Amidst the grand blue of sea and sky
One aspect of early modernism in sculpture was to locate artistic inspiration in some primitive or natural arcadia beyond industrialized culture, and to turn away from the forms of the immediate past. Sculptors like Brancusi and Moore intended much of their work to be placed in a natural setting in the engulfing grace of earth and sky and integrated natural space into their works.
Moreover, especially since the 1960s, the gallery space seemed dwarfed by the mammoth size of sculptures, instead the vast natural setting took over as the ideal site for placing them. Robert Smithson's seminal Land Art 'Spiral Jetty' in Utah could be better seen from inside a flying chopper than from physical proximity, or a later-day work by Richard Serra in New Zealand that stretched 257 metres long and weighed around 616 tonnes. In recent times, however, some sculptors have moved towards gigantism while following the architect's way (Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness, as architect Rem Koolhaas commented ironically at the end of the 20th century): Anish Kapoor's 130-metre Olympic tower Orbit, or Antony Gormley's architectural installation with monumental iron blocks and luminous matrices in 'Vessel' that spans an entire Tuscan town, or Joana Vasconcelos's three-metre pair of silver stilettos constructed from saucepans in the Hall of Mirrors and marble lions wrapped in crochet at Versailles.
However, when some of the vast sculptural installations are dismantled from an exhibition, they are usually moved into storage. Most museums confront the challenge to find space for storing such works and the sculptors of gigantism themselves often face the task of storing thousands of tons of their own unsold works. Thus, the growth of the phenomenon of the outdoor sculpture parks has doubtless helped, by default, to deal with this problem and one hopes some more along the lines of Storm King in upper New York state, or Kielder Forest Park in Northumberland, UK around Europe's biggest man-made lake, or the varied landscape of the Südtirol Sculpture Path in Lana in northern Italy would be one of their ways into existence.
However, when sculpture had been placed in the open air, another question had irked our sensibility: how to distinguish public sculpture from mass art? As modern sculpture moved outdoors prominently from the 1960s, debates and controversies have persisted between the convention of placing the statues of the patriots, statesmen, or distinguished sons of the soil on public places and placing creative and, even avant-garde sculptures in the open – often as site-specific creations. Consequently, proponents of sculpture as creative public art have often locked horns with those responsible for sculpture as mass art. One of the most dramatic example from the latter could be drawn from India – the multi-crore project of propaganda sculptures that was initiated by BSP leader Mayavati's government in Uttar Pradesh in India to uphold a particular ideology while, from the former, there had been the avant-garde's defiance of public taste – as was the classic instance of Richard Serra's monumental sculpture Tilted Arc that was conceived for a public plaza in downtown Manhattan in 1979 but had to be removed a few years later due to severe public outcry. Thus, there is always a challenge with new experimentations of public art that could confront democracy's logic of satisfying public taste through its populist cultural policy – while presenting an alternative notion of creating new public taste as opposed to the implicit political attempts to maintain the status quo.
This medley of thoughts made waves in my mind as I prepared to begin my long and winding (almost two kilometres) coastal art-walk through the world's largest free public sculpture exhibition from Bondi beach to Tamarama beach with the long stretch of Tasman Sea on one side and wind-carved sandstone cliff line on the other – as constant company. Known as Sculpture By The Sea (S x S), this grand phenomenon that began on 18 October last year had 114 new sculptures from Australia and the rest of the world had already come of age with its sixteenth annual edition. During the eighteen days of the show, Sydney's peripheral coastline was temporarily transformed into an amazing sculpture park in which, according to official estimates, nearly 500,000 people gathered in the sun-bathed Australian summertime to gaze, romp, play, picnic, or doze off around these droves of alfresco sculptures all the way.
The devouring of empty urban space and rapid growth of high-rise buildings have largely driven sculptures out of the household premises and consequently their demand have also lessened in the art market at large due to a variety of reasons. It was, therefore, such a stupendous revelation to watch so many sculptures over such a long stretch – with the grand blue of the sky and the sea as backdrops. To avoid the growing crowd later in the day, I headed in the early morning sun from Bondi Road and went down the stairs to the seaside path to meet up with Dr Michael Hill, the Head of Art Theory & History at the National Art School in Sydney, who was waiting for me under the giant copper and stainless steel sculpture of a kangaroo with human legs, Emblematic by Geoffrey Ricardo.
As we walked past a few more sculptures on the beachside joggers track, we stopped at the turn of the path. A big alluvium sandstone, naturally shaped like a pointed shoe, was wrapped by local artists Susan Foster and Christophe Domergue with chrome polyester like Christo's proverbial wrapping of buildings, transforming with a mere cover the organic natural form into a familiar object (shoe). A few sculptures away was the Goa-based sculptor Subodh Kerkar's Chilly (Hill joked on the last letter 'y' although it was meant to be chilli) with fibreglass covered with truck tyres and entirely painted in red. Kerkar intended to link chilli with the role of the sea as a mode of cultural diffusion since it was initially brought in by sea by the Portuguese traders to India: however, this was not an impressive work and rather small for that engulfing panorama.
Since the site is a threshold between suburban fringe and sea, S x S combined both the urban and the natural traditions of outdoor work. I had to stop by Sydney's own Ron Robertson-Swann's 'Warrior' with mild steel in which different metal parts were finely welded together into an organic shape. The sculpture was soft-painted in black to keep rusting and corrosion at bay. Considered as one of the most consistent of the Classic Formalists, this abstract-sculptor is perhaps best known for his minimalist public sculpture Vault in Melbourne whose play with different planes was a reminder to the style of his sculptural mentor Sir Anthony Caro. And lo, above on the plateau was indeed the abstract steel sculpture Eastern, all painted in yellow, by Sir Anthony which was done during the 1980s when he worked on the relation between concavity and convexity, emptiness and mass, straight line and curve. On the same plane was also the round 'Sea's Nest' with stainless steel and red brick by Chinese sculptor Zhang Yangen, one of the 37 international artists chosen in this edition of S x S. At a distance was Keizo Ushio's Oushi Zokei Twice Twist Band, a granite piece through which the Japanese sculptor commented on the beauty of being connected in a pair with the other. The other granite sculpture rising to the sky was Hiroaki Nakayama's symbolic Came Back – a simple form, non-obtrusive to the landscape and the sea, making the surrounding ambience an integral component of his art.
An ardent supporter of the cause of S x S, Hill remarked, “There is no rigid curatorial policy and the themes emerge from the sculptors themselves with the huge gathering public in mind. Further, the sculptures have to be open to the cruel scrutiny of the masses and devoid of using textual aid, thus making the exhibition a thoroughly grass-root event.” Hill explained further that from the mounting pile of applications, works are selected for S x S according to some criteria of which three are mandatory. “First, the work must be good; second, it should be scaled appropriately; and finally, it should be able to last three weeks in the wind, rain, and sun without falling apart.” In this way, the health of sculpture as a discipline could be promoted, one that more than any other visual art exists on its own materiality.
Another challenge to exhibit the works was to find key places – some needed to stand vertical against the sky, some placed down among plants and shrubs, some closer to the seabed. The nature of the material also determined a sculpture's placement.
Two of the most exquisite works need special mention here. Orest Kewan's steel composition Namerique in black and blue might not have looked impressive in that vast background of sky and sea but its originality was embedded in its linear exploration of space with disparate forms – like a little conversation among fragmented forms, or different notes in a musical passage – arising in crescendo and falling back. Mass, which is the bedrock element of sculpture, was defied in this unusual work, to make one search for further discoveries of meaning. Of a different genre altogether was the Cave Urban Collective's Mengenang (Memory) with 222 slender bamboo poles that stood seven metres high in several rows (through which one could walk) and which were all tuned to the mournful D minor chord. A singular prototype of auditory sculpture, the conception of this wind-driven installation was inspired by the Bali Bombings of 2002 in which 222 lives, including more than 90 Australians, were killed. I wondered whether this piece could have been further charged with an extended notion of participatory art – into a social sculpture à la Beuys – by inviting people to prolong/expand this work with the help of some other medium to drive home the political will, or our own conscience, towards peace in human living.
Art Critic John McDonald pointed out that when government agencies and museums are willing to support the most unlovable or controversial art these days, popularity has taken on a different connotation, meaning that which is adored by the masses must necessarily be no good. 'For much of its lifespan S x S has sought to convince that a show may be both popular and of the highest quality. It has also had to argue that massive popularity does not translate into a financial windfall.'
David Handley, the sprightly Founding Director of the event, mentioned that the entire budget of the first S x S was $11,000, of which $8,500 was spent on artists' awards. Moreover, it was the stray band of volunteers who really put the show together with their ready support to provide some much-needed exposure to sculpture. 'Looking back, 15 years ago I was ridiculously naïve,' wrote Handley in the introduction of a superbly-produced catalogue of the S x S's first fifteen years, “and 'I bit-off almost more than I could chew' but this is probably why so many people got behind the exhibition from its earliest days as volunteers, donors and sponsors. Together we have created something special while fostering the careers of emerging sculptors and giving impetus to established sculptors who had nowhere of note to exhibit outdoors – which is like restricting an opera singer to singing without an audience. Along the way I like to think that not a lot has changed from the original idea... but I am probably too close to judge.”
A very welcome aspect of S x S is that after the Bondi show, it is further repeated twice in a slightly diminutive scale, in two different places so that sluggards with tardy indecision can catch the next bus.
Thus, after the Bondi Beach show, S x S was repeated from 8 to 25 March 2013 on Cottesloe Beach, Australia's west coast overlooking the Indian Ocean – with 70 works by sculptors from around the world – on the beach, sea wall and park-land terraces. Otherwise known for its spectacular sunsets, this most popular amphitheatre-like beach of Perth was the ideal natural site with the long sea wall on the left and the grand Indiana Tea House Building on the right. Handley informed me later in a personal communication, 'In a way, even more so than the Bondi exhibition, this show is integrated with the local beachside community and how the people of Perth use the beach.' Besides, many of the sculptures acquired through the exhibition were installed on the private holiday properties of the people of Perth, adding a new dimension to this leading wine producing area.
The last leg of S x S would be in Aarhus in Denmark from 1 to 30 June 2013. The exhibition, held bi-annually since 2009, was initiated by the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Denmark who first experienced the Bondi exhibition together in 2000 after the Sydney Olympics. There would be 60 sculptures from around the world along a 3km walk around the bay of Aarhus which has a beautiful forest that winds its way beside the sea shore, allowing the artists astonishing possibilities to exhibit on the shore, in the sea or in the forest. It would also offer a variety of experiences to the public as they would wander along and discover the works.
In this way, walking itself could be an autonomous form of art, a primary act in the symbolic transformation of the territory, an aesthetic instrument of perception and a physical reconstruction of the negotiated space within the wider historical emergence of Green humanism. And the outdoor works in S x S can give vent to all the changing experiential qualities that are subdued by the White Cube, like the sound and movement generated by sea wind, or the shadows and colours cast by sunlight, or the low angle view of tall sculptures while one reclines on the sheet of grass – a humbling gesture to keep public art at the level of 'grass-root' appreciation.
ROMAIN MAITRA is an art critic and independent curator of contemporary art resident in Kolkata. He is also a cultural anthropologist by intellectual persuasion and worked as a consultant at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.