Sculpture By The Sea

(Poet Richard Tipping’s entry in Sculpture by the Sea struck a chord with a certain wine critic.) 

It was a beautiful morning for a stroll last Monday week when I visited Sculpture By The Sea between Bondi and Tamarama beaches. Or should I say, a beautiful morning to join a crush of jostling humanity? You could barely move along the path for the thousands of bodies. Any thought that a Monday morning might be less busy than any other day was quickly dashed.

The attraction that commanded the attention of the most people, and held their eyes for by far the longest time, was a couple of pods of dolphins, frolicking in the waves off the Marks Park headland. Hundreds of people stood transfixed, fascinated and delighted by this wonderful spectacle. Nature is frequently more interesting than human activity.

It was especially true of this year’s display of sculptures, which I felt were often poorly conceived and poorly sited. Many of these works give the feeling that the artists are just fooling around. Surely they can’t be serious.

There were 109 exhibits, and I enjoyed maybe a dozen of them. Perhaps I’ve become acclimatized to the modern art scene, and my expectations lowered, but I still count that as a worthwhile experience, unlike The Sydney Morning Herald’s Elizabeth Farrelly, whose excellent column on Sculpture By The Sea was published on November 7. She was more scathing and only found six she liked.

She didn’t mention the dolphins, so maybe my mood had been improved by the free display by wild animals, unrehearsed and blissfully ignorant of their entertainment value.

Perhaps that’s the nub of the matter. So many artists are so obviously marketing themselves; they’re self-conscious; they’re trying hard to impress us – often with nothing more than size. They are trying to draw attention to themselves, and often do it with shock or surprise. Frequently, that’s all there is, and once you’ve digested the shock (which takes about 10 seconds), it’s boring, and you move on. Dolphins don’t draw attention to themselves. They don’t need to.

Any artwork that drew the viewer’s attention to the sea, the extraordinary beauty of this coastline and water, was a balm: it took our minds off the ordeal of having to put up with hordes of fellow humans.

I’ve often felt, in previous years as well as this year, that the sculptures that incorporate the beauty around them, which mostly means the ocean, succeed best, and this year it was one of the many Japanese artists, Koichi Ishino, (the Japanese incidentally stole the show, I thought) who did this best, with his ‘Wind Stone – the threshold of consciousness’. The Japanese works were often made of highly finished stainless steel, although one I enjoyed greatly was in glass – Toshio Iezumi’s float glass totem, ‘m.140901’.

Also liked Clara Hall’s ‘Hilje’, an abstract figure sculpture in bronze and corten steel. And Michael Greve’s breaching humpback whale carved from redgum and spotted gum. And Nicholas Uhlmann’s ‘Rock Bottom Riser III’, which drew many allusions to wind and water. It was in its rightful place on Tamarama Beach.

But, even after a week’s reflection, the fact remains: the most memorable part of the visit was the dolphin display. Maybe it says something about the transitory nature of beauty, of the magic of the moment, and about taking notice of the wonder of nature which is all around us all the time, but often ignored. 

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