Sculpture by the Sea 2018

November 2, 2018
Wang Wei's 'Walking'

This weekend is the last chance to catch Sculpture by the Sea, which has become one of the annual rituals of life in Sydney. Every October or November we trek dutifully from Bondi to Tamarama (and usually back again), with the devotion of pilgrims visiting a holy shrine with a full range of relics on display. If there’s something vaguely religious about the journey it’s because Australia is a nation of nature-worshippers and the beach is one of the sacred sites of our culture.

Personally, I’m of a heretical persuasion. I’ve never much liked the beach, have no interest in surfing, and find it depressing that so many believe Tim Winton is our greatest author. Nevertheless it can’t be denied that nature is more than a match for art. The Romantics knew it, and Sculpture by the Sea reinforces the lesson. Walk along that winding path around the headland and one is struck by the grandeur of the ocean scenery, and the triviality of most of the small sculptures arranged on either side.

It’s extremely difficult to place a work in such close proximity to the sea, the rocks and cliffs, and expect it to its own own. Instead the show becomes a kind of scavenger hunt as we keep an eye out for one piece after another. This year I thought many of the sitings were perfunctory at best, although it’s almost impossible for a small sculpture to make a strong impression in this environment.

Lu Pinchang, ‘Space Plan’

The best place to exhibit is almost always Mark’s Park and surrounds, where most of the large-scale works are located. The notable exceptions are Lu Pinchang’s Space Plan – two large, rusty fragments of broken-down satellites, washed up on the rocks near the Bondi Icebergs; and Cao Hui’s A Bicycle Covered by Snow, a remarkable carving in white marble. The bicycle is seemingly covered in icicles, but also appears to be melting. Either way, it’s a surreal, ghostly sight that would be even more striking if its substantial marble base had been better concealed.

Lu Pinchang and Cao Hui are part of a contingent of eight sculptors associated with the China Academy of Fine Arts, in Beijing. These artists were specially invited to participate, and it’s to the great benefit of the exhibition that they embraced the opportunity. Take the Chinese sculptors out of this year’s selections and there would be few highlights. The show may boast 107 works by 130 artists from 21 countries, but it’s the Chinese that dominate.

Cao Hui, ‘A Bicycke covered by snow’

The two largest pieces are Wang Wei’s Walking, a 5.16 metre-high bronze of a man walking with lowered head and long, deliberate strides; and Mu Boyan’s Bank, a 3.20 metre-high seated Buddha, as wide as it is tall. Mu’s pale pink Buddha appears to be made of fibreglass – a material with which Chinese sculptors have had a long-running love affair – but it’s actually stainless steel, making it an impressive technical feat.

Mu’s work occuppies a prime spot inside a circle of stones in front of Mark’s Park, and has emerged as the major selfie-magnet of the show. Judging by what the artist has written in the catalogue he envisaged the figure gazing out to sea, but it has been turned around to face landwards, perhaps to expedite its photographability. It can also be viewed within the framework set up by Ron Robertson-Swann’s Quantum, a large metal construction that reminds one of a camera obscura. A square window at one end of the work opens onto a view of the sea and Mu’s serene, seated figure.

Mu Boyan, ‘Bank’

If Mu’s work projects tranquillity, Wang Wei’s walking man is a more mordant refection on the human condition. Reminiscent of sculptures by artists such as Rodin, Lehmbruck and Giacometti, it takes its basic form from the Chinese character for ‘human being’ – ren (人). With its bowed head, and arms clamped rigidly to its sides, the figure suggests sorrow and resignation, but the purposeful stride sends a contrary message. One thinks of Samuel Beckett’s famous incantation from Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

It’s hard to go past the walking man as the outstanding piece in the show, with Mu’s seated figure as the popular favourite. The other Chinese artists have also made distinguished contributions, with the pick of the bunch being Yu Fan, whose spindly Wrapped horse in Mark’s Park, seems simultaneously both contemporary and archaic. Yu is probably the most internationally renowned sculptor in this year’s SXS, known for a series of coloured figures and horses that have been shown around the world.

You Fan, ‘Wrapped Horse’

Among Australian sculptors, James Rogers, Orest Keywan, Paul Selwood and Phil Spelman have made solid contributions to the show with entirely characterisic pieces. Rogers is in especially good form with his work, Cover shot – an abstract arrangement of twisted metal plates joined in the most delicate manner. Ayako Saito has experimented with perspex, in her elegant contruction, Holding the light.

The tragic note in this year’s SXS comes from Matthew Harding’s Antithesis, a complex web of stainless steel, that the artist described as “a dark mantle, chrysalis or shroud”. Harding took his own life in February this year, in a terrible echo of the way we lost another talented sculptor, Bronwyn Oliver, in 2006. Most of us know artists only through seeing their works in a gallery or a public space, but such deaths remind us of the ‘lives of quiet desperation’ (to borrow Thoreau’s famous line) that lie behind the most graceful artefacts.

James Rogers, Cover Shot, Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 2018. Photo Jessica

As ever, it would impossible – and impossibly tedious – to try and talk about more than a handful of items in this massive exhibition. As ever, I’m left stone cold by humorous, gimmicky pieces such the big blow-up of Damien Hirst’s face in a scuba diving mask by British group, Cool Shit, on Tamarama Beach; or Gillie and Marc Schattner’s bronze menagerie in Mark’s Park. These are the bits of SXS meant to appeal to the popular imagination, and in this they may be considered a necessary sideshow.

Matthew Harding, ‘Antithesis’

There are no hard and fast rules in sculpture but with an artform so geared to permanence and immortality the gags are overshadowed by the greater ambitions of those artists – from Wang Wei and Yu Fan to James Rogers and Matthew Harding – who have made works not for a good time, but for all all time.

Sculpture by the Sea
Bondi to Tamarama, 18 October – 4 November, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, 2018

(All photos by Jessica Wylde, from SXS website)