Friday, January 7, 2011

Sculpture by the Sea: regressive and irrelevant?

Sculpture by the Sea needs a rethink.  Every year in November, I make the pilgrimage to Sydney to see the annual outdoor sculpture exhibition, where sculptures are installed along the picturesque cliffs from Bondi to Tamarama.  However, after this last experience (2010) I don’t think I’ll bother anymore.  Sculpture by the Sea (SS) has become commercial, boring, sameish, and conservative.  None of these criticisms, particularly my concern with the commercial emphasis of the festival, are bad per se as I know that large scale exhibitions need to be funded from multiple sources. However, the combination of these critical issues is turning what was initially an innovative and interesting exhibition, into an event that is losing relevance to many contemporary practicing artists, and ignoring the site’s true benefit, that is, its potential for site-specific art.

One of the few truly site-specific artworks in 2010: recycled plastic bottle 'icicles'
 Stylistically, most of the sculptures bear few similarities to the sculptures shown in contemporary galleries or even at other popular outdoor exhibitions around the world.  One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is an increase in monumental cast or assembled metal works, often bronze, and either rigidly abstract or nauseatingly figurative.  This last exhibition, in fact, gave me a sense of deja vou – it seemed that they’d re-exhibited the works from 2009.  Now, I have no problem with abstract work, nor bronze as a material, however, the works were so Caroesque that I was reminded of Charles Green’s comments in his book Peripheral Vision.  Green describes the gulf between the ‘older welded-steel sculptors and the younger post-object artists’ at the significant Mildura Sculpture Triennial one year.  Apparently, this evident generational gap ‘led to the enclave of formalist works being labelled “Karo Korner”’ (Green, 1995 p. 17).  I want to highlight the date of the exhibition: it was 1973. I believe that contemporary art has well and truly moved on from these traditional styles, styles that were becoming quickly irrelevant 40 years ago.  Of course, such sculptures are interesting when considered in their historical context, however I fail to see the relevance of such heavy, masculine, and permanent works (and I emphasise the more negative connotations of the adjectives) to contemporary culture and society.  Evidently, most museums and artists agree, and it’s really only at SS that I’ve witnessed such a popularity in this conservative and traditional artform.  I should probably add at this point, that Sir Anthony Caro was actually invited to exhibit in the 2010 SS.  I laughed when I saw his work, because I came across the massive structure plonked on the grassy cliff just as I was explaining to my friends what I mean by ‘Caroesque’.  I also need to emphaise that I enjoy Anthony Caro’s work, and my objection to the SS’s ‘Karo Korner’ is merely concerned with its relevance to 21st century art practice.

So why is SS so regressive in their choice of artwork?  I understand that the works have to be durable due to their windy outdoor site, yet the exhibition is only for a couple of weeks and there are plenty of other materials and styles that can withstand such weather.  Perhaps it’s because most of the entries embraced more traditional materials and subjects; although I doubt it, because not only do most practicing Australian artists work in more contemporary media (based on what I see in both commercial and public galleries, artist websites, and my friends and colleagues’ work), but I know of many excellent and high-profile artists being turned down for proposals that engage with the site in relevant and interesting ways.  I also know that in past SS exhibitions, there have many more site-specific works of art.  My guess is that such sculptures sell.  Site-specific installations, regardless of their merit, do not sell as well as stand-alone works, simply because they often require a dialogue with the site to work properly.  Additionally, in terms of materials, bronze is easier to sell (particularly to a conservative public) because of its associations with wealth, permanency and tradition.  These works are safe; they don’t challenge the definition of art or cause controversy.  Yet, the sheer number of them in the last few years of SS has made the exhibition just that: safe, traditional, boring and conservative.

Imagine how innovative and interesting SS could be if they had more works that actually interacted with the site.  The landscape is incredible and calls out for playful and relevant artworks.  The cliffs, the thrashing waves, the wind, the sand, the handrails, the plants gripping onto the cliffs, the dripping water, the salt, the tourists, the gentrification of the area’s housing, the caves…  I mean, the site wants to be in dialogue with the sculptures, and yet the majority of the sculptures are simply ‘plonked’ there.  While public artworks for the last 40-odd years have been moving towards interactivity and relevance to the historical, special or cultural aspects of their respective sites, SS is regressive, returning to a pre-1970s public art and ignoring the wonderful developments in outdoor art which have flourished since Christo wrapped Little Bay in 1969. 

Let’s be proud of our country’s outstanding contemporary artists and make sure that SS, as one of the most popular and high-profile outdoor exhibitions, does justice to our thriving art scene.  For if I was a tourist from another country and witnessed only Sculpture by the Sea as illustrative of 21st century art in Australia, I’d think were stuck in 1968.

1 comment:

Henry said...

I didn't actually see SS, but it sounds like part of the continuing spiral of Sydney smugness (SSS), typified by events such as oh-so-safe 'Festival of Dangerous Ideas' and the increasingly whitebread 'Sydney Festival'. Whenever I go to one of these events I can't help but feel like they are a painful project in Sydney City p.r. or marketing, trying to make the city cooler than it actually is, rather than actually helping give voice to artists or provide something edifying for audiences. And, of course, the Sydney Magazine - pretty much narcissus' pond for us navel-gazing Sydney Siders (SSs)