Sculpture by the Sea, Denmark 2011

June 24, 2011
Phil Price, Nucleus. Photo Anders Hede
Phil Price, Nucleus. Photo Anders Hede

Spend a day walking around Copenhagen and it becomes apparent that the Danes are crazy about sculpture. The immaculate buildings of the ‘Golden Age’ (roughly 1800-50) are encrusted with heads, figures and other forms of sculptural decoration. There are statues galore, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek – one of the most elegant museums in Europe – is a treasure chest of sculpture: from the Sumerians and Ancient Greeks, to rooms full of bronzes by Rodin and Degas. At the Louisiana Museum, in nearby Hummlebaek, there are galleries laden with Giacomettis, and lush grounds featuring works by Calder, Moore, Serra and other moderns.

The crowning glory is probably the Thorvaldsen Museum, opened in 1838, and designed in the style of a classical temple, by architect, M.G.Bindesboll. It houses the artistic legacy of Denmark’s greatest sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).

Nowadays we have forgotten what a superstar Thorvaldsen was, in an era that saw art as a celebration of ideal forms. This neo-classical impulse has been battered almost beyond recognition over the following two centuries, making Thorvaldsen’s museum a fascinating period piece. Decorated in the manner of a Pompeiian villa, it is a shrine for a fallen titan, filled with monumental white marbles and their grimy cousins retrieved from parks and porticoes.

It is three hours by train from Copenhagen to Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, where the most recent incarnation of Sculpture by the Sea is on view until 3 July. This is a five-day extension on the previous show of 2009, which reputedly attracted almost 600,000 people.

If we see this as essentially an Australian event, then it is easily the biggest, most successful act of international exposure that Australian art has ever received. Forget about the money spent sending a single artist to the Venice Biennale, this show includes 22 Australian artists, or groups of artists; plus a number of foreign-born artists who make their home in Australia, and Australians who choose to live abroad. This represents almost half the works from a field of 65, with the host nation following on with 11. Other exhibitors hail from Germany, Spain, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Sweden, China, England, the United States, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, France and India.

A show like this is a feat of organisation that could only be achieved by a highly experienced team. Axel Arnott and his installation crew have become super professionals over the past decade, and have found the Danes to be fast learners.

From its beginnings as a one-day show at Bondi, in 1997, SXS has been unashamedly populist at a time when so much contemporary art makes a virtue out of willful obscurity. This widespread appeal has tended to alienate funding bodies and breed skepticism among art world insiders who believe that nothing popular can be any good. The same skepticism was apparent in Aarhus, before the 2009 show, but the unprecedented audience numbers quickly brought everyone on-side.

Aarhus is using SXS as one of the cornerstones of its bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2017. The choice will be made in 2012, and Aarhus is presenting itself as a dynamic, creative, innovative community, under the slogan: “Rethink”. As the only place in the world outside Australia to host SXS, with all the logistical problems and red tape that entails, it is a city not afraid of a challenge. This is also apparent in its newest civic attraction, the 360 degree Your Rainbow Panorama by Olafur Eliasson, that sits on top of the local art museum, Aros, attracting a stream of visitors who walk around a gigantic circle, viewing the city through the every colour of the spectrum.

It is well-known that the primary reason Aarhus agreed to take SXS, was the enthusiastic endorsement of Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary, née Mary Donaldson of Tasmania. The next step was to find a sliver of coastline that allowed audiences to experience the sculptures in an environment that would enhance, rather than detract from their impact.

The chosen route, which runs from the fields of Tangkrogen to a narrow ribbon of beach at Ballehage, offers its share of problems and rewards. The beginning of the trek is exceptionally difficult because it is flat and featureless. Any sculpture placed in this location risks being swallowed up by the sheer expanses on all sides. This is pretty much what happens with a wooden transmission tower by Olivier van den Berg, and a yellow arch by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman that counts every person passing through.

To create a suitable entrance to the show, the Danes came up with the ingenious idea of a container city, employing all the shipping containers used to transport the sculptures as building blocks in a makeshift settlement. The focal point is a piece by Gary Deirmendjian, titled Consumer temple, which stands three gigantic containers on their ends to create a monumental structure resembling a Stonehenge for the industrial age.

Much more could have been made of the container city, and next time one might expect a busier, more sophisticated installation. The two most successful works at the Tangkrogen end of the show are I wish you hadn’t asked, by the Glue Society, and Hiroaki Nakayama’s Come back. The former is a small, detail-perfect weatherboard house, furnished with pieces picked up from local op shops. Inside the house is a permanent downpour, with water gushing from the ceiling, being recycled under the floor and fed back through the roof. A constant procession of screaming children clad in raincoats and wellies runs in through one door and out another.

Nakayama’s piece is a simple, meditative installation of a granite chair placed in front of a tall granite arch, through which one looks out to sea. A kind of zero degree of architecture, it reflects on the idea of home, as seen from some distant location. Nothing else in the show is so stark, but so effective.

This year’s SXS Denmark lacks the big names that featured in the 2009 exhibition, such as Anthony Caro and Philip King. There is an evenness to the display, with few stand-out pieces. Perhaps the chief exception is Phil Price’s Nucleus, a remarkable kinetic sculpture, with a red palette-shaped disk that twists and turns in the air at the slightest hint of a breeze.

A little further down the beach one encounters Claus Orntoft’s Introverted stranding, version 2, a roughly carved sculpture of a massive humanoid creature, slumped unconscious at the edge of the tide. At this half-way point, as the path narrows, we find works by SXS regulars such as Bjorn Godwin, Orest Keywan and Hugh Ramage; and a bright red, fibreglass boy who stands, apparently shivering, by the seaside. This is the work of leading Chinese artist, Chen Wen Ling.

By far the best place to be in any version of SXS, be it Denmark, Bondi or Cottelsoe, is in the forest above the route to Ballehage. This beautiful, varied space offers fantastic possibilities for siting, and was the most persuasive reason for taking the show to Aarhus. Karin van der Molen made effective use of this setting with As it is in heaven, a huge nest constructed from twigs that hovers above the forest floor, its contents invisible but tantalizing. Another piece that dominates the space is Marcus Tatton’s Quantum suggestion, a series of over-sized ‘atoms’ made, incongruously, from densely-packed chunks of firewood.

Andrew Rogers, Philip Spellman and Tony Davis also benefited from this highly sympathetic site. Bruce Radke contributed one of his most impressive abstract metal sculptures, but it would have been wonderful to see it twice as big.

Back down to the beach at the end of the show, one meets an old favourite in The adaptable migrant, by Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend. This life-sized, rusty steel camel was last shown at Bondi in 2010. It is a deceptively complex piece: a Trojan horse, its interior filled with objects, each relating to family memories of migration.

The camel may look out-of-place gazing wistfully from a beach in Jutland, but it is no more anomalous than those pale-skinned Europeans displaced to Australia, struggling under a scorching sun.

In the twentieth century migration determined the destiny of millions, in the twenty-first we see a world in which people may feel at home in more than one place, or perhaps nowhere at all. It is a world in which Thorvaldsen’s marbles seem less meaningful than a month-long show of sculptures arrayed along a lonely strip of coast.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2011

Sculpture by the Sea, Aarhus, Denmark, until 3 July

John McDonald travelled to Aarhus from Venice with assistance from Sculpture by the Sea, Denmark