Denmark is a glorious place on a sunny day, and the week leading up to the Sculpture by the Sea launch in Aarhus was especially pleasant. Alas, by the day of the media preview, Thor, the ancient God of thunder, finally lost patience with the protracted installation process. While a large part of the Australian art crowd was clinking champagne glasses at the Venice Biennale, I was wandering along a muddy strip of sand on the Danish coast, fending off the wind, rain and hail with the help of an orange IKEA umbrella.
For all the glamour of Venice, not to mention the sums of taxpayers’ money expended, it was hard to believe this event was in any way more significant than the Danish show. In Venice, which I’ll write about next week, Shaun Gladwell’s work occupied the national pavilion, while four other artists were featured in a satellite show. In Denmark, twenty-seven sculptors exhibited, in what must be one of the largest, most diverse displays of Australian art ever to be seen on foreign shores. They were joined by nineteen Danes plus artists from Britain, Germany, Greenland, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, and the United States.
In now-familiar fashion, a total of sixty works were distributed across the foreshores – not from Bondi to Tamarama, but from Tangkrogen to Ballehage. Instead of travelling between two famous expanses of sand, the show took us from a grassy park to a small strip of beach by the edge of a forest. On the journey viewers traversed a long, narrow ribbon of lawn that lies between the water and a road, arriving in a green maze of trees and bushes. One crossed rushing streams, and the grounds of Varna, a magnificent old summer house. From the forest one descended to the beach, where the final works nestled close to the shore.
It is impossible to convey the sensation of seeing these works in such an environment. The great popular appeal of Sculpture by the Sea lies precisely in the fact that it is a composite experience of art and nature, where the sites play a crucial role in the way we view the works. Even the difference between seeing works displayed in bright sunshine or soaking rain tends to emphasise the distance between this show and the museum environment, where light and climactic conditions are tightly controlled to ensure the experience of a work is uniform for all viewers.
Seen through the lens of Nordic light and weather, sculptures that had previously been shown in Sydney took on an entirely new dimension. Richie Kuhaupt’s compressed figures, which had been arranged on rocks at Bondi, were now half concealed in the forest. They no longer felt like sentinels, but had become a race of secretive trolls spying on passers-by. Bjorn Godwin’s Pavilion/Dunny was a bizarre inclusion on the grounds of Varna – the nasal sounds of an Australian race caller issuing from between its fibreglass boards. By contrast, Sasha Reid’s broken-toothed wooden sculpture, I,Walrus seemed rather more at home in northern climes.
A work that achieved a remarkable balance between the natural and manmade was Angus Adameitis’s In Translation – an abstract metal sculpture whose steely components echoed the forms of plants. Placed in the midst of the forest, those associations were even more striking. At the same time the work resembled an altarpiece – an open air shrine to the old pagan deities.
One of the most striking cultural dislocations was found in Ngardarb Francine Riches, whose carved and painted ancestor figures no longer stood watching the white man land on Australian shores. In Aarhus they seemed like a tribe that had been exiled to some foreign land, from where they gazed back sadly across the water, dreaming of home.
Visitors to Bondi would have recognized works by artists such as Orest Keywan, Bruce Radke, Hugh Ramage, John Ramsay, Michael Le Grand, Amanda Stuart, Greg Johns, Emma Anna, Marcus Tatton, Campbell and Ron Robertson-Swann. Other familiar artists were Japanese sculptors such as Keizo Ushio, Haruyuki Uchida, and Kozo Nishino. The same pieces, or variations on a theme, had been shown in Sydney, and sometimes at Cottlesloe in Perth. This gave the Sculpture by the Sea regulars a slightly unfair advantage over the local artists.
Most of the participants seemed to agree that the outstanding work in the show was Double Tent by Sir Anthony Caro, almost certainly the world’s premier living sculptor. The scale, balance and complexity of this work set it in a different class to its peers, even to the work of Caro’s British contemporary, Phillip King, whose piece had already been shown in Sydney. To enlist Caro and King was counted a major coup by the organizers.
Some of the Danes seemed to struggle with the idea of making works that interacted with the environment, either conceptually or formally. The most successful by far was Lene Desmentik, whose Rollercoast consisted of a jetty twisted into the shape of a rollercoaster ride. The work could be viewed from the beach, or from a vantage point in the forest, taking on a strange grandeur when set against the expanse of sea and sky.
Helle Frosig obtained a completely different effect with Green Forest Object, a kind of alien coffee table painted an unearthly shade of green, which one encountered unexpectedly amid the trees. Jette Gejl created a witty sound sculpture, in which the calls of Australian birds echoed loudly along the forest path.
A notable inclusion was a sculpture by HKH Prins Henrik, as he appears in the catalogue. The prince’s Torso was a Venus of Willendorf for the machine age, slightly Cubist in inspiration, which held its own amid the works by professional artists. I couldn’t help thinking of Prince Charles’s competent but rather old-fashioned watercolours. In the gulf that separates the two royal artists lies the difference between the British monarchy, and their more urbane Danish counterparts.
It is no secret that the driving force behind this first overseas Sculpture by the Sea was the interest shown by Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary, who saw the show at Bondi and initiated the idea of a Danish version. It is the latest installment in the flourishing relationship that now exists between Denmark and Australia – albeit a relationship more closely chronicled in the womens’ magazines than the news pages.
The show has been supported by a large number of corporate and private sponsors, mainly Danish and Australian. Although the Australian Embassy in Denmark is listed among the supporters, the Australia Council is a notable absentee. Both in Australia and abroad, Sculpture by the Sea has been largely a private initiative under the management of founding director, David Handley, absorbing little public funding since its beginnings in 1997. While this has often put a strain on budgets, it has had benefits in terms of creative independence. It has taught organizers how to run the show on a shoestring, and how to avoid needless waste of resources.
This is not something that may be said about our premium arts funding body which has taken on an increasingly ‘corporate’ and exclusive image in recent years. With funds being channelled into institutions rather than individual artists or private initiatives; with an inconsistent attitude towards commercial and non-commercial enterprises; with perceived nepotism and favoritism that has assisted a few artists and dealers and disadvantaged many others, the Australia Council cannot be seen as genuinely representative of the local visual arts community.
Although its scope is necessarily limited, Sculpture by the Sea is a more democratic enterprise that draws on a broad, popular support base. It is a dismal fact that in Australia our arts bodies seem to believe that anything that is popular must necessarily be no good. From this point, it is but a small step to the equally fallacious idea that anything obscure, pretentious or offensive must be terribly important.
There can be no denying that over the past decade Sculpture by the Sea has done more than any other organisation to generate a public profile for Australian and international sculpture. It has created ties of friendship and co-operation between artists from around the world, and provided a testing ground where sculptors can measure their efforts against their peers, and against the natural environment.
In Aarhus, the management of the Danish side of the show was undertaken by Aros, the local art museum – a conspicuously groovy institution housed in a new building with a basement dedicated to large-scale video installations. Aros, which makes Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art look quaint and rustic, has got behind Sculpture by the Sea in the most enthusiastic manner. There is none of that peculiar snobbery that suggests contemporary art cannot be popular and vice versa. The museum anticipates a big audience for this first international airing of a show that may in time become one of Australia’s most prominent cultural exports.
Sculpture by the Sea, Aarthus, Denmark, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 3, 2009