Forum: Australia’s Sculpture Prizes

Robert Bridgewater, Red Trunk and Black River, 2003. Finalists for the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award.

After a lapse of nearly 40 years, prizes, for a variety of reasons, have again become popular in Australia. In the 1960s, a number of corporations such as Comalco, Transfield, Alcorso Sekers, and Flotta-Lauro supported sculpture by giving substantial annual prizes, until growing criticism, from artists and art critics alike, led to their demise. For, as was frequently stated, despite great expenditure of money and energy by the sculptors, only one winner would receive the monetary prize and the resultant publicity.

So why has prize-giving been resurrected? Big prize money undoubtedly secures publicity for the sponsors and the exhibiting gallery. More importantly, contemporary sculpture in Australia is enjoying a period of great activity; gallery directors and sponsors have seized the opportunity to be associated with a vital, growing, and extraordinarily diverse area of the visual arts. While sculptors are still confronted with the formidable costs associated with exhibiting, they nevertheless welcome the opportunity to show their work in a prestigious national competition where mere inclusion is recognition of their standing. And because sales are frequent, there are positive gains for all concerned.

Nicole Voevodin-Cash, Rug, 2003. Finalists for the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award.

Two years ago, two major prizes were announced—the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award held at Werribee Park, near Melbourne, and the National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Fortunately they are complimentary: one is for works to be sited in extensive parklands and the other for sculpture within the confines of indoor galleries. Prize money (by Australian standards) is generous: the Lempriere acquisitive prize gives a combination of AUS $80,000 cash and a further $25,000 for professional development, while the Canberra prize offers AUS $50,000, non-acquisitive. This year, since both exhibitions were on show at the same time, it was possible to draw some general conclusions about the current practice of sculpture in Australia—a practice obviously alive and well, with an astonishing range of possibilities.

The multiplicity of materials and processes this year was a constant source of wonder, particularly at Werribee Park where artists seemed more inclined to installations than the single sculptural object. Nicole Voevodin-Cash planted a formal garden of expertly chosen plants and grasses, titled Rug, whose pattern was as ordered as the nearby parterre in the 19th-century garden. Sam Collins also used live plants, in some cases incorporating full-scale trees growing in the park, skillfully made to look as though they had been boxed and recently transported to the site. The title Transportation (memorial to the transplanted) aroused many thoughts, not only of exotic plants brought to Australia by early settlers, but also of the fact that the first Europeans in Australia were transported—as convicts. It was a particularly apt concept for this 19th-century garden, which had originally been filled with European plants in order to obliterate all views of the surrounding Australian landscape.

Gary Wilson, untitled, 2003. Winner of the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award.

Mathieu Gallois also exploited the parkland setting with Caravan, which was parked on a green patch of lawn surrounded by trees, an idyllic setting for an Australian holiday. But this caravan was not quite full scale and was made entirely of transparent acrylic sheet—an immaculately precise, if whimsically non-functional object. By comparison, the helicopter at the National Gallery of Australia, constructed by Alwin Reamillo and Roselin Eaton, had all the characteristics of a do-it-yourself, learn-as-you-go project. It was a co-operative effort, a helicopter made of bamboo poles lashed together with strips of rubber cut from the tubes of old car tires, incorporating found materials such as bones, feathers, beer cans, and a pair of emu claws. Seemingly light-hearted, the work also carried serious political content: it was named after Jandamarra who reputedly flew like a bird and disappeared like a ghost as he led the Aboriginal resistance against European settlement in the Kimberleys in the 1890s. The discarded, flattened beer cans delivered a further social message.

Jan Golembiewski’s Liberty also conveyed a potent political message. Based on the Statue of Liberty in New York, this work negated the icon’s longevity. Carved in carbon dioxide [dry ice], a medium that smokes, snows, and dramatically vanishes into harmless gas, Liberty diminished over time—underscoring for the artist, how “the civil liberties of the free world are diminishing fast.”

Geoff Bartlett, The Rose, The Bullet, The Window, 2003. Finalist for the National Sculpture Prize.

One of the most stimulating aspects of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia was the skillful manner in which curator Elanor Taylor counterposed works of totally different intent. Viewers were constantly surprised and intrigued, for example, by the irregular rattling, clanking sounds that emanated from Arthur Wicks’s Boatman’s Unscheduled Crossing. This endearing image of human persistence and frailty, of mankind’s journey into the unknown, combined a naive homemade boat and rower with sophisticated high-tech controls. Moving along wobbly tracks suspended high in the gallery, the boat made erratic journeys back and forth in the sky, before amusingly disappearing into a corrugated iron boat shed.

In an adjoining gallery, Peter D. Cole’s immaculately made and highly sophisticated Red, Yellow and Black presumed a familiarity with the formal language of abstract sculpture. Though much of the artist’s previous work has drawn on the imagery of the bushland where he lives, this sculpture emphasizes relationships between solid, flat areas of color and space, between rectangle and curve, between the strongly stated colors of red, yellow, and black.

The viewing experience at Werribee Park, where it is easy to be seduced by the beauty of the extensive gardens, was quite different. Since the works were dispersed over a wide area, there was a tendency to stroll casually, discovering sculpture here and there. Rather than comparing one sculpture with another, as in the gallery situation, one was more likely to view the work within its setting, in relation to the surrounding trees and the open sky. The majority of the artists confidently met the challenge, though for a few it posed a difficulty: not all were aware of the change in scale necessary when competing with nature.

Robert Bridgewater’s Red Trunk and Black River certainly held its own by the sheer simple strength of the forms. Placed on the edge of a vast area of lawn, against a bank of mature trees, one wooden form was vertical, the other horizontal, one black, the other basically white with small touches of red. In both cases, the surfaces were covered in intricately carved patterns, which animated the structures without destroying form.

Geoffrey Bartlett, who had shown a very strong work in the second Lempriere exhibition, seemingly underestimated the size and power of the surrounding trees this year. His Awakening Desire looked convincingly forceful in the catalogue photograph, but in actual fact, it was somewhat diminished by the forces of nature. On the other hand, his work in the Canberra exhibition had a very powerful presence, even if its meaning was elusive. The Rose, The Bullet, The Window linked disparate elements—a medieval castle window alluding to the sculptor’s recent trip to Europe, a bullet, which brought about radical change (from bows and arrows to more efficient means of killing), and the massive burl from a 400-year-old Australian tree. Not an easy work to read, yet the directly stated composition of two vertical structures linked by a horizontal gave the work a convincing authority. It must have been a serious contender for the prize.

Prizes, of course, are invariably contentious for the simple reason that a different group of judges would almost certainly have chosen a different winner. Both of the works selected for the main prizes were indeed controversial. The Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award was given to an untitled work by Gary Wilson that consisted of two plates of steel, each forming a semi-circle 240 centimeters high, off-set to allow entrance to the circular interior. The first reaction on seeing the massive rusted steel structure was to think of Richard Serra. However, on walking inside, one was forced to re-evaluate: one surface was painted a brilliant red and the other an intense citrus yellow. The visual impact was astonishing in its intensity, so intense as to create vibrations within the space, almost more than the eye could withstand. This startling dichotomy between the expected rusted exterior and the totally unexpected vibrant interior was at once breathtaking, exhilarating, and electrifying.

The National Sculpture Prize went to Lisa Roet’s equally controversial Political Ape—seven bronze busts of seven chimpanzees. Because the artist has been studying apes for the last 10 years, it is quite possible that her implied meaning for the installation was different from that assumed by the spectators. Whereas the casual viewer simply saw seven apes, the artist was undoubtedly aware of individual differences, a hierarchy, a social order, and even a political structure. Some viewers assumed that Political Ape was a satire on our frequently criticized politicians, while many people recalled the once-popular busts of monkeys that gave visual form to the old warning “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

Debate over the relevance of prizes is bound to continue as awards proliferate. Wineries such as Montalto and Yerring Station have combined a desire to promote the arts with a realization that sculpture exhibitions attract additional people to their restaurants and increase sales: both have recently initiated generous prizes. City councils such as Stonnington, Darebin, and Woollahra are also offering prizes for sculpture, and the annual Sculpture By the Sea will again be held this year at Bondi, Sydney.

Not to be outdone, McClelland Gallery at Langwarrin, near Melbourne, recently added “and Sculpture Park” to its title and announced an AUS $100,000 acquisitive prize that began in October 2003. After all these years of playing second fiddle to painters, sculptors are deservedly in the limelight.