Christopher Allen casts his eye over this year’s Sculpture by the Sea


A friend with whom I visited the exhibition this year, musing on the success of Sculpture by the Sea’s formula, and its expansion into satellite exhibitions in Perth and even Denmark, wondered why not Melbourne as well. But then, looking at the extraordinary clifftop surroundings with the crashing waves below, the beautiful sunny afternoon, the jumble of artistic styles and the crowds of pretty eastern suburbs girls in tights having their ­pictures taken for Instagram and Facebook, he concluded that this was perhaps all too quintessentially Sydney and might not go down quite so well in the southern capital.

The selection of work is as ­always eclectic, reflecting the general uncertainty about the purpose and place of art in con­temporary society, which is of course always more acute in the case of sculpture, if only because it takes up more space and cannot usually be confined to a decorative place on the wall. If sculptures are not monuments or memorials, which is to say that they have no common or public place, what ­exactly are they for?

One answer is that they can be reduced to the scale of a kind of mini-monument in a corporate environment, sitting in front of an office block or in a foyer and suggesting the enterprise is somehow concerned with more than just making money. The winner this year, David Ball’s Orb, is this sort of thing: it is an oval ring made of steel sheeting welded into a hollow box-like form, interrupted at one point by a small sphere.

Rings and circles are cliches of corporate modernist sculpture, with their easy logo-like suggestion of infinity, cycles, the cosmos or whatever else you want to ­associate with them. Often they are made out of mechanically fabricated polished steel or granite; here the material is rusted steel, perhaps in an effort to look less shiny and facile, but the hollow box structure feels insubstantial and the welding of the sheets — especially the spacing of joints — lacks aesthetic sense or symmetry.

Much more interesting, even if ultimately limited in the scope of its method, is Peter Lundberg’s Walking Woman, a sculpture formed by digging a trench in the ground, filling it with concrete, and then extracting the resulting cast, combined with the red sandstone that has become attached to the concrete. Towering up above us in an irregular loop that retains the organic forms of the earth and rock in which it is cast, the work is both impressive in scale and ­material and yet paradoxically fragile.

Walking Woman  by US artist Peter Lundberg. Picture: AFP

Walking Woman by US artist Peter Lundberg. Picture: AFP

Among the more interesting works elsewhere is Harry Fasher’s group of ghostly horses, a memorial to the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba — Fasher is the recipient of a Helen Lempriere scholarship — and an intriguing ­anamorphic house, built of cedar but floating against the sky, by my friend and colleague Dale Miles, a Lempriere winner two years ago: an inviting and yet disturbing ­interior, with a single seat, seems to beckon us from a distance, but space disappears as we approach.

There is an elegant blue sculpture by Ron Robertson-Swann, also a Helen Lempriere scholar, another whimsical and poetic equine figure by Orest Keywan and a ring of steel blocks by Tetsuro Yamasaki that support each other horizontally in the way that an arch supports itself vertically.

Unfortunately there are a great many other pieces, from the kitsch and the quaint to banal formalism and vapid conceptualism, that leave one wondering why the artist made them at all. Art can be ambiguous and mysterious but it must impart a sense of conviction and necessity.