A conversation with Julian Wild, sculptor behind the Janus exhibition, explores the art of revision
It is not immediately obvious why Julian Wild’s sculpture exhibition at Oxford Saïd is called Janus. Even if you know about the two-faced god of Roman myth, it is hard to see what he has to do with the large-scale mostly angular metal sculptures punctuating the natural (albeit cultivated) forms in the business school’s grounds.
That is not to say that the sculptures are not intriguing and exciting in their own right, contrasting architectural and indeed industrial forms with the organic and disorderly, making heavy metal appear weightless and stainless steel squidgy. If you apply what the Ashmolean Museum’s Jim Harris says about looking at objects, individual pieces in the exhibition are both absorbing and thought-provoking.
But it was only when the artist spoke at the School on 22 January 2019, in conversation with the art historian and broadcaster Kate Bryan, that the significance of the title became apparent. The exhibition is a form of retrospective, but one that looks forwards as well as backwards. While Wild could have taken the route that Bryan described as ‘Look how great I am; what an amazing career I’ve had’, or indeed reeled in horror, as Picasso did, at the thought of being ‘historicised’, instead he chose to ‘have a conversation with [himself] and the work that [he] has made.’
This ‘conversation’ involved Wild revisiting and often changing sculptures that he had made earlier in his career. ‘It wasn’t enough having that work existing as it did. I wanted to add to it,’ he said. Some needed repairing anyway, but he also took the opportunity to repaint some, and add fungus-like growths in stainless steel to a 2012 piece called ‘Salvia’ – now called ‘Salvia Corrupted’.
‘For artists it’s quite normal to want to change their work, or even to go back and destroy early work,’ said Bryan, although she acknowledged that this was a phenomenon that the ‘art-going public’ were perhaps unfamiliar with. Indeed, artists in the audience seemed quite accepting of the idea, though for non-artists it raised a number of questions.
Even Bryan’s throwaway remark about its being an ‘amazing idea to mould your career to the way you want it’, remaking or even disowning early works, might appear a touch problematic to the LinkedIn generation, educated in the evils of CV embellishment. Picasso’s deliberate refusal to display his works in chronological order would hardly have endeared him to the average recruiter.
So artists play by different rules. But what impact does revisiting works have on concepts such as ownership and value, rules which underpin the rest of the world, and particularly business?
‘All the pieces that I reworked are pieces that I own,’ Wild stressed. ‘I think I’m enhancing them, so I think the value is increasing really’, though he admitted that the increasing ‘value’ may only be something that he feels rather than something that has a price equivalent.