Essay by Dr Sarah Smith accompanying Karen Cunningham's work

in the exhibition ‘Natural Order’ at GSA Glasgow 2009


There are two cultures, scientific and artistic, and they are as cut off from each other as if by something like the Berlin Wall. This complaint is heard all the time […] Ideas do not stay in neat boxes. They spread themselves about, leap walls, transfer themselves from mind to mind, sometimes one does not know how. We are all creatures of science.

      Doris Lessing, ‘Between the Fax and the Fiction,’ The Guardian, Friday December 13th 1991

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), an accomplished Renaissance man, was considered in his day to be the best goldsmith in Europe.  One of his most famous works is the highly ornate Cellini Cup, which in the mid-1960s American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt rather dryly proposed to encase in one of his concrete blocks; the precious buried within the valueless, the beautiful obscured by the banal, the unique shrouded by the ubiquitous (you get the point).  LeWitt’s proposed work in turn becomes the trigger for a new piece by Karen Cunningham, which with a dose of tongue-in-cheek presides on the gallery’s mezzanine level over the rest of her contribution the show; a complex chromatic installation of individual sculptures, the arrangement of which takes on further significance when viewed from above.

For Cellini Jewelry after Sol LeWitt the artist cast a gold chain into a concrete cube so that it appears to be threaded through the centre, a gesture that simultaneously subverts the concealment imperative to LeWitt’s cubes and pierces the fastidious logic of 1960s conceptualism.  The visibility of the chain also asserts the importance the artist places on the material (over the exclusive significance placed on the immaterial, the idea, in conceptual art), as well as on the display of the means of production.  In place of the often-complex construction of sculptural artworks, Cunningham habitually uses manifestly simple construction techniques.

Although she originally studied photography, the ultimate mimetic medium, in recent years Cunningham has become increasingly drawn to sculpture and is the only artist in this exhibition to work abstractly.  In her practice abstraction operates in numerous ways – it facilitates an explicit engagement with canonical abstract, minimal and conceptual artworks, it permits an exploration of archetypal forms such as the circle, and it allows for an uninterrupted investigation of material.

Ancient and modern technologies, such as a stone wheel and satellite dish, sit side by side here, expressing the artist’s abiding interest in ‘technology as a measure of a culture’s progress.’  Stories of such progress are told across fictional and scientific discourses alike, which Cunningham, like writer Doris Lessing, sees as implicated.   Science fiction and science are obvious allies, but Lessing argues too that anthropologists and novelists are engaged in precisely the same endeavor, which is to comment on the human condition. *  Speculative narratives such as those proposed by sci-fi and anthropology are activated by Cunningham’s work, but history is also cast as a narrative of probability and possibility, not certainty.  The intention is to keep things open – to questioning and productive contradictions – while witnessing with a mixture of amusement and awe, the human compulsion to theorise who we are, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

* Doris Lessing. ‘When in the Future They Look Back On Us’ in the book ‘Prisons We Choose to Live Inside’ (1986)



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