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Interview With Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator At The Tate Modern
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Interview With Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator At The Tate Modern

Picture of Kaja Kozak
Updated: 24 April 2017
It’s been over 20 years since the last major exhibition of Alexander Calder at a public institution in the UK and the long awaited Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture at the Tate Modern will be the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the 20th-century ground-breaking artist, showing approximately 100 of his works. In this interview Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator, reveals everything from how the exhibition came about to his favourite Calder work.

TCT: How did you come about curating the exhibition Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture and how did you select which works to include?

The exhibition Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture is co-curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Director of Exhibitions, Tate Modern, Ann Coxon, Curator, Tate Modern and Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. Considering that it has been over 20 years since the last major exhibition of Alexander Calder at a public institution in the UK, it was felt that this is a good moment to organise an exhibition that would bring to the fore the radical nature of Calder’s thinking, by exploring the notion of performance as a driving force in his renovation of sculptural language. Calder thought of his sculptures as performers animated by air currents, mechanics or touch. Composition through motion brought him repeatedly to notions of theatricality and choreography and these ideas were our focus when selecting works for the exhibition.

TCT: “Performing Sculpture” clearly has a double meaning, especially considering Calder’s love of the circus and the circus being an important metaphor to exhibiting the artist’s work. Why the title? How can it be applied to both his mobiles and stabiles?

Calder’s pioneering role was to have recognized that sculpture could move of its own accord and that the spectator no longer had to circumvent a static object. It was of course his mobiles primarily that made this insight actual and revolutionised the field, opening up the art work to the experience of time and the concept of the fourth dimension, as well as to chance, contingency and performance. Inevitably Calder’s Circus 1926-31 is a key work in his development and it occupies a unique position in the artist’s life and career. As is well-known, Calder was fascinated by the world of the circus and his own microcosmic version of that world was enacted as a full performance. For many years, Calder gave shows for special audiences in Europe and America that brought him into contact with artists such as Miró, Léger, Arp, Cocteau, Man Ray, Duchamp and Mondrian. Calder’s Circus became his foundational work. Therefore, the exhibition’s title reveals the rich links between Calder’s art and performance, which are crucial notions to reassess the artist’s work and its enduring legacy.

TCT: From the dramatic lighting used in the exhibition at MoMA in New York (1943) to the use of natural light in his later exhibition at MiT (1950-51), curators have been grappling with ways to display Calder’s sculptures and how to show the range of motion inherent in the mobiles and mechanical pieces. How have you considered lighting in this exhibition?

Lighting plays an important role in this exhibition. Calder himself was interested in the effects of light and shadow play in relation to his sculptures. Lighting plays a critical role in the exhibition and it amplifies the dynamism of movement and theatricality of Calder’s sculptures.

TCT: Is there a natural connection between the hung mobiles and the standing stabiles?

Calder’s mobiles and stabiles exemplify his preoccupations with balance, forms, shapes and colours in equilibrium. Mobiles and stabiles are two aspects of his multifaceted practice and both types of sculptures represent the diversity of means in which Calder organized forms into open, abstract constructions.

TCT: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned while curating Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture?

I am really fascinated by the diverse materials that Calder used throughout his life and career. Calder was an artist who had the unique ability of producing art out of the everyday, with an amazing sense of virtuosity and confidence in transforming the nature of things. Curating this exhibition I came to appreciate more and more the kinetic aspects of sculpture. The balance and fine motion of Calder’s art made me become open to better observing the sometimes invisible forces that are present all around us. A slight movement, an imperceptible motion of the body even a distant sound can trigger a harmonic effect for a sculpture. This sense of aliveness in sculpture has been a fascinating realization.

TCT: In which respects has the legacy of Alexander Calder’s sculptures been influential/important to the canon of 20th-century art?

Calder developed the foundations for a new artistic language, a sculptural idiom that was not defined by an attention to static elements but forms in motion. Calder played a catalytic role in redefining the evolution of art in the 20th century, challenging preconceived notions.

TCT: Do you think this exhibition serves to interpret the past or to change the present perceptions on Calder’s work?

The exhibition provides a reassessment of Calder’s practice and its continuing relevance. While building upon recent research, Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture will make a significant and memorable contribution to the way in which Calder’s work is understood and received. Calder’s intense explorations and his radical ideas currently resonate stronger than ever. At an art historical moment when the experience of time and performance, chance and contingency define the contemporary domain, it is crucial to remind ourselves of previous contexts and key figures that defined the field.

TCT: By now you must be pretty familiar with Alexander Calder’s life and work. Which would you say is your favourite sculpture from the entire exhibition?

I am extremely fond of Calder’s early wire portraits, panels and open frames. Among them, key works in the show, such as Black Frame (1934) and A Universe (1934) reveal the ways in which Calder made use of his training as an engineer and his fascination with the dynamism of the cosmos. However, my favourite sculpture in the exhibition is Black Widow (c. 1948). Black Widow is a monumental sculpture, a mobile measuring 3.5 metres that has hung in the lobby of the Instituto dos Arquitetos do Brasil (IAB) since it was gifted to the firm by Calder in 1948. The exhibition at Tate Modern offered a rare opportunity for Black Widow to be shown outside its home in Brazil for the first time in its history.

TCT: How was the exhibition conceived? What do you want the viewer to take away from Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture?

The exhibition will provide a rare and exciting opportunity to see a large number of important works together for the first time, many of which have not been previously exhibited in the UK. I hope that ideas of performance, movement and balance in relation to sculpture and art will create a memorable impression to the viewer. The relationships of objects in space, abstract forms in motion and the constantly shifting relationships between forms and shapes are also present in the world around us – from urban environments to the domain of nature. I will be delighted for viewers to continue seeing Calder’s ideas present in the world that surrounds us, in the same way as I do.

‘Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture’ is on at the Tate Modern from November 11th, 2015 until April 3rd, 2016.

Open every day from 10 am – 6 pm and late on Thursdays and Saturdays until 10 pm.

Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG, +44 020 7887 8888