IIn the early 20th century, a youthful Barbara Hepworth observed “the granite sets, the steep hills of industrial Yorkshire, the murmur of the mill girls in their shawls” and “imagines stone images rising from the ground”. These Reflections, Captured in 1966 in Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, details how the fierce figures and forms that would define Hepworth’s practice sprang right up out of Yorkshire’s hilly fields and industrious communities. The region would also raise the other influential British sculptor, Henry Moore, and the YBA with an interest in controversial atrocities, Damien Hirst.
With such a legacy, Yorkshire Sculpture International’s claim of “Yorkshire as the home of sculpture in Britain” seems much less presumptuous. Especially when the county is still producing a list of new sculptors and artists, four of whom are participating in the Yorkshire Sculpture International program for 2021. The three-month festival — culminating this week, now all the sculptures in place — includes new assignments from Shezad Dawood and Ariel René Jackson alongside Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute the Yorkshire-based GPs (Akeelah Bertram, Claye Bowler, Nwando Ebizie, Ashley Holmes) who are part of the YSI Sculpture Network .
Tucked away in Yorkshire Sculpture Parks Bothy Gallery is Bertram’s Return. A dark chamber of voices and light, it is a tomb on a hill that questions how we remember bodies, especially bodies that have been involuntarily moved. On the wall, a projection of names derived from slave journeys rotates with the age and sex of the detainee. Conversely, data from more than 36,000 slave trade journeys are overlaid with swirling footage footage taken by the Leeds-based artist. My own figure in the room is captured and reconfigured in tiny little dots on a screen that places me within the work. As my form falls back into a digital ghost, I recognize the slaves reduced to data on the walls. Despite the fact that the work is responding to my movement, I am still, present, with my feet firmly on the ground, reflecting on the suffering of the stolen, sold, and displaced.
Meanwhile, Ebizies The Garden of Circular Paths at Hepworth Wakefield reassured me in a daze where I could have danced, jumped and swooped without noticing it. Through headphones, the soothing voice of the Todmorden-based artist orders me to wiggle my toes, stretch and close my eyes. It’s a kind of guided meditation, an alternative art tour through the Barbara Hepworth Art and Life exhibition, marking 10 years of the Wakefield Gallery. For 37 minutes I am lost in peaks, troughs and holes in Hepworth’s creations, listening to Ebizie revive his quotes as poetry. Sounds of waves crashing, a scalpel cutting, rubbing hands, accompanies Ebizie’s monologue, which alternates between mundane and melodic.
Much of the sound was recorded in Yorkshire and Cornwall, where Hepworth’s sculptures took shape. Instead of distracting, the guide adds depth and color to the works, placing them within the place from which they originated, and revealing Ebizie’s personal understanding of each place. In a room of St Ives-inspired metalwork, the murmuring sea transforms every sculptural twist and loop into the crescendo of a wave.
Distend by Sheffield-based interdisciplinary artist Holmes is tucked away behind the Leeds Art Gallery. Covered under Victorian arches and immersed in blue light, Holmes’ two sculptures are adorned in a mossy pavement and serenaded by a muted soundscape of vocals, samples and field recordings to indicate that it is domestic relics that are falling to the bottom of The sea. The work refers to 17th-century earthquakes and earthquakes in Port Royal, Jamaica, and Holme’s combination of the organic with the man-made brings home the personal costs of natural disasters.
The problem with Yorkshire Sculpture International is the epitome of Dawood’s concert from Bangladesh. Without a doubt, the film – which features captivating performances by Bangladeshi artists combined with kaleidoscopic and colorful graphics – is a wonderful re-enactment of the original 1971 event, which raised funds for refugees. But the work’s sculptural credentials and Yorkshire connections continue to elude me. The piece is promoted as an “immersive audiovisual journey”, but the physical element begins and ends with a QR code that briefly activates my phone. And it has clearly been gratefully received by the Bangladeshi community of Yorkshire-Leeds-based artist Thahmina Begum excited to be “seen” during Q&A — but it does look a bit like something in the region.
The crux of the problem with Yorkshire Sculpture International is that there was not enough sculpture. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but this critic would have liked to have seen more stone images rise from the ground.