It was not the best of times, it was not worst of times. The 17th annual Sculpture by the Sea (SxS) features the usual mix of pieces that might be described as ‘serious’ sculpture, and others that are little more than gimmicks. It has become a familiar recipe but seems to go down well with the crowds that traipse up and down the foreshores every year between Bondi and Tamarama. This weekend is your last chance to join the party.
There will always be complaints that SxS is a sideshow rather than a credible exhibition of contemporary art, but there are so many dull, pretentious things in prestigious museums one can’t be snobbish about an event that makes a point of being democratic and inclusive. For a show that lasts only two-and-a-half weeks the popularity of SxS is staggering. Naturally, popularity cannot be equated with quality, but neither should it rule out the possibility.
SxS is a carnival, but also a logistical exercise of mammoth proportions. To get the measure of this year’s show one has to look at individual works, the nature of the installation, and all the organisational details that add value to the experience.
To start with the last category, this year marks the beginning of a major sponsorship by the Macquarie Group, who have donated $60,000 for an acquisitive first prize. Along with the usual raft of corporate supporters there is also extra funding from Nicola and Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation; a contribution by the NSW State Government, and even – gasp! – from the Australia Council. The catalogue lists no fewer than nine prizes, and a long list of artist subsidies and mentorships; including three scholarships from the Helen Lempriere Foundation, worth $30,000 each – awarded to emerging sculptors Lucy Humphrey and Francesca Mataraga; and veteran, Paul Selwood.
It’s pleasing to see the Macquarie Group take up the cause of sculpture again after the success of the National Sculpture Prize held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001, 2003 and 2005. This exhibition might still be running if the NGA hadn’t changed its mind about the nature of the prize and derailed a lucrative sponsorship.
The new sponsorships recognise that SxS has reached the point where it is more than an exhibition. It is playing a key role in the development and dissemination of Australian sculpture, both at home and abroad. Indeed, there are a large number of artists who owe whatever public profile they enjoy in this country almost solely to their participation in these shows. This includes international regulars such as Keld Moseholm from Denmark, and a group of Japanese sculptors.
Another important feature of SxS is its willingness to pay homage to senior figures in Australian art that have recently passed away – a practice in which our public galleries are woefully deficient. This year the selection includes two pieces by Bert Flugelman (1923-2013), one of this country’s best-known public sculptors. They span the beginning and end of Flugelman’s career, ranging from a biomorphic piece called Equestrian (1967) to a trademark stainless steel work, Semaphore (2000).
For all these reasons one may make allowances for the ups and downs of selection and installation. As always, Mark’s Park is the centre of the show, with the greatest concentration of sculptures. It’s been proven in the past that this area needs a large, powerful work or two to anchor the mass of smaller pieces that cluster on all sides. This year that anchor is missing. Many of the bigger pieces, such as Stephen King’s Fallout, which won this year’s major prize; and Returning to sea, by last year’s winner, Peter Lundberg, are positioned on the edge of the central space. The Park has an anarchic feel, as if the sculptors rushed in and staked their claims like hopeful prospectors on the gold fields.
The other concentration of sculptures, on the beach and in the park at Tamarama, is no improvement. If it seems unreasonable to expect any organisation to do better with such a diverse body of work, I can’t help thinking that placements were more shrewdly conceived in the days when Axel Arnott was site manager. It’s Philip Wadds’s first year in this demanding job and he needs to be given a chance to settle in and learn the ropes.
The task may have been made more difficult this year by a larger-than-usual percentage of first-timers, including a battalion of sculptors from New Zealand who have finally awakened to the opportunities afforded by SxS. It’s great to inject new blood into the show, but the experienced artists have a much better sense of the challenges posed by this unique setting.
One perennial issue is that SxScan only be as good as the quality of entries it receives. After 17 years it’s hardly surprising if some of the sculptures have a feeling of déjà vu, or fall into predictable categories. This doesn’t mean these works are to be dismissed. Keizo Ushio’s artful interlocking rings carved from granite are no less impressive for being familiar. Vince Vozzo’s elegant Moon Buddha is another successful variation on a theme, as is Mitsuo Takeuchi’s Transfiguration engage VII.
Among the biggest surprises was prize-winner, Stephen King, whose Fallout is the most abstract piece he has ever contributed to SxS. Apparently the inspiration came from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but it has formal echoes of work by American sculptor, Mark di Suvero, and of Tiwi burial poles. The three standing components seem to be wedged together by makeshift cross bars, forestalling a collapse.
Peter Lundberg’s work resembles a gigantic infinity sign to which one further loop has been appended. It’s an outlandish thought – suggesting that something might be added to infinity, possibly via the medium of art. Made from bronze, the piece is has a dense materiality that contradicts its conceptual daring.
There was much discussion about how Ayako Saito has made a work that seems to outgun Ron Robertson-Swann at his own game. Saito’s Grove is an abstract metal sculpture of interlocking planes, painted the same vivid yellow as Robertson-Swann’s famous public sculpture, Vault (1980) – otherwise known disparagingly as ‘the Yellow Peril’. It’s an extraordinary gag for a Japanese sculptor, but there is nothing funny about the work itself, which is as crisply constructed as an origami crane.
Robertson-Swann’s piece, by contrast, is a severe, grey composition, called Weighty Matters. Four vertical L-shapes are overlaid by a single steel plank, from which a metal square dangles precariously. The sculpture was started many years ago, but only recently completed when Robertson-Swann had a Eureka moment. The work feels like a period piece alongside other abstract metal sculptures by artists such as Michael Le Grand and Philip Spelman. There is a lyricism in these works – a quality that Robertson-Swann appears to deliberately avoid.
A similar geometric austerity may be found in Jörg Plickat’s work, Encounter, which reads like an angular variation on a Clement Meadmore. Plickat’s monumental simplicity bears contrast with the complexity of Paul Selwood’s The museum, in which clipped planes of metal huddle and overlap in playful abundance.
It may be a generalisation but the abstract works in this year’s show are far more appealing than the figurative pieces. This is quietly appropriate in the week following the death of the great British abstract sculptor, Anthony Caro (1924-2013).
Julio Gonzalez and David Smith did much to establish the credentials of welded metal sculpture, but Caro was more productive and inventive than any sculptor of the modern era. A compact survey of his work, held at the Museo Correr during this year’s Venice Biennale, served as a reminder of his achievements. In an era bewitched by the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of artists such as Anish Kapoor, it was inspiring to see sculptures that demonstrated such mastery of space and form.
An aesthetically successful piece makes one less tolerant of works that rely on a political statement to have an impact. Tunni (Anthony) Kraus has dumped part of the wreck of an old fishing trawler on Tamarama beach, telling us it “may have once carried asylum seekers”. Anthony Sawrey has painted red lines on the grass in the adjacent park, charting the possible progress of tide levels through global warming. I’m no scientist, but it seems an overly pessimistic prediction.
There will always be room for such pieces in SxS, but if one had to isolate a quality that really gets viewers excited it wouldn’t be political correctness or formal elegance. More than anything, SxS visitors love works that are photogenic: works such as Silvia Tuccimei’s Passage secret, which allows one to stand in the midst of a shining loop of stainless steel, or Qian Sihua’s Bubble No. 5 – a bright red, round head blowing a bubble of similar shape. Best of all may be Lucy Humphrey’s Horizon, a large glass sphere filled with water that reflects the meeting of sky and ocean in inverted form. With this modest but effective device Humphrey is doing what every artist aspires to do: she turns our world upside-down.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 9 November, 2013.