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Sculpted: conscience and consciousness

Zsuzsanna Soboslay on the National Sculpture Prize

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, Floribots Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, Floribots
Everyone has their favourites: the garden of programmed robotic flowers that rise, unfold, snap shut, fall again, lines rippling like wheat in wind. The Porsche-like, white, seamlessly cast manta ray. Starfish pinned together into fishing-nets that hang like an island welcome over the entranceway. Forms that are organic, computer-generated, classically-referenced, or based on negative space; thrown into corners, clutching walls, caught in crystal, precarious on floors. An arc of Buddhas chant; another is sculpted out of Easter egg foil. There are boxes of memories and mementoes; paper folded into sea-sponge cells; dress-shoes and a hand-bag cast in lead, coffin-prints, lost accessories. How strange, amongst several fetishistic collections of objects, the thin earth-to-sky abstraction of the Yolngu burial pole. And the winning work, American crater near Hanoi, #2: a negative space marking out the zone of damage. Surrounded by an origami of Viet and American currencies, folded into shirts, all tied (as the people were) floor to ceiling with string.

Ahh, sculpture competitions: much better represented now in Australia than they used to be. By the sea (Sydney), in the park (Werribee), or as here, held within walls. Much more space than before; this, the third Gallery event, seems to have gained kudos, been allowed more space, attracted higher calibre submissions. Newcomers beside old hands. Fewer mistakes.

The first mistake: squashing them in. In the first two National Sculpture Prize exhibitions (2001 and 2003), I actually missed site-specificity: pined for installations in grasses and on plains, Richard Long-type spirals of stone and sand. This time, I’m really glad I’m in this building here. The placing of works is really right: the art is given space. Sculpture is BIG, even when small. Even hanging on a wall, sculpture works out into space, asking questions wider than its dimensions.

The second: I’m not sure it’s a mistake as such, but the previous 2 exhibitions had phenomenal prize-winners, and a lot of work that was very thin. Technique in this year’s entries is incredibly strong: from the very senior Bert Flugelman’s understanding of the effect of light on polished and ground steel, to Drake-Brockman’s programming of motions and rhythms between elements across a large field, to the various manipulations of plastics, tape and paper, foams and foil, optics and animation. These pieces are allowed their worlds. I deeply understand Flugelman’s phrase on the way art reflects “what one might euphemistically call the ‘real world’.” Art also lives; it is. Even reflections on death (Glen Clarke’s Hanoi; Mel Coates’s underwater video of a drowning parachutist) create a space that lives.

Sculpture, more than painting, dissects dimensions in space, and in that dissection time separates: whose is this body Charles Robb reveals, the classic portrait ‘bust’ against the wall, popping a substance through its orifices, a second revealing its insides (heart and lungs)? The best works dissect the forms we think we move with and through in the world.

Alisdair Macintyre draws together hundreds of works of art and art sites he would like to have visited from several continents, miniaturised into one “theme park” which holds them all. As with the dance of the mechanoid Floribots, and Ian Howard’s enormous scrap-yard of life experiences, adults and children alike are held in thrall.

Works in this exhibition spiral, hide, hollow, store, map and conceal. They spread, climb, hover, fold into myriad cells. They engage in damage (what remains after war, or the sufferings of the ecosystem), and hope (what of both art and life survive). It is little surprise Glen Clarke’s Hanoi #2 wins the prize, as it engages in nearly all of these. There is a conscience and a consciousness in these works. The exhibition has a brightness I haven’t seen in years.

National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition, 2005, National Gallery of Australia, Dimensions Variable, Contemporary Sculpture Festival, Canberra, July 15-Oct 9

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 49

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

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