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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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,
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
Barab is a stone sculptor and frequent participant in sculpture symposia