Stein-Skulpturen Symposien

(Stone Sculpture Symposia)

by Neal Barab    
- with friendly permission -           Zurück

Sculpture April 1998 Vol.17 No. 4

A sculpture symposium is the sculptor's fantasy come true. Travel the world, work hard, eat well, create monumental sculpture,
be treated with respect, and leave with money in hand. The stone symposium is performance art; there is nothing as embarrassing as hitting your hand with a hammer as a crowd watches, and nothing as satisfying as feeling a positive response from a public that one had thought uninterested or even hostile to art. The sculpture symposium might be defined by the following elements: sculptures are created in public during a defined period by invited juried artists; sculptures are usually left with the sponsor; and sculptors are paid an honorarium and usually provided with transportation, room, and meals.

The stone sculpture symposium is the public expression of an all but ignored contemporary art movement: that of the stone sculptor, carving with modern tools combined with traditional techniques. The center of this movement is in the stone districts of Pietrasanta and Carrara in Italy. Symposia take place around the world, often with Italian as the common language. Modern diamond- cutting technology and pneumatic tools have changed the way and the pace of working in stone; sculptors often come to Italy to learn about working hard and fast. They go to symposia to use this skill - the ability to quickly transform a resistant material into a work of art.

The sculpture symposium originated in 1959 with sculptor Karl Prantl and others at the stone quarry of St. Margarethen, in Austria. Their motivation was to be able to work stone on a monumental scale, something which had been outside the financial resources of the participating artists. Symposia have since taken place across Europe, notably in Carrara, in Israel, Egypt, Japan, and more recently in Taiwan, China, and South Korea. Scandinavia has a long history of symposia in granite. The United States is notably lacking in this tradition.

Rino Giannini was an organizer of the first symposia in Carrara, in the 1970s, when he was a professor at the Accademia di Belle Arte there. He remembers with awe the crowds that were drawn to those first symposia. Thousands of onlookers attended every day, watching 20 sculptors from around the world carving in Carrara's central piazza, with the quarry-scarred mountain towering overhead.

Many symposia are initiated by sculptors seeking to create cultural activity in their home communities, and are sponsored by the involved communities or stone suppliers. Communities gain in stature and become a tourist destination by having an ongoing cultural event. Visitors and locals return to see the sculptures' progress, the media has an ongoing event to record, and local quarries receive publicity about their stone. The community also acquires monumental sculptures at relatively low cost. Much of the organizer's responsibility is in the realm of public relations and funding. Spreading sponsorship out through the community broadens the sense of participation. Having restaurants share responsibility for feeding the hungry sculptors, for example, gives the sculptors a good feeling for the community, and gives the town a broader view of who these strangers are. Elisabeth Ekstrand was able to elicit sponsorship and supplies from Swedish toolmaker Sandvik and safety equipment manufacturer Sundstrom for the symposium she organized at the Wasa Sten quartzite quarry in Sweden. Such sponsorships create product loyalty among the sculptors and publicity for the companies.

At Sprimont in Belgium, the symposium is sponsored by the local stone industry (Black Petit Granit) and the Musée de la Pierre, the stone museum. One of their stated aims is to take the focus off of the environmental damage that quarries are associated with, and to substitute for it an image of their stone as aligned with artistic production and cultural events. In a quarry that has been continuously producing since 1880, the yearly symposia are a manifestation of local pride and the creation of an extraordinary event out of something that had become everyday practice.

A successful symposium requires effort from the sculptors as well as the organizers. The sculptor is responsible for bringing personal tools and notifying the organizers well in advance about technical and personal requirements. These include information on the size and shape of stone required, cuts needed in advance, and queries or requests for larger tools and hoists. Finally, the sculptor must finish the promised work on time, coping with the tension of enforced deadlines and understanding the uneasiness felt by the organizers, who must justify the money spent on facilities and promotion.

John Fisher is an American living in Pietrasanta. He has attended many symposia in France where he wows the crowds by peeling a figure out of the stone. He says "the first day is often a mess-the sculptors show up, have a fit, then set it right." Common problems include not having enough current and circuit breakers to let everybody work at the same time, and inadequate air lines or a weak air compressor. The living and eating facilities need not be luxurious, but they must be good. Bad accommodations show a lack of consideration and sculptors are quick to notice. Swiss sculptor Jaya Schuerch says, "It's hard to do your best for people who don't respect you." Fisher adds that "Minimal

requirements are a private room with a good shower. I leave behind a sculpture much more valuable than I am paid for. The organizers must leave the sculptors with a comfortable room to relax and clean up in after a long day's work." Zoé de L'Isle Whittier has traveled from Paris to attend symposia throughout the world. She firmly states: "We're not scouts at camp; we work hard, in public, and expect to be treated well."

Indeed, artists' fees and benefits vary wildly. Symposia in China are noted for their plentiful and delicious food, and the opportunity to work with assistants, which makes it possible to do a monumental piece in a short period. The annual symposium in Seravezza, near Pietrasanta, furnishes only a block of stone, a place to work it, and lunch. The finished work remains the sculptor's property. In contrast, the first Hualien Symposium in Taiwan in spring 1997 paid air transportation, first-class accommodations, and $7,000 to the sculptors for their four-week participation and finished sculptures.

Participants can be invited by the organizers or chosen by a jury. Quebec sculptor Pascal Arch complains of symposia that request maquettes with the application, often without compensation even for returning the model to the artist. He says, "Drawings of proposed work combined with slides of past creations should be enough information from which to choose a competent group of artists."

Sculptors are in near unanimous agreement in their distaste for competitions or monetary prizes for winners. Schuerch says that "Prizes are detrimental to the work, they create bad blood. To make sculpture you need to work in a cooperative environment. Spread the money out between the participants and you'll get good sculptures and happy people." As for themes, Fisher speaks for many when he says, "Themes are a joke. People do what they always do and rationalize it into a theme."

Public reaction is appreciated by artists accustomed to working alone in their studios. Whittier says, "The sculptures mean more to people than a public commission created in somebody's studio and just plopped down. Many people have a hostility for public art because they feel it is imposed on them and they don't know who has done it or why. In a symposium, people ask questions, they walk around it. Sculptors develop little fan clubs of people following their work. They encourage us, they are participating, they respect us for the hard work." Schuerch says, "People watch the whole development and they're thrilled with it. It's fun to share in their enthusiasm. It reminds you of the magic that is art. Art isn't really an object, it is that moment of contact when someone sees your work, and is really touched by it. The symposium opens people to art." Working in public during a limited period can be a challenge and an inspiration. Allan Farr warns, "A symposium is about work: long, hard, dusty, and brutal." But Schuerch adds, "Knowing that you have a short time changes what you do. I try to push myself. It frees me up creatively." Fisher, who works figuratively, carves directly, without a model or even a preconceived idea of what he will carve. He says, "I pace myself. In a 10-day symposium the first day is for carving the block abstractly, removing roughly a third to get to its core. Days two and three are a continuation of the abstract carving, and a focusing in on the figurative possibilities. On days four and five the image emerges. Days six through eight bring the image into focus and the composition is completed. The last two days are for refining, cleaning, and adding texture and polish."

Sculptors bringing models to carve from are thus a few days ahead, and can start immediately to take their image from the block. Some symposia require models and drawings during the application process, though this requirement can be a problem for those who prefer to get inspiration from the stone and the site. Whittier says, "I was very affected by the Norwegian environment, the ancient art and standing stone monuments. It determined what I did at Symposium Norge, and has influenced my work since." In fact, it's not unusual for symposium participants to stay behind after the symposium has ended, falling in love with the available material or the place. Japanese sculptor Takashi Naraha became fascinated with black diabas during a symposium in southern Sweden in 1980 and has lived there ever since.

The experience of a symposium or a site also often inspires artists to initiate new events. Elisabeth Ekstrand organized a symposium at the Wasa Sten Quartzite quarry in the Swedish heartland of Dalarna in the summers of 1995 and 1997 after working there in porphyry, an extra-hard stone once called the Swedish Diamond. After being invited to the Wasa symposium, Chinese sculptor Wei Xiao Ming organized a symposium in Tianjin's new industrial and technological development area in 1996.

For Rino Giannini, symposia are about sculpture. He says, "When people can see the process of stone becoming a monument, sculpture enters the collective consciousness. People begin to understand, sometimes for the first time, what sculpture is."

Neal Barab is a stone sculptor and frequent participant in sculpture symposia