Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) 1967 is a sculpture made by the artist Roelof Louw. It is comprised of fresh, thick-skinned oranges, stacked into the shape of a pyramid within a square wooden batten frame that delimits a grey plastic groundsheet on which the oranges sit. The work is initially made up of about 5,800 oranges but as viewers are invited, if they so choose, to take one orange from the stack, the structure gradually dwindles and changes form. Each time the piece is shown, fresh oranges are used. Although there is one artist’s exhibition copy, this cannot be sold to or acquired by any other collection, so Tate’s work is in effect unique. The work was first exhibited for two weeks in the exhibition The Orange Pyramid Show at the Arts Lab in London in October 1967, following an open submission for exhibition proposals from artists. It was documented in Studio International magazine in January 1969 where, alongside photographs showing the successive dismantling of the pyramid as people helped themselves to the oranges over time, Louw described the work and his intentions in making it:
The pyramid (5′-6″ sq x 5′-0″ high) was built from about 5,800 oranges. Everyone who entered the gallery was invited to help himself to the oranges. The sculpture lasted for two weeks.
One aspect of the sculpture was the use of material ‘on its own terms’ to create an ‘affective’ situation. Another was that it should relate to a specific place and the people that go there.
(Quoted in ‘Sculptors at Stockwell Depot’, Studio International, vol.177, no.907, January 1969, p.35.)
The pyramidal form adopted by Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) is the manner in which oranges might usually be stacked in a greengrocer’s display. At five foot six inches square, the dimensions of the pyramid’s square base evoke human proportions. The final structure is both rationally arrived at and ordered, and yet evokes a sense of collapse or dynamic change. Left untouched, the material of the sculpture – the oranges – would, over time, putrefy and disintegrate even without the intervention of visitors helping themselves to the fruit. However, the stack of oranges is also an open invitation that encourages another form of organic disruption, as viewers remove one orange at a time. This participation was signalled by the position of the work at the entrance of the Arts Lab when it was exhibited there in 1967. In 2000 Louw described how, ‘Each person who enters the gallery will be invited to take an orange. (At the Arts Lab, people helped themselves more generously.) By taking an orange, each person changes the molecular form of the stack of oranges, and participates in “consuming” its presence. (The full implications of this action are left to the imagination.)’ (Roelof Louw, unpublished artist’s ‘General Description’ of Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 2000.) The Arts Lab was one of the centres for countercultural activity in London where boundaries between art, theatre, literature, music, science and activism of all kinds were fruitfully abandoned. Within this hippy milieu Louw’s work provided an evocative link between the social aspirations and ethos that the Arts Lab embodied and the different types of sculptural experimentation carried out by artists such as Barry Flanagan, John Latham, Mark Boyle and Gustav Metzger.
Roelof Louw had been a student in the sculpture department at St Martin’s School of Art, London between 1961 and 1965, but had increasingly found the teaching and influence of Anthony Caro and the New Generation sculptors, such as Michael Bolus, Philip King and Isaac Witkin, both restrictive and incompatible with his own sculptural interests. He returned to teach in different capacities at St Martin’s between 1967 and 1971 at a time when Caro’s influence, especially through the vocational sculpture course, was being challenged by a new group of artists who placed the condition of the art object under question. Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) signals the direction in which Louw’s own work was moving, away from the recent orthodoxies of modernist sculpture – which emphasised expressive form, different perspectival views and representational associations also recognisable in New Generation sculpture – towards a concern with materials valued for their own properties, as well as the relation of sculpture to context and so to the viewer. This led Louw not only to rethink how sculpture could operate in space and time, but also ‘to ask questions about the direct “interactive” relationship between sculptural works and the environments they are placed within. Is it possible to make a sculptural work that “operates” as an integral part of the “social life” a place supports.’ (Roelof Louw, untitled statement, in Whitechapel Art Gallery 2000, p.125.) Such ideas found form in Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) and were further crystallised through the next year at the Stockwell Depot, which provided studios for Louw and other sculptors such as Roland Brenner, David Evison, Roger Fagin, John Fowler, Gerard Hemsworth and Peter Hide.
After its first exhibition at the Arts Lab in October 1967, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) was not exhibited again until the survey exhibition Live In Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965–1975 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 2000. Following this it has subsequently been shown at Tate Britain, London in 2007 in a display that investigated the St Martin’s Sculpture Department 1964–71; in the survey exhibition United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds in 2011–12; and in David Bowie Is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 2013.
Roelof Louw, Exhibition of Sculpture: Location, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1969.
The British Avant Garde, exhibition catalogue, New York Cultural Center, New York 1971.
Live in your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965–75, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2000, pp.124–5.
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