By John McDonald
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As a looming El Nino system promises a hot, dry summer, Sculpture by the Sea has once again demonstrated its magical powers as a bringer of rain. Threatened by droughts and bushfires, perhaps we should abandon the unreliable science of meteorology and organise outdoor sculpture exhibitions in the driest parts of the country.
Last week, as the SXS team laboured to install sculptures along the foreshores between Bondi and Tamarama, the wind whipped up and dark, purple-grey clouds crowded the sky. It wasn’t conducive to moving heavy artworks with cranes, but it made for wonderful photos. The red covering on one work, the bright yellow of another, set against that backdrop, was a study in contrasts fit for a Jeffrey Smart painting.
Looking out to sea, whales were frolicking close to the shore, providing a special bonus for those viewers who come back, every October, to see this ridiculously popular exhibition. If the whales and the brooding skies can keep up their act for the next two weeks – and the rain holds off – it should be a memorable year.
John Petrie with his work, 23.5 degrees, which won this year’s Sculpture by the Sea.Credit: Janie Barrett
The show has become one of Sydney’s biggest annual events, but SXS generalissimo, David Handley, was keen to let me know about its international penetration. He wasn’t simply referring to the number of works by artists from other countries, including Japan, the United States, Austria, England, China, Lithuania, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Singapore, India, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Ukraine, Greece, France, Iraq, Hong Kong, Canada, and Western Australia.
Handley’s point was that SXS has become a reputation-builder for artists from around the world, who see it as a major international showcase. The show is also attracting attention from overseas collectors, who are prepared to buy works and have them shipped from Sydney. In brief, he was arguing that SXS is connecting this country to the world in a way that local art museums, government agencies and commercial galleries have been unable or unwilling to match.
The conclusion that follows is that SXS deserves a greater level of government and corporate support, so it can go on to bigger things – including the kind of international events it previously held in Denmark, and attracting more superstars of world art. There will be plenty of other schemes and aspirations locked away in Handley’s desk drawer.
Meanwhile, the 2023 exhibition is up and running, and crowds are already gathering on the foreshores. I’m going to take a rapid overview of this year’s offerings, with the caveat that some works were not installed when I visited, and I’m only discussing those pieces I’ve seen at first-hand. You’ll simply have to go along and find out if I’ve missed any masterpieces. As ever, do not under any circumstances imagine you’ll get a parking spot!
Dave Horton: Cheryl’s Night Garden
David Horton’s Cheryl’s Night Garden.Credit: James Brickwood.
Dave Horton is a Sydney sculptor who saves his most important works for SXS. This year he has pulled out all stops and been rewarded with the coveted circular stone area at the foot of Marks Park overlooking the ocean. Cheryl’s Night Garden is almost architectural in its ambitions. Dominated by a curved archway, it’s a piece that invites us to walk around it and gaze through it. Based on a domestic garden, it also has a mechanical dimension – a legacy of the steel off-cuts from which it has been constructed. One imagines the work should serve some useful purpose, such as making astronomical observations. The slightly battered circular plinth upon which it sits was originally produced for Anthony Caro (1924-2013), arguably the most famous sculptor of the modern era, who exhibited in the 2011 show in the same location. In its blend of elegance and complexity, Horton’s work is a fitting homage to this modern master of welded steel.
Lucy Barker: On Line Clothes Swap
Lucy Barker’s On Line Clothes Swap.Credit: James Brickwood
This year marks Lucy Barker’s entry into the Decade Club, as it’s the tenth time she has been included in SXS. Unlike many of her co-exhibitors, Barker is an artist without a signature style who creates diverse objects and installations with a conceptual basis. In a broadly humorous way she engages with “environmental and social change”, this time with a custom-made Hills Hoist at the end of a concrete garden path. It’s a participatory work in which visitors are invited to take an item of clothing from the washing line and leave one in its place. The theme is the need for all of us to embrace recycling and the elimination of waste. It’s a speculative piece that if it succeeds, will make every day at SXS resemble a busy laundry day.
Naja Utzon Popov: Momentum
Naja Utzon Popov’s Momentum.Credit: James Brickwood
Inheritor of a couple of famous names, Danish ceramic sculptor, Naja Utzon Popov is the granddaughter of Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, and the daughter of Australian architect, Alex Popov. For SXS she has created a set of black ceramic tree trunks festooned with delicate porcelain shells that might be leaves or even fungi. It’s a celebration of nature’s resilience in bouncing back from the most disastrous bushfires, as these fragile, white and green glazed forms cluster around a set of dry-looking poles that made me think of the larrakitj of Arnhem Land. It’s a long way from the forests of Scandinavia, but Popov’s own life has been the perfect bridge between two diverse parts of the world.
Laurence Edwards: Man of Stones
Laurence Edwards’ Man of Stones.Credit: James Brickwood
This isn’t the first time British sculptor, Laurence Edwards, has participated in SXS. He was also present in 2015, but this time he is enjoying a wave of local popularity that has seen him hold a survey at the Orange Regional Gallery, and have a major work exhibited outside of the Art Gallery of NSW. Edwards’s Man of Stones, which was also shown in Orange, is one of a series of monumental, masculine figures who seem to belong to some primordial era when human beings still lived as hunter-gatherers. The other option is a science fictional one, of a post-apocalyptic world in which we’ve reverted to a primitive hand-to-mouth existence. Either way, Edwards’s bronze man laden with mysterious bundles, is a striking presence among the rocks at Bondi.
Chen Wenling: The Top of the Balance
Chen Wenling’s The Top of the Balance.Credit: James Brickwood
From the moment he began showing with SXS in 2011, Chen Wenling has been a firm favourite with audiences. One of China’s leading sculptors, an artist with a strong sense of showmanship, Chen is exhibiting another of those trademark red boys. This one is balancing a vast stainless-steel globe on his head – a “Look! No hands!” version of Atlas. The seashore is familiar territory for Chen, who made his name with an installation of 140 fibreglass red boys on the beach at Xiamen in 2001. His message, then and now, was “Seize the day”, a philosophy he has put into practice over the past two decades. Unlike so many Chinese artists who have been trenchant social critics, Chen feels the best thing he can do is channel positive energies into his sculptures.
Linda Bowden: S’epanouir
Johannes Pannekoek: Lifeblood 1
S’epanouir by Linda Bowen.Credit: Janie Barrett
Lifeblood 1 by Johannes Pannekoek.Credit: Janie Barrett
I’m pairing Linda Bowden with Johannes Pannekoek because both artists have made fluent, abstract metal sculptures that seek to capture a vital life force while echoing the rhythms of the waves off Bondi. Bowden’s S’epanouir takes its title from the French verb “to blossom”, a sentiment acted out by a set of dancing, loosely connected metal forms that celebrate the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Pannekoek takes a grander approach, with his large-scale Lifeblood 1 resembling a single ribbon that twists and turns like a snake in an open-ended homage to nature. Both works might be bracketed with Michael Le Grand’s Ebb and Flow, another metal sculpture imbued with those same natural rhythms. I’ve yet to see le Grand’s piece, but on past performances, one knows he can produce the goods.
The Glue Society: Hot with the Chance of a Late Storm
The Glue Society’s Hot with the Chance of a Late Storm.Credit: James Brickwood
You may feel a touch of déjà vu when gazing upon the Glue Society’s sculpture of a melted Mr. Whippy van plonked in a corner of the beach in Tamarama. Hot wth a Late Storm, was first exhibited in SXS 2006, and is making a comeback an entire generation later. A visual gag about global warming, it speaks even more eloquently today, in the world of new temperature records and warnings that we are already past the point of no return. When first shown, the work became a huge hit on social media, and it’s only too likely this will happen all over again. If the joke isn’t quite as funny the second time around, blame the climate, not the artists.
Ayako Saito: Castle in the Air
Morgan Jones: Starstruck
Morgan Jones’ Starstruck.Credit: James Brickwood
Ayako Saito’s Castle in the Air.Credit: James Brickwood
I’m bracketing these two works as impressive examples of what may be achieved with a few stray pieces of metal and a coat of paint. With sculpture it’s just as hard to know what to leave out as what to put in – or rather, where to stop. Saito, who enters the SXS Decade Club this year, has created a refined, spatially complex work in a shade of deep blue that allows a glimpse of a staircase and windows, inviting us to look both at and through the structure. Jones has made a tightly compressed piece in which a few basic shapes are yoked togther with the tension of a nut turned on a bolt. If Saito’s blue has a recessive effect, Jones’s bright yellow paint job makes the work stand out with amazing vividness – a lesson he may have learned from Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (1980) which remains the most talked-about sculpture in Australian history.
Tung-Min Hu: Ark
Tung-Min Hu’s Ark.Credit: James Brickwood
Taiwanese artist, Tung-Min Hu has attempted the magic trick of capturing a splash of water in the medium of stainless steel. In life there is no moment when this water would not be in motion, in art, that moment is frozen for all eternity. By way of compensation, the shiny, reflective surface bestows a sense of liquidity. Hu says he has taken his inspiration from “the space formed by Taiwan’s Datun Mountain and Keelung River” – a surprisingly specific reference for such an abstract work. The Ark of the title refers to the actual shape of the sculpture, which looks vaguely boat-like, although no animals are present. It’s been established that audiences love shiny things, and the only artist in the show that may have outshone Hu, is young Western Australian sculptor, Sam Hopkins, whose Distorted Perception is a guaranteed selfie magnet.
Eiji Hayakawa: Giant in the Forest
Eiji Hayakawa’s Giant in the Forest.Credit: James Brickwood
Speaking of selfies, every year SXS benefits from hundreds of thousands of photos posted on social media by visitors. Certain works become favourites for the photo-hungry hordes, and Eiji Hayakawa has produced one of them in Giant in the Forest – a stainless steel gorilla that almost begs viewers to strike a pose and take out their mobile phones. Hayakawa is not among the Japanese veterans of SXS – Keizo Ushio is back for the 23rd time at Bondi since 1999! – but he already knows how to make a good first impression. The theme is broadly conservationist, but the result is pure entertainment.
Sculpture By the Sea 2023 is at Bondi to Tamarama until November 6.
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