Sculpture by the Sea is a Sydney institution. Since 1996 it has grown from being a one-day event to an annual three-week-long behemoth beloved by the general public. It has become so popular, in fact, that SBTS organisers have extended their reach to Cottesloe beach in Perth and, of all places, Aarhus in Denmark. The formula is fairly simple: sculptures near a beach, and nature does the rest. The crowds come flocking for a fun couple of hours by the seashore, to have a stroll, look at some art, and then maybe have a drink or eat fish and chips. It’s a great day out.
But as an art event, SBTS is reliably awful and its problems are always the same. SBTS is ostensibly an art prize – actually there are nine prizes on offer in a range of categories – so no matter how much the curators and organisers might try to lift the standard with commissioned works and mentorships, or invited overseas artists, the overall quality of the sculptures is at the mercy of the entrants taken en masse. You can’t make a good art prize out of terrible art.
The second problem is the location: a cliff path that runs between Bondi and Tamarama, with Marks Park and the beach and park at Tamarama as the major sites. Putting sculpture in sharp contrast to the beauty of the ocean, the sky and the rocks will nearly always put art at a disadvantage – even for those artists canny enough to make their works site-specific, it’s a difficult balance between finding a suitable place to put the art and avoiding making it into a hideous eyesore.
A few years ago I vowed never to visit SBTS again. I’d had more than my fill of imposing stone or metal sculptures that try to overcome the site with brute force, or twee whimsical “fun” sculptures that’d be better off in a children’s playground, or trite topical sculptures with ominous political messages, and dear God, spare me from cashed-up advertising agencies having a bit of fun in their spare time. No thanks.
But then the call came in requesting I attend SBTS 2013 and I was promised a beer at the end of it, so I went on what I hoped would be a relatively quiet Thursday afternoon. Not so. The walk was packed with tourists and visitors and the sky was a deep blue with gale force winds.
Very little had changed at SBTS – all the usual categories were well represented. I felt sorry for Vince Vozzo and his lovely Moon Buddha, a sandstone head crying out for a soft grass lawn somewhere but rudely cemented into place on a ledge; Robert Barnstone’s Once Removed – a series of cast glass feet placed on rocks here and there – was slight and silly, and hugely popular with the young French tourists, while Sam Deal’s Variation, sponsored by Hyundai and featuring a Hyundai car, appeared to be a lost prop from Mad Max 4.
There was plenty of whimsy and a few political messages and some poorly judged placement of what might have been otherwise good works. Dale Miles’s Sacred Space, a forced perspective church that looked great in the catalogue, was lost below the lip of a small hill, and David McCracken’s Diminish And Ascend, a staircase that appears to go to infinity, had its effect ruined by a rope placed around it in case anyone actually tried to climb it. Even without that particular OH&S disaster, the whole sculpture was oriented in Marks Park in such a way that most of its background visual field was filled with Bondi beach.
Placing a lot of sculptures together invariably ends up looking like a fancy putt-putt golf course and thus Marks Park contains everything that is wrong with SBTS: joke pieces, expensive sculptures with moving parts, serious artists with serious works crowded out by junk. Yet among that melange of obvious comedy and clueless aesthetic disasters I found a few pieces that turned out to be my favourites.
Matthew Harding’s The Cheshire Cat’s Grin is a polished stainless steel sculpture of the sort I usually have little time for, but the artist’s whimsy was beautifully placed so that, with your head at just the right angle, the cat’s grin appeared to float in the sky. Noah Birch’s Remnant Reclaimed and Alex Goad’s Migration were both simple and beautiful works that looked like they belonged there, and a little way along the walk to Tamarama was Lucy Humphrey’s Horizon, a sphere full of water that became a floating eye turning the world upside down and reflecting the weather and horizon beyond.
SBTS is critically bulletproof: if you try to criticise it people tell you how popular it is. It’s a bit like the Archibald prize in that sense, but unlike the Archibald, it’s in a park; another of Australia’s unapproachable egalitarian gestures – if you want to make art popular, stick it in a park. Add a sausage sizzle. Get some corporate sponsors. Make it a prize. It can’t hurt. It’s just so popular.
At the end of the walk, and to my dismay, there was no beer available at Tamarama. I sat in a café and thought of the best things I had seen – a red wattlebird, rough seas, and a navy helicopter. They had nothing to do with art, but that seemed fitting.