The Year A Performing Arts Festival Ventured into Visual Art— and Hit It Out of the Park

by Arden Cone

1977

Pulitzer Prize winner Gian Carlos Menotti begins a Charleston tradition: Spoleto Festival USA.  The performing arts festival, conceived as a companion festival to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, brings international talent to Charleston, South Carolina, a city that has boasted a rich artistic heritage for centuries on end. 

1991

The board of Spoleto Festival USA decides to hold a conceptual art exhibition in conjunction with the programming of the performing arts festival. Menotti is much opposed to the idea, despite the fact that the twenty-three artists tapped for the project are among the top contenders of the contemporary art scene. The selected artists include:

Barbara Steinman, Narelle Jubelin, Ann Hamilton, Chris Burden, Christian Boltanski Liz Mangor, James Coleman, Cindy Sherman, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Antony Gormley, Joyce Scott, Lorna Simpson and Alva Rogers, Houston Conwill, Estella Conwill Majozo, Joseph De Pace, Elizabeth Newman, Ronald Jones, Gwylene Gallimard, Jean-Marie Mauclet, Kate Ericson, Mel Ziegler, David Hammons.

 Regardless, the board allots $800,000 for the project and appoints Mary Jane Jacobs to find a historic site for each artist’s site-specific installation. While many traditionalists go so far as saying that the works were "silly, sophomoric stunts," the greater art world sees its significance. Though the 1991 exhibition has been all but lost in the archives of history, it has never been more relevant. The following article is a review of one of the twenty-three artist's works. For more information on the exhibition check out the book,  Places With a Past by Mary Jane Jacobs.

 

Artist Antony Gormley at Spoleto Festival USA's Site Specific Art Exhibit

One of the artists is shown to the grounds on which he will create his work. It houses a massive building, solid, oppressive, and archaic in appearance. Despite being constructed in 1802, the toothed merlons on its top give it a medieval appearance. For 137 years, the premises contained a jail that was as overrun with disease as it was with inmates. Within its dreadful confines, one’s daily life was a swift journey towards expiration. The average prisoner perished within three months of arrival.

 The Old City Jail, Charleston, South Carolina Photo Source: http://daronlarson.blogspot.com/ 

The Old City Jail, Charleston, South Carolina Photo Source: http://daronlarson.blogspot.com/ 

This history sparks the artist’s quest to “liberate” the building through six ambitious sculptural projects. He has built a career out of working with the human form, and this site is ideal for continuing with his ideas on human containment and incarceration. To the artist, the building itself is a body. It has an octagonal “head,” a rectangular “body,” and orifices in the form of windows and doors, which he takes pains to open in a motion of liberation. Within the large rooms of the jail, the artist evokes the body through both abstracted and representational forms.

 

In one room he places 20,000 terracotta figures, miniature humans that contain no defining features other than eyeholes. They cover every inch of the floor and seem to invite sympathy for the masses. One who knows the history of the jail—that it operated at three times its capacity until the late 1930s—would say that it reflects the overcrowded conditions in which Charleston’s prisoners, much like its slaves, lived.

 Antony Gormley,  Field;  Photo Source: http://jonathanbrilliant.com

Antony Gormley, Field; Photo Source: http://jonathanbrilliant.com

The artist leaves the next room empty except for three large metal spheres. In the relative vacancy of the room, which contrasts with the massive congestion of the opposing space, the objects seem at first to be free. But as the viewer looks at the barred windows and impenetrable walls, it becomes known that these bodies are just as confined.

 Antony Gormley,  Three Bodies,  1991; Photo Source:  http://www.antonygormley.com/ 

Antony Gormley, Three Bodies, 1991; Photo Source: http://www.antonygormley.com/ 

 

Upstairs, on the third floor, the artist places his only figurative work: five headless human forms suspended from the ceiling by their necks. Even with Charleston’s racially divided past, one would have a hard time seeing this as a commentary on lynching. They do not hang; rather, they stand on air. The artist intends for it to contrast with the room across, which is filled with mud and water from the harbor. The first piece brings the eye to the ceiling, the second to the floor.

 Antony Gormley,  Learning to Think , 1991; Photo Source:  http://www.antonygormley.com/

Antony Gormley, Learning to Think, 1991; Photo Source: http://www.antonygormley.com/

 Antony Gormley,  Host ; Photo Source:  http://www.antonygormley.com/

Antony Gormley, Host; Photo Source: http://www.antonygormley.com/

 

In the spaces of the empty jail, the sculptures are visually arresting. The art in each room—even the room overflowing with terracotta figures—seems minimal in comparison to the hulking, armored body of the jail.

This post was originally written by Arden Cone for BURNAWAY's Art Writer's Mentorship Program