Since the revolution of Duchamp’s readymades and Picasso’s collages early last century, the very conception of what art can be has expanded and changed dramatically. Sculpture was at the forefront of this interrogation of the boundaries between art and life that characterised much twentieth-century art, and throughout this period the parameters of sculptural practice became increasingly fluid. While for a time in the 1960s and 1970s the sculptural object seemed in danger of dematerialising into the expanded field of performance art, happenings, installation, land art and conceptual art, currently the sculptural object again occupies a central place within contemporary practice.
A defining feature of this return to the sculptural object is a fascination with the physicality of objects, with their relationship to the world and us, and how ideas can be expressed and experienced through materials and process. While the legacy of conceptual art has meant that the physical aspects of an artwork were deemed irrelevant or viewed with suspicion, in much recent work concept and form have become inseparable. Artists employ an extraordinary and seemingly inexhaustible variety of materials, and a noticeable aspect of much contemporary sculptural work is the use of manufacturing processes that are time and labour intensive, often requiring high levels of technical and manual skill.
Since its launch in 2000 the National Sculpture Prize has taken a very broad view of what contemporary sculpture might be. In contemporary practice genres and disciplines cross over, and few artists identify themselves as ‘sculptors’, they are simply artists. The Prize does not attempt to be thematic or definitive, and it is characterised by an inclusive approach to contemporary practice. Artists in this year’s Prize address questions of form, content and materiality in very different ways. Yet while there is no single thread linking all of these works, there are surprising points of connection between even the most seemingly disparate works: shared sensibilities and points of reference, the questioning of formal sculptural concerns, and an engagement with broad social and political issues.
At a time when humanity’s impact on the environment becomes ever more problematic, ideas of the natural world and our relationship with nature are a central discourse in much contemporary art. The metaphorical associations of the cyclical and regenerative aspects of nature are explored in GW Bot’s Hillside, evoking a view of a delicate yet tough Australian landscape. Kirsteen Pieterse’s Canyon and Ravine describe the negative spaces of these natural features in the manner of an architectural model, reiterating the notion of the landscape as a cultural construct. Bonita Ely’s Bonsai landscape comments on humankind’s mistaken belief in its ability to control and order the natural world, and the disastrous consequences of this as evidenced in the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman’s Floribots can be seen as a manifestation of the ultimate fulfilment of this desire to control nature: a virtual garden of robotic flowers that endlessly move through the cycle of life, growth and death. Also exploring the interface between nature and technology, James Angus’s digitally designed and manufactured Manta ray is a futuristic merging of twenty-first-century technology with evolution, as though the principles of contemporary design have been applied to a manta ray to create a new and improved showroom prototype.
The extinction of species and degradation of the marine environment is the subject of Nicole Byrne’s Repetition, its intricate paper construction recalling organic marine forms. Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s Woven water: submarine landscape evokes the beauty of the underwater world, while its construction from the bleached remains of starfish reiterates the vulnerability of this environment and its creatures.
In Continuous moment Damiano Bertoli translates German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s The sea of ice 1823–24 – an iconic image of the helplessness of man in the face of nature – into the language of abstract Minimalist sculpture. The work negotiates a space between painting and sculpture, nineteenth-century narrative and twentieth-century abstraction, within an ongoing discourse of humanity’s place in the natural world. Recalling eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime, which proposed that the most powerful of aesthetic responses originates in terror, Mel O’Callaghan’s DVD The fall aestheticises the drowning death of a parachutist through the beauty of the billowing folds of the parachute.
The expression of a spiritual relationship to land is a fundamental purpose of traditional Indigenous art. The carved and painted imagery of Gunybi Ganambarr’s larrakitj Dhanbarr depicts designs sacred to his mother’s clan, while the traditional function of the larrakitj is as a ceremonial container for the bones of the deceased, which over time would decay and return its contents to the earth.
For both Richard Goodwin and David Jensz science is a path to the contemplation of the infinite. Richard Goodwin’s Moth is rich with metaphorical allusions to journeys and transformations, both physical and spiritual, while David Jensz’s Unbounded space takes as its starting point the desire to make tangible a conception of an endless universe as described by contemporary physics.
As a way of connecting to the divine principle, chanting is a central practice in Buddhism. In Nigel Helyer’s sound installation Chant, ten bronze Buddhas equipped with radio receivers and speakers endlessly repeat the sacred Mani mantra. The significance of pattern in spiritual art and repetitive activity as a meditative act is also explored in Juliana Bartulin’s Barcelona devotional, in which the artist transforms the modernist grid into a delicate radiating structure evocative of natural forms. Most specifically concerned with the creation of a spiritual art, in Buddha of infinite directions Lachlan Warner blends eastern and western elements to create a devotional image of the Buddha endlessly repeated within its mirrored setting.
Referencing archetypal forms and Greek mythology, Bert Flugelman’s Caryatid Minotaur resembles a ceremonial gateway, a place of literal and metaphorical passage. However, this gate is physically and visually impassable, with the upright forms set close together and its highly polished mirror finish reflecting back on ourselves.
Mikala Dwyer’s Selving utilises mirrored surfaces and transparent plastic to express concepts of impermanence and mutability. The work’s ever-changing contours frustrate attempts to define its form, its apparent weightlessness and formlessness in direct opposition to a conventional understanding of sculpture as an art of mass and volume. Similarly, the form of Fred Fisher’s Tilt is ambiguous, the optically charged surface of the work challenging the limitations of visual perception and disrupting our expectation of a rational relationship between structure and surface. Neil Taylor’s Virtual hermetic articulates a complex space that is at once inside and outside. Open-ended and potentially endless, its construction of open wire mesh allows the three-dimensional form to be read simultaneously as two-dimensional delineation. In Turbulence Paul Selwood presents sculptural form as essentially contingent. There is no fixed view of the work; rather it reveals an ever-changing relationship of geometric shapes and interior spaces as the viewer moves around the work.
The manipulation of scale and the inversion of the relationship between object and the body of the viewer is employed in works by Craig Walsh and Ruth Johnstone. Their works create a disorienting sensation so that, like Alice in Wonderland, we are alternatively shrunken and enlarged. Craig Walsh’s DVD projection Cross-reference disrupts the space of the gallery, simulating an open doorway through which can be seen the (big) participants in the Big Day Out music festival. Walsh attempts to connect both sites and engage both audiences in a consideration of the conventions of cultural practice. Ruth Johnstone’s The doll’s house gallery (boxed) – a detailed miniature replica of an eighteenth-century interior – functions as a kind of ‘micro-installation’: its small scale denying the possibility of the viewer’s actual experience of the room, the effect of miniaturisation triggering sensations of memory and experience.
Employing a meticulous one-to-one scale, Paul Procee’s still life Untitled – comprising two pairs of shoes and a handbag – alludes to the absent wearers of these items. Painstakingly fabricated from lead, the symbolic associations of this material are also suggestive of transformation. The function of clothing as a signifier of social status and gender is used by Mona Ryder in Les animaux sauvage. Ryder’s work employs the necktie as a traditional symbol of masculine authority and power to satirise the rituals of corporate culture and its impact on modern life.
The instability of individual identity is explored by Geoffrey Bartlett in Double self-portrait. In his work Bartlett refers to the doubling of the mirrored image and creates a series of juxtapositions to articulate that the presentation of self is composite and layered – the frame around the two heads recalls the psychologically charged space of Giacometti’s Surrealist sculptures. Jon Tarry’s Inversions one to two subtly refers to the body through the proportions of its two components. The close relationship between these two forms, one open and transparent the other closed and covered by a surface skin, is suggestive of two states of mutually possible existence. In Protrusion and Term Charles Robb invokes the stylistic conventions of the traditional truncated portrait bust. Robb’s disturbing realistic portrayal of these fragmentary bodies acts as a metaphor for the disintegration of humanist values.
Humanity’s propensity to violence is the subject of Ewen Coates’ Overground, an installation of twelve sinister, hooded heads. Within each are small dioramas depicting various acts of brutality and terror. Using suspended and folded Vietnamese and US currency, Glen Clarke’s American crater near Hanoi #2 replicates the exact dimensions of a specific crater photographed and measured by the artist. Clarke comments on the underlying economic causes of modern warfare, using the crater as a space symbolic of the devastating impact of the Vietnam War on the inhabitants of that country. Ian Howard’s The WOSP-EFC project is a continuation of the artist’s long-standing investigation of the relationship between military and civilian populations. Incorporating objects that have autobiographical, historical and cultural significance Howard’s work locates an individual life within the context of ongoing global conflict since the First World War.
The secret life of ordinary objects is explored in Wanda Gillespie’s Impossible flight, the fans apparently engaged in a futile quest to escape their earthbound existence. Christian de Vietri’s Einstein’s refrigerator 2nd law comments on our failure to address issues of environmental sustainability. In his work a refrigerator, a consumer good implicated in global warming, is subjected to the logical outcome of its own condition and is melting. The aesthetics of consumer desire are articulated in Christopher Langton’s Dolly and Built for comfort. Like the mass-produced inflatable toys they resemble, the works’ immaculate and brightly coloured surfaces are immediately seductive. Yet Langton’s work also reminds us that this attraction is only skin-deep and that the essential condition of such desire is to remain unfulfilled.
In Stack, a bookcase constructed from books, Patrick Hall creates a visual analogy for the way that individual meaning is generated through the arrangement and structuring of thought, lived experience and language; the form of the bookcase a literal and symbolic container of many stories. Also employing an aesthetic strategy of accumulation, juxtaposition and arrangement, Hany Armanious’s Turns in Arabba continues the artist’s ongoing fascination with the transformative potential of the casting process and the investigation of sculptural forms organised around a central axis.
Alasdair Macintyre’s The Art Park Project is a model of an amusement park devoted to art, containing replicas of iconic sites and work of art that the artist would like to see. The work questions the relationship of the original to the copy, and positions Macintyre within a peculiarly antipodean tradition where the artist’s initial knowledge of the history of art is primarily through reproductions.
The antipathy between pure abstraction and ornamentation is explored in Simeon Nelson’s Wall zip (for Brancusi and Barnett Newman). Nelson maintains the tension between both forms of abstraction, one in opposition to the natural world and the other informed by it, the modernist grid a hidden armature over which organic-based forms proliferate. In Monument to progressing thought (after Homer Simpson) Tony Schwensen refers to the origin of modern sculpture in Duchamp’s readymades, yet he has placed the wheelbarrow on car stands suggestive of a plinth, the essential condition of monumental sculpture whose rejection was a crucial part in the development of sculpture in the twentieth century. The absurdity of thus conflating the monument with the readymade is likened by the artist to recent suggestions to reverse the flow of Australia’s inland river system.
In Jurek Wybraniec’s Clueless Ø190 (silver) word and form seamlessly merge in a glittering, transparent sphere. However, as in the fortuneteller’s ball, meaning is not crystal clear, the work an elegant and enigmatic post-millennial postscript.
Within these highly individual practices, each informed by multiple preoccupations and operating simultaneously on several layers, there are also significant points of connection between works, common approaches and participation in the wider discourses of contemporary art.
Since the first Prize in 2001, the National Sculpture Prize has filled an important role as the most significant national exhibition of contemporary sculpture. The 2005 Prize is the largest exhibition of contemporary sculpture mounted by a public gallery in Australia for over a decade. Significantly, this year’s Prize also includes works in new media, including digital works, DVD projections and sound works, as well as large-scale installations alongside sculptural objects. Many works explore cross-disciplinary concerns and the exhibition includes works in which practices such painting, printmaking, video art and architecture intersect with particularly sculptural concerns.
Deliberately not attempting to illustrate predetermined themes or to be a definitive survey, the open nature of the selection process by a panel of judges has allowed for the inclusion of a broad selection of works. The exhibition invites comparisons and contrasts, the reconsideration and recontextualisation of works, and an unrivalled opportunity to encounter the possibilities of sculptural practice today.
Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture
AGNSW Art Gallery of New South Wales
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