Why is Contemporary so Temporary?
an annual outdoor sculpture exhibition called Sculpture By The Sea that
attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. As many as 100 artworks are
displayed along the cliffs and beaches between Bondi Beach and Tamarama
(pictured at right). Originating from the vision of David Handley and
now hugely successful, it masks the seemingly permanent lack of
investment by Australian governments in public art of all kinds
including sculpture. This essay was written after seeing the exhibition
in November 2004.
Sculpture by the Sea reveals all that
right and all that is wrong with modern approaches to public sculpture.
Power to the people it may be. A reflection of changing sculptural
roles certainly. A pointer to things to come- unfortunately, probably
Public art reflects cultural values. Liberty in New York Harbour is
big, brash and speaks to yearnings for freedom. Copenhagen’s Little
Mermaid on the other hand is small, quietly understated, and speaks to
more childlike poetic ‘wishings-upon-stars.’
Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea is about location, location, location.
For good or for bad, water views mean bucks in [or out of] the pocket.
It is the magnificence of the Bondi-Tamarama coast itself that brings
the punters. Would the exhibition be so popular at Casula or Canberra?
At the same time location is the great problem for Sculpture by the
Sea. The grand scale of the natural sculpting of cliff and shore by
forces beyond human control overwhelms and trivializes works not born
of Herculean struggles. Yet the very temporariness of the display
discourages heroic creations.
Standing on the cliffs at Tamarama I couldn’t help but feel that
Rodin’s Balzac might grow out of the rock, intoxicated with the sublime
reality flooding through every sense, impotent in comparison, yet
pregnant with the courage of desire.
As it is the sculpture exhibited reflects a prevailing orthodoxy that
requires investing faith in the veracity of the artists thinking
process. Superficially derivative works tend to be poor conductors of
internal honesties. Not for any of these works the powerful projection
of universal emotion and the tragedy or exaltation of human existence.
The abstraction of form whilst liberating the sculptor from the
historic prison of human narrative, creates its own jail. Puerile
social commentary reaches for relevance yet fails to make the breakout
Sculptors centered in the cold analytical world of the theorist lose
sight of the great lesson embedded in Rodin. At the cusp of modernity
he was able to marry intellectual considerations of volume with an
intense communication of the essential essence of human existence.
The hallmarks of great art is there – the ability to reach out to
people from all walks of life, to be intellectually provocative, to be
emotionally engaging. Contemporary buzzwords of avant-gardism have
little to do with it. Indeed the obssessional need to be seen, as being
avant-garde by some art communities ignores the reality that the
avant-garde is in the end chosen retrospectively by subsequent
generations as they determine their own artistic family trees. All too
often those judged at a particular time to be leaders are
unceremoniously dethroned according to rewritings of history.
This dechaffing is revealing of the role of fashion in the arts.
Genuine inventiveness is rare and surprisingly obscure to those faced
with its product. Most people seem to prefer the fashionably acceptable
idea of what inventiveness should be.
In that case one current fashion may be a blessing in disguise – the
fashion that sees street “infrastructure” as having an “economic life”
rather than being built to last. In many situations street sculpture
may be intended to last as little as 10 years, and it is not uncommon
for street art to be ‘contracted’ for as little as 12 months or less.
This contemporary art built-in-obsolescence is predicated on the
interchangibility of the words fashion and avant-garde. It devalues
public sculpture to the role of decoration and entertainment. Society
is robbed of artworks that reach deep into the roots of social
meanings, and meaningfulness is reduced to surface appearances or the
latest gimmick or political fad.
This ‘temporary con’ reinforces elitist thinking practices. The lack of
need for engagement with all peoples across time allows the
narcissistic artist total freedom to self-engage. Contemporary public
sculpture is accompanied by words of inclusiveness while in fact
playing to itself and to a small audience of the contemporarily
educated, or at best reduced to a populist circus accompanyment to a
nice stroll along the cliffs.
George Molnar paradoxically one of the current darlings of the
contemporary art world said in 1954 “I believe that all our
troubles are caused by using abstract instead of human standards in our
everyday life, in art, in politics, in economics. We have to stop
that. We have to humanize ourselves. The first step is to have
Molnar saw the role of public sculpture as needing to tell the stories
of the street, to be understood by the greatest possible cross section
of people. The community needs and responds to this basic requirement.
The great iconic sculptures of the world satisfy this need and are
rewarded by millions of people making cultural pilgrimages to
experience their delight. Some like David in Florence become the
lynchpin of local self-identity. No one who stands in front of David
needs any interpretation, special understanding or special
surroundings. Even those who don’t like art can communicate with the
stone, can experience the way marble has made been made into majesty
A more democratic, humbler but more human storytelling in the streets
is found in Dublin where characters from Joyce’s Novels are found
around the city centre.
These popular sculptural expressions share the quality of permanence.
Permanency is the breeding ground for feelings of social stability,
security and ultimately the transcendence of our personal temporariness
on the Earth.
This enormous constituency is effectively being ignored when major
permanent public sculpture that ordinary people can relate to are
replaced by temporary contemporary exhibitions.
The popularity of Sculpture by the Sea is less to do with cultural
depths than the novelty attractions of the carnival atmosphere combined
with a walk that is magnificent at the worst of times. The suspicion
lingers that few of the works would extract more than a passing glance
if left in place past the exhibition dates. An exception, the Bondi
Beach name, is less a sculpture than a borrowed marketing icon, popular
less for aesthetics than as the penultimate statement of the obvious.
As a passing phenomena it excites mild interest, as a cultural marker
it is disheartening.
I lament that the measure of today’s world is found
in the temporary and impermanent.
I lament the lack of great art, the great monuments such as the
Burghers of Calais that are not being created because of the temporary
vision from political and artistic leaders.
Sculpture by the Sea can be wonderful and is worth doing. Despite flaws
it has its hints of brilliance here and there but the very
temporariness of its nature curbs a grand vision that I yearned for
there on the cliffs.
As Molnar said, “ We need more statues.” – Permanent Ones.