At this time of any other year Sydney is getting ready for its regular fix of Sculpture by the Sea (SXS), one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the cultural calendar. But like so many things in the era of COVID-19, the thought of hundreds of thousands of people rubbing shoulders on the trail between Bondi and Tamarama now signifies “superspreader” rather than “tourist bonzana”.
As of last week SXS chief, David Handley, still couldn’t provide a date for the rescheduled exhibition. Maybe March? Maybe April? It all depends on our ability to keep the virus in check. In the meantime, sculptors and sculpture enthusiasts have not been idle. Tomorrow is the final day of Sculptures in the Garden at Mudgee, now in its tenth year. Sculpture in the Vineyards: the Wollombi Valley Sculpture Festival (until 1 November), has been given a new lease of life; while QStation, Manly, is hosting the first-ever Les Sculptures Refusées: A Celebration of Rejection, (until 19 November).
I’ve not seen the Mudgee exhibition but have been involved with the others in a tangential manner, opening the show at QStation and acting as a judge for the Wollombi event, along with Sarah Johnson from Newcastle Art Gallery. Bringing these projects to fruition has required teams of volunteers, the generosity of many private sponsors, and a huge amount of strategising.
The idea of a Salon des Refusés for works rejected by SXS has been around for a long time, so it’s ironic this show has appeared while the parent exhibition remains in suspended animation. It’s the brainchild of two very good, mid-career sculptors, Simon Hodgson and Tania McMurtry, who decided that instead of crying into their beer about being left out of the 2020 show they’d organise an alternative display.
As McMurtry already has a large, impressive public sculpture called A Terrible Beauty, installed at QStation, this seemed like a logical choice of venue – especially in light of David Handley’s threats to take SXS to Manly if he couldn’t settle his disagreements with Waverley Council. The Manly proposal may have come to nothing but it did reveal a great hunger for a major public art event on the North Shore.
In the midst of a pandemic could any venue be more appropriate than a former quarantine station? Today’s governments would hand over such prime harbourside real estate to developers and set up a quarantine camp on Manus Island, but somehow, QStation has been preserved. One can only hope Cockatoo Island will enjoy a similar fate, although the ongoing treachery connected with the Powerhouse Museum should alert us that nothing is ever truly safe in the state of NSW.
With only ten weeks to prepare a show, Hodgson and McMurtry had to fall back on friends and colleagues left out of SXS 2020. They ended with a modest total of 7 participants, including two SXS veterans in Orest Keywan and Paul Selwood. The other artists are Elenore Griffith, Lucy Barker and Anthony Battaglia. The new sculptures are supplemented by works already installed at the site.
Battaglia was awarded the judges’ prize for an elegant set of five totemic steel sculptures called Without End, although he must have been hard pressed by Hodgson’s I Seem to be a Verb, a title taken from R. Buckminster Fuller. The work is a complex geometrical form constructed from thousands of interlocking components. It was obviously a monumental effort, although the SXS selection panel were unmoved.
Rejection would have come equally hard for Orest Keywan, who has appeared in SXS on 22 occasions. His work is another stand-out at QStation. Well sited on a slope looking down to the harbour it’s a spare, macabre landscape stripped back to bare fragments. The vertical shapes are suggestive of the personnagesconjured up by the Surrealists.
Paul Selwood, by contrast, has produced a piece made from flat metal segments that create a layered effect like densely packed buildings. It’s a three dimensional work that flirts with two dimensions.
Selwood is also one of the prime movers behind the Wollombi exhibition. He has lived in the district for more than 20 years, creating his own sculpture park. The catalogue for this year’s show features 164 pieces, spread around the villages of Wollombi and Laguna, roughly two hours drive from Sydney.
By all accounts the 2020 exhibition – reconfigured as a “Sculpture Festival” – is the biggest and best in the 18-year history of this event. This is largely due to director, Susan Leith Miller, and curator, Wendy Black, who have managed to attract sculptors from across Australia and abroad. Among the most prominent exhibitors are senior figures such as Selwood, Ron Robertson-Swann, Michael Le Grand, and the late Mike Kitching. Other wellknown artists include Christopher Hodges, Michael Snape, Jörg Plckart, Hue Selwood, Ayako Saito, Peter Tilley, Louis Pratt, Kevin Norton, Harrie Fasher and Vince Vozzo.
We ended by giving the $20,000 first prize to Stephen King, for an unusually abstract work called Tongue and groove, featuring five massive slabs of eucalypt braced against each other and the ground in such a way that the entire work has a feeling of sustained tension. One could walk right into the sculpture, appreciating its architectonic qualities as if it were an absurdly primitive kind of bush cathedral with wooden slots in place of windows.
King’s work was sculptural in the best sense, demanding to be experienced from every angle to fully appreciate its use of materials and the way it carves up space. It was these qualities that gave the work an advantage over the piece we chose for the second prize, Amanda Lockton’s Fire’s Edge. A six-metre-tall gum tree made from blackened steel, this sculpture is a much simpler proposition. It invites us to stand in front, gazing from top to bottom, as we examine the slender twigs and leaves that spring so naturally from a central trunk covered in small, tightly riveted patches of bark, also made from steel.
Fire’s Edge is an arresting sight with its towering height and the quality of its craftsmanship. Although the piece is clearly a memorial to the bushfires that swept through this region only a year ago, it was a surprise to learn that Lockton is both a local and a firefighter. Apparently she won a smaller award in 2019 and came straight from the fire truck, still covered in soot. Fire’s Edge is well-observed and skilfully-constructed, but the fact that it was born from the cauldron of last year’s bushfires acts as a bold reminder of the power and purpose of art. Only one year after the blaze nature has reasserted itself and Wollombi is lush and green again, but from her personal experience of that conflagration an artist has made a work for the ages.
Les Sculptures Refusées
QStation, North Head, 15 October – 19 November, 2020
Sculpture in the Vineyards: Wollombi Valley Sculpture Festival,
Wollombi & Laguna, 17 October – 1 November, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October, 2020