Dispatch: The Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award

Werribee Park, Victoria, Australia

The official opening of the first AUS $120,000 Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award will be long remembered by all who attended. It was an extraordinary evening. Thunder, lightning, and torrential rain that reduced visibility to a few meters made the short drive from Melbourne to Werribee Park extremely hazardous. A major accident on the freeway all but closed the highway so that the 30-minute journey actually took two hours.

Karen Ward, Hut, 2001.

By the time guests began to arrive at the impressive cast iron gates of the mansion at Werribee Park, the rain had eased to a gray drizzle. Those who chose to walk were provided with umbrellas, others sat in the carriages of a motorized vehicle and went on a tour of the sculpture. Being driven around the extensive grounds of this 19th-century country estate, sipping champagne and listening to a highly informative pre-recorded commentary on each of the works was a unique experience.

Returning a week later when the sun was shining brilliantly allowed for a more leisurely and thorough viewing of the 22 works. Since the sculptures were judiciously placed on areas of lawn but separated by exotic trees and colorful beds of flowers, one was able to wander the gravel paths and study each work individually. The diversity of styles and materials was such that time was required to adjust from delight to shock, from intellectual analysis to gut reaction, from a quiet smile to outright laughter.

While there are numerous prizes and competitions for painters, Australian sculptors have not recently had an annual event to showcase their work. The Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award therefore attracted a great deal of attention, with over 160 expressions of interest. As a means of capturing attention in the outdoor sites and keeping in mind the major prize money offered, the selected artists generally made works that were large in scale and strong in form.

Stephen Birch, Untitled, 2001.

Stephen Birch’s work had humorous content but contained other layers of meaning that added substance to what appeared at first sight to be merely entertaining trickery. A slender tree trunk stood silhouetted in isolation, apparently pruned to death by an overly enthusiastic gardener with ambitions to alter and control nature—the tree trunk was actually tied in a knot. The work became both a ridiculous item of mirth and a sad monument to our destruction of nature. Robert Bridgewater established a more positive relationship with nature in his quietly impressive Three Good Seasons. Sited directly opposite the imposing mass of the mansion, separated by a vast expanse of lawn, this horizontal wood carving held its own by the simple sculptural strength of the three linked spherical forms.

Karen Ward exploited an air of mystery in her aptly titled Hut, an understated work of great simplicity and forceful conviction that stood in strange isolation among a stand of pine trees. It was a work to which spectators could bring their own thoughts based on their own lives and experiences. Was it a gardener’s shed, a bathing box by the sea, a child’s playhouse, or a more general symbol of house and home? It appeared welcoming, but the steps led to a blank wall rather than to an entrance door. There were no windows. One walked around this mysterious structure attempting to gain access and divine its purpose, but Hut remained self-contained and inaccessible. Ward deservedly won the first Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award; her entry is a work of quiet presence and mystery.

The land around Werribee is flat and almost featureless except for the distant silhouette of the YuYang Ranges and the incised valley of the Werribee River—yet the original settlers built the house, possibly the largest private residence in the state of Victoria, with its back to the river and the mountain range. Ignoring the Australian landscape, they created a totally enclosed European garden that effectively cut out the view of reality and enabled them to think they were establishing a grand English estate. It was a point of view typical of the time, which looked back to Europe, to England, to “home.” It was a point of view that presumed the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race and by implication placed all others in an inferior position—as became politically clear in the enforcement of the White Australia policy. Thankfully, Australia is now a different society, a multi-cultural society with an incredible mix of cultures and races, and we no longer wish to live isolated from the reality of our environment or the proximity of our neighbors. By its sheer diversity of attitudes, styles, and media, contemporary Australian sculpture reflects this multi-cultural complexity.

Charles Robb, Monument to Batman, 2001.

How then does sculpture of this age sit within a 19th-century garden? Does its presence shatter the splendid illusion of self-contained isolation? Should this supreme example of a stately home and exotic garden be preserved intact or must society move on and accommodate the present? Architects, of course, are frequently confronted with this problem—I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre immediately springs to mind. While temporary exhibitions may be perfectly acceptable in established parks and gardens, one would hope that contemporary sculpture would be placed sympathetically in gardens of contemporary design, to bring about a visual partnership that reflects society’s current values.

Ken Scarlett

The newest contemporary art prizes in Australia are for sculpture alone, addressing what has until now been a lack of opportunities for Australian sculptors. One of these, the Helen Lempriere Sculpture Award, recently transformed the grounds of Werribee Park into an instant sculpture park with a display of major works from its 22 finalists.

This inaugural exhibition was, intentionally, a showcase of Australian sculpture. Nevertheless, the picture is not as accurate as it could be. Competitions encourage particular sorts of artworks, as entrants vie to make work that attracts attention to itself, that will speak immediately and clearly—and if not clearly, then loudly—to their audience. That the prize is both outdoors and acquisitive, and therefore encourages only permanent object-based work, seems to exacerbate these tendencies. With a few exceptions, and despite a great deal of conceptual variety and the humor and irony of some of the artists’ work, the finalists’ sculptures tend toward the monumental. Inevitably, some seemed like awkward aspirants to the beauty and majesty which their garden setting so effortlessly attains. Still, despite all this, the quality and diversity of the works were high, with a number of uncompromising and exciting sculptures on show.

Kristian Burford, Robert has also lost interest in his garden, 1999-2001. Fiberglass and mixed media, 300 x 240 x 240 cm.

One artist, Charles Robb, directly addressed the idea of monumentality, posing a challenge to the tradition of heroic public statues with a faux bronze (actually fiberglass) figure lying prone, hand over eyes in schlock melodrama. The potentially misleading title Monument to Batman refers not to the superhero, but to John Batman, founder of the site on which Melbourne was built. The pose was probably a crack at Batman’s tarnished reputation; recent investigations into Australian history have revealed that Batman fabricated claims to crown land.

Another hyperreal fantasy, Kristian Burford’s Robert has also lost interest in his garden, had a life-like fiberglass figure—“Robert”—lying face down among the neglected plants in a greenhouse. Sited among the permanent glass houses of Werribee Mansion, Burford’s greenhouse was conspicuous only by its backyard scale, and upon approach, by its cracked and dirty glass panes. The discovery of the naked figure inside was disconcerting. Indeed, in a way this multi-layered tableau seemed decidedly un-monumental in intention—suggestive instead of ennui or melancholic reverie, it is a work one had, literally, to look into.

Krstian Burford, Robert has also lost interest in his garden, 1999–2001. Fiberglass and mixed media, 300 x 240 x 240 cm.

The organic-based structures of Dani Marti’s Blue Angels and Simeon Nelson’s Pollinator Phenotype (Cactal) also engaged the garden environment. These works seemed potentially auto-generative—the main body of Nelson’s work, a gridded molecular structure of red cellular units, spawned smaller separate fragments around its central form, whereas Marti’s grouping of scouring pads into red and yellow carpets appeared as a spillage or fungoid growth on the park grounds. Both works had a slightly insidious viral quality, as if capable of spreading infinitely.

Louise Lavarack’s Grand Pla recalled more geometric models of abstraction. Surveyor’s poles arranged in a grid formation were painted in stripes of ochrous red and yellow, so that movement around and through the work produced a range of dramatic optical effects. In addition to alluding to architecture, the colors suggested a reference to Australian Aboriginal culture, and the arrangement of the poles imposed order. Claire Healy continued this concern with space and geometry in Formica Tower, a retro ’50s caravan contained within a rectilinear grid of scaffolding. While the scaffolding added to the dimensions and monumentality of the caravan, or alternatively suggested improvements or restoration, it rendered the van useless as well—not only unable to be accessed, but untransportable—transforming it into a museum exhibit, like a bug suspended in amber. Part glib social commentary and part heavily tongue-in-cheek nostalgia (blue gingham curtains billow out of the open windows), Healy’s relic encapsulated a perfect metaphor for the Australian dream—the home and holiday in one.

Simeon Nelson, Pollinator Phenotype (Catcal), 2001. Polypropylene and acrylic paint, 320 cm. high.

Richard Goodwin’s Exoskeleton Pod suggested a quite different mode of transport. Its dull machine-gray body resembled a vehicle, or perhaps a segment of a vehicle, of unidentifiable purpose or origin but redolent of some kind of science-fiction scenario. Its surface hinted at a war relic, but from other angles it could have passed for farm machinery or even playground equipment. What appeared to be a parachute or package stuffed inside the hull provided more interesting interpretations, suggesting an escape—or survival—capsule and intimating some sort of technologically powered transcendence.

Deej Fabyc’s giant Gateway to Mag Mell 2001 also could have been a prop from a sci-fi movie. A mix of the prehistoric and postmodern, her fantastical synthetic dolmen used huge boulders fashioned from polyurethane—three cancerous-looking purple menhirs standing upright, atop which rested a further huge purple rock. Verging on the architectural, its poisonous, lurid purple stood out as otherworldly against the lush greens of Werribee Park like some monstrous theme park set or alien growth.

Mathieu Gallois, Drive Thru, 2001. Polystyrene, installation view.

Mathieu Gallois matched that theatricality with Drive-Thru, his life-size replica of a generic fast-food restaurant complete with playground and beacon sign. Constructed in astonishing detail from polystyrene, the work was the only genuinely ephemeral piece in the show. As a dazzling monument to impermanence and superficiality, the work in its stark blankness looked like an apparition from some pre-fab parallel universe, a pristine white utopian dream and consumerist nightmare in one.

The prize was taken by a rather less spectacular life-size phantasm, Karen Ward’s unassuming, stylized cubby house, Hut. Overshadowed somewhat by the other architectonic works here (notably those by Gallois, Burford, and Fabyc), Hut, a simple steel-framed plywood construction, relied on its placement among dense trees—and the fantasy and mythology of the forest—for effect. Fittingly though, and perhaps some explanation for its win, Hut sat midway between the trends of formalism and conceptualism that characterized the exhibition. 

Maria Bilske