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Sculptural fantasias

Zsuzsanna Soboslay

Ah Xian, Human, Human-Lotus, Cloisonne Ah Xian, Human, Human-Lotus, Cloisonne
As the gates to Victoria’s Werribee Park open for the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award (won this year by Nigel Helyer), the portals to the NGA Canberra’s National Sculpture Prize close. A fundamental difference between the latter, the Lempriere and Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea is that the NGA Prize is not for outdoor or site-specific works. Finalists, some newcomers, others well-established artists, each given $2000 to initiate and complete an idea or refine and extend an earlier work, often saw their works assembled for the first time at the exhibition opening. Each piece here effectively can relocate itself, and, because of this, the exhibition provides both stimulation and a kind of jarring in its eclectic array of discrete pieces made to be viewed in quiet white-walled rooms.

Whilst down the corridor Rodin’s 19th century works, Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, clutch at their individuated despair with a solemn grace, it strikes me as provocative that the inaugural contemporary Sculpture Prize has gone to a figurative work. Ah Xian’s Human, Human-Lotus, Cloisonne. However, in contrast to Rodin’s muscled agonies and surging sexual vignettes, it is ethereal and meditative, like a form both smoothed by and surviving burial beneath water, its fine flowered and veined cloisonne-work embedded in life-size porcelain a technical marvel, its aloofness from “all kinds of political struggling, fighting, power gaining and the endless wars that exist in the world” initially taking some adjustment to sit with in the room. Like Keats’ Grecian urn, it is a “foster child of silence and slow time,” the figure emulating the quietude of a sacred vase, or pond.

By contrast, Geoffrey Drake-Brockman and Richie Kuhaupt’s Chromeskin, with its passive naked chromed male mannequin standing before a telephone-box sized prism, is a computer-interactive work where viewers’ gestures, body positions and approaches towards the box affect and reshape the gestures, turns and colours of the animated version of the mannequin within it, “an encounter between two aspects of human agency-the physical and the virtual-arranged en tableau”.

I am not sure which of these two works issues a deeper challenge. The recognition that all looking is an interactive encounter, and that many tableaux (of culture, of experience, across timezones) are activated in proximity to sculptural works, can be overshadowed by languages that almost strip the delicacy from this awareness. Human, Human is perhaps even more a political act than are the games pieces by Liu Xiao Xian (pitting indigenous against introduced animals on a chess board; the British Royal Family versus iconic indigenous Australians-and Christ, and B1 and B2-on a flattened Aboriginal flag/Australian map). These seem ideologically overworked and perhaps sculpturally underdeveloped, even and especially next to his own fine bone china castings of quirky Victorian cutlery, an elegant and excessive roll-call beside a single pair of fine white cast china chopsticks.

Other works hinge on the pulls of memory and grief (Pamela Kouwenhoven’s Shrine to Memory, discarded cemetery flowers almost quilted into complex spiritual icons; or Rosslynd Piggott’s Japanese-silk rolled pillow resting on a lean black plinth, a tear-bubble falling out one ear); on domestic familiarities (Lena Yarinkura’s metal-cast dogs, forlorn, on-heat; Donna Marcus’ walled snake-trail of aluminium teapots; Ruth Downes’ gorgeous, funny, sexy array of some 30 hand-made plinthed teacups playing with textures and ideas of odd meetings at mad hatters’, government house and community teas-a barbed-wire amnes-tea; gold-coined GS-tea; golf-teas, par-teas, various novel-teas). Others expose cultural decadence: Louise Paramor’s deep-and darkly-coloured, folded-paper Lustgarten sofa/chandelier, made during her Berlin residency, is as sharp and exposing of cultural undertows as were George Gross’s scratchy, dirty WWII drawings; whilst others still are lyrical contemplations of philosophy (Bronwyn Oliver’s winding, wall-mounted, woven copper calligraph, tackling Derrida’s idea of trace by tracing the movement of writing itself as pen is drawn across a page); of martyrdom (Linda Ivimey’s hessian-clad, hooded dolls both pregnant-like and child-like in shape, challenging the fetishising and making-saintly of deep embodied suffering); and of social inequalities-what street-tramp might be saved within the false-hope shelter/mobile aspirin of Richard Goodwin’s bicycle-stretcher?

Lionel Bawden makes sculptures out of coloured pencils look like they’re made of woven cane. Neil Roberts’ wall-mounted vaulting-horse clad with a leaded-glass rendition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim ceiling window is disturbing both in its relocated masculine force and its pulling of parameters from both floor and ceiling to wall. Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s Wall Unit (Origin of the World) is a series of peepholes into birds’ nests already destroyed by casting into bronze, a wall-mounted collection that yet survives fetishism (as body-memory, our remembered relationship to our origins does). Timothy Horn’s Glass Slipper (Ugly Blister) highlights the symbiotic relationship between Cinderella and stepsister, gewgaw and glassmanship in an interesting telescoping of the usually divided layers of craft-and myth-making. Sebastian di Mauro’s Clip, a floor-mounted, astroturf-clad pair of giant hedge-clippers, kindles and satisfies the garden-lust of would-be suburbanites too busy, too tired, or too often at the Art Gallery to tend or own their own hedge.

National Sculpture Prize, 2001, Inaugural Exhibition, Coordinating Curator Elena Taylor; curator Beatrice Gralton; judges Brian Kennedy, Julian Beaumont, Dr Deborah Hart, Professor Ian Howard, Neil Dawson. Finalists not covered in this review are: Geoffrey Bartlett, Kristian Burford, Matt Calvert, Peter Cole, Kevin Gossner, Fred Fisher, Matthieu Gallois, David Jenz, Gunther Kopietz, Ari Purhonen, Sarah Robson, Heather B Swann, Ken Unsworth. NGA Canberra Nov 30, 2001-March 10, 2002.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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