Sculpture on the Edge Symposium Bermagui March 2010

Sculpture and Controversy

Words, deeds and gestures serve to touch and in touching and being touched, we know we are alive.

The task for sculpture as always is to find a voice. It is forever losing it from shouting. How can the tyranny of controversy be subverted?

Sculpture often induces controversy. That is true. We come in the end to accept that controversy is inevitable and when it doesn't come we often feel disappointed or short-changed.

Controversy belongs to the family to which slander and libel belong. If your name does not register you have to make do in a life of modesty and autonomy which often comes with no income.

In a climate of multiple option philosophies of art, confusion reigns. In a fog only the siren registers. When a culture is tuned only to the 'controversial' the potential for a deeper culture dissipates. In a non-visual framework there is no scope for applying a critical intelligence. This leads to cultural impoverishment.

Even where culture is more fully rooted as it is in Europe or the US, we encounter sharks in tanks and soiled underpants and Goeff and Ciccolina making out. On Monday we had Spencer Tunic undressing us in Sydney.

For controversial, read significant. For controversial, read contemporary.

As if in being seen to be up to date or catching up, in Australia's 'sculptors' we have Mike Parr holding his breath or Ken Unsworth organising a ball or we see the unsmiling faces of Bill Henson's children. That which is not pressing stridently with an 'important idea' does not appear on the radar.

Even by mentioning these artists and these works I have underscored their controversial tags serving to keep the cold fires warm.

If there was a career in it, the curators might be chasing that which is hidden rather than that which is overt but, unfortunately, they know where the butter is spread and how to amass frequent flyer points. The careers run parallel with the needs and demands of controversy.

There is a sense of 'no tomorrow' in art. That which suggests there is merit in having time to have a second look proposes we might be alive for long enough to do that. This is the age of 'Armageddonism'. We went from Hedon to Armageddon and this is the price.

It has come to the point where what has become visible, by virtue of the mechanisms for rendering visible, is bound to ultimately fail, and that which lies concealed by the radar is where the treasures lie.

For all of the community's investment in the idea of the value of art, the more that the genuine art wants to burrow away and hide. Tragically for the art musterers, life and art grow stronger away from the spotlight and in the dark.

Sculpture and controversy as it happens are less automatically linked than they once were. The new team is Public Art and controversy. Any work which has sculptural properties of any kind is deemed unworthy of public or private attention. Sadly, sculptural values are increasingly seen as being irrelevant in the public art debate.

In order to be successful, sculpture currently needs to be integrated as part of the architectural, environmental and psychological space. By this time it has shed all its mass, shape, subject and beautiful lumpiness. Public sculpture now has become public art.

The strength of sculpture essentially lies in the extent that no words can be successfully tied to it. It is speechless and we are ideally silent as well in the face of it. As our indigenous colleagues found, silence registers as mute and is pounced upon as weakness.

Sculpture and controversy are ultimately anathema. Sculptures sit quietly in space and time. As a consequence of their potential physical survival capacity they get to wait literally, outside. The sick art, the controversial art absorbs the art resources. It occupies the 'now'. Its feeble physique requires that it be placed inside where it resides on life support. It tends to require curatorial underpinning. It needs to support the art industries that have prospered under art's duress. Under these conditions its status is guaranteed. Sculpture which is less newsworthy does not even have the status of outsider art. It is merely outside art and museums now have become hospitals for sick art. What is art if not a child that needs love and protection? Controversial art brings on a moistening in the eyes. For contemporary read controversial. For controversial, read emergency. For controversial read read insider art.

For my disregard for controversy as virtue I find myself also quite a hypocrite. My instinct here today in addressing this topic is to present a controversial view. It is often part of the artist's make-up to make a fuss, to want to draw attention. My desire is to keep my listener's ear, having been offered it today. I want my ideas to register as much as colour does. It is the same appetite for life and liveliness from which the controversial draws its milk. In fact, much contemporary art has that life for which we yearn.

Where do we draw the line between being sensible to sculpture's nature and seeking and gaining attention? How can I be controversial here, when controversy has been so keenly mapped, tapped and exhausted elsewhere?

Ultimately, history will not register such a sharp division between that which sought trouble and that which accidentally found it. Art is in kind of a trouble always, with the way new processes of digestion are demanded. I may for example strongly register an antipathy for gross attention seeking art, while others would view my practice under the same umbrella. The strengths of our views are often territorial markers used for motivation and club orientation.

Sculpture on the Edge is so well named for metaphorically describing the condition of an ideal sculpture. The edge suggests the presence of a precipice and danger. The edge we know is sharp and it can slice through the toughest rind of expectations. The knowledge of the elders broods over the town and the landscape, inviting an honesty more easily denied in the big smoke dash screen.

Away from the bright lights it is at least metaphorically dark and in our new marsupial guise we may find a focus that more fully reflects our nature. Here, there is less scope for reward and distraction.

Everyone wants a slice of the present but sculpture by its nature waits, and all the various components of time wash over it and at times it is bathed in light. At other times, for whatever reason, it spins slowly in the shadow. At its best it is all things.

Ironically the truly controversial sculpture goes unnoticed.