Summer Holidays #2: Sculpture Trail


Pyxis, by Ray Haydon

Brick Bay Winery, which I wrote about in my last post, has a rather unique feature: it is home to an extensive collection of contemporary sculptures laid out along a native bush walk which, for a small fee, visitors can explore. Curious to see more modern sculpture, to which I’ve had a limited exposure, I paid my fee and, along with a friend and his teenaged son, began a two-hour exploration.

It was… interesting. And by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘probably good for me, but not particularly enjoyable’: effectively the cultural cod liver oil of my holiday.

To assist us along our trail we were given a map which included a thumbnail photograph of each sculpture and a brief description of what the artist intended it to represent. And therein lies my chief criticism of modern sculpture: it requires a description to assist interpretation, and without this information the viewer is often left with few clues as to the message the sculptor intends to communicate.

Statue of the Goddess Athena by Phidias c.450BCE.

Historically, sculptures have been created as an expression of the common culture of a particular civilisation. They have represented, in a manner quite obvious to the audience, key figures and events in that culture. Thus in ancient Greece and Rome they depicted gods and goddesses (hence the early Christian suspicion of the art-form), military victories and political leaders; in the later Catholic church they display in tangible form Jesus, his mother, the Saints and martyrs; in many religious traditions sculpture is still used to create idols for both public and private devotion; cities throughout the world contain statues of important political figures (in my home-town of Reading, England, the statue of Queen Victoria was placed facing away from the town centre because, I am told, she couldn’t stand the place); and throughout the West stand statues of soldiers and cenotaphs covered with names, silent reminders of the terrible cost of the two great wars which devastated Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

WWI Memorial in Whanganui, New Zealand.

No-one digging up those memorials a thousand years from now could remain for long in ignorance of their significance, even if they had no way of interpreting the words carved upon them. ‘Some great event is memorialised here’, they would say and, seeing the images of swords and guns, would probably realise fairly quickly that the event in question was a war.

But at Brick Bay we were adrift in a sea of sculptures with no common vocabulary, and captions which were sometimes more frustrating and confusing than enlightening. For example:

[‘Daughter of the Swamp’] is an architectural object that lacks a deliberate functional purpose. The Folly must instead examine its surroundings and allow them to bring it into an abstract existence.

Everyone loves a Slinky! (Daughter of the Swamp by Ryan Mahon, Sacha Milojevic, Edward Roberts and Raphaela Rose)

Now, I actually rather liked this sculpture, which looked like a giant Slinky you could walk through and got smaller towards the end so you had to double over. It was fun and you could interact with it, which brought out my inner child and made me smile. But how exactly does an inanimate object ‘examine its surroundings’? And in what way do the surroundings ‘bring it into an abstract existence’ (I thought that was the sculptor’s job)? And what, exactly, is ‘an abstract existence’? And at what point does the cry that ‘this is Art!’ cease to be regarded as a justification for the creation of an object which is not only pointless but also, sans the interpretation of the artist, meaningless (in a way that the sculptures of the past never were) and instead give way to a weary acknowledgement that, just perhaps, the Emperor has no clothes?

And this, mind you, is a sculpture which I actually liked. Amongst the sixty or so others there was a sound sculpture which sounded like a group of drunks imitating baboons (apparently they were a choir imitating Amazonian frogs); a hanging sculpture called ‘Counterbalancing Entropy’ which almost drove my companion (a physics tutor who could rattle off the scientific definition of entropy without recourse to Google) to despair; road signs with captions which were supposed to provide edgy social commentary but instead merely sounded hackneyed; and numerous pieces of cut and polished stone of various shapes and sizes.

A few works did genuinely stand out to me. ‘The White Deer’, rendered recognisably but with a Modernist angularity in stark white aluminium, seemed somehow at home amongst the hilltop grasses in which it stood, reminding me of myths of similar animals which led those who dared hunt them to their destruction (hmmm…) and of the status of deer in New Zealand as something introduced, foreign, and damaging (HMMM…). Several variations on the theme of piled stones blended into their environment like the ancient standing-stones of Europe or the wooden Totems of North America, connecting the ancient with the modern world. And the sound sculpture ‘Misirere Mei’ sent the haunting strains of Gregorio Allegri’s Renaissance rendering of the penitential 51st Psalm (‘Have mercy on my, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…’) echoing through a world which seems immune to any thought of sin or shame, or of a God of judgement and mercy.

Detritus, by Jeff Thomson

Other sculptures which I appreciated were the knee-high comical cow, the series of reproductions of traditional Japanese Torii gates adorned with bells which we could ring while passing underneath, the one which looked like a colourful children’s climbing frame made of stuff from the garden shed, and several depictions of wooden posts putting forth new growth (as Aaron’s staff once budded in the desert, although I’m not sure how many would leap to that same connection today).

The bush setting was beautiful and the trail offered a chance to walk off the wine I had consumed before getting back into the car. And given the space required to display even one sculpture Brick Bay provides what is surely a near-unique opportunity to view so many examples of this art-form in a single space. In other words, I don’t regret it, but I probably wouldn’t repeat it.

What are your thoughts on modern art? Would you have chosen to walk the sculpture trail?

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