SCULPTURE is by tradition a public art, and after a period of alienation and private ownership and display, the issue of its significance and function in society has become pertinent again. Besides, the devouring of empty space in urban households with the rapid growth of high-rise buildings has crucially driven sculptures out of the indoor premises. Even those works that are not intended for the outdoors provide a set of sculptural quality and look splendid in the open air and amidst nature.
On March 1, the grand show begins when over 70 sculptors from across the world, from Finland to Slovakia and China to the United States and a good number from different parts of Australia, are going to transform the spectacular Cottesloe Beach in Perth, Western Australia, into one of the world’s best-attended open-air sculpture exhibitions. This year marks the 15th anniversary of “Sculpture by the Sea” in Cottesloe, which is Perth’s largest free-to-the-public event that would create the city’s own version of the Italian passeggiata, with thousands of people wandering among the sculptures on the beach every day until the show ends on March 18. A major highlight of this show is the participation of one of the most important kinetic sculptors in the world: Phil Price from New Zealand will exhibit for the first time here as the Tourism Western Australia Invited International Artist. Price has created a new seven-metre-high kinetic work titled “Ipomoea”, to be installed overlooking the famous white sands of Cottesloe Beach. Another first-time exhibitor is Nicole Monks of Wajarri Yamatji, Dutch and English heritage, who is this year’s Packer Family and Crown Resorts Foundations Invited Indigenous Sculptor.
“Sculpture by the Sea” first began from Sydney, New South Wales, in 1997 when, at the age of 31, David Handley, its founding director, started it with a one-day exhibition on Bondi Beach staffed by volunteers working from his lounge room. The following year, Handley was commissioned to produce a series of five “Sculpture by the Sea” exhibitions around Australia for the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival “A Sea Change”. Since then, he and his team have produced a number of major outdoor exhibitions, notably the one at Cottesloe, which has been held annually since 2005 and has grown to attract an estimated 220,000 visitors.
Since its beginning, “Sculpture by the Sea” has made Sydney its main and permanent seat and grown to be the largest annual open-air sculpture exhibition in the world that magically transforms the spectacular two-kilometre-long coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach along the Tasman Sea. This yearly event in October is now viewed by an estimated 500,000 visitors over its 18 days of tenure. Such a grand display of public art helps create a community identity and appreciation for art among the Sydneysiders and instils in children a heartening curiosity for art. Sculptures of such diverse kinds in such a scenic natural environment can communicate many things and generate thinking and imagination.
A substantial community benefit that has grown out of “Sculpture by the Sea” in Sydney and Perth is the public sculpture collections of works acquired from the free and public exhibitions. Prime locations that are now home to permanent sculptures include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Georges Heights, Campbelltown City Gallery and Orange Regional Gallery in New South Wales. And the public collections in Western Australia include the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Town of Cottesloe.
Last October, I had the occasion to visit the 22nd edition of the “Sculpture by the Sea” in Sydney. I took the winding coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach with the Tasman Sea on one side and a spectacular wind-carved sandstone cliff line on the other. A little more than a hundred sculptures by Australian and overseas artists integrated beautifully with the prehistoric sandstone rock formations along the coast. Rather than making it a high-brow and stringently curated presentation, Handley has always given importance to the exhibition’s growing popularity among the impressionable Sydneysiders and to its creative and art-educational appeal.
China being the special focus country, there was a showcase of sculptures by eight of the alumni and teachers from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The Chinese sculptor Lv Pinchang’s “Space Plan” was two rusty spacecraft-like objects made with cast iron, cast aluminium and stainless steel that demanded considerable mastery in their making, although the sculptural practice in China has mostly remained until now in the figurative domain, unlike in Japan where abstraction in sculpture has become the norm. Zhang Wei’s “Layers of Mountain” was, however, an engaging work that defied mass and volume and conveyed the notion of shan shui (literally mountain-water) in Chinese landscape painting as the horizon of the sea offered the natural backdrop for the work’s rows of mountain silhouettes made with sheets of steel and bolts. The two largest pieces in this show were Wang Wei’s “Walking”, a 5.16-m-high bronze of a gracefully striding teenager with a lowered head who seemed to be both arriving into and leaving the space on which it was positioned.
Another big work was Mu Boyan’s “Horizon”, a 3.20-m-high obese figure in pale pink paint on stainless steel seated in meditative calmness at the edge of the coast. It may be noted that well-rounded figures of both men and women in traditional Chinese art can evoke prosperity and even elegance rather than their apparent corpulence.
An array of large-scale sculptures decked the elevated grassy plateau of Marks Park on the way from Bondi to Tamarama. The formalist sculptor Ron Robertson-Swann’s “Quantum” in steel was a dialogue in form between sculpture and architecture, between positive and negative spaces—while exuding an austere sense of symmetry and balance and transcending any consideration of the contemporaneity towards a timeless classicism. One part of the sculpture held the other in structural symbiosis, and it looked like a dual presence of a huge geometrical object along with its own emptiness. As a contrast to this work of classical restraint was the American sculptor Albert Paley’s hyper-expressive “Languorous Repose” in stainless steel, with his recognisable method of densely accumulating heaps of forged metal of different forms and curvilinear lines. It was a meeting point of the physicality of metal and his technical dexterity of working on its plasticity and pliability, not to speak of the patterns of transient shadows on the work as the days rolled by under the sun.
A different temper of work with its sweeping curve was Matthew Harding’s “Antithesis” in stainless steel. Harding—who tragically ended his life last year and to whom this edition of the “Sculpture by the Sea” was dedicated—wrote a poignant note about its labyrinthine construction: “From a distance this form appears as a dark mantle, chrysalis, or shroud that once encased a living entity that has shed its husk. When approached, it invites you to enter and become the contained, to reflect on your own mortality and transformation.” Its form seemed to change from its inside, pushing out with an interesting tension as it were in broad sweeps of outstretched wings.
Unlike the Chinese sculptors, the Japanese contingent showed a singular propensity towards abstraction although, to me, not all of them were of high quality. Notably, Wataru Hamasaka’s abstract creation with granite, “The Sound of Sky: The Physical Ring VI”, for example, was not just a visual object but also conceived as having a deep interactive connection with the acoustic environment of the outdoor setting.
Michael Le Grand, one of Australia’s best known contemporary sculptors, is known for his abstract sculptures whose bafflingly diverse forms contest any reliability of a single view or perspective. However, his steel sculpture “Guardian” was a combination of compact and linear forms that suggestively represented a symbolic figure of strength and valour.
Not far from there, on the rocky ground of the beach overlooking the sea, stood a group of male spectre-like figures, and as one would move about to look at them from different points of view, they began to “depixelate” and “repixelate”. With the shift of perspectives, the apparent density of April Pine’s “Shifting Horizons” in Corten steel (a trademark of the U.S. Steel Corporation) was reduced to line works of joined multiple parts that formed each of the figures.
My special favourite site-specific installation, specially made for Bondi Beach, was “Groundswell” by Georgina Humphries, the public artist from Melbourne. It was created entirely with recycled multihued fabric materials stitched together with metal frames. It was a kinetic construct activated by the wind as the furrowed stretch of the work’s triangular spikes got lifted up like a wave with the intermittent offshore breeze. Thus, this work turned interactive as it invited viewers to see the work from above and below as the spikes went up and down according to the movements of the wind. Although the Polish-born and Sydney-based Barbara Licha works with various mediums, she is known best for her wire constructions and sculptures. Her art practice reflects the complexity of the human condition in contemporary times and she once said: “I explore the parallels between ordinary people that I come across in real life and the people that reside in my imagination, my own representations of emotion.” Her dense, cage-like, mesh with galvanised wires and stainless steel bars titled “CBD”, referring to Sydney’s central business district, was her take on the industrial world, a sort of redux of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, which depicts the bleak underworld of the have-nots that exists under the utopia of development.
To my utter surprise, “M-fortysix”—a circular abstract form in stainless steel with part automotive paint by the Australian sculptor James Parrett—shoved aside quite a few great works to bag the top prize, the A$70,000 Aqualand Sculpture Award. However, on the last count, what mattered most was the refreshing sight of the throng of visitors of all ages, including children, driven by great gusto and curiosity along the entire stretch of two kilometres.
By Romain Maitra
Romain Maitra is an academic; an art critic; an independent curator of contemporary art; a columnist-journalist; a former Senior Fulbright Fellow, City University of New York, U.S.; a former research fellow, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris; and a former consultant, Sector for Culture, UNESCO headquarters, Paris.
Part of the spectacular wind-carved sandstone cliff line that can be seen at the venue of the exhibition in Sydney. Photo: Romain Maitra