On Sculpture, the Body and Dance

by Fergus Byrne

The following text was part of a performative lecture at the DLAF 2015 seminar on live art and crossing disciplines. Some amendments have been made for presentation in this context.

‘Adhere to your discipline; that which you follow’. (Write in charcoal while walking ledge)

The text discusses sculpture, movement and dance from the perspective of the modalities pertinent to each, principally – touch, proprioception and kinaesthesia. I hope to give a sense of how thinking and acting through one discipline can inform practice in another. Both my own work and that of other artists will be referenced. Throughout this discussion I will refer to the body and grant subjective experience a primary role as a means to understanding. It is in this sense a phenomenological viewpoint on the disparate subjects raised.

Observations on The Performance Collective during their two weeks at Galway Arts Centre.

There is much taping of the room’s peripheries and lines being inscribed on the wall. It seems like a delimiting of the space yet it reiterates what the walls already do. The group all hail from sculpture origins and marking the wall seems somehow innate. It prompts me to reflect on how the extremities of the body’s kinesphere precede those of the room. The hands, our most immediate tool, reach the kinesphere’s edge. By making contact with the walls the sense of space is reduced and that of touch emphasised. 1

Without friction it would be very difficult to move.

Articulate space requires joints. But these very words seem in conflict; the multisyllabic ‘articulate’ punctuates the gaping [sp]’Ace’. Vowels breathe. Consonants tongue forth. Space is unarticulated until it meets the edge of matter.

Have you ever felt that you’re not really saying anything when vocalising vowel sounds? Try it. (At this point some audience members choose to join in this vocalisation)


Such sound lacks bones.

It is imperative to warm up your foot in the morning by rotating the joint of the big toe to the foot. This joint first experiences the impact of the ground before that resonates through the rest of the body. The warm up prepares the walking body for its encounter with the day.

Message from Julie Short (via Facebook)

“I´ve only come across your message now…. it´s weird I´ve been wearing these flat ballet shoes for about 2 months now, not really appropriate attire for this time of year, well any time of year due to the lack of cushioning they afford, and well, as I was walking up the escalator this evening I was thinking about meeting the floor/ground in a less impacting way, trying to see if I could meet it with my feet obviously, they´re really like walking barefoot, to see if it was possible to spend less time impacting & therefore walk lighter and well I noticed how joints absorb the shock of meeting the ground by melding in a way and then releasing….think of all that energy we´re releasing…. anyway and then I found your message, interesting.”

I am walking on a gravel path with Cyntia. She asks whose steps are loudest. I listen to our feet, differentiating the sound. Hers are lighter. (July 2015)

But before we hit the ground, before the body reaches the exterior, there are many fulcrums of movement inside, in the dynamic interiority of the skeleton.

(I move to various parts of the gallery space, small spaces, high spaces in which I can reorient my body. The gallery supports me as a crutch for my contortions.)

To leave the support of this architecture and take the centre of the room independent of all physical and visual supports initiates dance. Even if it begins with only the small dance of Steve Paxton,

(Introduction of the small dance2) – Find yourself a bit of space, enough to stand in without contact with your neighbour. You do not need room to spread your arms. I invite you to close your eyes. Inside there are numerous grounds off of which movement occurs. I will begin to feel the friction within my own body that allows me to move.

You may keep your eyes closed’. This suggestion was for the audience. The reader may behave otherwise.

“I’m standing listening to the Quiet Club play at the RHA.3 They play sounds and respond to each other with the concentration of chess players. Each responsive sound crucially weighted so as to maintain the quiet that they enter their sound upon. I want to listen with my body and do so standing. There is thus only one joint, that of feet to floor. And relax as much as possible so that I can feel the sound and not be disturbed by any tensions in the body or superfluous points of touch with wall or chair. Perhaps I can fool the sound by being this quiet and it will pass through me unaware of my presence. I become space, bar the grinning ear, cousin of the Cheshire cat.”

Right image source: Barbara Dawson,  Berlin!: the Berlinsche Galerie art collection visits Dublin, Berinsche Galerie, 1991.

Above is the work of two sculptors from early Modernism – Boccioni and Gabo. These works are a constant reference point in early Modernist sculptural treatment of movement. I use them frequently as references for life drawing. The work of the futurist Boccioni, despite his attempts to represent a ‘universal dynamism’ was rooted in traditional bronze casting. The figure is strident though weighted in its materiality. Naum Gabo, a Russian Constructivist, here uses cardboard to make a maquette describing a body through planes emerging from its centre. He also used transparent plastic materials in his work to describe volume thus moving his work beyond the representation of mass. In a note accompanying the work Two Cubes (Demonstrating the Stereometric Method) 1930 Gabo eloquently expressed his intention.


The statement ‘to make the space occupied by an object visible without enclosing it’ has quite an affinity with the visual effect of my current choreosculpture work. Originally a sculpture with fused joints, Angel, it behaved like much other sculpture since it was static. But in making the joints mobile it invited a movement with it that draws upon techniques of contact improvisation dance.

Marion Cronin and Fergus Byrne. Studio work with choreoscultpure, 2015. Photo: Annette Moloney.

Gabo pioneered kinetic sculpture, an exemplar of which is ‘Standing wave’.

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) 1919-20, replica 1985 by Naum Gabo 1890-1977

Standing wave vibrates in space when a button is pushed. It might be interesting to drop rings of varying sizes onto this rod and see if they would stay in motion like a hula hoop.

(At this point an audience member of some skill in hula hooping kindly takes up the invitation to demonstrate while the talk continues.) We could use as a guideline the mathematics of how a hoop actually is sustained upon a moving body. For this please see the following link – http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1101/1101.0072.pdf. But it might be as interesting to take a hoop and develop one’s kinetic awareness in flesh and bone.

At this point the printed word as a record of the talk becomes quite limited. Its most recent iteration involved an audience member hula hooping while two others read a dialogue via emails between the artist and an engineer on the equations for hooping relative to embodied knowledge.

And so we return to Gabo, who interestingly designed the set, costume and sculptural props for the 1927 Ballet, la Chatte, by Balanchine for Les Ballets Russes.



So we can consider two polarities – Density and the visible space of the void. Yves Klein leaped into the void in 1960 eschewing all supportive aids to his body. It exists only as a photo. Before leaping he, like all of us, was supported by an external ground. An external surface adheres to the body, an accretion that while necessary, also limits the body’s autonomy. This necessary friction allows us to move. But an excess binds us to an encumbering materiality; A bit like the hoop. Without it the body might not gyrate to the same extent. So there is interdependence. Certainly the hula hoop is reliant on the body to move it but it gives the body a force against which to work and a frame in which to exist.

Let us return to Boccioni and his Synthesis of Human Dynamism, 1913.

 Boccioni 1913

The attempt to fuse multiple moments of motion in a frozen spatio-temporal continuum leaves the figure constricted by its prior movements. Futurists held the view that objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their surroundings. The statue’s movements are sedimented within it. The histories of our movements are embedded within us. Our body evolves to move in accord with the objects within its world. It evolves its posture based on its daily life; gestures develop according to the things and the people with which we engage.

So to dance in one’s body is perhaps to attempt to be without accretions and supports; to quarry what remains in the body after the experience of the external world. This is an approach used within contemporary dance forms – recreation of movements with someone or something without that accompaniment.


Consider in practice what it is to push downward and move upward; handstand press.

I am forever intrigued by how, in a life drawing practice, people often ignore the feet. It seems not just forgetfulness or lack of space but a lack of consciousness of the connection to the ground. An acrobat model performed a handstand one day and only two people drew his hands.

Yet our interrelation with the external is inarguable. The final words will be those of the sculptor Michael Warren who speaks of his sculptural matter in a way that can also be applied to the body.

‘Matter bespeaks limit. Limit implies the ideas of equilibrium. Downward movement is the condition of elevation and all movement upwards. The pivot or fulcrum is an awakened attention’. 4


1. Visual Arts News Sheet (VAN), Nov/Dec 2012 http://www.theperformancecollective.com/

2. The ‘small dance’ is a term used by Steve Paxton, pioneer of contact improvisation. He refers to the movement that is happening inside us that may not be externally visible. My conception of this was that it referred to the feet and the adjustment of balance through the soles. However upon research I found the following website which takes one through an inner scanning of the entire body; a sensing of the small dance. http://myriadicity.net/ci36/satellite-events/the-small-dance-the-stand.html

3. On that occasion Mick O’Shea, Danny McCarthy, Fergus Kelly, Anthony Kelly and David Stalling. Further information on The Quiet Club can be found at: http://www.dannymccarthy.ie/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=10&Itemid=36

4. Michael Warren, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin 2007. Catalogue, p. 6.


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