Australian writers

Why is Contemporary so Temporary?
Sydney has 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 is 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 yes.

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 required.

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 more statues.”

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.


Australian writer Tony Johansen

Sculpture By The Sea review by Australian writer Tony Johansen

Sydney writer critiques Sculpture By The Sea

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