Of all the artistic events stifled by the pandemic, Sculpture by the sea must be among the hardest hit. Until last year, the annual promenade along the shore between Bondi and Tamarama had become a part of Sydney life and a reliable tourist attraction. At its peak, SXS recorded over 500,000 spectators, a number that would delight any museum director.
In the days of COVID-19, the idea of ââpeople swarming along a narrow path, almost shoulder to shoulder, is an alarming prospect even taking into account the masks and the fresh air. As a result, SXS has entered a hibernation that it is expected to emerge from in the New Year, possibly as early as March or April.
There have been many attempts to repeat the SXS formula of placing sculptures in the natural environment, but organizers quickly realize the enormous logistical exercise involved. To put on a sculpture spectacle in the landscape, you need a reliable venue, strong supporters and a lot of personal determination. At least one of these descendants, The Refused Sculptures at Q Station, North Head, could be there for the long haul.
Featuring sculptures not selected for the newest, long-delayed SXS, the show echoes the Salon des RefusÃ©s held annually at the SH Ervin Gallery for the rejected works of the Archibald and Wynne Awards. The main organizers are sculptors Tania McMurtry and Simon Hodgson, who both have pieces on display but were not eligible for this year’s award, for which I was one of the judges.
Last year, the inauguration Refuse featuring seven participants, this time there are 23 sculptures by 20 artists. One of the best aspects of this event is the location: Q Station is a miraculously preserved slice of history from the developers, with bush, grassy slopes, and panoramic harbor views. One can even spend the night in buildings formerly used to accommodate passengers arriving on ships that may have been exposed to infectious diseases. Quarantine facilities operated on prime real estate from 1832 to 1984, and many migrants still remember spending their first weeks in Australia at North Head.
The first work that we come across is a row of bright yellow rectangles next to the entrance road. It is Crossing by Sarah Fitzgerald, who gives any indication that she trained as an architect. If you think the room looks like a vertical crosswalk, that’s exactly how the artist describes it. Most of the sculptures placed in the landscape try to blend in with their surroundings or create a stark contrast to the natural world. Fitzgerald takes the latter option, with aggressive visual intervention. Inevitably, such works become self-reflective, presenting their own ordered geometry as a commentary on the human need to create rules and structures.
Christina Frank takes a contrasting approach with a work titled Pram. As the name suggests, the sculpture is based on a baby stroller, but made of wire mesh, wool, twigs and leaves. It is an apparently fragile object with an inherent pathos, suggesting a child who has left the nest. The piece gains a lot from being positioned in front of a brick bungalow, with a Hills Hoist in the background. Seen from afar, it is a perfect and melancholy vignette of the suburbs. I couldn’t help but think of that first painting by Jeffrey Smart, Holiday resort (1946), in which a stroller stands unattended on a piece of barren sandy soil. There was also a suggestion of Craig Handley’s dreamlike suburban images.