Meeting this sculpture for the first time has all the sensations of a strange encounter with an unknown being: puzzlement, excitement, privilege and a touch of apprehension. It makes you gape. On the whole this impressive creature seems benign; it is a being with some components similar to ours, but translated into another idiom. It gestures at us in a declamatory manner, with signals clear to it but baffling to us, like a blare of trumpets or a shout made visible. It moves forward into our space (or seems to) by means of a strange flow escaping from underneath the canopy of its discreet, conical shell, and although it may well be hollow inside it may well not be. Here imagination is given free rein, because the interior is completely hidden.
Phillip King, who definitely (from his own statements about the sculpture) did not have any such concept of "Genghis Khan," would probably be amazed by fantasies of this kind; nevertheless he has said that he doesn't mind at all if people see it as a "personage," and in his sculpture of the early '60s (a time of breakthrough for him as well as other sculptors) this British artist, though immediately concerned with the abstract possibilities of sculpture, was also intrigued by the way this -- of all the various kinds of visual art -- shares our space, stands or sits on our ground and confronts us as another person would.
To say his work is abstract in intention is not to maintain that it isn't directly concerned with phenomena. King has in fact always tended to emphasize the physical nature of his works, and has made some sculpture which tends to stop the imagination in its tracks rather than allow it to expand itself.
But this could never be said of his inventive and exploratory works at the time of "Genghis Khan," when a kind of lightheartedness took hold of some young British sculptors, and anything unlikely seemed likely. Caro, King and a number of others were not so much celebrating new materials and unusual smooth surfaces and unexpected colours -- though it is true that these fresh characteristics were used to declare a release from convention -- but were looking for new and different kinds of sculptural feeling and emotion. It was as if they were suddenly weary of the angst, the torturing self-expressiveness and the morose struggle with materials that, until then, concerned many sculptors. In Britain there was also, perhaps, a particular need to reconsider the national sculptural tendency to see the world in terms of age-worm natural formations, of landscape, and pebble, and bone, shaped and eroded by centuries.
A work like "Genghis Khan" was highly original in such a context. It is not only made of plastic and fiber glass, but it displays continuity of surface, a skin apparently moulded rather than carved. It doesn't intrigue the viewer by inviting his eye to travel through a hollowed form, or by encouraging him to walk around and around it to discover a greatly varied topography. In a way, it is two-dimensional: its contour seems to state plainly everything about it. It has a frontal orientation.
Presenting one impressive image, its mysteries are not for exploration -- they are obviously concealed or may well be nonexistent. Lack of disclosure counters disclosure.
This said, however, the sculpture is strangely "natural" in its form and imagery. It offers a definite contrast between forces of ease and struggle, though this is not melo- dramatically described or emphasised.
Restraint and liberation, enclosure and openness, flow and inertia, are set in tension with each other. An artificial and obviously man-made "object" it may be, without pretense -- but it doesn't flaunt this fact. Its title, according to King, doesn't have too much significance, and yet -- since the personality of the sculpture appeals strongly to the imagination -- it is difficult to ignore. On the other hand some people have evidently seen this imposing, if not entirely solemn, sculpture as being like clouds and mountains and river. The sculptor has denied such conscious reference, maintaining that the idea was based on a bursting event, using flowing forms, and he has described the "earthbound cone" as providing "minimum challenge in an effort towards expansion."