The Heysen Sculpture Biennial, located on The Cedars, the Adelaide Hills property near Hahndorf on which German-born artist Sir Hans Heysen (1877-1968) lived and worked, was first held in 2000. On that occasion the work of just 12 sculptors was exhibited; this year there are 38 works on display on Heysen’s 60-hectare property.
Heysen is remembered primarily for his watercolours of Australian eucalypts in Australian bush settings; and The Cedars is located in what many would regard as a quintessentially Australian setting, a space and locality steeped in history. This belies the fact that this is a tract of land that has been dramatically altered as a result of white settlement, in some parts to the extent of manicure.
“The Heysen”, as the biennial is known, emerged as a local, grassroots initiative, founded upon the commitment of an active, tight-knit, arts-loving community living in “The Hills”, to use the term in common parlance.
And it’s only possible to “read” these sculptural works against the contiguous spatial histories of that place, which is depicted in the Heysen painting above. Importantly, this is a place imbued with a “deep” Indigenous history, long pre-dating that more recent colonial history. By locating these sculptures in such a historically charged “countryscape”, to use the expression coined by Indigenous artist Brian Martin, these artworks undergo significant transformation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the works on display at The Cedars make reference to the antimonies (in the Kantian sense) of the natural, the man-made, presence, absence, memory, longing and desire, permanence and the ephemeral nature of existence, while evoking what Kant described as the “starry heavens and the moral law within”.
Astra Parker’s striking work Duae (2013) (above), created from evocatively patterned mild steel, upholds what the artist understands to be the feminine principle of receptivity, conceived simultaneously as form and openness, substance and emptiness. Dissolution, Sandra Cross’s acrylic mirror and cable installation, a work influenced by Islamic art, is essentially a mirrored vertical carpet, in which the artist engages with notions of reflectiveness, opacity, permeability, openness and bounded-ness, in a manner not dissimilar to Parker.
Greg Johns’s imposing quasi-figurative sculpture, Horizon Figure, (main article image) forged from Corten steel and ironstone, stands silently and composedly sentinel on the Heysen estate, resolutely mute but visually eloquent. It assumes the role of watchful guardian-protector of country. There’s a sense of controlled tension in Johns’s figure, which seems to be pushing, simultaneously, both upwards and outwards.
Environmental concerns inform many of the works in this year’s show.
This theme is exemplified by Quentin Gore’s site-specific installation, Legacy, (above) at the centre of which stands a well-established native tree, a eucalypt. Encircling this beautiful, archetypically Heysen-esque gum tree, the artist has placed introduced materials forged from metal and wood, in the form of reclaimed hardwood railway sleepers, creosote-treated (or perhaps with some other similarly environmentally-unfriendly substance).
A concentric-circular pattern comprised of the hardwood railway sleepers and mild steel radiates out from the stately tree at the epicentre of this work, which is wholly consonant with The Cedars’ genius loci, in that it speaks back to both of those earlier histories, pre-colonial and colonial, while also reflecting a very contemporary post-colonial zeitgeist.
Legacy is one of several standout works in this exhibition underpinned by ideas that have been thoroughly conceptualised prior to execution, bringing to mind the artist Sol LeWitt’s famous maxim that:
in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work … all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.
Stephen Lloyd’s seriously playful A Stitch in Time (above), a hole in the ground, with stainless steel, rope, steel rod, and soil, is another witty and effective conceptual work. Lloyd’s work constitutes an ironic visual take on the destruction that human beings have wrought upon this land. Deploying the optical trope of an oversized – but totally useless – needle and thread, in the futile business of attempting to repair the ravaged red earth on the Heysen property, Lloyd’s work oozes its earthy wound with considerable chutzpah.
Another conceptual work is Nic Brown’s Forestal (above), comprised of water-soluble oil on salvaged eucalyptus logs tidily stacked inside a triangular structure. Brown’s installation is redolent of the wood-stacks adjacent to the chimney places inside early settlers’ huts, typical of the early Australian colonial period. Forestal encapsulates a wry commentary on the desire of the colonists to impose what often amounted to arbitrary forms of order onto the perceived chaos of the “wild nature” of Australia’s bush land.
The idea of “taming” the out-of-control nature of the Australian bush land is deeply encrypted in Brown’s subtle work.
Woman Struggling with Herself, #2, (above) a figurative sculpture by Helen Printer, made with polystyrene, steel, straw and nylon twine, is another captivating work. Evoking male and female Indian deities, such as Shiva, Durga and Lakshmi, routinely portrayed with multiple arms and heads to signify their battles with cosmic forces, Printer’s deity, if indeed that’s what she is, possesses the apparent ability to perform several concurrent acts with her multiple arms.
But Woman Struggling with Herself, #2 is an expression of a less metaphysical, more prosaic form of superhuman power. This sculpture evokes an anxious, overworked, permanently exhausted, contemporary Everywoman, the woman who works the “double day”, at work and then at home, with the family. Printer’s female deity’s multiple heads reveal various facets of her character, as well as referencing the daily battles with which contemporary women often struggle.
James Worth, whose background is in landscape architecture, is an early career sculptor with a profound appreciation of form and space. Worth’s sculptural work Solstice (above) delicately balances geometric shapes and organic forms. Akin to the other works in the 2014 Heysen Biennial, Solstice undergoes transmutation in the course of a 24-hour period, producing differing visual experiences dependent on whether it is illumined by daylight, afternoon or evening shadows, or by moonlight. Twilight epiphanies are to be expected.
It does need to be stated that the works in the 2014 Heysen Biennial are uneven in quality – as is perhaps to be expected of a sculpture exhibition that invites entries from both amateur and professional artists. The Heysen selection committee is addressing this issue, by insisting that in future artists will need to submit expressions of interest, followed by detailed proposals. Over time, this should serve to raise the overall standard of entries.
In the meantime, the Heysen Sculpture Biennial seems to be finding its own, unique air-space, thereby establishing itself as one of the most significant events on the South Australian artistic calendar.