On the right path

Sculpture by the Sea goes from strength to strength, writes John McDonald.

Sculpture by the Sea owes much of its appeal to its outdoor setting, but the exposed location brings its own hazards. There have been years in which the narrow walking trail from Bondi to Tamarama was nothing but a procession of duelling umbrellas. This year the installation was impeded by strong winds that made it difficult to carry out the precise and delicate operations required to set each sculpture in place.

On the day of the preview, crews were still wrestling with a few recalcitrant pieces, but by the weekend everything was finished in time for the crowds to descend. This is the 16th occasion the show has been held at Bondi and, judging by the traffic in the area last Sunday, its popularity shows no sign of diminishing.

By now SxS must be recognised as a Sydney institution, although this doesn't mean it is beyond criticism. The founder, David Handley, would probably agree that the popularity of the exhibition is based on a blend of significant works by recognised artists and pieces of a humorous or experimental persuasion, often contributed by amateurs or young aspirationals.

Needless to say, the professionals can still do dud sculptures, and many an amateur work could best be described as a gag or a gimmick. When there are too many trivial pieces the show loses its way, so the selection process is crucial. What's the verdict this year? Overall, a pretty solid performance.

The key factor is a strong showing by established sculptors such as Dave Horton, Orest Keywan, Paul Selwood, James Rogers, Philip Spelman and Lou Lambert.

It's also a good year for Linda Bowden, who joins the ''decade club'' with her 10th appearance in SxS. Bowden's entire career as a sculptor may be charted through these appearances.

Ron Robertson-Swann, who is probably the senior Australian sculptor in the exhibition, has produced an unusual work called Warrior. By Robertson-Swann's standards, this almost qualifies as a figurative piece, with the unmistakable suggestion of a standing figure. The metal components have been put together with little transformation in the manner of an assemblage. While Robertson-Swann's work is known for its elegance, there is a real awkwardness about this work. To have more of an impact it probably needs to be bigger, but the size is dependent on the found components.

I could say much the same about Michael Le Grand's Mnemosyne, which evokes the Greek goddess of memory in its title, but resembles a cartoon animal. Once again the work seems to hint at a figurative dimension that is never quite achieved.

Another established sculptor who has deviated from a familiar path is Koichi Ishino, who now qualifies as an Australian artist, although his work could hardly look more Japanese with its immaculate crafting of stainless steel and granite. After a succession of vertical pieces, Ishino has produced a low, flat work with a landscape element. It is, however, just as beautiful and skilful as any of his previous SxScontributions.

It is no surprise that the Japanese sculptors have contributed an impressive group of works again this year, with Hiroaki Nakayama's Came Back set to be a favourite. One viewer at a time may sit in a black-granite chair and contemplate the ocean through a slit in a towering monolith made from the same granite. The only problem is to find a moment when people aren't photographing each other in front of the work.

We tend to think of Chinese sculpture as figurative in inspiration, but Sui Jianguo and Zhang Yangen have both produced relatively abstract works, the former using a steel grid to reproduce the organic shape of a rock; the latter placing a brickwork sphere inside a stainless-steel ''egg''.

Uncharacteristically for Chinese contemporary artists, there is no satirical edge to either work, simply an engagement with nature and the cosmos.

For social satire one must head for the park in Tamarama, where Rod McCrae has created an elaborate pavilion filled with stuffed animals on the site of the old Wonderland City amusement park. The Tent of Wonders is represented in the catalogue by only a rough sketch, but it is an entire solo exhibition masquerading as an installation. McCrae's taxidermy sends a message about vivisection and animal cruelty that Voiceless would probably endorse, but it is also a commentary on human folly, like those images of a money painter that were popular in the 18th century.

It is inevitable that such an installation feels like a school project with delusions of grandeur. As far as sculpture goes, The Tent is a great piece of entertainment.

One could argue - like the section headings on the Herald website - that all art is entertainment, but there is a lot of room to move within that term. Anthony Caro (born 1924), who is becoming a regular participant in SxS, is an iconic figure in modern sculpture. He is a pioneer of those abstract, welded metal constructions that have become a distinct genre across the planet.

There is always something entertaining about Caro's work in the way he thinks through a particular combination of forms, shifting direction constantly throughout his long career. Eastern, Caro's contribution to this year's SxS, dates from 1983-85. Its bright-yellow paint job may recall Robertson-Swann's Vault (1980), which became the most controversial public sculpture in Australia when it was installed in Melbourne's City Square and subsequently moved, amid a furore of argument and protest.

Nowadays, Melbourne has a new admiration for Vault, and Caro's Eastern looks almost classical in relation to other pieces in SxS. The artist has said he tried to make a sculpture on the principle of concavity rather than convexity, which has resulted in a work that seems to be in a state of arrested collapse, its heavy, interlocking components leaning into each other.

On one hand Eastern is only concerned with achieving a particular spatial effect, but one might also see a broader metaphor in its vision of an inward-turning entity, frozen at a point before irretrievable decline sets in. One thinks of the great empires of China and the Middle East that chose to deliberately reject new ideas, and watched the West achieve political ascendancy. Nowadays the historical currents are moving in the opposite direction.

This year's $70,000 Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Prize was awarded to American Peter Lundberg for his work Barrel Roll. The work has a monumental, almost totemic presence, but also an organic dimension. This is a result of Lundberg's manipulation of concrete to produce moulded forms that seem to twist and turn, as if they have grown that way. The piece is actually made by taking a concrete cast from a hole excavated in the earth. The touches of colour come from the red clay in the ditch.

Lundberg was a worthy prizewinner, but there was plenty of competition in this year's field of 113 exhibitors. I don't have space to discuss the show in greater depth, but one of the pleasures of SxS - as with the dreaded Archibald Prize - is that it allows everyone to be an art critic for a day. It would be good to believe that out of this mass scrutiny a new appreciation of sculpture is gradually emerging.

The process of sculptural education might be even further advanced if the ongoing feud between SxS and some of the commercial galleries, over commissions on sales, were ever to be resolved. That seems no more likely now than this time last year, so as an equal-opportunity critic I feel obliged to mention the new initiative of the Defiance Sculpture Park at the Gate Gallery, in Wollombi Valley, less than two hours' drive from Sydney. I said a few words at the opening a couple of weeks ago, but that hardly constitutes a conflict of interest.

For many years Campbell Robertson-Swann of Defiance Gallery has been talking up the need for a dedicated sculpture park, and has finally succeeded in putting together a high-quality display including works by Phillip King, Ian McKay, Paul Hopmeier, Jan King and about 20 other reputable sculptors. Only Paul Selwood and Greg Johns have managed to cross the great divide to be represented in both Wollombi and Bondi.

So if the crowds at Bondi prove too discouraging, one now has the option of Sculpture in the Bush, or more attractively, Sculpture in the Vineyards.