Daguerre’s Soup: What is Sculpture?

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In 1932, Brassaï challenged the established notions of what is or is not sculpture when he photographed a series of found objects—tiny castoff scraps of paper that had been unconsciously rolled, folded, or twisted by restless hands, strangely shaped bits of bread, smudged pieces of soap, and accidental blobs of toothpaste, which he titled Involuntary Sculptures. In the 1960s and 1970s artists engaging with various forms of reproduction, replication, and repetition used the camera to explore the limits of sculpture. The word “sculpture” itself came to no longer signify something specific but rather to indicate a polymorphous objecthood.

In 1971 Alina Szapocznikow produced Photosculptures, pictures of a new kind of sculptural object made of stretched and distended pieces of chewing gum. At the same time, Marcel Broodthaers concocted absurdist taxonomies in photographic works. In Daguerre’s Soup (1975), Broodthaers hints at the various fluids and chemical processes Louis Daguerre used to invent photography in the nineteenth century by bringing into play experimental ideas about language and everyday objects. A decade later, the duo Fischli/Weiss combined photography with wacky, ingeniously choreographed assemblages on the verge of collapse. Rachel Harrison drew on Broodthaers’s illogical systems of classification and parodic collections of objects to produce Voyage of the Beagle, in 2007, a series of pictures that collectively raise the question “What is sculpture?” Ranging from images of prehistoric standing stones to mass-produced Pop mannequins, from topiaries to sculptures made by modernist masters, Harrison’s work constitutes an oblique quest for both the origins of sculpture and its contemporary manifestations.