Alison Wilding OBE



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Not on display
Alison Wilding OBE born 1948
Alabaster and silicone rubber
Object: 1305 x 1520 x 1580 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society and the Henry Moore Foundation, courtesy of an anonymous donor 2003


Harbour is one of a group of sculptures resulting from an ongoing project based on the Passion of Christ. In 1988 Wilding signed a contract with a patron, undertaking to make a sculpture from each of sixteen events of the Passion. The sculptures were planned to be ‘on at least human scale’, their purpose to embody and ‘emotively convey’ each episode of Christ’s Passion to ‘any audience’ (Wilding quoted in Contract, p.11). The project was described in a contract between the artist and her benefactor and anticipated to last ten years. In 2000, the eight sculptures completed to date, individually titled and, in several cases, already exhibited, were brought together for an exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation Studio, Dean Clough, Halifax, titled Contract, reflecting the initial agreement for the project.

Harbour is based on the Deposition, the taking down or descent of Christ from the Cross after the crucifixion. Wilding has written:

The Deposition suggests compassion, protection and dignity after the event. In 1994 I had an opportunity to obtain two dressed blocks of alabaster ... Together with Adam Kershaw [Wilding’s assistant] I began the slow process of cutting them into eight smaller blocks, which were assembled into an approximate cube whose interior Adam excavated into a vortex. The sides of the vortex were partially stepped – paradoxically making it into a means of support ... A black cast silicone rubber ‘wave’ flows from the top face of ‘Harbour’ into its internal space or vortex culminating in the form of a bowl. Sometime later I observed from a vantage point overlooking the mouth of the river Wear in Sunderland, how a harbour protects and acts as a shield or embrace, enclosing a place of safety.

(Quoted in Contract, pp.14-15.)

Traditional paintings of the Deposition scene show the body of Christ being supported by a group of figures in a manner which, for Wilding, is reminiscent of a mother tenderly cradling a dead child or a rescuer carrying a body from a disaster zone. Alabaster is a precious material used since ancient times for decorative purposes, particularly for ornamental vessels. It is often veined and translucent. In a Biblical story, a woman emptied the contents of an alabaster vessel of precious ointment over Christ, incurring the disciples’ wrath because of the waste. Christ forgave her; however, as he said that she had prepared his body for burial.

By contrast, silicone rubber is a modern material developed for use in industry and often used as a sealant. Its appearance, in relation to alabaster, is of an opaque, dead substance. The juxtaposition of contrasting materials, forms, textures and colours is characteristic of Wilding’s work, which has explored binary relationships since the early 1980s. She thinks of her sculptures as embodying internal dialogues. These are enacted between such formal elements as straight line and organic contours, carved surfaces and moulded forms, materials which are melted and poured and those which are hammered and welded. In Harbour, the sections of hard, pink alabaster support the softly flowing black rubber like a landscape containing a liquid. A sharp v-shaped chasm cut into the blocks on one side of the work heightens its dramatic presence.

Tate Collection includes another sculpture in the series, Assembly 1991 (see Tate T11759), which is based on the Last Supper.

Further reading:
Alison Wilding: Contract, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Foundation Studio, Dean Clough, Halifax 2000, pp.12, 14-15 and 46-57, reproduced pp.52-5 in colour
Alison Wilding: Immersion/Exposure, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust Studio, Dean Clough, Halifax 1991
Alison Wilding: Sculptures 1989-1996, exhibition catalogue, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle de Calais, 1996, p.24, reproduced p.25 in colour

Elizabeth Manchester
July 2004

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Technique and condition

This entry is partly based on an interview with Alison Wilding held on 4th November 2003.

The sculpture comprises eight blocks of Staffordshire alabaster (from the Fauld mine) with both hewn and sawn sides. The alabaster was mined in two blocks which, according to the artist were the last blocks before the mine stopped production. They were then cut into eight blocks at the artist’s studio using a two-handled saw which gave a smooth cut surface. Other surfaces were left with the rounded drill holes and sheared faces of the mined rock.

The blocks are tightly stacked in two tiers to form a square stack of blocks with a deep smooth V cleft in one side and a conical shaped central void. This internal space has smooth curved and stepped sides that transverse both layers of alabaster blocks. The internal void was cut out using grinders ‘from really huge ones going down to much smaller ones’ (artist interview, 4th November 2003) by Wilding’s assistant Adam Kershaw. Wilding noted that she specifically wanted someone to work on it who wasn’t a carver. The final finish inside the void was done with a palm sander.

The surfaces of the alabaster are unpolished and no wax was applied. They should not appear shiny. Interviewed in 1996 the artist said ‘there is this amazing temptation because of the way it conducts light to polish it so it becomes very translucent....I really resisted with it for a long time I decided I really liked this dusty mauvy colour....It’s a very sensuous material’ (from an interview1996 by Cv/Visual arts Research)

Sitting over the top of part of the assembled blocks is a shiny black silicon rubber cast, which partly flows into the central void. This was cast in a two part fibreglass mould. The lower tier of blocks and the two on the upper tier whose upper surfaces are covered by the rubber have two drilled holes with threaded inserts to take eye bolts for lifting and handling. These are concealed when the sculpture is fully assembled.

The sculpture is complex to install. The alabaster blocks are very fragile but also very heavy and have to be moved using lifting equipment. As the blocks fit together so precisely and there is very little margin of error, the work must be on an absolutely level floor surface. This can be achieved by casting a level concrete base. The lower tier of blocks is assembled on wedges or self-levelling feet so they themselves provide a level surface for the upper tier.

Melanie Rolfe
August 2005

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