Ten years at S X S

Patron's Dinner Talk at Claude's Wednesday, 2nd September

Those of you who know me know that from time to time I am given to offering words without notice or invitation. Tonight I have been invited to say a few words. Given permission I was initially lost for words.

Those of you who know me will squirm in their seats wondering what I am about to propose; whether it will be unsustainably poetically licensed, whether it is typically off the mark, or whether I might say something which genuinely touches them. Those of you who know me have been mostly patient and sympathetic as I find my way.

Those of you who don't know me are advantaged in having to bring no preconceptions to my appearance here, speaking rather than listening.

They can wonder, freely what it is that I might say, to justify their listening; so much knowledge and experience leaning in on me, hungry ears for all the years.

Indeed, to be honest, I do not know that I have that much to say other than what is stacked so thickly between the lines like cream on such a delicious occasion.

To praise Sculpture by The Sea is too obvious and what you might be expecting this preamble to be leading to, and even though I've said it now, you will imagine that a modesty born of so many years wrestling material, as a sculptor must, would lead me away from these kinds of words that I have so far laid out, to settle into a prosy purpose such as praise.

I do warm to an absence of preconceptions. Whether I am fleeing an unsustainable self knowledge or I am genuinely delighted from the less familiar from which to grow, I do not know.

I hope that those of you who do know me do not spoil it for the others by whispering in their ears before they have had a chance to be hypnotised by my flowery logic. That’s f.l.o.w.e.r.y.

I have established the fact that ten bricks don’t make a wall shaped without stacking options so I haven't had the benefit of experience as a learning tool as others with an even climb possess. Ten years at Sculpture by The Sea; thirty-five years making sculpture; I seem to be forever scratching at the surface of the opportunity of it, bewildered by the marvel of it rather than building a nice wall for those who may have been interested to follow or climb.

The attraction to sculpture for me is you can't be cute with it. The material mocks noble aspirations. Survive those conditions and then bring it out to Bondi and pitch it against the wind and waves and salt and the terrible intoxicating beauty; really, if it wasn't already hard enough.

Thank you David but.....hah......oh, ok, no buts.

Having said that, surprise, surprise, I do have some thoughts about Sculpture by The Sea which have emerged from my experience. Nothing puts us asleep quicker than a truism but I have made a short list of them whose number coincides with my tenure. That's t.e.n.y.e.a.r.

S x S has made a lie of the following truisms.

1. Inclusive and exclusive are mutually exclusive. 2. Sculpture cannot draw a crowd. 3. A local cultural product cannot be world leading. 4. The gallery space should be neutral to show up the work. 5. Scholars and bureaucrats have the brightest torches to shine the way. 6. Progress, artistic progress that is, and commerce are incompatible. 7. Diversity dilutes standards. 8. S x S will have a five year life span, max. 9. Experience as an artist serves to jade rather than enrich. 10. You have to wear black.

1. Inclusive and exclusive are mutually exclusive. Normally to achieve a high standard you have to set the bar high which means punters and amateurs are not included. This is the case with every other sculpture prize. I propose that S x S tackles the Australian conundrum of everyman versus the emperor.

2. Sculpture cannot draw a crowd. Sculptors have at times felt disappointed by a lack of interest and support in their work. Their innate grumbliness had always found a target. They have often reconciled themselves to the harsh realities of devotion, accepting there was an audience of three. S x S has accessed a monster appetite for sculpture.

3. A local cultural product cannot be world leading. We Australians are determined to be modest with our cultural voice, our cultural power. We are inclined to defer to bullies, to those with history, to those peoples whose land is attached to other land masses. We do not support our own artists. Those we do support are those that reflect recent international trends most successfully. One of our favourite national pastimes is to watch genuine artists flounder as they are denied life support. S x S's international reputation is a welcome relief and contrast to this phenomenon. S x S shoots for the stars.

4. The gallery space should be neutral to show up the work. Part of S x S's success is its setting. Visitors are guaranteed a massive experience whether they are moved by the sculpture or not. Sculptors sometimes feel, I am among them, that they have to make something which can compete with the natural environment. This has more a positive than negative effect however; we are motivated to draw more deeply from within ourselves, to meet that challenge, rather than linger in our various comfort zones. Art grew weak in the gallery space.

5. Scholars and bureaucrats have the brightest torches to shine the way. It is my experience that scholars and bureaucrats are mostly concerned with building their own careers rather than building culture. Art needs the endorsements, the clarifications this profession provides. From my perspective they have been asleep on the job. Because they fail to fulfil their contract, ironically, their careers are also stymied by holding no sway. S X S is untainted by this group.

6. Progress, artistic progress that is, and commerce are incompatible. Experience had showed us that the demands of commerce compromised the work of the artist. The argument is that artists who make work in response to demand do not grow as artists. Recently work made for a non-commercial context was found to be equally compromised by having to satisfy other equally limiting criteria, such as political correctness, arguable intent, ephemeralness. Recently commerce has freed the artists from the self limiting demands of the non-commercial.

7. Diversity dilutes standards. The argument goes that if you try to please everyone, everyone is short-changed. The diversity of work at S x S breaks the divisions between cultural sub-groups. Club identity is a false custodian of values, despite the lure of the cosy identification with the club of choice. S X S shows the best from all walks of art.

8. S x S will have a five year life span, max. I came on board S x S in its third year. Being conservative and sceptical, I didn't want to be there when the initial enthusiasm waned, when reality reared its head. Rather than flounder, S x S has boomed and sculptors feel more supported.

9. Experience as an artist serves to jade rather than enrich. S x S exhibits artists of diverse philosophies and ages. Youth, relevance and being up to date have become inextricably woven. The perception that art is a mirror to reflect change is tied to that. The best sculpture, perhaps, is the sculpture that has the longest range vision to the past.

10. You have to wear black. Everywhere everyone of note wears black except at S x S. The sea blows in the fresh air.