By Deepika Sorabjee
It’s not quite land art. But the lie of the land is this show’s inexorable pull and its subsequent growth over the years. Sculpture by the Sea was started 14 years ago on Bondi Beach in Sydney and 7 years ago in Perth, as an endeavour to bring sculpture to the Australian public, a country that pretty much lives its life outdoors.
Open to Australian artists and artists from around the world, this year there were 72 exhibits from 19 countries. A cyclone that hit Perth two weeks prior to the event washed away much of the sand and exposed coral reefs that the locals hadn’t seen in years. This didn’t deter the organizers, who made use of the half kilometer stretch of beach that was available and some of the high ground as well. Freed of any confines, of walled boundaries or blank minimal spaces, artists here have to compete with nature itself; a horizon, and a touchy feely public enquiry, unlike any they will face in a gallery or museum.
In the BBC series Romancing the Stone, when asked by Alastair Sooke what sculpture was for, Sir Anthony Caro, one of Britain’s most illustrious living sculptors replies with a smile, “To please the eye and feed the soul. Human beings dance, they make music, they carve pebbles or stick pieces of clay together. It’s just a natural human thing–animals don’t do it. I don’t know what it’s for. What is life for?”
His sculpture Erl King certainly looks the malevolent creature it is in German folklore. A massive anchor and cast iron plates make up its visage. Sullen and solid, it sits on the turf as if washed up from the sea. It demands an awed response at its sheer presence that towers above you in its austerity; it’s rust patina the only softener of this superb formal construction around a central anchor, which roots its monumentality firmly to the ground even as it invokes the sea beyond. This is the first of Caro’s “upright sculptures” produced in his studio between 2008-2009. His second exhibit in the show, is red-hued Aurora, which is placed on the sand fittingly—harking back to the 1960s, when Caro was among the early sculptors who placed his works directly on gallery floors, doing away with the plinth. Aurora is painted completely red to “lift its emotional impact”; the monochrome adds to the mass and its weighty, dour, drum-like presence on the white sand.
There’s more red further up on higher ground; Chen Wen Ling brings all that we associate with Chinese contemporary art into his sculpture. Red Memory Smile is big, red, and shiny. It is certainly popular with young and old alike judging by the ring of people around it. Emotive, coloured, glossy, a bent Giacommetti-like elongated sculpture, its hollowed stomach and stick-like limbs hark back to the frugality and harsh times of Mao’s revolution even as a sardonic smile mocks his attempt to wipe out culture. It lacks the more narrative melodrama of his recent, massive gallery installation of a bull ramming Bernard Maddox, the infamous stockbroker, against a wall. An explosive cloud of flatulence supports the bull mid-air: a critique of a collapsed market. He has a penchant for large scale, monochrome and shine. In conversation, he named Anish Kapoor as a sculptor he admired. Chen Wen Ling, whose family lived through the Cultural Revolution, has done a series of these red men in the past, usually a group of seven to eight figures; here a solitary figure bends over the horizon.
In contrast to Caro’s solid use of metal and the squat larger-than-life works, Sydney-based sculptor Orest Keywan works metal in a more delicate way. In Constanta’s Dream, the central axis is a Brancusi-inspired endless column (as is the title, a play on Constantin), and from this centrality he spins off delicate whimsical forms; a series of spiral steps, a cupped receptacle and a circle that frames a passing boat or a swimmer in the sea. Inspired by Ezra Pound’s poems, there’s a similar echo of metal traced through air and anchored in more solid forms in his smaller poetic piece in the Sculpture Inside exhibition.
David Handley, who seeded the idea of this exhibition, is a pleased man. Last year, it drew nearly half a million visitors to Sydney’s most popular beach. Amid surfers, sunbathers, art lovers and the curious, it is now a much-awaited annual event. Handley has planted his idea further, in Aarhus, Denmark where it is held biannually. In aboriginal mythology, ‘The Dreaming’ is a sacred era in which ancestral totemic spirit-beings formed ‘The Creation’. Handley’s dream of bringing sculpture out of the gallery has been an act of creation: it is now the most popular and largest public sculpture show in Australia.
Sculptures placed thus, out in the open, competing with the spectacular blue waters of the Indian Ocean have to rise to the occasion and artists deploy several ways to achieve this. Environmental concerns seem a popular addressal; metres of cable wires fashioned into marine animals (Denise Pepper’s Sea Enemy), multicoloured, pop art inspired, LED-lit plastic bins (David Kenworthy’s Modular Wadjula), plastic bags evocatively pinned in a large whirling shell shape (Gaye Jurisich’s Spirula) and Luchtkasteel, Tom de Munk-Kerkmeer’s castle in the air of bamboo sticks colourfully wrapped with flagging tape looks like a flotsam wigwam washed up on the beach.
The site-specific sculptures use wind and solar power in their kinesis (Francois Uzan’s Eliobi) while others use the contours of the land. Lifeboat, by Marwa Fahmy, Stephen Genovese, Elizabeth Marpole and Kate Parker, consists of hundreds of paper boats on four foot high metal rods cascading down a slope in one gigantic form, seemingly ready to set sail into the sea. To mark the arrival of Captain Willem de Vlamingh who arrived on Cottesloe beach in 1697, “Willy was a boat person too” , state the artists.
Others use the horizon and the ocean effectively. Greg James’ Pawn Project placed at the end of the jetty stands like a silent sentinel; its Gulliverian size and chiseled contours part alien robot, part Easter Island mystery. Kathy Allam’s Signs of Life: Landmarks 1, 2 + 3 strewn in the white sand, stack recycled metal into pillars that looked like spires of pagodas washed ashore from Eastern lands. Darius Kowal’s Blue Shift, uses the line of the horizon as a “mixing pallete, combining warmth and coolness” as the sun-lit solar panel strips glow and go off in a 3 min loop, colours changing as the horizon is reflected. Mathew McVeigh’s square cone SQUARE CONE? timber box Ascension seems to capture a call of the sea, even as the position of the sun catches the colour of the Perspex bands in its open end, in a changing kaleidoscope. Tony Jones’ painted steel signposts on the jetty, Longreach, stood like fairground totems and as markers of wind and water and maritime measures of space.
In Tim McFarlane Reid’s Inside Spoken Things, free-form shapes rise from the sands, silhouetted against the sea. In Such Sweet Thunder— Richard Heinrich’s steel mechano-like fitted severe columns derive inspiration from “the music of Charlie Parker to New York’s subway columns”.
The sole Indian entry was Rajesh Sharma’s Indian Coca Cola. A simple bicycle laden with tender coconuts (in bronze and iron), it was well executed and a poignant way of pointing to the rapid foreign branding sweeping a changing India. He does not use the bling of Valay Shende, or the shiny steel utensil motif which is now a hallmark of Subodh Gupta, but the idea is conveyed effectively in the etched ‘Indian Coca Cola’ logo on each of the cast bronze coconuts: an instant reminder of a foreign beverage sweeping away indigenous drinks that should be retained as the country’s ‘cola’. Placed under the trees by the seaside, it blended seamlessly into the landscape, yet made its statement assertively.
While some sculptures worked the challenge of the space, others seemed to fall short by trying too hard or by not considering the setting. With 72 exhibits out on display, there were lots that underwhelmed.
This open-air gallery demands that the viewer too, changes his stance. There’s a liberation in engagement: You can touch the exhibits, exchange ideas with strangers, there’s the banter of incomprehension from non gallery goers and casual sunbathers, the dodging of the galahs’ droppings from the trees which the sculptures get a liberal dose of, and often a playful intervention by the public. Like the anonymous someone who piled up a heap of ochre-colored pinecones below Keywan’s sculpture: it seemed to suggest that it was not just Constanta who had dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.