Sculpture By the Sea in Denmark

August 1, 2009

There was considerable trepidation leading up to the international launch of Sculpture by Sea in the Danish city of Aarhus. This prodigiously popular show, which has occupied the Sydney heads, from Bondi to Tamarama every year since 1997, had never previously been seen outside of Australia. Although the exhibitions at Bondi, and more recently at Cottesloe beach in Perth, have drawn enormous crowds, there was no way of knowing how an unfamiliar audience would respond.

As it turned out, the anxiety was completely unnecessary. Within three weeks the first-ever Sculpture by the Sea to leave Australian shores had attracted an estimated audience of more than 600,000. The catalogue had to be reprinted three times, and more than twenty percent of sculptures were sold. It was a result that surpassed all hopes and expectations.

The windswept coast of Jutland, where the exhibition was held, is hardly the centre of European art – even allowing for the cutting edge aspirations of Aros, the city’s art gallery, which has an entire floor devoted to video installations. To make matters worse, the press preview and opening coincided exactly with the vernissage of the Venice Biennale. This ensured that the art press of the world was in Italy during the opening ceremonies. It was a deliberate decision intended to capitalise on a Danish public holiday, but the timing threatened to turn the show into a provincial affair.

Even the elements conspired to make the preview an uncomfortable experience, as sunshine gave way to persistent rain and hail. Yet the energy that had been built up during a protracted installation process was irrepressible. Everyone trudged on, in the rain, and partied the following night.

Sculpture by the Sea’s founding director, David Handley, has long wanted to take the exhibition overseas, and has investigated various locations in Europe and the United States. Denmark emerged as the most likely option for one reason alone: the marriage of Crown Prince Frederik to Mary Donaldson of Tasmania. The couple visited Sculpture by the Sea in Bondi, and began to imagine how the show would work in Denmark. As the idea took shape, the backing of the royal family was crucial in securing Aarhus’s participation and attracting sponsorship.

This involvement was so close that Prince Frederik’s father was one of nineteen Danish artists who contributed to the event. HKH Prins Henrik, as he appears in the catalogue, was no mere symbolic inclusion. His Torso resembled a primitive figure retooled and streamlined for the modern era. While not intended to harmonise with a specific site it comfortably held its own among the ranks of professional sculptors.

For the Australians, perhaps the most difficult part of the Danish exhibition was choosing a contingent of artists. Since 1997 Sculpture by the Sea has built up a consistent group of exhibitors who enter year after year. From the final group of sixty artists there were 27 Australians, chosen in consultation with the Danes to ensure a wide variety of approaches. Historically, this represents the highest level of Australian participation in any international exhibition.

Along with the Australians and Danes there were artists from Germany, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and Great Britain. Although there were only two British artists they were the very top of the line – Anthony Caro and Phillip King. Many of the sculptors in the show owed a stylistic debt to Caro, and were delighted to be showing with him. His piece, Double Tent, was broadly acclaimed as one of the highlights of the exhibition. It was classic Caro – a finely balanced collection of forms, somewhere between the organic and the architectural.

While the basic concept of showing sculptures in the landscape remained the same, the atmosphere of the show was utterly transformed by a different environment. In place of the rocky path that stretches between Bondi and Tamarama, viewers strolled from a flat, grassy area at Tangkrogen to the woods of Ballehage. The trail followed a narrow strip of greenery between the beach and a paved road, before plunging into the forest. Here one discovered sculptures nestled within the trees and bushes. The path crossed in front of Varna, a royal summer palace, with a view to the ocean. Traversing a stream and walking down a hill, one emerged on the beach, where the final sculptures were to be found.

In the same manner as its Bondi protoype, the works in the Danish Sculpture by the Sea divided roughly into two classes: the site-specific and the self-contained. The first includes all those pieces that were, to a certain extent, ‘completed’ by their installation in the landscape. The latter refers to those works that would be equally at home when exhibited within the neutral environment of a gallery. The skill of the installation, and perhaps the real novelty of this exhibition, lay in arranging these sculptures in the landscape in such a way that they were shown to their best advantage, perhaps acquiring a new dimension in the process.

This was the case with Caro’s Double Tent, which was placed beside the road on the path from Tangkrogen; but also with relatively formal sculptures by artists such as Ron Robertson-Swann, Campbell Robertson-Swann, Michael Le Grand, Greg Johns, Bruce Radke and Angus Adameitis. In its reflective capacity Campbell Robertson-Swann’s work virtually became part of the of the landscape, while Orest Keywan’s piece echoed the hills and ridges of the land, but also the changing structure of wind and waves.

A very different transformation took place with Ron Robertson-Swann’s Hildegard von Bingen, which acquired a new elegance when placed in front of the palace of Varna. Its neighbour in this location presented a stark and humorous contrast: Bjorn Godwin’s Pavilion/Dunny was a fibreglass replica of an old Australian outdoor toilet. From between the large gaps in its boards came the nasal drone of an Australian race caller.

Such glimpses of Australiana were relatively rare, with perhaps the most distinctively Antipodean work being the painted wooden figures of the indigenous sculptor, Ngardarb Francine Riches. These effigies of the artist’s tribal ancestors had already stood on the beaches of Cottelsoe and Tamarama. In Denmark, they no longer watched out for the white invader, but gazed forlornly from foreign shores, dreaming of a lost homeland.

Another echo of Australia came from the Danish artist, Jette Gejl, who created a sound sculpture that included the instantly recognisable calls of Australian birds. Installed in the forest, this piece conjured up the atmosphere of the Australian bush in a European setting: the dull grey-green of the eucalypts being replaced by the vivid green of the Scandinavian trees.

Most of the Danish artists seemed less at home in the open air, making works that seemed to sit awkwardly on foreshores or in the forest. This awkwardness was used to good advantage by Helle Frosig, whose Green Forest Object might have been deposited in the undergrowth by aliens. Its unearthly colour and vague resemblance to furniture made it seem like a relic of an unknown civilisation.

The outstanding exception to the Danish preference for self-contained work was Lene Desmentik’s Rollercoast – a jetty in the shape of a rollercoaster ride. Set in shallow water, the piece suggested a kind of interrupted gaiety; a monument to some lost pleasure park, tinged with pathos and nostalgia.

Needing to get to Venice before the vernissage was completed, I had to leave Aarhus before the opening ceremonies. A week later I met several artists and heard long, enthusiastic accounts of what had transpired. The excitement was so general, and so genuine, that one can only conclude that Sculpture by the Sea in Denmark was probably the most successful Australian art export of all time. There had been skeptics among the Danes while the show was in the planning stages, but none afterwards. No-one had ever seen such large audiences in Aarhus, or expected to see them. Already plans are underway to restage the show in 2011, suggesting that this event may became a genuine foothold for Australian artists in Europe, and a rallying point for sculptors from all parts of the world. It is, in fact, a simple reminder of the power and pleasure that comes from the experience of art in the landscape. The most surprising thing is that the institutional art world is perpetually rediscovering this experience with the force of revelation. Perhaps it’s not that hard – or that bad – for a show to be really popular.

Published for Craft Arts International, August 2009

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