Sculpture by the Sea 2016 & Zadok Ben-DavidOctober 28, 2016
Sculpture By the Sea has prospered on the idea that the dramatic landscape of the Bondi foreshores provides a brilliant showcase for art. Last Sunday this view was comprehensively rejected by Mother Nature who had a tantrum and threw everything at the exhibition. There have been years when I’ve trudged between Bondi and Tamarama in the pouring rain, but I’ve never seen the wind and waves put on such a performance.
Visitors were sprayed with salt water as breakers crashed onto the rocks with terrific force. The sculptures on the beach at Tamarama, lapped by water and shaken by powerful gusts, were starting to feel the strain. Duncan Stemler’s elaborate In Rainbows had been temporarily dismantled. A work by Danish artists, Nyland and Beale, relied on wind power to draw with a piece of charcoal, but the invitation had been accepted so enthusiastically the device was now dysfunctional.
At such times one develops a new appreciation of those solid, block-like sculptures that can only be moved with a crane.
The violence of the weather didn’t prevent many thousands of people from taking the walk, even when it meant queuing on a narrow rocky path, enveloped by a damp, salty mist. The mood seemed as up-tempo as usual, as visitors conversed in dozens of different languages and snapped photos relentlessly.
Having reached the age of 20, Sculpture By the Sea seems as popular as it has ever been. If there’s an expiry date for David Handley’s annual seaside extravaganza, it is yet to appear on the horizon.
Although the popularity of the show is indisputable there remains that old question mark as to quality and consistency. After 20 years one would expect the SXS management to have learned a lot about how such an event should be selected and installed. In reality it’s a pretty haphazard affair, with diverse sculptures lined up like rows of poplars on the edges of Mark’s Park, and small pieces plonked on rocks overlooking the ocean. At times it seems more like a stock-take than an exhibition.
It goes without saying that a successful display of sculpture is partly dependent on the quality of the submitted works, but it’s also a matter of intuition and fine-tuning. With all respect to the team that labours so mightily to put these sculptures in place, SXS still misses former installation manager, Axel Arnott, who had an unbeatable eye for placement.
As for the work itself, for an important milestone such as the 20th anniversary the organisers might have tried to do something a bit special. There’s a new conference this year, but there must have been notable sculptors who could have been invited, and satellite projects that could have been developed. Instead it’s business-as-usual, with too many works that instil a sense of déja vu.
Inevitably there is a division between the so-called ‘serious’ sculptures and the gimmicky ones, with the gimmicks exerting a magnetic appeal on the general public. I’m not sure the formula could ever be altered without endangering the festival atmosphere of the show, but it does create a feeling of predictability.
There’s also a tremendous familiarity to the most renowned local sculptors such as Ron Robertson-Swann, Orest Keywan, Michael Le Grande, Dave Horton, Philip Spelman, James Rogers and Paul Selwood. Amid the endless carnival one keeps coming across pieces that demand one’s attention because of formal considerations rather than a gag. In a year when the serious and the frivolous strike a balance, the true-blue sculptors give SXS a touch of gravitas. In an ordinary year it feels as if one has encountered a wowser at a drunken party.
No-one could be more severe and sober than the late Inge King, who is being honoured at this year’s SXS with a couple of geometric abstractions in stainless steel that hold themselves aloof from the melée on the foreshores. King left numerous pubic sculptures, but she never tried to blend a work into the landscape. Her pieces hold to their own obstinate identity as freestanding objects. They don’t insinuate themselves into a site, they claim ownership and say, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, “You lookin’ at me?”
Despite her uncompromising approach, for sheer menacing bulk King’s work can’t compete with Jörg Plickart’s Balance, which looms like the gates of a warlord’s fortress. A simple arrangement of pillars and arcs, the sculpture asserts its presence, even in a grassy park on a sunny day. One can barely imagine what it would feel like in an enclosed space.
The major prize this year went to Western Australian artist, Johannes Pannekoek, for a corten steel piece called Change Ahead. It’s a elegant configuration that resembles a plant unfolding, although I’m tempted to say its major claim to fame is having been carted across the Nullabor by the sculptor. It’s a rare instance of heroic perseverance being rewarded.
Among the most memorable images this year are Zheng Yuan Lu’s marble sculptures that reproduce the form of bodies in black plastic bags. One wonders if these pieces would have had an even greater impact if they had been left washed up on the shore, not simply placed on a rocky outcrop.
If I had to choose a piece by a sculptor who is really starting to find her feet, I’d nominate Harrie Fascher’s Transition – which features the skeletal body of a gigantic horse emerging from the ground. There’s a fearsome aspect to this metallic “drawing-in-space”, although the gothic overtones are dissipated in the blazing daylight at Bondi, not to mention the slum-like crowding of sculptures that require a little more space to themselves.
One unusual sculpture that still manages to strike a chord is Ken Unsworth’s New Opportunity, a wonky answer to Brancusi’s Endless Column made out of coloured plastic milk crates. This column doesn’t stand in stately fashion, but seems to be dancing. I may be wrong, but it feels like an oblique critique of the $2 million milk crate Hany Armanious was going to install in Belmore Park. We don’t hear much about that project any more, but there’s no doubt that Unsworth’s milk crates would provide a cheaper – and much livelier – option.
British-Israeli sculptor, Zadok Ben-David, was invited to take part in this year’s SXS but his work never made it to Bondi. The bizarre reason is that the shipping company transporting the sculpture to Australia went bankrupt while the cargo was on the high seas. The consequent delay meant the piece didn’t arrive in time.
For Ben-David it wasn’t a wasted journey because he is exhibiting one of his trademark, show-stopping installations at Annandale Galleries, called People I Saw But Never Met. It consists of two thousand tiny figures displayed on a field of pale sand. The figures are based on anonymous people Ben-David photographed in different parts of the world – from Spain and Portugal to Venice, Bali, Singapore, Japan, and even Antarctica.
Each pictures was translated into a line drawing then photo-etched in stainless steel, and spray-painted black. The result is a multicultural, Lilliputian crowd scene that reads like a massive drawing hovering between two and three dimensions. Study the work long enough and one begins to notice its games and idiosyncrasies. Of 2,000 figures there is only one deliberate pose: three guys in Antarctic snow gear, arm-in-arm. On the right-hand side one spies the repeated figure of a teenage Russian gymnast that Ben-David found going through her routines on a beach in Israel.
Many of these figures have been photographed while they were taking their own photos, which may be a symbol of the modern condition. The smart phone has made us into photoholics while retarding our capacity for normal human interaction. Why talk to the person next to you when you can be exchanging snapshots on WeChat with someone in Inner Mongolia? It hardly needs noting that SXS has evolved into Sydney’s ultimate photo-opportunity. Little do those eager photographers at Bondi know they are being silently captured by Ben-David, to be added to his installation. As People I Saw’ continues to travel around the world it will keep growing. In theory, there’s no limit to this population explosion.
Sculpture By the Sea 2016, Bondi, until 6 November
Zadok Ben-David: People I Saw but Never Met
Annandale Galleries, until 26 November.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 29th October, 2016