Saturday, 14 November 2009

On Sculpture By The Sea

It seems churlish to pretend that 'Sculpture By The Sea' isn't happening, after all it is on my doorstep and the influx of traffic and old ladies into Tamarama is hard to ignore. So whilst it remains a beautiful sun kissed day and I feel generous I might share (or at least take this opportunity to gratuitously inflict some of my photography on my patient readers).

This annual festival fills the beach and cliff tops around my home with everything from the sort of abstract geometric public sculptures that might adorn the forecourt of a municipal office through objects rendered oversized and out of place, like Claes Oldenburg's discarded doodles, to jokey installations that take their meaning from their ocean side location. It's easy to scoff at 'Sculpture by The Sea', God knows I do, but if you open enough oysters you do find the ocassional pearl.

It's futile to seek a theme in SBTS, but two equestrian statues do stand out. One, 'Subterfuge' is an assemblage of industrial rusted cast-iron into the form of a Trojan horse. It has a quiet grace and an enviable place, looking out over the northern tip of Tamarama. The equestrian statue was once the pinnacle of the sculptor's art so it seems fitting two accomplished examples should be here. The second, and stronger work, is Belinda Villani's 'Tribute To A Workshorse' it is a lifesize reed sculpture of a pack horse with a seated rider. It reminds one of the pre-Raphaelite desire to give dignity to labour and might have made William Morris happy. The horse and rider are beautifully modeled, with a quiet muscular dignity. The choice of medium, kind of wicker reed, places it in a pastoral idyll, but at once emphasizes the fragility of that particular mental place.

Tamarama beach is home to a not very classical nude 'Little Boy Lost' by Paul Trefry (which is unintentionally hilariously given a modest pair of Speedos in the shot on the SBTS website). It would be easy to dismiss it as a Ron Mueck impersonation and it is really, but trying a little to hard for empathy with its oversized and manipulative eyes, but on a quiet beach, admittedly that's only possible before about 6AM, it seems to look less for its parents than for a meaning out on the horizon toward which it faces.

Diamond skulls would usually raise my hackles but I found that the early morning light refracting through Phil Hall's 'Dying for a Drink', a large scale piece made from bottles, raised it from its appalling pun of a title. That's the thing with Sculpture by the Sea', if you plonk something down on a beach and wash it in the perfect light of dawn you can forgive it a lot of crimes.

This strip of coast becomes the land of public sculpture for a couple of weeks and often one can only wonder why some works want a place by the sea. One work that deserves it is Stephen King's 'The Eight'. I hope it's not just supposed to be some rowers shouldering their craft. In fact we have a large wooden place that evokes myth and history, it might be ancestors landing for the first time from a distant shore, caryatids from a pre-historic Parthenon or the sculptors of Easter Island finding a new home. These kind of confluences of our collective memory make for powerful art.

The most successful pieces interact with the land and ocean, that's not to say that the annual examples of pieces framing sky and sea or simply clinging to the deeply beautiful cliffs qualify. Some works can make the landscape look and feel new, they work physically and visually rather than conceptually. One work that does this beautifully is Satu Bushnell's 'Transition' are the series of large mirrored beach hits that cling to the stubborn undulations of the cliffs above McKenzie's Bay. During the day their imperfect reflective surface twists the rock even further, knowing that this geology is restive and alive, whilst at dawn they burn with the rising light. They are a brilliantly physical contemplation on light and space and a piece I'd be happy to have here forever.

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