Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: Birchs Bay Sculpture Trail

This year marks the eleventh anniversary of the Birchs Bay sculpture trail.  Originally called ‘Benchmarking Birchs Bay’, the recent name change to ‘Art Farm Birchs Bay’ reflects the expansion of their art program, which now includes art and craft workshops and an indoor art gallery: the Old Distillery.

I’ve visited a number of their previous trails, and have watched it mature and develop into a diverse and thought-provoking exhibition. Of course, there are a few of the usual twee sculpture trail offerings, such as mosaic flowers, and stick and shell constructions. But on the whole, the current exhibition easily rivals major public sculpture events in terms of scope and artistic engagement with the surrounding environment.

It’s about a 45 minute walk through the bush. We initially wind our way through the working farm, including a pear orchard, which is quite appropriately scattered with oversized ceramic pears.  After crossing a plantation of Tasmanian native pepperberry trees, we wind our way up to the natural bush trail.  I walk with my small dog, who seems particularly attracted to the sculptures with a lingering smell (especially the caged oyster shells).  The trail is on private land and presumably relies on their café revenue to partly fund the initiative, but visitors are nonetheless encouraged to bring their dogs, their kids, and a picnic.  At one point I encounter a family of picnickers (including a happy Labrador) enjoying the incredible view over the Great Bay to Bruny Island.  For awhile, I’m followed by a family who’s playing a game of ‘guess the price of the artwork’, with the ‘answer’ printed in the accompanying catalogue.  Artwork sales are obviously important to the exhibition’s financial sustainability, but I also have a tendency to get distracted by price tags. As a result, I walk the rest of the trail without reference to the catalogue, enjoying the unexpected artwork encounters sans map. 

Dean Chatwin, Nature's Way, 2016. Image credit: the artist.
The standout for me is Dean Chatwin’s witty installation, Nature’s Way.  His sculpture mimics the design of Tasmanian street signs with one exception: like a weathervane, a gust of wind will alter the sign’s orientation.  On one hand, the structure is an unexpected aesthetic intrusion, but it’s also such an everyday object that it’s comfortingly familiar, even natural. At the time of my visit, ‘Nature’s Way’ points to a barrier of bush scrub, although it could just as easily be pointing in the direction of the working farm.  We might think we can control the world around us, but as the sign suggestions, nature will ultimately have its way.

Unlike Chatwin’s work, which deliberately stands out against its surroundings, Sally Brown’s ­­­­Web, Net, Lace (2007) has weathered and faded over the years.  The cobweb-like structure high between two trees is easily missed, particularly if you’re buried in the sculpture map.  Each year, a couple of sculptures are acquired by the owners and remain permanently along the trail, aging sympathetically to their surroundings.  There are sculptures by a number of fairly high-profile Tasmanian artists, such as Brown and Marcus Tatton.    Brown’s other permanent work is a field of metal flowers dotted around the upper trail.  Like ­­­­Web, Net, Lace, the flowers are weathering and rusting, blending with the surrounding environment despite the material’s industrial roots.

Mike Limb, Cello
I’m conflicted over Mike Limb’s descriptively titled Cello.  While the subject leaves me cold, there’s a lovely relationship between the curled strips of rusted steel around the instrument’s bridge and the scraps of bark littered around its base.  Julie Milton’s Eucalion mimics the surrounding environment more directly – a steel and acrylic version of the surrounding natural grasses.  I also enjoy Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest made from ‘beach float-some’, including shoes, rope, fishing nets, and hats, although I wonder if the awkwardly-located rusted metal birds are really necessary.  The sound and light elements of Edith Perrenot’s towering sculpture aren’t working on my visit, but I’m nonetheless intrigued by the cheeky figures peering out from the golden vestibules.

Keith Smith’s Cuckoo Nest (with my dog Pip)
We have a couple of high-profile art philanthropists in Tasmania who understandably receive a lot of media attention, but we’re also lucky to have a lot of smaller, privately-run art initiatives, such as Art Farm Birchs Bay.  I urge you to check it out.

This review was originally published in the May edition of Warp Magazine.

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