Sculpture by the Sea at Cottesloe and elsewhere
Sculpture by the Sea (SxS) first saw the light of day 25 years ago as a ‘one night stand’ at Bondi in 1997. Now it has clocked up 50 exhibitions distributed between Bondi in Sydney and Cottesloe in Perth with a few held in Denmark.
The idea is relatively simple. A large exhibition of big sculptures sprinkled along a spectacular stretch of coast. The exhibitions are free, democratic and secular and each location has its ‘peculiar’ and distinctive feel about it. The coastline from Bondi to Tamarama is steep, elevated and has performing whales and dolphins thrown in as a backdrop. Cottesloe has a flat sandy shore surrounded by grassy areas and a pier with the wonderful Indian Ocean as a backdrop with its stunning sunsets.
The realisation of this simple idea is exceptionally complex and has been the life’s work of the SxS founding CEO and artistic director, David Handley AM. The alchemy involved in fundraising for each event, the environmental and engineering logistics involved in siting each sculpture and the whole curatorial process of selecting the sculptors from a huge national and international pool keeps a permanent and large volunteer staff occupied throughout the whole year.
Handley is a charismatic personality with youthful handsome features who manages to infect others with enthusiasm for his projects and has drawn a professional staff into his orbit, has enthused thousands of volunteers and has persuaded many private sponsors to open their wallets. His success with government arts funding organisations at both state and commonwealth levels has been less successful at times although he did secure for SxS a $2 million grant in RISE funding.
How does one assess the worth of SxS? There are obvious economic benefits to the participating artists as well as the local economies. The artistic benefits are more difficult to fathom. There is a view in some quarters that SxS is insufficiently ‘elitist’ – that is, the selection process is not always conducted with the same stringency as within a public art institution and that there are too many concessions to popular taste. Some describe it as the ‘Archibald’ of sculpture.
Where this parallel holds good is that indeed hundreds of thousands of people turn up to see the shows and many who come are not regular art exhibition goers. In some SxS exhibitions, there are anywhere up to $2 million in sculpture sales. It can be argued that SxS has created and continues to create and foster new audiences for sculpture, a new breed of collectors of sculpture, and it sends an economic lifeline to keep some sculptors solvent in what is often lean times.
The argument in defence of the artistic integrity of SxS is that it shows the broad church of contemporary sculptural practice with the wacky, ephemeral and environmental installations, monumental structures in heavy metals and stone as well as some more conceptually experimental work. Being an out-of-doors exhibition with massive crowds and limited security, other factors including safety to the public, durability and longevity also need to be taken into consideration before work is accepted for the show.
The recent show at Cottesloe, the 18th at that venue, illustrates the multifaceted nature of SxS. There are about 70 major outdoor pieces that hug the coast and are situated along the beach, in the water, the surrounding grassy areas and the pier. A bit under half of the sculptors come from Western Australia, about 15 come from elsewhere in Australia (predominantly from NSW) and the rest are international with a substantial contingent from Japan as well as participants from Taiwan, the Czech Republic, France, Spain, Italy, India, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway and Singapore.
How do I assess this year’s Cottesloe? I have only been to three of the 18 SxS exhibitions held at this venue and this is not the finest of the three. Nevertheless this is a formidable show with plenty of interesting highlights.
A crowd favourite, as well as one of my favourites, is the work of the Victorian sculptor Jimmy Rix, Lone Dingo. It is figurative, but not literal, at over two metres it is monumental, and made of corten steel it possesses a natural rusty colour. It smacks of rustic humour and the disposition of planes makes it work from all angles. In his artist’s statement the artist provides us with a narrative: “The Lone Dingo stands apart from its pack, keeping its distance. Watching and waiting to be accepted back into the pack when the leader allows it - mirroring our experiences of social distancing and lockdown.”
The welded steel sculptures, a feature of all SxS exhibitions, include a brilliant swaying falling pillar by Haruyuki Uchida from Japan, titled Thinking Red, fabricated of stainless steel and held to some extent by magnets at four metres it is most imposing. Philip Spelman, who lives on the outskirts of Canberra in his mild steel Shuffle finished in shiny automotive paint has a brilliantly effective collapsing column of strict geometric shapes seemingly defying gravity. It is one of the most accomplished works that I have seen from this artist.
His neighbour, Michael Le Grand has created for the show what for him is an unusual block-like steel sculpture with elements as if peeling away from the main body. It is possibly more effective located within a shallow niche rather than seen completely in the round.
The wonderful veteran WA sculptor, Ron Gomboc who has been making sculpture for half a century has made a three-and-a-half metre high work where suspended on corten steel organic pillars are three stainless steel birds that can rotate with the breeze. Simple in concept, but effective and a work of soaring beauty.
Greg Johns, from SA, has a swaying corten steel structure that unlike some of his work is not overstated. At three-and-a-half metres it has a delicacy and sense of grace. Linda Bowen, from NSW, revisits an earlier piece of a construction of an open architectural space in mild steel and automotive paint. It has a somewhat uncanny feel here on the grass.
Another local WA sculptor, Kevin Draper has a remarkably clever and effective work in the form of a large tree that has been intersected with a red and white grid structure. It is about regrowth after a bushfire and I spent several occasions contemplating its solemn majesty. It works both on a purely emotional level, as well as a cerebral puzzle.
Another WA sculptor/printmaker is the fibre artist Fiona Gavino who weaves with cane a wondrous spreading maze measuring four by four by six metres that envelops the surrounding vegetation. It is a sensuous piece that throws a veil over nature to present an emotional and cerebral labyrinth of possibilities.
The Japanese contingent of artists, who have been a feature of many SxS exhibitions, especially in carvings from hard stone, are again prominent at Cottesloe. Takeshi Tanabe carves in black granite a superb contemplative work. His artist’s statement hints at the profundity of his piece. He writes: “This work focuses on the water on the earth as the origin of life. Water collected from oceans across the world has been sealed in the stone in an attempt to tell the world about the importance of protecting the earth’s water environments.” Contemplating these droplets of water releases some of the power of the piece.
Keizo Ushio carves out of green granite his knotted wreaths and Takahiro Hirata carves a black granite arrow head over two metres high in resolved splendour. Wataru Hamasaka carves a slab of granite as if a reclining couch on which Socrates administered hemlock to leave this life – it is a work of transcendental beauty.
Richard Tipping, from NSW continues with his famous aphorism road signs – in Cottesloe it is “Oh No” and “Oh Yes” that are very appropriate for our times. The veteran WA sculptor, Mark Grey-Smith, has produced a knotted riddle in his Germination in aluminium and terrazzo.
A different art critic would produce a different selection of highlights, but it is enough to say that there is much in this exhibition to delight the eye and to engage the mind.
SxS sails on with the Bondi exhibition opening on October 20 this year and the challenging Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail, funded by a $4 million grant from the NSW Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, is opening later this year.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
Keep up-to-date with Sasha Grishin's blog with the RSS feed.
RSS offers ease of access and ensures your privacy, as you do not need to subscribe with an email address.
Click here to download a free feed reader