Sculptures by the Sea, or Public Pleasure in Art

Sculptures by the Sea is on again. Over two weeks, tens of thousands will descend on the short stretch of coast between Sydney’s Bondi and Tamarama beaches to explore the eclectic array of art works installed along it.

This is the way summer begins in Bondi, a crashing wave of visitors that will not let up until March. First there is the unceremonious arrival of earthmovers and shipping containers. Then tall men wielding cordless drills materialise, concrete is poured to make foundations, sculptors look on pensively, and curatorial figures, identifiable by their clipboards and stylish eyewear, stride proprietarily across the exhibition’s central space of Marks Park, the headland between Bondi Beach and Mackenzies Bay.

Locals have a bittersweet relationship with Sculptures. This beautiful stretch of coast should be enjoyed, and who could be so curmudgeonly as to disdain it becoming an outdoor art gallery for a few weeks each year? And yet we have our petty resentments—losing the dog park, makeshift one-way streets, swathes of dead grass, and, of course, the hordes of art-ogling camera wielders—complaints voiced with loud laughs so that we don’t appear too philistine.

One evening before opening, I walk the route from the Bondi Icebergs Club to Tamarama Beach. Some works are old acquaintances, changed only in mood or posture: fat copper men dancing on granite (Keld Moseholm), undulating curves made kinetic by the wind (Hiroyuki Kita), Calder-esque folds of bright-hued metal (Michael Le Grand, Philip Spelman), warped stencils of polished steel (Michael Snape). Others reflect their liminal location between sky, sea, and land: timber-block men bend their backs to keep sandstone from falling (Elyssa Sykes-Smith), cloudy, glass feet walk from hillside to sea cliff (Robert Branstone), a huge sphere filled with water inverts the horizon (Lucy Humphrey). Some could be anywhere, utterly unaware of the changeable place they occupy. Many, it seems, are auditioning for permanent homes in corporate lobbies, and others lack ambition—designed to elicit a chuckle or a goofy pose for Instagram. Those with a political edge seem to be about recycling or climate change; worthy causes, to be sure, but generic and inoffensive all the same.  I pass a group of corporate sponsors, champagne clutched in their fists, and wish they were part of the exhibition, instead of the only people who can afford to buy the works.

On the first Saturday, cars accumulate below our apartment, horns blare, and a steady river of humanity flows towards the coastal walk. Despite myself, I join them, the sensibly dressed elderly, the yuppie parents pushing too-big prams, the Japanese tourists who seem surprised to find themselves in the middle of art, the fit young couples in running shorts or black leggings, sporting his and hers fluoro Nikes. On the coast walk itself we slow beside each new work, ignoring the denialist joggers elbowing past, too obsessive to find somewhere else to run.

Up on the hill at the end of Marks Park, a polished steel Cheshire grin reflects sky, ocean, grass, and the smartphones of teens taking distorted selfies (Matthew Harding). Their pleasure is infectious. Kids squeal their way excitedly through a maze of mattress inner springs (Jane Gillings) and pour into an open-roofed room of blue Chep pallets (Clayton Blake). Further on, a disquietingly beautiful piece has attracted a small group of women. Two bodies lie on a plinth, grey clay slowly breaking apart, and between them a perfect white-glazed baby (Arun Sharma). In their linens, wide-hats and Cancer Council sunglasses, the women discuss whether the work is damaged, but no, that can’t be right, and together they decide it’s about how families are always both decaying and renewing. They look in silence for a few minutes, basking in the joy of understanding.

Sculptures by the Sea isn’t about the artworks. Or, to be accurate, the artworks aren’t its true centre. People are. Retirees earnestly leafing through catalogues, parents desperate for tiring activities, reluctant husbands trailing a half-step behind carefully dressed wives, clusters of hipsters letting their irony lapse for a few hours. Everyone is taking photographs. Posing in front of the leaning telegraph pole on which skeleton rides a bike, pretending to step onto a staircase that climbs towards a vanishing point, stepping into a steel loop to capture their own bodies bending to infinity and back onto themselves. Laughter, casual pleasure, another way to unwind the weekend.

Near the trees, a troupe of kids clambers over a painted steel structure by Ron Robertson-Swan OAM. Their mother waits with the camera beside the Do Not Touch sign. I am about to say something, but I don’t. There is an active demythologising here, a desire for all this art to be just another part of life. If these kids grow up thinking that art is something you can become intimate with, something welcome, isn’t that better? And besides, what are small hands going to do to powder-coated metal?

As the exhibition rolls on, I find myself watching the people far more than the art. Early one morning, a fitness trainer urging two young mums into circuits and star jumps, prams safely stowed in the shade. A group of middle-aged men and women, uniformed in cargo shorts and walking sandals, laughing at the dialogue coming from the bike-locked Portaloo (Justin and Simone Drape). Yelling school kids, disgorged from buses, bouncing on their toes while their teachers do one last count. Countless such moments in the three weeks of the exhibition. Then it will be over; the sculptures gone, summer arrived.

If there is one moment that will stick with me, it is this. People spilling onto the roped-off rock shelf above Tamarama Beach, blocking the narrow stairs, bodies pressing together. There must be a fifty of us and I don’t know where we are from or what we are all thinking. Only that we are staring, all of us, into Lucy Humphrey’s water-filled acrylic orb, collectively gazing into a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. What we see is not the future but an inverted view of the world, the horizon flipped so that sky becomes ocean, ocean sky, and rock floats above. Finding pleasure, in our different ways, in seeing the world from another perspective—even for this small moment, on this crowded stretch of coast, before the hurly-burly everyday swallows us up again.