Next year Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney will celebrate its 20th anniversary. It’s been two decades since that first modest sculpture event in Bondi, a show which amounted to scarcely more than a one-night stand.
Now it is an institution, as Australian as Vegemite, and attracts half a million visitors each year for its 10-day spell at Bondi. It is a multi-million dollar affair with what could be termed franchise operations occurring annually at Cottesloe Beach in Perth and biannually at Aarhus Beach in Denmark.
At its heart it is a mass free public exhibition of contemporary sculpture arranged along a spectacular stretch of shoreline, where the work is available for purchase. In Sydney, about A$1 million of sculpture sales occur annually.
Aarhus is the second city of Denmark, with an urban population of about quarter of a million, and a bit more if you include the regional catchment area.
Sculpture by the Sea in Denmark
There have been four Sculpture by the Sea events held in Aarhus, each attracting about half a million visitors during their month-long display. This makes them Denmark’s largest visual arts event – and those numbers are even more remarkable when we remember the population of the whole country barely tops five million.
The Aarhus coastline is spectacular in a very un-Australian way, with a dense Nordic forest and rocks and sand on the beach.
Sculpture by the Sea, in Australia and in Denmark, struggles to obtain central government funding and generally survives through a mixture of local government money, business donations and philanthropic funds plus the enthusiasm of local volunteers.
In Aarhus, the chief sponsor is the local municipal authorities, Aarhus Kommune, plus a raft of other sponsors.
The overall budget is impressive, 15.5 million Danish krone – more than A$3 million – which covers the operation and catalogue production, pays the freight for the work of all of the selected artists, the hefty site-specific installation costs as well as staffing for the month-long display.
The operation is massive. This year there were some 500 individual applications from prospective sculptors, plus about a score of invited participants. From these, a five-person selection committee – I love the European term “jury” – selected the 56 finalists.
An international experience
With royal patronage, from HRH Crown Prince Frederik and our Princess Mary, the project has high-profile backers and it certainly has matured over the years. In the inaugural exhibition, the Godfather of Sculpture by the Sea, its founder David Handley, had a far greater say as he kickstarted the operation.
Of the 60 finalists in 2009, 26 were Australians and 19 were Danes. In the present, fourth Sculpture by the Sea at Aarhus, of the 56 finalists there are 18 Danish artists, but the number of Australians has dwindled to seven (or 10 if you count all with some sort of Australian connection).
In all, there are sculptors from 24 countries, and, as one could anticipate, it is a far more Eurocentric affair than what we have in Australia.
The Danish experience is quite different in mood to either Sydney or Perth.
The light is so different – even in mid-summer it is muted and subdued. The forests are lush, evergreen, yet ordered and park-like, in contrast to the scruffy bushland in Australia. The beach is sandy and rocky with quite a different shade of blue. A much larger area is occupied by the sculptures than in Australia, with each work having its own discrete space.
It is interesting how, through colour and form, the Australian sculptures generally dominate their environment – not least Sydney artist Richard Goodwin’s most effective Twin Parasite, where a red car, high off the ground, smashes through a wooden tower some seven metres off the ground. There are echoes of 9/11.
Ron Robertson-Swann, a sculptor who gets better as he gets older, also employs a bright red paint on steel to articulate his shrine-like Inner Sanctum.
Even Stephen King, who makes complex monumental wooden structures out of stringybark trunks and branches, in his nearly seven-metre-high The Grid, while celebrating the spiritually of wood, does not harmonise with the local environment.
Many of the Danish sculptors tap into their local heritage, such as the floating anchors in the water by Peter Callesen (see above), Louise Sparre’s ingenious Skin cube, the forest gravestone by Troels Sandegård, the almost invisible Source by Karin Lorentzen, or the wooden circular jetty (Den Uendelige Bro) by a group of Danish artists. In some ways they all tread softly on this earth.
Some of the environmental pieces also reveal a great subtlety, yet also power, of expression. One of my favourites is by the Lebanese artist Salah Saouli – Swarm – where suspended high in the treetops is a shimmering arrangement of red floating thin organic shapes like a surreal apparition.
The Indian artist, Arun Kumar in Droppings and the dam(n) weaves a monumental structure out of used bottle tops, something which is simultaneously attractive to the eye and repulsive to the intellect.
Michal Motycka from the Czech Republic scatters three large diamond-like mirrors on the sand that reflect and glow in the sun, while his countryman Jakub Geltner, in a particularly paranoid piece, on an outcrop of rock jutting into the sea, presents a whole chorus of surveillance cameras.
The young Australian sculptor, Lucy Humphrey, creates another of her intriguing globes of water, which reflect and reveal a strange inverted universe.
The Australian formula has proven to be exceptionally popular in this Scandinavian sanctuary.
At the time of the next scheduled Sculpture by the Sea in Aarhus, the city has been declared (together with Paphos in Cyprus) as the European Capital of Culture for 2017. The target is to bring 5.5 million visitors to the city to see the cultural events for the duration of the year.
It is interesting to see how our little “Aussie Battler” will morph as Europe’s attention switches to it.
Sculpture by the Sea runs in Aarhus until July 5. Details here.