A seismic shift in attitude has seen ‘sculpture’, in any number of forms, stage a remarkable comeback from a position of near annihilation in the 1970s.
A seismic shift in attitude has seen ‘sculpture’, in any number of forms, stage a remarkable comeback from a position of near annihilation in the 1970s. To understand why requires letting go of ideas that sculpture is essentially of, or about, itself and taking onboard concepts about art making as defining points of reference, contact and difference between artist, audience and place. This explains, in particular, the emergence of public art as a highly visible (and sometimes divisible) phenomena within contemporary life. This is often because the work occupies known ground and has to persuade a local community that has some good reason for being there and deserves to ‘belong’. Thus the controversies. People who regard bronze porkers poking their snouts into rubbish bins in a shopping mall as crass are happy to see them go. Others can’t get enough of the joke and want them restored. But it’s more complicated than that. What happens when an entire urban complex or architectural item is conceived in sculptural terms? This is happening right now in Adelaide. The bold forms of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, particularly the go-to motif of the ‘cheese-grater’ offer sculptural statements and (possibly healing) experiences on a grand scale. Sculpture, or thinking sculpturally, is now seen as a game-changer. The intriguing thing is that this kind of transformation is occurring on a more modest but no less public scale in the form of outdoor site sculpture events. A prominent example is Bondi Sculpture by the Sea. McClelland Gallery in Victoria conducts a major Sculpture Survey program with all sculptures sited in the grounds outside the Gallery. There are many others. Locally, I can’t recall levels of interest, initiatives and participation in sculpture so high. This is no accident and there are many contributing factors and forces at play. Foremost among these is the combined message flowing from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Biennial of Australian Art series, recent Adelaide Internationals, exhibition programs by presented by The Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Contemporary Art Centre of SA, SA School of Art Gallery and other funded, independent and commercial spaces, that occupying floor, wall and air space with objects or installations of various aesthetic/conceptual persuasions has ‘now’ written all over it. Add to this the emergence and popularity of local outdoor sculpture events, particularly The Heysen Sculpture Biennial, The Palmer Sculpture Biennial and the Adelaide Airport Brighton Jetty Classic Sculptures. Significantly all have grass roots origins. They exist because some people had visions and others (artists and supporters) have worked hard to see them realised. The Heysen SB began in 2000 with the work of 12 artists. Fifty-six artists presented in 2012. Thirty-eight artists will exhibit in the 2014 Heysen SB. This downsizing is deliberate. It marks a transition from an opendoor approach to a process involving artists submitting expressions of interest, along with proposals to a selection committee. In this way the organisers consider that discretion can be exercised in quality and siting. Whether this quashes the exuberant spirit of previous shows remains to be seen. What can be said is that the peculiar affection previous Heysens had to the thematic ‘Homage to Nature’ has been abandoned. Thank God. Leave such naffness to royal societies, fibre collectives and the like. Overlapping the 2014 Heysen SB will be the 2014 Adelaide Hills International Sculpture Symposium, which sounds very formal, but for those who can remember the previous one, promises more creative rock bothering on a very dramatic scale. This project’s very schmick website will explain all. The first Palmer Sculpture Biennial was launched in conjunction with the 2004 Adelaide Festival. Its origins lay in Adelaide artist Greg Johns’ plans to own and develop a site where he could ‘freely’ place his own sculptures. In 2001 he purchased a donedown sheep grazing property in rain shadow country at Palmer, 70kms east of Adelaide. A concept emerged from the interactionof Johns and some artists, Ken Orchard, Ian Hamilton and Gavin Malone. The result was the Palmer Sculpture Biennial, which as a concept and ongoing program has continued to evolve. Not a sculpture park or a completely ‘drop-in’ event (some sculptures remain permanently or for extended periods) Palmer is more an open laboratory for ideas about art and land. It has become a kind of sculptural eminence grise, haunting the fringes of settlement with holistic visions. The Brighton Jetty sculpture event may be the smallest in scale but has the longest title: Adelaide Airport Brighton Jetty Classic Sculptures. Maybe the Classic will fall off the jetty sometime. It’s been running since 2008. Brighton Surf Life Saving Club members were inspired by a Cottesloe Sculpture by the Sea (WA) and saw no reason why their club couldn’t get into the act. The first clutch of Brighton Jetty’s had a feel-good bounce to them but looked unlikely to attract more experienced sculptors. By 2013 there were signs that the Brighton JCS was on the radar and confident in strutting its stuff along the Esplanade. Demarcating between visually bold and riskier works and populist community participation is a decision all such projects have to face, at some time or another, if they want to grow. That kind of decision doesn’t look far away. Sculpture. Right now it looks like we just can’t get enough. Heysen Sculpture Biennial: February 23 to April 27 Adelaide Airport Brighton Jetty Classic Sculptures: January 22 to February 2 Palmer Sculpture Biennial: March 8 to 23