Daetz Exhibition archive

Monday 13 October 2008

Russell Parry looks at how wood sculptors from across the globe depict the big questions


If art reflects life then it is inevitable that artists everywhere turn to the big issues that concern people wherever they happen to work, play, live and ultimately, die. It is significant in this respect that art in most societies seems to have originated within the context of religion, and in some societies today it still occupies this position. Where art has moved into the secular sphere and cast off its formal ties with religion, it often continues to grapple with the same kinds of issues that concern religious art, making any real distinction between the two somewhat artificial.

It is not surprising that art in general, and sculpture in particular, is so effective in communicating the profoundest statements about what it is like to be alive, to be human. Avoiding the barrier of language, each piece in the Daetz collection acts as an ambassador for its maker's culture. The sculptures deal with feelings that are common to all of us, but these are expressed through the traditions and beliefs of the artist.


There are many works in the Daetz collection that speak to us in this way, pieces that, not surprisingly, usually include the human form or face. A few, like Eberhard Rieber's Prisoner of one's own feelings, seem to make a personal statement, but most take the form of a comment on society.

I was intrigued by a smallish Baule figurine from Africa, made from ebony. Its purpose turned out to be familiar, the way it provided a solution, novel. Described as a 'wife's spiritual partner', such figures represent the counterpart each Baule believes they have in the spirit world. This woman's counterpart - which may be male or female - would be consulted about important matters, particularly before raising the subject with her neighbours, relations or spouse. Ever wished you had spoken to your spiritual partner and had things in proportion before opening your mouth?


Other African sculptures, too large and detailed to be captured in a photograph, show figures acting out scenes. One shows a strong, stable tower of village members working together. A contrasting piece demonstrates the results of a profit-oriented society. In this free-for-all, figures tread on each other and elbow one another in their quest for individual success while the column they form threatens to collapse.

Another African group is the small Makonde depiction of Democracy. The artist does not apparently think much of politicians. The figures, presumably a parliament, are all talking, but not listening to each other, nor do they look very secure, a long way from the ground, on spindly legs and a tiny base.


Looking to the Orient, some of the Chinese work resembles the African 'social sculptures' in concept. Mostly, though, the approach is more personal, more introspective. If from the whole collection, one particular carver stood out, for me it was I Ketut Muja from Bali. His figures are beautiful objects, yet uncomfortably honest about human motivations, what inspires us and what drives us to become less than human. He observes the whole gamut of emotions from uncontrollable joy to destructive jealousy.

In one piece (Yin and yang - contemplation after death) the figure, who has already died, is weighing up its own former life. Pictured is part of Muja's monumental work Reincarnation, some three metres long and carved from a single tree root. It is a representation, from the Hindu perspective, of the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. The piece contains so much detail that several hours' study and a dozen photos would hardly scratch the surface of what can be read into its many interconnected scenes.


I found the American carvings altogether more enigmatic. They usually employ conventional symbols relating to traditions and myths. The Daetz exhibits are a little different (even unique) in that they were commissioned by Peter and Marlene Daetz who asked the artists to depict certain Native American stories they had read. Without background it can be hard to interpret the intended meaning of a piece, but it is easy to appreciate its formal beauty and glean its mood.

For me, Dogfish mother mask by Don Yeomans was one of the most outstanding pieces in the collection and I returned to experience its gentle melancholy three times during my visit. I guess this proves that one does not necessarily need to understand an artist's intention to gain something from their work.

Turning to the Europe gallery, there are sculptures here, both religious and secular, that seem to comment on human nature and the timeless questions that confront us. I sometimes find it hard to see art in the Christian tradition in an objective way, particularly its most common themes which have so dominated Western art. The ever-degrading repetition of such subjects as a kind of 'ecclesiastical wallpaper' can dull both their original significance and our interest in the genre.

Paul Moroder's huge Resurrection figure in the foyer stood no such risk, so original was the handling of the subject. I found Michael Mayer's Sebastien, though very traditional, immediately arresting. Its sheer technical virtuosity highlights why so many 'plaster saints' in churches fail to impress.

Secular pieces on display deal with a wide range of themes; growing up, relationships and emotional isolation among them. I found some, such as Aron Demetz's Hello Uncle and Tobias Haseidl's Temptation, at least as disturbing as some of the religious works.

A large, prone figure by Bruno Wolpoth immediately grabbed my attention. It conveyed a sense of tender longing that made its title, Yearning, quite superfluous. This, and many other sculptures, reminded me how good art can speak more clearly than words.

I may never meet any of the artists whose work appears here, and if I were to do so I doubt we could say anything very deep or meaningful across the divide of language. Nevertheless, in looking at their work I realise clearly that we share something, perhaps here a value, there an insecurity, a joke, even a hope. When Peter Daetz decided to help foster international understanding through the medium of woodcarving it was surely an inspired choice.

Woodworkers Institute

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russell parry , exhibition , Daetz Collection

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"When Peter Daetz decided to help foster international understanding through the medium of woodcarving it was surely an inspired choice"

At first glance I took this for a "vanitas", a genre of moralistic art intended to remind the viewer of the transience of worldly things. Closer inspection of this life-size piece by Tobias Haseidl, and its title, Temptation, suggest that death is seducing the maiden to act rashly, or maybe death itself is the lure. (Germany, 2000-01, lime)