Posted: October 13, 2023 / Bondi Exhibition Catalogue Essays, Essays

Margarita Sampson, ‘Urchins’, Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 1997. Photo Clyde Yee

Margarita Sampson (NSW)
First exhibited on the Bondi coastal walk in 1997 

Aussie Beach Culture met Sculpture by the Sea, and it seemed like the start of a wonderful relationship.

Artist share-house, North Bondi, 1997: sand gritty on the floor, damp beach towels hung on every surface, Mazzy Star on repeat on the CD player, the garage a heady mix of turps, oil paint & other artistic substances. Our friends crashed on the couch, or the floor, or didn’t sleep at all. We liked to hang out on Bondi Beach eating chips & watching seagulls at night after the crowds had left, or in a giant fibreglass revolving egg in the local playground, or up at the Sewerage Works tower on the cliff. It was our summer of love & peace, man.

The local paper had an ad asking for sculptors to take part in a one-day Bondi coastal exhibition. I was a painter but I’d started playing around with small textile sculptures. “Oh yeah” I thought, “I could have a whirl at this’’ and sent in a couple of proposals. The first, a giant textile mermaid breastfeeding fish from multiple bosoms was knocked back (‘but why??..’) however my second was accepted; textile sea urchins in Love-Parade colours with funky jazz soundtracks you could mix yourself by moving around the works. I didn’t know how to make a large sculpture but muddled through with some help, and as that iconic image was taken by Clyde Yee I too was watching those surfers coming up the beach with their yellow surfboard, encountering the works and going in for a bit of a tug on the spikes. Aussie Beach Culture met Sculpture by the Sea, and it seemed like the start of a wonderful relationship.

Many people will point to the effect that Sculpture by the Sea has had on the Australian art world; liberating sculpture from the gallery and institution, to the careers it has launched in arts admin as well as sculptural ones, to the iconic event that a generation has grown up with.

For me though, the enduring power of Sculpture by the Sea has been it’s role as a nexus point for community. Over the years most Australian and a wide range of overseas sculptors have installed across that headland or at other Sculpture by the Sea events; forming enduring friendships, collaborations, helping each other out… commiserating on misfortune, celebrating births, milestones, career successes. Artist groups have been created, we have curated shows, shared studios, lent machinery, been hosted overseas and hosted artists ourselves, built connections with institutions and collectors. The community grows outwards and laterally, our intermingled roots making us stronger and more resilient.

Every year since 1997 (bar two Covid years) the great circus rolls into town, with David Handley as the golden-haired impresario – seemingly everywhere: cajoling, exhorting, whatever it takes to keep the show on the road, and his carny band of legendary site-staff and installers, occasionally nursing fierce hangovers from the infamous staff parties. The unflappably elegant (at least to me) admin staff adroitly handling all the moving parts of a giant exhibition, and overall the camaraderie and often the sheer hard slog that the public never sees. And behind it all, the good faith shown by the donors every single year, showing up and putting their combined weight behind the event.

And over the years a culture has emerged, one that I think of as being wrought in the fire of carrying out such a preposterously grand vision built from such a grassroots beginning. It’s a culture of stoicism, of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst – high winds, deep mud, wayward sculptors, pandemics, cost blow-outs; laughing when it gets worse than we thought even possible and still making it happen. 

It’s also a culture of optimism, that we can construct something out of nothing, that we want to communicate an idea and that there is some-one else who is wanting to share it, to be caught up in it, to carry that enlivening spark.

This year in honour of 1997 and my initial proposal I have made a lolly-pink goddess (mercifully with no suckling fish, though). I hope she brings you luck and joy. Happy 25th Anniversary Sculpture by the Sea, and all who sail in her.

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