Work exhibited: Obelisk with Flame.
With the installation in the Fellows’ Garden of Obelisk with Flame (1990), visitors to Jesus College are in a position to compare two signature works from widely different phases of Phillip King’s career. The earlier sculpture Brake (1966), on long term loan in Library Court, is a boldly minimalist construction that reflects a keen interest in ‘primary structures’.
With an extreme economy of means, King lays bare the most basic of artistic choices involved in joining and separating materials, reducing the creative process to a restricted number of fundamental decisions, which he performs with absolute finality. The choice of angles and intervals is critical; the act of judgment inescapable.
Obelisk with Flame belongs in a group of recent works conceived in a very different idiom: much more flamboyant, filled with deliberate cultural resonance, and often signalling profound art historical roots. It bears a family resemblance to Sun and Moon and Sun’s Roots II, currently at the Cass Sculpture Park, Goodwood.
All three works seem to echo the Russian avant garde sculpture of the immediately post revolutionary period, with its meshing of abstract formal discipline and dramatic public readability. The allusions to elemental forces and agencies, and to a nearly universal system of iconography, are subject to a primary emphasis on the dynamic formal relations of a streamlined modernism. As a result, King’s sculpture captures something of the utopian buoyancy of a project confident enough to proclaim the invention of a new cosmology which is both rational and engineered by humanity.
But the public, declamatory mode is self consciously anachronistic, and its recall of an anticipatory moment is troubled by hindsight. The cultural historical dimension of King’s recent output enforces an awareness of its contradictory play with the forces of nature and history.
The obelisk, literally monolithic, has its roots in the origins of monumental literacy; often inscribed, it is linked to the history of artistic and architectural uses of space for the articulation of power; it links the statutory and the statuesque; it gives weight to the words inscribed on it, and vice versa. Visually and semantically, it is inflexible and unalterable.
Nothing could be more irreconcilable to the metaphysics of fire that is the other main term in the argument, in the iconographical assemblage, and in the title of the work. The flame is definitively unstable, formless, and weightless; it aspires upwards while the obelisk drags downwards. In the symbolism of the torch, it proposes the relaying of idealism as opposed to the entrenchment of self interest.
It is revealing that the original use of the Egyptian obelisk to express the worship of Ra, the sun god, was gradually revised to express instead the worship of Osiris, god of the earth. King evokes the symbolic history of his chosen forms only to announce their independence from the circulation of meanings.