Hepworth's soothing sounds transport you – Yorkshire Sculpture International review

In the early 20th century, a youthful Barbara Hepworth would observe “the granite sets, the steep hills of industrial Yorkshire, the scurrying of mill girls in their shawls” and “imagine stone ‘images’ rising out of the ground”. These reflections, captured in 1966 in Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, detail how the hefty figures and forms that would define Hepworth’s practice sprung straight up out of Yorkshire’s undulating fields and industrious communities. The region would also raise that other influential British sculptor, Henry Moore, and that YBA with an interest in controversial monstrosities, Damien Hirst.

With such a heritage, Yorkshire Sculpture International’s claim of “Yorkshire as the home of sculpture in the UK” seems a lot less presumptuous. Especially when the county is still producing a roster of emerging sculptors and artists, four of whom are participating in Yorkshire Sculpture International’s 2021 programme. Taking place across Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, the three-month festival – which culminates this week, now all the sculptures are in place – includes new commissions from Shezad Dawood and Ariel René Jackson alongside the Yorkshire-based practitioners (Akeelah Bertram, Claye Bowler, Nwando Ebizie, Ashley Holmes) who are part of the YSI Sculpture Network.

Tucked away in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Bothy Gallery is Bertram’s Return. A dark chamber of voices and lights, it is a tomb on a hill, questioning how we memorialise bodies, especially bodies that have been unwillingly moved. On the wall, a projection of names sourced from slave voyage records rotates, with the detainee’s age and sex. Opposite, data of more than 36,000 slave-trade voyages is overlaid with swirling footage of body traces recorded by the Leeds-based artist. My own figure in the space is captured and reconfigured in tiny little dots on a screen, placing me within the work. As my form recedes into a digital ghost, I acknowledge the enslaved individuals reduced to data on the walls. Despite the fact the work responds to my movement, I find myself still, present, feet firm on the ground, reflecting on the suffering of those stolen, sold and displaced.

Meanwhile, Ebizie’s The Garden of Circular Paths at the Hepworth Wakefield soothed me into a daze where I could have danced, jumped and swooped without even noticing. Through headphones, the Todmorden-based artist’s calming voice commands me to wiggle my toes, stretch and close my eyes. It is a guided meditation of sorts, an alternative art tour through the Barbara Hepworth Art and Life exhibition that marks 10 years of the Wakefield gallery. For 37 minutes, I am lost in the peaks, troughs and holes of Hepworth’s creations, listening to Ebizie recant her quotes like poetry. Sounds of waves crashing, a scalpel slicing, hands rubbing accompany Ebizie’s monologue, which switches between colloquial and melodic.

Much of the sound was recorded in Yorkshire and Cornwall, where Hepworth’s sculptures took shape. Rather than distract, the tutorial adds depth and colour to the works, placing them within the location from which they arose and revealing Ebizie’s personal understanding of each place. In a room of St Ives-inspired metal works, the murmuring sea transforms every sculptural twist and loop into the crescendo of a wave.

Distend by Sheffield-based multidisciplinary artist Holmes is hidden away at the back of Leeds Art Gallery. Cocooned under Victorian arches and submerged in blue light, Holmes’s two sculptures are adorned in a mossy covering and serenaded by a muffled soundscape of vocals, samples and field-recordings to suggest they are domestic relics languishing at the bottom of the ocean. The work references the 17th-century earthquake and landslides in Port Royal, Jamaica, and Holmes’s combination of the organic with the human-made brings home the personal cost of natural disasters.

The problem with Yorkshire Sculpture International is epitomised by Dawood’s Concert from Bangladesh. Without doubt, the film – which features captivating performances of Bangladeshi artists combined with kaleidoscopic and colourful visuals – is a wonderful recreation of the original 1971 event which raised funds for refugees. But the work’s sculptural credentials and Yorkshire connections continue to elude me. The piece is promoted as an “immersive audio-visual journey”, but the physical element begins and ends with a QR code that momentarily activates my phone. And it has clearly been gratefully received by the Bangladeshi community in Yorkshire – Leeds-based artist Thahmina Begum enthused about being “seen” during the Q&A – but simply screening something in the region seems a little tenuous.

The crux of the issue with Yorkshire Sculpture International is that there wasn’t enough sculpture. Maybe it’s old fashioned, but this critic would have liked to have seen more stone images rising out of the ground.

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