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The Saatchi Gallery’s 'Season of Sculpture': Silicate Lungs amidst Pyramids of Oil Barrels

Independence by Permindar Kaur. Photo by Alex Grenfell.

The Saatchi Gallery’s Season of Sculpture gallery, which ran through December 2023 and January 2024, comprised two exhibits on sculpture: If Not Now, When?, a comprehensive collection of sculptures by female artists, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Boundless, a retrospective look at the careers of nouveau réalisme artists Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020) and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935–2009), featuring highlights from their shared career and images of their final upcoming exhibition.

If Not Now, When? collected a wide variety of feminist sculptures from the countercultural sixties to the contemporary world, all of which had their own important messages and stories. I found most of the sculptures bizarre and enchanting, evoking an otherworldly sculptural sense while making a profound political symbolic statement. Other sculptures, however, felt located to the milieus of second-wave feminism and translated poorly to our own time.

One room was dedicated solely to art around motherhood, for instance, illustrating women’s experiences and highlighting aspects of motherhood that have been (and still are) actively stigmatized. The grotesquery of Lorraine Clarke’s iDoletta’s 'Birthing Chair', which features physical organs erupting from an inanimate birthing chair, served to physicalise the relationship between material culture and feminine bodies. Christine Kowal Post’s 'Amazon' series in the same room emphasizes that powerful women are not symbols, but can also menstruate, give birth, and care for their children – qualities which the media tends to overlook by reducing a woman to patriarchal concepts.

Beyond these pieces, other sculptures left lasting impressions. In the first room, nestled beside the thirteen flattened coffee-pots comprising Cornelia Parker’s 'Endless Coffee', the most visceral piece in the whole gallery coughed and spat at gallery-goers. A set of intricately carved lungs, each individual strand of glass alveoli glistening between accurate capillaries, entranced the gaze of the entire room. This piece is the labyrinthine 'Capacity, 3/3' by Annie Cattrell, a masterpiece painstakingly sculpted out of borosilicate glass in order to replicate a set of flailing, breathing human lungs. The image of Cattrell’s frail glass organs stuck with me for the rest of the gallery as a reminder of how intricately delicate and alive my own lungs are. Other pieces also captured my attention in this exhibit – such as the amorphous, wired jellyfish-like 'Cloak of Invisibility' of Victoria Rance or Permindar Kaur’s striking Independence, which features a set of ruddy fleece puppets spiked against the wall with copper pikes.

With such an impressive display of art in If Not Now, When?, the other exhibit in the Saatchi Gallery’s Season of Sculpture, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Boundless made far less of an impact on me. Perhaps it was my unfamiliarity with these artists, but their work, while interesting, did not captivate me in the same way as If Not Now, When?. The exhibition served as a reflective look on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s career and had travelled from Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf to the Saatchi for the season.

Generally, the gallery was focused around the artists’ large-scale environmental art projects, such as their 1995 'Wrapped Reichstag, Project for Berlin', which wrapped the German legislative building in 100,000 square metres of silver fabric for a two week protest in favour of German reunification while conveying a message around environmentalism. Other items touched on in the exhibit were blueprints for the artists’ other projects such as Wrapped Coast or Pont Neuf Wrapped in Paris. These collections were intriguing, but as an introduction to these artists it felt less impactful than it should: the gallery failed to convey the context for how ground-breaking these pieces had been in defining mass-scale environmental protest art.

The last gallery, however, had an exhibit that left a lasting impression on me. Christo and Jeanne-Claude had conceived, in 1977, the 'Mastaba', a colossal sculpture in the Abu Dhabi desert intended to be larger than the Great Pyramid, comprised of 410,000 painted oil barrels. The sketches for the project illustrate a shape resembling the bloated ziggurats of cyberpunk classics such as Blade Runner. The 'Mastaba' is intended to be a self-funded venture, the final protest piece in both artists’ oeuvre, and remains as of yet unrealised, following both of the artists’ relatively recent deaths. Christo’s nephew, who has worked with the pair for over three decades, is carrying out the work to fully realise this project, intended to be an immense environmental protest visualising our self-destructive relationship with oil.

Overall, the Saatchi Gallery’s 'Season of Sculpture' offered a wide variety of incredible art and sculpture, but I did find that If Not Now, When? left far more of an impression on me than Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Boundless, perhaps due to less of an understanding of the artistic fields in which these two sculptors operate. However, I will walk away from the 'Season of Sculpture', at least, with an image of borosilicate glass lungs struggling to breathe etched in my brain.

'Season of Sculpture' is on at the Saatchi Gallery until January 22nd.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn