Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 2010November 6, 2010
In one of her detective stories Dorothy Sayers wisely observes: “For some reason, the word ‘artistic’ produces the most alarming reactions in those who know anything about art.”
As such, it would be inadequate and belittling to describe Sculpture by the Sea as one of Sydney’s most eagerly awaited ‘artistic’ events. This annual sculpture-fest is an event, pure and simple, with a pulling power that far exceeds any other exhibition in Australia. This popularity is a testimony to the pleasure of seeing sculpture in the natural environment and this city’s fascination with anything out-of-doors.
One of the tests of a great idea is its resilience. With an annual exhibition this means the capacity to bounce back from disappointments and crises. This year’s Sculpture by the Sea is a powerful reaffirmation of the vitality of the concept, following a mediocre display in 2009, and a dispute with the commercial galleries that has opened up rifts in the ranks of local sculptors.
The problem began when SXS organisers decided to reduce the amount of commission on sales for the galleries that represent participating artists. This decision was not taken lightly but it was put in place without discussion, in a way guaranteed to alienate the dealers. SXS Director, David Handley, now accepts that the whole affair was managed insensitively. The fallout has left some of this country’s leading sculptors without representation, as they opted to accept the new SXS terms. To give some idea of the Old Testament gravity of the dispute, Ron Robertson-Swann has split with his brother – and erstwhile dealer, Campbell.
Were the sculptors being disloyal or merely pragmatic? Have the dealers overreacted, or were they right to stand their ground on the issue of commissions? This is one of those intractable wrangles where there is right and wrong on both sides, and I’m not about to play the judge. Only two observations are useful at this point. Firstly, the argument has not sent SXS off the rails, as this is one of the show’s strongest years. Secondly, the sculptors’ community is too small to sustain this kind of brawling. There needs to be some talk, some compromise, and a bit of forgive and forget.
Despite the ongoing battle the fourteenth SXS is a huge improvement on its predecessor which suffered from too many mediocre works and uninspired placement. This year the placement is still far from perfect, a lot of bases are obvious and ugly, but the standard of work is much higher. To be fair, the headlands between Bondi and Tamarama have a grandeur that is not easily matched by any sculpture. The piece that can hold such a spot would have to be very large, perhaps with a stark, dramatic simplicity. Few sculptors can afford to work on that kind of scale. Braddon Snape has made the attempt with a clean white circle called Entering the exit, which is set to be the show’s most popular photo frame.
The undoubted highlight of the current exhibition is Erl King (1993) by Sir Anthony Caro, believed by many to be the world’s foremost living sculptor. Although there are those who hold a torch for younger artists such as Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, for an understanding of all the fundamental qualities of sculpture, these ubiquitous figures cannot compete with Caro (b.1924).
Erl King conjures up thoughts of Goethe’s frightening poem about the sick child taken by an ogre, or Michel Tournier’s equally disturbing novel of the same name, set during the Second World War. Caro’s sculpture is a large, glowering work that defiantly turns its back on the ocean in its efforts to frighten the children. All the significant detail is on the side facing the viewer, dominated by a heavy anchor that imposes a strong diagonal tension on the composition. One feels that it represents some monumental power in a state of internal collapse. Classical order has begun to decay, while the large plates of rusted steel have assumed a new, defensive position. This may be a fantasia on an abstract sculpture, but there is no denying the sullen nature of the materials and the pronounced frontality of the work.
Two nearby abstractions by emerging Australian sculptors also make a powerful impression. Linda Bowden’s Into the trees II in Mark’s Park brings sheets of gently undulating steel together into a grouping where each piece seems to lean hopefully on the next. The ensemble forms a vague cube but retains the organic feeling of tree trunks bunched against each other in a forest.
Angus Adameitis’s Beside the point is a tour-de-force, an excellent sequel to the artist’s impressive solo exhibition held at the end of August. Positioned on the foreshore, beneath a stony outcrop, the piece combines industrial and biomorphic forms in such a way that it feels as though we are looking at some monstrous hybrid of plant and machine. The suggestive green colouring makes the work feel even more ominous and triffid-like, while unifying such disparate materials as steel, fibreglass and PVC.
It is a mark of the quality of this year’s show that familiar campaigners such as Orest Keywan, Phil Spelman and Bruce Radke have produced some of their best-ever contributions. Keywan, in particular, has given a lot of thought to the problem of siting a piece against the overwhelming backdrop of sky and ocean. His solution, in Underwater cathedral, has been to break down forms into a series of suggestive fragments, asking us to draw the connections in our own minds, not only across space but across time, looking for a lost wholeness.
Another group of artists, both familiar and quite outstanding, are the Japanese sculptors, whose technical mastery and poetic simplicity are unrivalled. Kaoru Matsumoto steals the show with a kinetic piece in stainless steel and titanium that executes slow-moving aerial gymnastics in response to the air currents. Koichi Ishino’s Wind stone – earth and sky almost disappears into the elements, with its brilliant reflectiveness; while three large bone-like, cross-hatched forms by newcomers, Akiho Tata, would be at home in any environment.
Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend have been consistently strong contributors to SXS, and their steel camel, The adaptable migrant, is a great follow-on from last year’s horse. The chief difference is that last year they stood out a long way from the general run of contributors, whereas this time there is serious competition.
In 2009 the stand-out works were so obvious and so scarce that it was a relief to avoid commenting on most pieces. This year it is almost painful to single out individual sculptures from a very good selection. Scruples aside, it would be a shame not to draw attention to Tony Davis’s Chimney totem – a faux-industrial chimney made out of jarrah wood; Marcus Tatton’s Globoids – large seed pods roughly carved from cypress; Peter Collins’s Tide’s Turn – a surging wave constructed from tightly meshed gum twigs; James Rogers’s Big bather, a Cubistic concoction of playful, dynamic rhythms; Paul Thurloe’s Critter – a giant crab, artfully made from rough and smooth blocks of sandstone; Jean-Marc Rivalland’s Vehicle – a hybrid of panel van and sarcophagus; Tae-Geun Yang’s monstrous chook, perched on the beach at Tamarama; and Dave Horton’s Jarrett in London, an open-form abstraction reminiscent of Anthony Caro in a more youthful guise.
In those days when SXS and the art dealers were still holding hands, it was thought a good idea for Defiance Gallery to time their annual miniature show to coincide with the Bondi extravaganza. The arrangement still holds true, and this year’s exhibition, subtitled Defiant Little Devils, is an essential complement to the large-scale works displayed by the ocean.
There are 118 works on show at Defiance’s Enmore venue, and another 69 at Defiance II in Paddington. Some 80 artists from Australia and abroad are taking part, and the exhibition is as lively as it has ever been. Once again it is not easy to single out individuals from a diverse and very talented group of sculptors. Two tiny still-lifes by Jan King are hard to ignore, as is a wildly ambitious work by John Wright that screens an animated abstract film inside a metal framework, and even includes a specially commissioned score.
Now in its fifteenth year, the miniature show began as a way of addressing popular misconceptions about sculpture: that it is uniformly heavy, cumbersome, expensive, and so on. The show also aimed to give exposure to a much greater range of sculptors, and to demonstrate that a small work need not be simply an ornament. Dorothy Sayers may have been right when she noted the aversion to the word “artistic”, but there is no artist or collector who would not jealously defend the category of “art”.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 6, 2010
Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi to Tamarama, October 28 – November 14, 2010
The Miniature Show: Defiant Little Devils,
Defiance Gallery, Enmore & Paddington, October 27 - November 27, 2010