3-20 November 2011 Nearly to the point of self-parody, Sculpture by the Sea is the quintessential Sydney art exhibition. Every spring for fifteen years, the cliff top walk between Bondi and Bronte beaches has become an appropriately sculptural place to view sculpture. The weathered sandstone of the cliffs, sometimes smooth and rounded, sometimes broken and angular or pitted with lacy indentations, is already a kind of found sculpture, its grace clashing with the boxiness of so much Sydney architecture. Along the two kilometer walk, itself one of the city’s unmissable experiences, are a variety of natural “galleries” — works can be perched amidst the mineral minimalism of the cliffs with ocean as backdrop, tucked into lush grottoes on the inland side or clustered in the parks and beaches, either on the sand, on trampled lawns or along concrete paths. Everywhere, limpid sunshine pours down, mercilessly chiseling the surfaces of the works.
Over half a million people attend each year, clutching nearly as many digital cameras, the device which has for many art viewers replaced the eye. No one who regularly attends exhibitions, especially big ones, can fail to have noticed this trend, which alters the whole rhythm of art-going, turning exhibitions into photography competitions, works into bashful celebrities and viewers into witnesses of their own presence in an artwork’s aura. Traipsing along the cliffs with a camera around one’s neck, it becomes almost impossible to follow Bernard Berenson’s advice to “look, and look, and look, until you are blind with looking.” If the first niche in the pantheon of 21st century museum-going must be reserved for the dude who lingered in the Louvre’s High Renaissance gallery only long enough to photograph a blind 360 degree panorama, then a page in its etiquette book must be devoted to the point and shootist who, somewhere along the cliff top, asked a woman carefully examining a sculpture to step back, please, so that she could take a photo and be on her way. For artists, Sculpture by the Sea must present no shortage of conundrums. Though the exhibition is a real opportunity to make a name for oneself, it is easy to become lost amidst the grandeur of the Tasman Sea, the hundred or so “competing” works and the fragile attention span of the sun-stroked masses. With such a big crowd, there is a natural temptation to play to it, and many works are no more than one-liners, albeit sometimes amusing and well-crafted ones. Rather than being depressing, as in the Louvre, at Sculpture by the Sea I found the manic clicking of virtual shutters fascinating for the way the cameras revealed what people were looking at and searching for. In an outdoor exhibition people move more freely and less politely than in a gallery, revealing their attitudes in the way they move in and around the artworks. There is no respectful shuffling, no pretending to read the labels. Depending on the nature of a work, its scale, setting or seriousness, a photographer/viewer might attempt an artistic composition, a bokeh-nestled closeup or a quick snapshot of a grinning friend. In addition to the various awards on offer, the cameras present one unofficial, and I would hope flawed, definition of Sculpture by the Sea success. Thousands of people voting with their shutter fingers meant that certain works became the centre of an unbreachable forcefield of crisscrossed fields of view, a spectacle likely intended by the artists in many cases. It might be enriching, and certainly would be perverse, to attend Sculpture by the Sea with only one’s eyes to look with. Would you mind stepping back for a second so I can take a picture? For members of the public, attempts at looking are further complicated by the landscape. As the works at last year’s Sydney Biennale benefited from, engaged with, or were overwhelmed by the spatial richness of Cockatoo Island, so sculpture becomes inseparable from sea. Unless one is contemplating adding one of the works to one’s lounge room, it is pointless to observe that many of the works would be less appealing when seen against white plasterboard. Sculpture by the Sea is a selling exhibition and if the sculptor benefits from the setting by selling work more easily then perhaps the work’s permanent home, wherever it is, will take on some of that briny aura. At Sculpture by the Sea, setting is inseparable from art, and works of art, tied together by the setting, become linked to one another in unexpected ways. It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, and for a three week run everyone plays their part in the performance.
Not surprisingly, the works which seemed to be selling most readily, at least at the time of my visit, were those abstract sculptures whose scale and subject were independent of the setting. Geometric abstraction allowed these works, with varying degrees of success, to engage the landscape at a formal level without the burden of a conceptual agenda or the compulsion to tell the same joke a thousand times in a day. I tend to see abstract sculpture through architectural glasses (that is to say, an architectural point of view, not, shudder, a pair of Corbuspecs O-O). It is a limited point of view, a shame to ascribe function to works attempting pure abstraction. The minute one adds windows and toilets to sculpture, even mentally, the form becomes much less interesting for being useful. Thankfully I found that the forcefulness of the coastline somehow kept the abstract works abstract. The best were simply able to be themselves. Seen against the sea, a work like isometric trinity, by Fatih Semiz becomes an enjoyably useless gauge for measuring the horizontality of the horizon. The sculpture is not scaled to the landscape, but its three polished hexagonal portals, the top one projecting a few centimeters closer to the viewer, captures the sea at its most enormous scale, that of the horizon. In Hunter Park above Bondi Beach, Koichi Ishino’s highly reflective faceted tower, wind stone – earth and sky breaks the sky, the sea and the viewer into unexpected fragments. That these works would assume other guises in the rain, the fog or at night is certainly “meaning” enough, and very close to the most elemental definition of sculpture by the sea. In any case, the rigorousness of these works was an appealing alternative to Sydney’s prevailing tendency toward ditzy self-congratulation, indulged so copiously in some of the more the funhouse-style works. Humor, often attempted, occasionally successful, is everywhere in contemporary art, and yet little discussed. Whether or not the position of the artist is as intrinsically ridiculous in relation to a mediated world as the avant garde architect in a room full of rapacious developers, what never fails to put me off are those art works which are essentially pranks. Pranks are fine as pranks; the problem for the artist is that there is always an MIT student able and willing to outdo you, without the pretension of art. Chava Kuchar’s the hazardis full-sized putting green next to the ocean, the kind of conversation piece which produces microscopic conversations like this one:
“Look, the 18th hole.”
Simon McGrath’s giant faucet, who left the tap running?, is as finely wrought as it needs to be to pull off its punchline, but I got the feeling that people, once they had captured their photos, were hardly looking at it. Appropriately, it won the Environment Prize sponsored by the city’s water utility. Perhaps one day it will end up on the roof of Sydney’s desalination plant.
Amidst the populism, there was some real wit on display. The jokes were funniest in those works which emerged like three dimensional dreams from the shadows of the artist’s subconscious. The quality of strangeness in these works creates a roughness which hooks the art in the viewer’s mind, preventing it from sliding out one ear like a jpeg expelled from a digital trash bin. Cover the rainbow by Hyoung Kwon Kim seemed to draw eyeballs to it, defying photography. Amidst the heroic scale of so many works, miniaturism is an understandable riposte, but it was much more than contrasting scale which drew so much attention to this work. Hyoung has scattered a community of strange metal figures across tilted plates of rusty corten steel, a very beautiful form which suggests an airplane wing or a wave. Polished, blobby, wearing gas masks or mythical wings, in yogic poses or glued to a laptop, these little figures face the sea with emotions ranging from reckless abandon to indifference to dread. Cute and troubling, their restless movement — diving, jumping, leaning — is entirely individualistic, like the hood ornaments of a dystopic future.
Cover the rainbow is both a great sculpture in its own right and the consummate Sculpture by the Sea work. It simultaneously evokes, celebrates and critiques the spectacle of the world’s (arguably!) most famous beach spread out below. Among other things, it suggests that the beach is a public space but not really a piazza. Rather than being a place where people meet in architecture — to steal the title of last year’s Venice Biennale — the beach is a place where, like a cinema, all of us face the same direction, displaying ourselves but doing our own thing, as autonomous as the cast of Seurat’s Un dimanche après midi à l’ile de la Grande Jatte, though considerably less fashionable. There is something in the directionality of a coastline, the pounding sun and the effort required to walk across hot sand which makes beachgoing one of the more private of public experiences.
Also in a figurative vein, but at full scale, is the golden budda’s seaside holiday by Stephen Marr, a stocky gilded buddha in flip-flops, Hawaiian shirt and board shorts who seems to amble along the walkway behind Tamarama Beach. It would be another one-liner if not for Marr’s careful execution. The buddha has an eerie presence, poised delicately, one heel raised as though, perhaps, about to take a step, left hand raised in an ambiguous gesture which evokes, but does not quite replicate, the typical gesture of the buddha. While looking at the other sculptures arrayed around the beach, buddaseemed constantly in the corner of my eye. It is one of the few sculptures in the exhibition which ought to be left in place permanently, though someone might well steal his rather snazzy shirt.
More overtly disturbing and just as funny is Hannah Kid’s toads on tour, a tableau of an elderly couple in colored, roughly welded metal panels, surrounded by over-scaled toads. The man sits, mouth agape, gazing vacantly out to sea while the woman stands beside him holding a giant toad, a not quite benevolent rictus on her face. The various toads (are they Cane Toads?) sit up like pets, leap and, improbably, crawl in all directions, as vibrant as the old couple is cartoonish. The haunting strangeness of the central image and the beautifully wrought figures seem to goad the viewer into reading a story into the work. Some kind of unforgettable urban legend seems to be unfolding before our eyes, possibly tragic, possibly comic, probably both.
The toads weren’t the only animals lurking in plain sight. Sculpture by the Sea’s menagerie included a beached whale cum submarine (the midget attacks, Corey Thomas), realistic zebras along a street (simply black & white, Alan and Julie Aston), an incongruous assortment of two dimensional native birds (birds of a feather (a curious flock), Geoff Harvey) and a filigree metal reindeer (I have been dreaming to be a tree…, Byeong Doo Moon). All were well-made, but tortoise, by Mark Swartz, Reuben Solomon and Charmaine Tung, was especially satisfying in its material presence, the intricate weave of recycled tyre treads somehow very tortoise-ish. Like budda and toads, the work takes on a haunting quality beyond its own cleverness. As tortoise is suffused with a close observation of what tortoises are like, so the three exquisitely woven straw-colored lions of Belinda Villani’s the predators in the park have the sleepy but proud repose of great cats resting under a tree. These works are in no way realist (and Villani’s lions were not realistic enough to fool the sweet-natured dog I saw sit down among them), but they manage to evoke both the essence of their animal subjects and the surreal presence of wild animals in a familiar cityscape.
Perhaps the temptation to create objects commensurate with the physical scale of the cliff top discourages purely conceptual works. I found Charles Schneider’s the divided line in the form of a square (the practice of memory) unexpectedly moving. It asks, intentionally or not, one of the central questions in conceptual art — how much should the artist explain? Schneider’s work consists of a sailboat which attempts to describe a perfect square just off the coast below Hunter Park. The work’s only presence on land is a solidly constructed metal plaque which explains what is going on and what it means. The Sissiphean idea of a sailboat ceaselessly condemned to trace a square on the open ocean is absurd and poignant; I can understand the pragmatic need for the plaque, but its explanation fundamentally alters our perception of the work, sapping some of its mystery and risk. I noticed the sailboat, oddly close to shore, before reading the plaque, but it is questionable whether I or any other viewer would have taken the time to observe its strange trajectory. Without the plaque, the work demands more time than some viewers will be willing to give; with the plaque, many will hardly look at it once they get the gist. How much must be explained? How invisible can an artwork be? Is this sculpture or performance? Is the idea enough? The divided line was one of the few works to ask such questions.
The organization and design of Sculpture by the Sea is triumphant. One gets the sense that after fifteen years, the organizers must know their turf as well as Berenson knew the Uffizi. Tamarama Beach, just north of Bronte, is especially effective. The beach is deep and narrow, which allows plenty of space for large sculpture on the sand. Steve Croquett’s heads up, three rusting steel Easter Island sculptures buried up to their chests, in subtly different states of discomfort, is charming, its heaviness offset by the ethereal presence of Hugh McLachlan’s three wire sculptures botanicus unfamilia – fallen fruit, concealing grass and subterranean, arranged in the same triangular formation. The ruin, by Marcus Tatton, is one of the largest works in the exhibition, a half-ruined cabin made of logs stacked as neatly as bricks. From a distance it is well-made and pleasingly proportioned. Close up the chinks between the logs let light through in a way which, thankfully, precludes photography.
As I was eating my lunch on the rocks at Bondi after seeing the exhibition, a lifeguard rushed into the water and paddled out to sea. A couple of girls were in trouble in the heavy surf near the southern end of the beach. He pulled them onto his rescue board, and waited for his colleague, who paddled out as though motorized. He took one of the girls onto his board and they zipped back to shore, followed by the first lifeguard and girl. The whole time, just in front of where I was standing, a barefoot girl in a black dress ran up and down the shore, capturing the event on video, madly trying to capture the best angle. I imagined the shaky grain of her footage, the zoom maxed out. You can probably find her video on the internet hereabouts. The whole spectacle, like the exhibition nearby, seemed to embody certain questions about, you know, art, actuality, authenticity, looking, voyeurship and other interesting things. You never know when you’re becoming somebody else’s artwork.
Bring your own sunscreen and draw your own conclusions.