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Alison Wilding

• Dawn Adés

Dawn Adès FBA writes about Alison Wilding’s Aerial which is on display in the Wolfson Room. 

Alison Wilding was a distinguished Henry Moore Fellow at the British School at Rome in 2001 and, as part of the plan to showcase work from BSR artists at the British Academy, generously agreed to lend us Aerial.

Alison Wilding Aerial

Alison Wilding, Aerial, 2008, laser cut mild steel and ink on Japanese paper, 77 x 96 x 6cm

I chose to write about Aerial, not because I knew it best and felt I could explain it, but quite the reverse. I was captivated when I first saw it but also was baffled, and thought of a comment by another great 20th-century sculptor, Robert Gober: 'People are on the whole afraid to be bewildered in front of a work of art. But it’s a prerequisite that good art demands, that you wonder "what the hell is this?"' So it was to explore it – to try to get some purchase on the work, that I chose Aerial. I don’t have an answer – I don’t think there is any single explanation of this delicate and poised work.

Alison Wilding has a warning for anyone trying to explain her work. 'Sculpture is an odd-ball thing that can side-step language'. This is quite a challenge, and as an art historian I have often struggled with the problem of translating the visual and physical character and the appearance of works of art into words. Wilding herself focuses on the physicality, on the materials of a work. Much of what has been written about her is concerned with her use of different and contrasting materials in one structure. Aerial is a wall-mounted piece; pre-made pvc sheets are slotted together in asymmetrical layers in a monocoque construction, and very fine Japanese paper has been cut to the same shape. People have spoken of an endless dialogue of opposites in her work, with reference to the materials, but here it goes even further. There is a sense of collision, with the two arrow like shapes – strong shapes – meeting head on. Her titles do seem to allow for metaphorical associations, and are often poetic. Aerial suggests flight, suspension in the air, hovering, surveillance: There is dark against light, presence and disappearance, transparency and opacity.

Alison Wilding Aerial

I was in two minds about mentioning an object Alison showed me in her studio, which is pretty much exactly the shape of each of the two colliding forms here, but some may have recognised this already. It was a small metal model of a stealth bomber, so thin it is almost two-dimensional. These things have a ‘cloak of invisibility’ – almost undetectable by radar, they are like deathly clouds. The danger is that this connection might overwhelm the sculpture, appear to explain it and put a stop to the unresolvable fascination this object exerts.

The artist Tess Jaray puts it very clearly: 'in the works that are composed of two parts, there is great beauty in the tension between heaviness and lightness. The heaviness is always on the point of taking off, the lightness seems always to need to remain rooted ... There is something here that is not unlike the horror of recognising the beauty of war machines, that against one’s will one can still see, in the flight towards death and disaster, the "edge of beauty", so very close to the edge of terror.'

Listen to Dawn Adès discussing Aerial and other artworks in her pop-up talk at the British Academy Soirée in 2016.