Wei Wang, Walking, 2015. Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, 2018. Photo: Romain Maitra

Sculpture by the Sea

Sydney, Australia

Bondi Beach

Sculpture by the Sea (SxS), installed along a two-kilometer coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach, is undoubtedly the world’s largest free-to-the-public, outdoor sculpture exhibition. Its 22nd edition featured 107 sculptures by Australian and international artists that merged almost organically with the prehistoric sandstone rock formations along the stretch of beach, with the grand blues of the sky and the sea as backdrops.

Founding director David Handley has always given more importance to the exhibition’s growing popularity among impressionable Sydneyites, and to its creative and educational appeal among youngsters, than to making it a stringently curatorial affair. Thus, as in the previous years, this edition of SxS neither took an ideological position nor dictated any particular subject matter. In such an air of embracing inclusiveness, it cannot be easy to maintain strict quality control, and that was indeed the case here, at times—although the surrounding natural space helped to save quite a few works from instant rejection.

Chinese sculptor Lv Pinchang’s Space Plan, consisting of two rusty, spacecraft-like objects made from cast iron, cast aluminum, and stainless steel, demanded considerable mastery in the making. China was a special focus country for SxS in 2018, and a contingent of eight leading Chinese sculptors, all alumni and teachers from the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, contributed works. Much Chinese sculpture still resides in the figurative domain, and I was disappointed not see to these artists make insightful use of abstraction. Zhang Wei’s engaging Layers of Mountain, however, defied mass and volume, conveying the notion of shan shui in Chinese landscape painting (literally “mountain water”); the horizon of the sea created a natural backdrop for rows of mountain silhouettes made from sheets of steel and bolts. The two largest pieces in SxS were Wang Wei’s Walking, a five-meter-high bronze of a gracefully striding teenager with a lowered head, who seemed to be both arriving and leaving, and Mu Boyan’s Horizon, a three-meter-high, obese figure in pink-painted stainless steel, seated in meditative calm at the edge of the sea.

The elevated grassy plateau of Marks Park hosted an assembly of works. In Quantum, formalist master Ron Robertson-Swann established a dialogue in steel between sculpture and architecture, positive and negative space, achieving an austere sense of symmetry and balance, as well as a timeless classicism. Architectural nuance also characterized Antithesis by Matthew Harding, who died prematurely last year and to whom this SxS was dedicated. In his labyrinthine stainless steel construction, closed form kept transforming toward openness as one approached, the form seeming to change from the inside as it pushed out with an interesting tension, like the broad sweeps of a bird’s outstretched wings.

For me, viewing a sculpture by Orest Keywan is like listening to an abstract musical composition: both require repeat engagements, and I like to re-view his work for connections rather than interpretations. Keywan does not produce “statuary”; his pieces tend to appear as sculptural drawings of odd shapes and spindly, allusive armatures—with nuanced, linear trajectories. His suggestively titled Studio, which consisted of an outreaching formation of scattered items with blank spaces in between, was an introspective depiction of an interior ambience exposed to the vast exterior surroundings of sky and sea, rather than a fixed depiction of an object or idea. Georgina Humphries contributed my favorite site-specific installation—Groundswell, made entirely from recycled, multi-hued fabric stitched together with metal frames. This kinetic construction was activated by the offshore breeze, which lifted the furrowed stretch of triangular spikes like a wave, inviting viewers to see it from above and below.

James Parrett’s M-fortysix, a circular abstract form in stainless steel, won the Aus $70,000 Aqualand Sculpture Award, shunting aside quite a few other contenders. What mattered most, however, was the refreshing sight of a multitude of visitors of all ages thronging the entire stretch of SxS. —Romain Maitra