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A Reflective Journey

30 October 2017

The Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk is beautiful throughout the year, yet for a few weeks in spring, when the stretch between Bondi and Tamarama Beach turns into a massive open air sculpture exhibition, it becomes truly spectacular.  Now in its 21st year, Sculpture by the Sea has become a highlight in the Australian art calendar and a showcase opportunity for sculptors from all over the world.  Some sculptures are truly unique in their own right, others are site-specific installations that have been devised with the location in mind.  All are enhanced by the beauty of the space in which they have been exhibited.

It is the beauty of art, and maybe modern art in particular, that their often abstract character allows the mind of the viewer to wander and to fill the gaps of concrete explanation with their own interpretations.  As you physically wander along the coastal path, with new perspectives and artworks around every corner, your wandering mind can analyse what your eyes are seeing and fill it with meaning. 

I visited this exhibition twice last week.  My first excursion was on Monday, when I thought I would be cleverly avoiding the crowds because surely most people would be at work.  I was wrong.  The path was crowded with locals and tourists, and as I enjoy photography, I had to wait patiently in between people taking their selfies with every single artwork before I could get a decent (people-free) shot myself.  It was worth it though – the day was beautiful, and the soft sunshine of the early afternoon showed several of the exhibits in their best light.

Nonetheless, for a more intimate and spiritual experience, I decided to return for a sunrise walk on Saturday. I arrived at Bondi at 5:30 in the morning, and there was nobody there apart from a Chinese photographer with his tripod and a security guard watching over the artworks and protecting them from vandalism.  Although that eerie loneliness was soon to change and an astonishingly large number of early wanderers joined me for my walk to Coogee, the experience was far more peaceful.

It is impossible to do justice to all the artworks (there are more than 100), and therefore I shall simply be picking a handful.  Some of the photographs I am using to illustrate my words have been taken during my afternoon walk, but most I have taken early in the morning.

One of the first works that got my attention was an intriguing installation called Stagnation.  My photo does not capture it terribly well, and the wanderer could be forgiven for overlooking it, as it blends so seamlessly into the surrounding nature.  The artist states that “it explores the psychological state of being trapped in an intimately familiar, neurotic pattern of thought.”  In an interview, she explains this further and offers interpretations ranging from being stuck in the past to being stuck in a crisis of creativity.  It shows a figure lying on the rocks, in an uncomfortable, twisted, torturous position and tied down by ropes.

Every viewer will interpret this differently.  How do you get out of such an uncomfortable position?  Can you get yourself out on your own?  Or do you need, unless you are Houdini, help from someone else to set you free and cut these fiendish ropes that tie you to the rock?  If you are stuck in the past, is physical removal automatically aiding the situation?  Or do you need to stay put and work through whatever issues there are in order to move on properly once that process has been completed?

Well-meaning friends will sometimes tell a bereaved spouse to move to a different home to avoid being stuck with sad memories.  They will advise a divorcee to move to a different city to start a new life and rid themselves of their bad experience. Sometimes this helps, but it can be a flawed strategy.  As in the ancient poetic image of a deer that has been wounded by a spear and runs away in a desperate attempt to escape the pain, with the spear still stuck in its flank, there is a real danger that running away without addressing the pain and removing its source will do more harm than good.  Patient perseverance and addressing the root cause of one’s pain is sometimes the better strategy, as the short-term pain may lead to long-term gain.  Eventually it may enable you to cut loose the ropes and overcome stagnation (be it physical, mental or creative) in a productive way.

There are a number of artworks on the way that illustrate the opposite of stagnation:  freedom, moving on, adventure, striding out into the unknown.  As illustrations I am using sculptures playing with bird themes, the Sea Eagle Glyph or the Bird Geometry, sculptures that symbolise bird movements.  Or the Tin Canoe that points out to the great wide ocean.  Or the three surfers heading out to sea.  Depending on where you stand, the sun plays funny visual tricks with you.

My absolute favourite was The Last Charge, which pays homage to a battle that will celebrate its 100th anniversary tomorrow.  It commemorates the Battle of Beersheba when Australian troops mounted a surprise cavalry attack of 800 horsemen against the Turks in the First World War in order to gain access to the strategically important and heavily fortified town of Beersheba (now called Be’er Sheva, in the Negev desert in Israel). 

Less famous than the horrible defeat at Gallipoli, it is one of Australia’s most important military victories – something I only learned when I researched the background to this amazing sculpture.  Spectacularly set against the backdrop of the morning sky where the coast meets the ocean, it is nonetheless an artwork that deserves to be recognised on its own merit.  Most of the heroic horses were destroyed after the war, as Australian quarantine regulations did not allow them to return home with their owners.  The sculpture evokes associations with the famous story War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.

Inevitably in a show of such magnitude, there is an eclectic character to the exhibition.  Next to the historical gravitas of The Last Charge, we find playful themes:  the Iron Welding Sculptor or the eye-catching installation Are we there yet?  that illustrates themes such as traffic congestion in a quirky and humorous manner.  The row of shops has names such as IN YOUR FACE Dentistry or CURL UP AND DYE Hairdresser.

Next to such concrete artworks there are abstract constructions:  the visually aesthetic Bronze Age, for example, or works such as Foci or Phyli that invite the viewer to change their viewing focus and look through the openings in the sculpture from different perspectives.  They are metaphorical invitations to remain flexible and not stick with a rigid world view.

The abstract Melencolia, seemingly a typo, but one that intertextually cites Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia 1, plays with the enigmatic structure of the polyhedron in Dürer’s  work.  Whole essays and theses have been written trying to explain the significance of this structure in the original engraving.  We still don’t have the answer, but there is a stunning visual complexity to this sculpture.

An equally intriguing work is the installation Tenants.  It invites many interpretations.  Does it illustrate the isolation of tenants in small units?  Or the crammed living circumstances of some?  Or, in fact, their interwoven connectivity?  Are we all the tenants of the earth, isolated from each other in our own little worlds, yet connected with each other in a global sense?

Another mind-boggling and thought-provoking sculpture is the artwork with the longest title I Put a Moon on the Table, but it has a Hole and is Lacking.  Does it talk of disappointed expectations?  Of a rose-tinted world view that will inevitably come crushing down?  Or is it an invitation to be realistic?  Does the perfect moon not exist?  Should we accept the imperfections of our world, our friends, ourselves and live with the hole in our moon? Or, indeed, is there even a particular beauty in imperfection?

On the other hand, perfection is also represented in the exhibition.  A beautiful sculpture, Under One Sky, shows two men embracing.  There will be few viewers who, in the current climate of the divisive Same Sex Marriage debate, will not immediately associate this with a statement for the Yes campaign.  But it is so much more, and the artist himself calls his sculpture a “work of goodwill” where, in an era of global conflict, two people embrace “bridging race, creed and nationality.”  It is a lovely illustration of friendship and togetherness where the two greeting friends, literally, if you look closely, become one.  Again, the backdrop of the sea is spectacular.

It is an enjoyable exhibition, and it provides the viewer with ample opportunity for world reflection, art critique and introspection.  The three messages I will take away from it are:  avoiding stagnation, embracing imperfection and treasuring friendship.

The exhibition can still be seen until 5 November.

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