2004 Bondi Exhibition Catalogue Essay: Sculpture and other health hazards

Posted: October 28, 2004 / Bondi Exhibition Catalogue Essays, Essays

By Ron Robertson-Swann OAM

Sculpture is alive and well and sculptors are making ambitious and wonderful works. But there are contemporary viruses going around that can make certain sculptures look a bit unwell, and can effect the viewers’ judgement about sculpture.

One virus takes the form of topics for discussion on sculpture:-
• “Breaking down the boundaries of sculpture”
• “The future of sculpture”
• “Sculpture in the expanded field”
• “Beyond sculpture”

The list goes on, always discussing what sculpture might be, not what it is. The self-conscious urge to break boundaries and deny traditions is mostly self defeating and tends to go backwards or at least in circles. A good example is some of the works that Richard Goodwin showed us at last years’ sculpture symposium that he was putting forward as neither sculpture nor architecture, but on closer examination they fitted clearly into the traditions of “architectural folly” of the 18th century.

It is through the history and traditions of a form that we comprehend and understand it, it’s not that traditions don’t change but they seem to change from the inside; pushing out as it were and this is in part what creates the interesting tension in good sculpture.

The truly new and innovative often happen in small increments and are hard won in the arts. So I should not be surprised, when faced with those challenging difficulties, some would want to invent another way of seeing things. Post Modernism, Post Structuralism – want to change the paradigm, to avoid any doubt by making everything in doubt.

What a great sense of freedom one must experience from not having anything serious to be judged against, and any criticism is seen as adding another layer of meaning to the work. This romantic notion of freedom sounds more like a form of narcism/solipsism to me!

I feel very privileged as well as sometimes burdened by the great traditions of sculpture that go back 30,000 years to the “Willendorf Venus”. We are imbedded in a culture we can challenge but cannot change at will; like the traditions of sculpture that are both restricting and enabling.

The next virus creates an insatiable hunger for the innovative, the challenging, the cutting edge, the socially and politically relevant(?) and the subversive. This virus mostly affects art institut-ions and is endemic probably due to the air-conditioning in those buildings. A mutation of this virus seems to affect some brain functions that put things ‘back to front’ as they encourage work that is subversive to their own institutions and to the public that support their institutions. They delight in confronting their patrons with social and political positions, which would usually be the opposite of those that most of the patrons would hold; and which put them in the position to be patrons in the first place. They have turned the avant-garde, “the way-out” and the so-called contemporary into official art, the new academy. Turned the innovative into novelty and thwarted any remaining artistic ambition these practition-ers may have had and replaced it with a formula, where artists are given the themes and the subjects they should engage with. I have heard medical opinion call this ‘the curatorial virus’.

The third virus is virulent and affects Federal and State funding bodies. It is very difficult to treat because it is circular and keeps reinfecting. It comes from such high moral ground that most medication is unable to have any affect. Artists can only apply to these bodies for special programmes, using special language and complying with special criteria and only at particular times.

They know what is best for art, artists and the public. A self-fulfilling prophecy has been created and if there was any doubt about this vision they also fund the galleries their funded artists show in. A hybrid group of artist have been bought into being that make Piccinini’s creatures look normal.

They usually defend their positions by saying that they ‘fund art that otherwise would not be made’. Without the slightest hint of irony.

I was tempted to propose that delusion was another symptom of this virus but that is difficult to argue because with the shared symptoms of the curatorial virus they seemed to have made their delusions become a reality.

Paradigm shifts of the sort Post Structuralism is proposing and the way it has been embraced by our institutions has the effect of denying the considerable breadth and depth of sculptures’ achievement in Australia.

The sculptural conventions of carving, modelling and construction continue to produce works worthy of our attention. The figurative mode of sculpture has had a new breath of life, stimulated by a response to innovations in other areas of sculpture. The cross fertilization of these conventions has added further depths to the development and range of expression that sculpture is capable of.

To give just one example, the tradition of Landscape painting in this country is viewed as a way in which we see our ‘National Identity’ reflected. But it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that a body of recent Constructivist sculpture has made a fresh and imaginative contribution to the tradition and perception of the landscape; which till recently was only the preserve of painting.

Architects, the most arrogant in relation to the other arts, have been significantly influenced by modern sculpture’s multi-axial, interlocking, dynamic spreading ‘foot print’ and use of bright colours. Architects are usually disdainful of such a suggestion and argue that their escape from the ‘Box’ is due to the invention of a computer programme that allows them to make complicated shaped buildings – but that’s just the means, where did the ideas come from?

To all serious sculptors, you have my admiration and I salute you — and in these difficult times get your ‘shots’ and keep up the vitamin C.


Share on: