Sculpture by the Sea is thirteen years old and – judging by its current incarnation – still in the throes of puberty. Aside from long-running institutions such as the Archibald, or the Mosman Art Prize, most annual competitions and group exhibitions never last for a decade. The most dramatic example must be the one-and-only Melbourne Biennale of 1999, unfortunately titled “Signs of Life”, but there have been plenty of other shows that have fizzled after two or three outings.
Having enjoyed its first overseas exposure this year, David Handley’s Sculpture by the Sea concept is stronger than ever. 600,000 people are reputed to have visited a strip of windswept beach in Denmark during three weeks in June – a result that exceeded all expectations. The original Bondi to Tamarama route also manages to attract crowds in the hundreds of thousands at a time when most art museums are struggling to keep up the numbers.
One might think this is the perfect time for capitalising on the international success by holding a fantastic Australian lap of triumph. And yet, although I went along fortified by good will and good intentions, I found this year’s show to be decidedly lacklustre.
The main problems have nothing to do with the small controversies that have made the news pages – notably the nonsensical saga of Paul Trefry’s little silicon boy, with or without undies. Far more significant is Australia’s refusal of a visa to the Iranian artist, Mona Aghababaee, whose wire mesh work is ironically titled: Where is the freedom? If the Australian government really cares about human rights and freedoms, this petty act sends out all the wrong messages.
It would be nice to report that the politics may be bad but the art is good. Alas, this would be a perversion of the truth because too many works are poorly made, poorly sited, derivative and mediocre. This show depends vitally on the interaction between art and nature, and when the partnership works well, as in last year’s winning entry by Mark McClelland, it enhances the viewer’s experience of both entities. On previous occasions the quality of the installation, expertly managed by Axel Arnott, has been one of the pleasures of Sculpture by the Sea, but this time there is a superabundance of pieces that seem lost against the backdrop of sea, rocks and sky.
It is not easy to make a memorable installation out of second-rate work, and this is most probably the heart of the problem. The key areas in Sculpture by the Sea are Mark’s Park and Tamarama Beach, where the greatest concentration of pieces may be found, but this year there is no single sculpture that serves to anchor these sites and provide a focal point. In addition, consider the large rock not far from Bondi that usually plays host to some of the most striking works. Its sole occupant in 2009 is a small, cartoon-like, ceramic figure by Philippe Moreau. The little man gazes wistfully out to sea, as if trying to ignore the derisive comments of spectators.
One need not be rude about this work in particular. It is one of a host of under-scaled pieces that come across as hardly more than ornaments. Greg Johns manages to hold a key space with his star-shaped Pattern III, but few other sculptors show any sense of placement.
In Mark’s Park, the centerpiece is a large, ugly rectangular box covered in blue tarpaulin, by an enigmatic artist – or group of artists – called + air. The viewer enters by a small doorway and wanders around in the dark for a minute of two before exiting. The only light inside comes from pinpricks in the wall that give a vague impression of the cosmos. The entire installation is a very poor impersonation of American artist, James Turrell, who is internationally renowned for his manipulations of darkness and light. It is a woeful thing to plonk in the middle of the park.
Scarcely less inert is Michael Lipman’s Recession – a procession of large plastic dominoes arranged in a dead straight line. Not far away, Flow, a stainless steel wiggly worm by Steve Coburn, is chiefly notable because it is so poorly fabricated. It would never pass the NRMA’s standard for panel beating.
The two most aesthetically refined works in the park – Michael Le Grand’s Sogana and Jan King’s Abyssinia – are placed unimaginatively within rows of sculptures. Neither piece is large enough to withstand this sort of brutal exposure: they need a more intimate, sheltered location.
As for May Barrie’s Time and tide granite monolith II, which won the inaugural Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Prize of $60,000, it would be hard to begrudge anything to this 91-year-old artist who has toiled so long with little recognition. Having said that, it was surprising to find the stone only seems to have been worked on one side, meaning that the piece is not well suited to being seen in the round. I may be completely wrong, but it looks unfinished.
The same might be said about Alex Seaton’s typically clever marble carving of a lawnmower under a cloth. At the very bottom, where the marble sheet meets the ground, the finish is uncharacteristically rough. It is as if the artist ran out of time. Nevertheless it does little to detract from the impact of the piece.
Two other strong works were Bjorn Godwin’s Sunken cathedral – an ensemble of fibre-glass stumps that pay homage to the ravaged fig trees in Hyde Park; and Stephen King’s The eight, a totemic carving of eight Amazonian rowers holding the frame of a boat above their heads. Both these pieces have a commanding presence and engage us on more than one level. Godwin’s tree stumps contain manhole covers made to resemble rusted iron. One can imagine them as entrances to subterranean shelters, safe from the dangerous environment that has killed off the trees. The title, incidentally, comes from a piano piece by Debussy, although I won’t attempt any ingenious interpretations.
Steve King’s wooden figures combine the popular culture of sport with echoes of the caryatids that held up the roofs of ancient temples. He demonstrates, convincingly, that there is still something new to be discovered in the venerable art of wood carving. In this work King shows himself to be a poet with a chain saw.
Installed in a more permanent location the large, ungainly base of The eight would be discreetly buried, but this sort of detail seems to have been ignored by everyone this year. Too many cumbersome bases detract from works that aspire to a lyrical effect. Zero Higashida’s Sea nymph, for instance, is but a small distraction on an enormous black plinth.
The overseas artists this year are solid if not spectacular, perhaps the best of them being Koichi Ishino’s Wind stone, which combines stainless steel and granite with this artist’s usual seamless expertise. Jie Qian’s oversized shopping bag being scaled by tiny, frantic consumers, displays the twin virtues of wit and colour.
As this year’s exhibition coincided with the Melbourne Cup, it may be appropriate that two horses feature prominently: Belinda Villani’s Tribute to a workhorse, made entirely out of woven rattan; and Subterfuge, a play on the Trojan horse, by Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend. Unlike so many other works this horse is detail-perfect, with rusted bolts and wires all giving the impression of the hollow body as a massive engine of war abandoned on a rocky foreshore. A flat, wheeled trolley provides an appropriate base, and the figure has a heroic aspect, silhouetted against the ocean.
If Sculpture by the Sea, aged thirteen, is still struggling to achieve maturity, the annual Miniature Show at Defiance Gallery in Enmore – now in its fourteenth year – is apparently in its prime. After wandering all over Bondi on a cold, windy day there is a definite appeal in being able view to see more than 120 sculptures by 80 artists in a single room.
The Miniature Show has become Defiance’s biggest event of the year, no irony intended. It generates a regular feeding frenzy among collectors striving to acquire the best pieces from this collection in which everything is limited to 6 X 6 X 6 inches. Many of the artists from Sculpture by the Sea are represented, along with well-known sculptors such as Ron Robertson-Swann and Paul Hopmeier, who have each contributed stand-out works. Among the younger sculptors, Robert Bell and Dave Teer are perhaps the best performers, but the diversity of the exhibition makes it difficult to indulge in fine discriminations. That’s a matter for the individual viewer, who will find the Miniature Show to be the ultimate laboratory for personal taste.
Scultpure by the Sea, Bondi, October 29-Novemebr 14, 2009
Miniature Show, Defiance Gallery, November 4-December 5, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 14, 2009