Saturday, 20 November 2010



Mysterious as shadows ten carved, larger-than-life wooden figures crowd together behind a young man carrying an older man on his back. They stand on a low wooden platform. 
For centuries the church used art to transmit a tightly controlled message. Not any longer. Pacheco’s title refers to the story of Aeneas rescuing his father from the ruin of Troy and the work is multi-layered and ambiguous. Perhaps it’s a story of asylum seekers? Or maybe it’s speaking to society’s contemporary terror of ageing, depicting how we are all forced to carry around the seeds of our own decay?

Pacheco grew up in Brazilian streets where polychrome statues were paraded at religious festivals: She knows she creates visceral art, not dependent on any one intellectual conceit. She invites an active response from each viewer. Indeed she seems to implicate us. Why not walk around this untidy group, she seems to say. This is more here than theatrical artifice or melodrama.

You could say the central figure is Everyman. Or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim. Eyes down, alert, concentrating on the next step, he suggests fortitude, resilience, courage, Could he be an Amnesty poster? The older man who gets a piggy-back, like a child, is vulnerable, dependent, poignant. The two men are trapped in an unknown predicament. Their vulnerable bodies hint at some tragedy and remind the viewer afresh how strange it is that one human being can hurt another. The sculpture’s earthiness fits the Christian tradition which makes the heavenly manifest in the here and now.

When I move on to walk round the group and gaze up at individual figures, I think  Tolstoy and Dickens. But there’s no single narrative here: each character is locked in their own history. Their stories may be tender, powerful, frightening or compassionate – the absence of gestures means there are few clues.  But you can feel the controlled violence. With parted lips as if to cry aloud, one man stares at father and son. Is he sounding the alarm? Or shouting abuse? A woman turns her head away, but she is rooted to the spot. The onyx eyes of another shine brightly. Could it be tears?
In earlier sculptures Pacheco used nails as hair, referring to a Congo belief that nails are hiding places for people’s souls. Some figures here have porcelain teeth made by dental technicians. The skin tone is achieved by blending an emulsion on the surface, like make up, working fast with cotton wool buds. The art critic James Hall talks of sculpture now being closer to play, bringing in real objects and non-art processes. They connect with the viewer’s real world, closing the gap between art and artifice. 

A decade ago the crowds thronged Trafalgar Square when Pacheco showed her amazing Dark Night of the Soul at the National Gallery. Now the tens of thousands of travellers from all parts of the world who daily pour in and out of Waterloo station opposite St John’s Church, have a chance of encountering a work which is equally powerful and exhilerating. George Szirtes, writing in Modern Painters, says Pacheco ‘offers no contract, no solution to a deeply wary and disbelieving world’. But, he continues, she helps us to live in a world ‘where there are no black and white moral issues heroes’.A church is probably not a bad place to reflect on this.

Post Script:
A few years ago at a Tate seminar I asked why Pacheco’s sculpture was not represented. After a couple of not-very-interesting replies Marina Warner came to my rescue, saying to the panel effectively, ‘Come off it, this is a serious question. Plenty of foreign born artists have made it over here. Carrington’s sculpture is not represented at the Tate, nor Leonora Tanning who was a major surrealist. The trouble is that irony is not present in their works. And nowadays knowingness is endemic. Pacheco does not fit the current fashion’.

Thanks, St John’s, for bringing her back to London. 

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