Sculpture and Seaside Distractions
By Lydia Trethewey
The ocean is like tinfoil, hard against the eye with the suns reflection. A storm skulks along the horizon, holding back rain and growls of thunder; dark grey and purple smudges between which are threaded yellow light. On the sand kids run around barefoot.
I’ve been to see Sculpture by the Sea for the last few years, and find that more and more I wrestle with myself, and with a kind of subcutaneous dread which feels the heat soaking into my skull and the struggle as my shoes fill with sand, even before I step out of the car. I don’t dislike the beach though; maybe it’s the crowds. I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to laugh or scowl at the kids climbing over the ‘do not touch’ signs.
I find it hard to look at the sculptures without getting distracted – often by the vast roiling body of the ocean. It’s so unlike the ‘white cube’ gallery in which the only thing that steals my attention is the white noise of the air-conditioner – a sound that I have come to associate with the firing of neurons, background grey matter. That’s not a metaphor or an indictment either way. Sometimes I find the surroundings more interesting than the focal points. This is often true at Sculpture by the Sea but probably true elsewhere.
There’s a mound of dark seaweed on top of which children clamour. It’s got a Homeric feel about it, the way the kids stand and look out across the water, like sentinels waiting for an imaginary return or news of distant lands. The waves are larger than usual today and surfers bob between them like seals. Not lost, just drifting, unsure, like me on the beach; waiting for something to happen.
A trail of wet sand leads from my feet to the shoreline. Then there’s that space of the ocean, momentarily appearing mythic in scale, a substance from which one might create a universe. Closer to hand, there are two artworks ringed by shallow footsteps.
One of the artworks has fish with skin rather than scales; creatures with thick bronze hides, fired into existence much unlike the ocean (or perhaps like the ocean, depending on theological geography). They’re vaguely green, uncovered from beneath the ocean floor in an archaeological dig. But not really – they’re much newer than that, though their skin is tough enough to last.
A man sits down on one of them and rocks back and forth; sand flicks into the air.
The guidebook, flimsy paper with glossy advertisements, doesn’t offer me anything by way of explanation. It rather baffles me with mention of microplastics and environmentalism, as if the artist has panicked at the last minute and tried to connect their work to an “issue.” I walk on past a kid who rides atop the bronze dolphin.
There’s another work: permeated, folded forms that look like organisms. They’re sponges or coral, but actually they’re plastic. They wrap and contort around poles that jut out from the sand, speared by a convenient display mechanism. There is a kind of blurring between creature and substrate, flora and fauna; coral as a texture. The colouring is white and grey with green tinges – I think of plastic bags washed up on shore. The animal retreats and the fabrication emerges. These forms aspire to look natural, but are really polyurethane, PVC, acrylic and concrete; durable but perhaps likely to become microplastics one day.
A slight wind sends loose sand grains tumbling across the shore; foam tipped waves race towards my shoes. I walk on.
The sky is continually shifting, from grey to yellow, dark to light, my passage is like slow the un-movement of a dream. I feel as if I’m caught between moments, in the corner of my eye a composite image that camouflages with the beach: it’s feathered with a scruffy plumage the colour of bird shit. A chair washed up on shore with a downy covering to defend against the wind. It seems to belong here, this bird-furniture. It shuns me as I walk by, turning in on itself, denying a comfortable seat, no longer an object of human use but a living thing. It lives its hybrid existence, pulling close the boundaries of its own being and shutting me out.
I think: I’ll go and get an ice cream.
Leaving the sand behind I take to concrete, and then grass. People sit with sunglasses and cups of chips. On the sloping surface between beach and road I see a pink monstrosity; it’s a squirming mass of perfumed tentacles, with people taking photographs of each other sitting on its seat, smiling.
Up the road and back down again. The traipsing is getting wearisome, but I tell myself to stop grumbling. How long am I supposed to look at the artworks for? The sky is putting on an interesting show. A man in a whirlwind of gulls tempts the birds onto his arm with stray chips; coast guards in orange watch the waves, arms folded, legs bare; hulking freight ships begin to dissolve into the storm clouds.
From the shore I find another set of steps which lift me up into trees. Out of the scrub rises something small and dense; a cage of twisted wire, hung against the sky. It looks like fish trapped in nets, but I look again and they resolve themselves into human figures. The diffuse cage holds them, contorted, against the sky. They are imprisoned by their own weight, a daydream with material limits. Human bones are too dense to fly. Even the stairs are a hard climb after all the sand.
I follow the trail of organic enfoldments through the trees, across the grass. Heavy marble abstractions like punctuation marks, making me wonder whether they are new this year or have always been there. Sometimes I want to be a person who can just enjoy looking at the art, whatever that means – but not if it means never looking hard or for too long.
My car is parked far away, beneath Norfolk Pines. On the way back to it I pass a wooden ship that is sinking into the earth; here is a fiction and some metaphor, not a narrative with beginning and end but a story with impressions rather than plot. It seems like a compulsion of the imagination, not rational or linear but built from the woodblocks of a toy box. The freight ship sinks beneath the weight of everything else.
My feet are sand-scrubbed, skin becoming gritty in my shoes. There are all these questions about consumerism and environmentalism, and sinking into an annihilating apocalypse – but I don’t feel like thinking about them, and the exhibition hasn’t really prompted me to do so. All of my impressions are mis-readings, or else scrambled by the sun.
Walking to the car I have to admit that I liked some of the artworks despite myself. Does it matter whether I like something, or just whether I think it’s good? There is a difference, even though the distinction between popularity and integrity seems to get lost amongst these big public artworks. I seem unable to approach the exhibition with a critical eye
As I leave the exhibition, waves cut the sky, surfers still bob in the water and little kids climb over seaweed. Lots of people sit and sunbathe or take photographs. The colour is shifting to deeper purples, with grey and silver moments between. As I drive away, the storm is yet to break.