Objects in Space

by Mark Calderwood

Sculpture now is big. As in, prodigious in scale. Coming from a lineage of epic engineering, mammoth industrial sculpture and site-specific installation, contemporary sculpture is a powerful presence in our environment.

Big art requires big space, that is rarely available in even the largest of public galleries. And with so much contemporary sculpture relating to nature as much as the urban environment, and reliant on materials that weather and change over time, the best way to appreciate sculpture is to set it free.

In recent years, private and public sculpture parks have proliferated around Australia and New Zealand, becoming important fixtures in the cultural landscape showcasing the crème of contemporary sculpture. Sculpture parks show outdoor works to their best advantage as an entity that shares our world, giving us the space to move and time to connect with the art in a more accessible setting than stark white walls.

As both natural and cultural spaces, sculpture parks are a natural focus for community engagement and cultural activities as well as simpler pleasures: contemplating art, studying nature, relaxing in the gardens. And with many incorporating quality licenced restaurants, they are the perfect destination for a day away from the urban routine.

But unlike wineries that might dot a few sculptures about their grounds, sculpture parks are no less dedicated or sophisticated than indoor galleries. The quality contemporary art they exhibit represents a genuine engagement with culture that is immediate and multi-sensory, taking us outside our regular, received experience of art.

With events like Sculpture by the Sea (now in its tenth year) becoming ever more popular, the public awareness of sculpture is being matched by a surge of interest by collectors. While still a young tradition in Australia, investors are being drawn to sculpture as the mark of someone who appreciates something aesthetic, expertly crafted, and made to last.

Sculpture parks are also increasingly important as long-term environmental assets, with some even recognised by government agencies as permanent ‘carbons sinks’ under the Kyoto protocols.

Although sculpture in the landscape may sound like a limiting formula, these galleries-without-walls are as varied and as distinctive in style and philosophy as the sculptures they exhibit. Come on a stroll through five of the very best.

Victoria- McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park

Established in 1971, the McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park is the premier institution of its kind, a verdant retreat on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula that boasts some of the most important names in Australian art.

The art at McClelland represents a deep engagement with Australia’s artistic heritage. ‘Our focus has always been on the art of nature, in particular work by Australian artists that delves into landscape, the environment and history,’ says director Robert Lindsay, noting that the collection extends to painting, photography and works on paper displayed in one of the three indoor spaces.

But it is the sculpture collection that commands attention, showcasing works by preeminent Australian sculptors including Inge King, Lenton Parr, Norma Redpath, Rick Amor, Ken Unsworth and Lisa Roet. Set on 16 hectares of bushland and landscaped gardens, the collection of more than 70 permanent works draws thousands of guests each year. The indoor spaces are treated as coterminous to the outdoors, often exhibiting smaller scale works and maquettes to expand on the sculpture in the gardens.

Whether viewing the prestigious McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award or Frankston City Award, or simply visiting the gardens and café, everyone comes through the Sculpture Park. Lindsay is yet to see anyone able to resist at least a second look at the works they pass. ‘Sculpture gets to you,’ he smiles. ‘It’s a presence that can’t be ignored.’

Collection highlight: Dignified as the bust of a Roman emperor, Lisa Roet’s White ape (2005) whimsically deflates human nature’s pompous tendency to place itself above the natural world.

New South Wales- Macquarie University Sculpture Park

It comes as no surprise that the works at Macquarie University Sculpture Park are chosen for their relevance to the academic environment.

‘Our works serve as teaching resources for various courses,’ explains curator Leonard Janiszewski. ‘Each is selected not just for aesthetic appeal but for the insights it offers into literature, the humanities or science: stone formations or alloy models, for example, or contextual relationships to media and politics.’ Smaller sculptures carry this philosophy inside the University buildings, with the foyers of several faculties being small galleries in themselves, reflecting the ideas being investigated.

The leafy bushland site in Sydney’s northern suburbs was established in 1992 by sculptor Errol Davis. Strolling along trails that lead through the native arboretum and beside the small natural lake, delighted visitors can discover for themselves the collection of close to 100 sculptures, the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Macquarie University sees its campus as more than a place to study, engaging with the community as a growing cultural precinct and inviting green space that is accessible day and night. Not only students but local residents make use of the Sculpture Park, for everything from impromptu picnics to poetry readings. The University also holds enchanting twilight tours with enlightening commentary on the fascinating pieces on the grounds.

Collection highlight: Andrew Rogers’ Labile (2005) is an exuberant, weightless veil of crumpled bronze that intimates change and transmutation.

ACT- National Gallery of Australia

It seems impossible to imagine the National Gallery of Australia without its sculpture garden on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, its monumental works tracing the development of sculpture from genteel figuration to industrial postmodernism.

Director Ron Radford makes no distinction between the outdoor works and those housed inside the gallery. ‘The works outside are more robust,’ he agrees, ‘but we consider our sculpture collection as a single portfolio, with the critical depth that befits a national collection. Some artists are represented nowhere else in Australia.’

Founding director James Mollison established the sculpture garden- an unheard of concept for a public institution in 1975- to house the Gallery’s burgeoning collection that included sculptures by Rodin, Maillol, Henry Moore, Clement Meadmore and Robert Klippel. The native garden, an assertion of uniquely Australian identity, is divided into ‘rooms’ that give a sense of discovery that proves enticing to local and international tourists.

With 400, 000 visitors each year, sympathetic maintenance of the sculptures and gardens is neither simple nor inexpensive, even with federal funding. Radford wryly notes problems with water management, in particular: ‘Usually- not enough of it.’

Radford has plans to extend the gardens, encircling the gallery with a sculpture park that incorporates more flexible spaces for temporary exhibitions. ‘The garden has unwittingly become almost a heritage site,’ he laughs. ‘People would get quite upset if we moved their favourite piece.’

Collection highlight: Bert Flugelman’s steel Cones (1982) has become an iconic presence in the garden, of glittering geometry on an epic scale.

Western Australia- Gomboc Gallery and Sculpture Park

When he bought the scrub-ridden horse acreage in 1982, sculptor Ron Gomboc had no idea that three decades later, his property would be at the centre of the West Australian visual arts.

Located a comfortable drive from Perth at the head of the Swan Valley, the Park operates as a trading gallery, exhibiting works on consignment by artists who are passionate about sculpture. With new exhibitions each month matched by new settings for outdoor pieces, visitors wandering down the trails from neighbouring wineries always find something surprising.

‘There is a physicality to sculpture that captures people,’ Gomboc observes, adding that they respect the skill and materials evident in each piece. ‘If a sculptor is honest with himself and his work, something of true value will come out of it.’

Gomboc is unsurprised that collectors are taking serious notice of sculpture. ‘There is no better investment than being long sighted: look around, go outside the gallery circuit and invest in unique work.’

Though promoting interstate sculptors and hosting international artists in residence, the Gallery goes to great lengths to foster West Australian talent. Tertiary students from Curtin University, Edith Cowan University and Swan TAFE flock to contest the Gomboc Gallery Sculpture Survey, now in its 26th year.

Gomboc is pleased to offer the $6000 student prize as incentive. ‘Every year the numbers grow,’ he grins, ‘and the quality and imagination in the sculptures gets more exciting.’

Collection highlight: Jean-Pierre Rives’ Untitled series are a majestic presence, combining grand scale and weight with almost lyrical simplicity.

New Zealand- Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park

Carved from a Waikato hillside, the Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park is practically a sculpture in itself- a landscape of rocky outcrops, tiny waterfalls and pools and breathtaking vistas.

When she purchased it for tuppence in 1991, Dorothy Wakeling intended the derelict former quarry as a regeneration project. But the property was such an ideal setting for outdoor sculpture that the idea stuck.

Today more than 70 sculptures grace the 17 hectare property, the most extensive display of outdoor sculpture in New Zealand. Most are temporary installations, with the Park staging 20 exhibitions of outdoor sculpture since 2003. Wakeling prefers a small permanent collection, wary that ‘a larger collection might compromise some possibilities for future exhibitions.’

While at first placing the works herself, Wakeling is delighted that more and more artists are creating site-specific installations. ‘Once they take the time to understand the site intimately and realise the possibilities it offers, they create beautiful, beguiling artworks that speak to the landscape and the culture of the region’.

With more than 18,000 trees from Asia and the Americas planted since 1991, the Arboretum has been named one of New Zealand’s prestigious ‘gardens of significance’. It is also one of its most successful ecological rehabilitation projects, attracting rare bird species including the ruru, the native owl for which the park is named, back to the area.

Collection highlight: Aspiring (2010) is a graceful natural obelisk, delicately layered of native stone and wood by artist Ian Boyle.

Published Il Tridente 2010