“I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality.. to protect myself .”

Alberto Giacometti

I have to admit to a slight distrust of hyper realistic figurative sculpture. It is a crazy notion, the idea of trying to copy life, and if an artist attempts to imitate life it can only lead to disappointment. We are still a long way away from the world of Blade Runner Replicants. Instead something needs to change through the hand of the artist – through the head, the hand, and the heart in fact – in order for the work conversely to evoke life. We are very attuned to what it means to be human, and changes to scale, contour and colour can have interesting psychological and emotional qualities. This current body of work - which I tend to think of as one group, not least because the works are now all around me in the studio - continues my preoccupation with sleeping figures, but introduces a new element with a series of active, leaping figures.

The paradox that lies at the heart of trying to capture movement in still and silent clay and bronze has for many years dissuaded me from the attempt. The last time I made some equally animated figures was right at the start of my career – back in 1985 and 1986 when I was 20 or 21 years old. They were men, balancing on one foot, arms in the air, graffiti on their clothes. Looking back now I think they were a statement, a kind of belligerent shout of ‘Here I Am’ which was rooted in what I felt was the truth of the present moment. They were followed by other semi-active figures which I made occasionally towards the end of that decade (see far left) but by the early 1990’s my focus had shifted on to more restrained figures – standing, sitting or walking - where the idea of action is implied rather than depicted. Often on the edge of movement or lost in thought, these later more gravity bound sculptures are in their own way equally true to their present ‘moment’.

The exceptions are the ones that are sleeping. When someone is sleeping, their internal lives are closed to us - and yet we know when we dream that we can do anything, be anything. The past and the present combine in the same way that they combine, if we are lucky, in art. A consideration of sleep allows us imaginative freedom, and some of the strongest reactions to my work have occurred when people encounter the sleeping figures. Perhaps this is not so surprising, considering that sleep is something we all do, for almost a third of our lives. The empathy with the object can be instant. In the current climate when I think about the new sleeping figures, they seem vulnerable. Cradle (pages 10-11) was conceived before the present crisis, and inspired by Markéta Luskacöva’s powerful and moving ‘Sleeping Pilgrim’ photograph from 1968, of an anonymous man resting on the ground, while on a pilgrimage in Levoca, Slovakia. When I look at her image, the ground appears to hold him in its palm, and the picture embodies a universal truth. A photograph was also the starting point for Lying Woman (pages 26-27) which depicts a lighter kind of sleep, a young woman resting on the ground, her head on a frisbee. I saw the original image by Vinca Petersen (Ali and Frisbee 1995) in 2002 and it has stayed on my mind ever since. So why the simultaneous return to active figures? For me there is a direct connection between sleep, dreams and memory. This year I have felt time passing more acutely than usual – I’m 55, my eldest child is 19, my father 91 – and the balancing act of life plays out most vividly in my dreams. From trying to rebuild my father (a particularly bad dream) to being a father myself, and remembering what it was like to be young. In dreams you can find yourself weightless or falling, young again with a visceral sense of what it’s like to leap forwards, to dance, or prematurely old, legs moving too slowly and nothing feeling right. Then the dawn comes again and the quotidian reality of life reasserts itself. For me these new works are an attempt to reflect and explore this duality.

Objectively however, I wonder how important it is to know why or when an artwork was made? Art is an expression of the imagination after all, and art exists without us - its power to move us is to some extent separate from the tyranny of time that dominates our lives. We all constantly experience the present moment becoming the past, and you could argue that obsessing about the ‘new’ is a form of distraction or displacement activity. Happily, the young couple gazing at each other (Standing Figure [Man] + Standing Figure [Woman], pages 32-39) could just as easily evoke 1980 as 2020, (apart from the phone in his pocket perhaps, or the style of her jacket). Standing 7ft tall, they are certainly ‘other’ to us, while at the same time they embody something very familiar. ‘Familiar’ is an interesting word – its origin coming from the family. I certainly feel related to my sculptures, and this is perhaps a result of my creating them and so having a kind of kinship with them. My connection to them feels important (which is why I am drawn to depict certain people more than others) but once the work is complete and has left the studio, the significance of my relationship to it fades. When I began the new Lying Man in March (pages 16-18) the piece was about time passing and dreams, but now he is out on his own in the world, in late 2020, the work feels like it has a more serious connection to health and to breathing – although ultimately its emotional resonance resides in the mind of the viewer. The great thing about art is that it will change again: the object remains while meanings shift through different periods in our lives, so that we might look back at something when we are older and feel entirely different about it. The reality of the work is affected by what we bring to it ourselves.

Sean Henry

“The last thing we learn about ourselves is our effect”

William Boyd