Sculpture by the Sea: The review is in

Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, Sydney

Closes November 5, 2017, around the clock access

It is difficult to believe that this is the 21st Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi.

21 years ago, there was a hastily arranged exhibition on the scenic walk from Bondi to Tamarama Beach – literally a one-night stand – that drew a sizeable crowd and was deemed a success. It is no exaggeration to say that Sculpture by the Sea has had a fundamental impact on sculpture in Australia, having attracted, over the years, some 1272 sculptors. Today, it is the most popular sculpture event in the world and, in its 18-day duration, attracts more than half a million visitors. It remains free, democratic and secular with a huge diversity of styles, philosophies of sculpture and mediums – from relatively ephemeral sticks and threads that flutter in the wind, to huge stone arches, expansive steel constructions and monumental bronzes. Curatorially, this is a very broad-church approach to the art of sculpture.

This year there are more than 100 sculptors from 15 countries, selected from a huge field of applicants, arranged along the two-kilometre coastal walk and visually competing with dolphins and ancient Aboriginal rock carvings. It is one of the most spectacular "gallery settings" in the world and this undoubtedly adds to the viewing experience. Some of this year's exhibitors, Tango Conway & Amelia Skelton and Isobel Lord & Sophie Lanigan, came to sculpture through the experience of Sculpture by the Sea as children and have now made it their vocation.

The 21st anniversary show is crowded with some very strong pieces, including those by Japanese sculptors, Akiho Tata with Fantasia, where glowing acrylic solar sea shapes cling to the rocks, and Toshio Iezumi with M,171001, where an over-life size glass-and-steel totem glows, absorbing and reflecting light.

Steel is the material of choice for many of the exhibiting sculptors, including the impressive corten steel structure of the Western Australian sculptor Johannes Pannekoek, Mittagong sculptor David Ball, New Zealander Marcus Tatton and the German artist Jörg Plickat. Apart from its strength, corten steel glows with a rusty warmth, and has a tactile surface that draws people into the work.

Mild steel and painted steel, which frequently lend themselves to geometric, architectonic constructions and crisp edges, are represented by some brilliant pieces by the Canberra sculptor Michael Le Grand and NSW sculptors Paul Selwood and Ron Robertson-Swann. Some of the most impressive stainless-steel works include those by the South Australian sculptor Karl Meyer, the Tasmanian Hugh McLachlan, the Victorian artist Matthew Harding, the American Albert Paley and the Japanese artist Mitsuo Takeuchi.

The most impressive, at least in terms of scale, is the gigantic arch titled Walking woman by the American artist Peter Lundberg, while amongst the quirkiest pieces are a copper, fibreglass and wooden boat by the Perth artist Denise Pepper, the South Korean artist Kyung Jin Cha's copper suit, the Slovak artist Milan Kuzica's ten-metre-high green shoot, a bronze fish cycle by the Greek artist Evi Savvaidi and NSW artist Harrie Fasher's full-size steel skeletal Charge of the Light Brigade, complete with tumbling steel horses.

There is an exceptional piece in bronze, brass and steel by the Victorian artist Jock Clutterbuck, a memorable and slightly melancholy sculpture by the very well-known Chinese sculptor Chen Wenling and a lovely protective form in aluminium by the West Australian sculptor Ron Gomboc, who is exhibiting in his 18th Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi.

Like in any huge mixed show with more than a hundred pieces of sculpture, it is difficult if not impossible to present a coherent overview. This is one of the strengths of Sculpture by the Sea – it adheres to no orthodoxy, it has an inclusive aesthetic, where the serious and frivolous are permitted to share the same stage, and it celebrates the vitality and creative freedom of sculpture, especially large sculpture that inhabits a public space.

After 21 years, Sculpture by the Sea has become an integral part of the Australian art scene, so that today, it would be impossible to write a history of sculpture in this country without a discussion of the exhibitions in Bondi and their sister exhibitions in Cottesloe in Perth.