Visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) always guarantees a great day out.
Its setting in the West Yorkshire rolling landscape is joyful at any time of the year as the seasons change, but there really is something quite special about the bluebell and rhododendron woods around the upper lake in spring.
Its late start this year happily coincided with the reopening of museums and galleries across the country, including the arrival of the Portuguese contemporary artist Joana Vasconcelos’ exhibition Beyond, which is displayed in the Underground Gallery and across the park’s grounds.
All visitor attractions have been challenged to adapt in order to ensure a Covid-secure visit and to keep employees safe. Access to the grounds is by pre-booking only in order to manage numbers and online booking requires all visitors over the age of 18 to pay. This replaces the cost for parking, which means that visitors on foot or those who may have cycled to YSP don’t receive free entry.
Parts of the one-way system installed in the wake of the Covid pandemic remain at the visitor centre, but it’s fair to say that finding your way to the lower gallery from the main entrance can be confusing. The experience in the galleries, with generous space afforded to each installation, compliments encountering artworks in the grounds and the exhibition lighting contributes to creating an airy and spacious feeling. The exhibition interpretation is informative and accessible.
The works presented are monumental, not only those located outdoors, but also those in the Underground Gallery, as entire spaces are filled with single installations. The Vasconcelos exhibition addresses the very present subjects of “feminism, national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society”.
The works resonate through their shape, texture, colour and, in some instances, sound. Whether brightly patterned, soft or hard edged, monotone or not, they entice on many levels. They will appeal to everyone – from the sophisticated art follower to those encountering an object nestling in the folded landscape for the first time.
The shape of things to come
Vasconcelos uses manufactured objects repeatedly to create an entirely different form, offering layers in which to reinterpret a recognisable shape, adding depth to its significance as a consumer item while suggesting untold histories.
In the first space of the Underground Gallery, a work titled Call Centre (2014-16) is constructed of old rotary dial telephones, the type that many of us had in our home as children, box-shaped with a familiar ring. Here they are mounted to construct a pistol shape with the handset hanging, suspended at the end of its coiled cord.
Described as an “electro-acoustic symphony by composer Jonas Runas”, this sculpture and its integrated sound have been brought together through a clever creative collaboration. When the trigger of the gun lets out a blast, all the phones ring simultaneously for a moment of unexpected joy.
The artwork Marilyn (2009) refers to the tragic legend of popular culture, the late US movie star Marilyn Monroe, here symbolised by an enormous pair of shiny stiletto shoes – a double nod to stereotypical female sexuality. Yet, on closer inspection, the shoes are constructed of stainless steel cooking pots, a reminder of the tools identified with a woman’s domestic place. Marilyn, our everyday heroine, and no less iconic, but also mother, wife, daughter, with she/her pronouns.
While there is a contrast between the handmade and the machine-made, the materials used by Vasconcelos – from crocheted yarn to saucepans – have been crafted to produce objects of precision, whether they are scaled-up versions of shoes, a carnival mask, or forms that are less recognisable, such as those representing female warriors from mythological realms.
Red Independent Heart #3 (2013) is a replica of the Heart of Viana, a Portuguese emblem in jewellery developed through the Catholic devotional cult of the sacred heart. This giant version is constructed entirely of red cutlery, which creates a filigree effect that successfully softens its brittle material substance. It is suspended and turns gently to recorded traditional Portuguese fado songs of love and loss.
The eye-catching sculptures displayed outdoors beckon for a closer look. Their outlines and structures offer a more complex narrative when their industrially manufactured components are identified.
The shimmering carnival mask I’ll be your Mirror (2018) is in fact constructed out of ornately framed mirrors and the towering Solitário (2018), a diamond ring, has an elaborate golden band made of car wheel hub covers, topped with crystal glasses that balance under an inverted pyramid. Symbols of luxury are represented through reference to cars, consumption of alcohol and jewellery.
This exhibition comprising more than 25 works by Vasconcelos, a leading female artist, should not be missed. The colourful Pop Galo 2016, for me, demands a second visit when daylight is fading. The rooster of Barcelos, a common symbol of Portugal, is enlarged to more than nine metres in height with more than 17,000 coloured tiles over its surface.
At dusk the bird is brought to life, animated by 15,000 LED lights programmed alongside a musical composition. It is a sight I look forward to seeing.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s (YSP) schedule dictates a major turnaround of exhibitions in January and February, which isn’t the best of times, and early 2020 turned out to be particularly difficult. In mid-January, our technical and estates teams began the excavation of soil for the installation of Joana Vasconcelos’ outdoor sculptures, which arrived from Portugal in the last week of January. The technicians have decades of combined experience in handling sculpture in all conditions, but the three storms that hit the UK in quick succession through February were unprecedented.
On 8/9 February, Storm Ciara brought torrential rain and wind speeds gusted to 65mph. Vasconcelos’ Solitário and Pop Galo are 7.2m and 9m high respectively but with the hiab truck unable to operate in winds above 20mph, the YSP and Vasconcelos teams were forced to move to less dangerous tasks.
To help mitigate the force of the gales we reoriented the huge Pop Galo so that it faced into the prevailing wind. Mid-February, Storm Dennis brought yet more severe rain and wind while the team was installing the 7 × 3.5 metre high I’ll Be Your Mirror, comprising 252 Venetian mirrors and involving around 800 screws. The work had been battered by storms while sited on the Isola Di San Clemente for the Venice Biennale and we thanked our lucky stars that it had been retro-engineered for such conditions.
When Storm Jorge hit at the end of February, the team were almost constantly wet, cold and wind-scarred. The Portuguese technicians could hardly believe their misfortune and nor could we. Still, smart planning and hard work meant the teams completed the work in time for the opening on 6 March – just before England’s first lockdown.
Clare Lilley is the director of programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park