art historians may guess at its original context and intention but its meaning in the contemporary world remains provisional. Not even sculptures from relatively recent times are immune to such transmutations. A news story appeared recently about the unknown whereabouts of a 3.5-ton sculpture of Vladimir Lenin's head, an imposing visage that had sat atop a figure sculpture of the Russian revolutionary's body in Lenin Square, East Berlin, from 1970 until 1991, but following the fall of the communist state the sculpture was pulled down, cut up and its parts buried in a forest, the exact location of the head now a mystery.

Robert Hague's recent sculptures play on the permanence of such objects, the ambiguities of their meanings, and the cultural associations of their forms. Working in the traditional materials of high sculpture – bronze, marble and stainless steel – Hague's works are at once instantly recognisable as art but which harbour mysteries that deepen the longer one considers them. Take for instance the imposing sculptures Tenjen [2014] and Ionis [2014]. The attraction of their materials is immediate – the polished bronze and stainless steel of Ionis and the concrete and steel of Tenjen – capture the eye and invite your hands to touch their alluring surfaces. Both works suggest the upwardly thrown arms of a classical figure, but they also mimic the wing shape of bombers, an allusion reinforced by the addition of engine-like protrusions at the edges of the 'wings'. References to classical sculptural forms such as the stepped pedestal of Tenjen and the ionic capital scroll of Ionis are subtle reminders of the universality of the language of public monuments, but also to the ambiguity of their meaning through sheer repetition in public sculpture and architecture. The conclusion that one might draw from these works is uncertain, a deliberate ambiguity on the part of the artist who casts his works as uncertain cyphers, sentinels that would watch over a world that cannot understand them.

This play between materials and meaning is very much to the fore in Hague's other recent works such as Trojan Hammer [crush] [2014]. The language of sculpture presents a series of propositions about the veracity of their mimetic forms, with varying degrees of fidelity to realism in a sculpture suggesting how 'faithful' it is to the objects it simulates. The porcelain hammers are surreal objects in that the absolute fidelity to the reproduction of the hammer is undermined by the fragility of the hammer's head – the very use for which it is intended would destroy it. The delicate patterning of the porcelain only adds to that sense of fragility. But where orthodox surrealism might seek to add a psychosexual subtext to such an object, Hague's hammers are recursive in their meaning, a kind of conceptual loop that defuses the overloaded symbolism of the object to reaffirm the uselessness of the art object.

A similar commentary on the status of the art object is found in Mona Lisa's Curse parts I, II & III. Hague conflates a number of references within the one work. The title references a TV documentary on the art market by the late Robert Hughes, in which the art critic decried the commercialisation of the art market by the commodification of masterpieces such as da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Hague's sculpture's in marble presents a wrapped skull that refrences For The Love of God, British artist Damien Hirst's now-notorious diamond-studded human skull, itself a reference to a gemstone encrusted Aztec skull held in the collection of the British Museum. Hague's reference to those works is oblique but apt – the form of the skull is just detectable beneath the cloth - both suggestions of something that is not actually there. The skull is a classical symbol of mortality and it seems where Hirst's statement was to overlay the funerary tradition of symbolic mortality, Hague's work is more final – everything will pass from view, and life.

Dr. Andrew Frost

Dr. Andrew Frost is the art critic for Guardian Australia, the writer and presenter of a number of documentaries on contemporary art and the founder of theartlife.com.au