l. Is there Australian Sculpture?

The Eighth Palmer Sculpture Biennial featured a conference on the topic “Is there Australian Sculpture?” Twenty sculptors attended and papers were submitted from sculptors and art authorities from around Australia.

The following dot-point summary of the various (and sometimes conflicting) issues raised and also the written submissions themselves are included below as resources for discussion about this significant topic.

We are seeking responses to keep this discussion growing.

Summary of Issues:

• The influences of the interior “wisdom” and the expansive, unique landscape are important influences in producing Australian sculpture. Very few sculptors in Australia have been impacted by these forces.

• Australian Sculpture does not spring from changing fads and cultural trends influenced or directed by the rattling tongues of the art world intelligentsia.

• Connection to place producing forms of that place rather than international style where all is the same.

• Sculpture is sculpture and questions of whether there is Australian sculpture or not are not worth considering and irrelevant. It is about making good sculpture.

• What deepens and complements how a sculptor perceives country is when they understand and are influenced by the indigenous perspective of country as a cultural landscape, notions which can challenge and form a specifically Australian sculptural vocabulary.

• The definition of sculpture should be extended so that three dimensional Aboriginal making such as the Tiwi Island Pukamani poles are seen as being sculpture.

• The urban influence needs to be seen as relevant as the influence of the land in a discussion about what creates an Australian sensibility in sculpture.

• Aboriginal three dimensional work is the only work you can call Australian sculpture

• Australian sculpture is more about the feel of the work than any particular forms or ideas.

• Sculpture in Australia need to be looked back on over a long period of time before any judgements can be made as to what is Australian sculpture.

• Australian sculpture is still evolving and incoming influences from many cultures will in the future create a sense of Australian sculpture.

The written submissions:


The question “Is there Australian Sculpture?” is one that seems to generate further questions. Firstly, how does one then define Australian Sculpture? In the simplest sense you could say that Australian sculpture is any sculpture created in Australia or by an Australian.

But does Australian sculpture have to refer to Australia, Australian life, values, experiences or geography? Are there set parameters for the conceptual basis of the work? What of the Australian artist who makes work that speaks about world poverty for instance? Is this Australian sculpture because the artist is Australian, or is it not Australian sculpture because poverty is a global issue? What about an indigenous artist who makes work about LGBTIQ rights, pop culture or a political ideology? If the qualifier is that Australian sculpture should reference the land, then what of a work of art that is made by a new Australian whose art speaks of a journey that is emotional rather than geographical. Or an Australian artist working abroad? Or the visiting artist making work about indigenous land rights?

To be classed as Australian sculpture does it have to have a particular look, or be made of particular materials? Or is the artist who makes work out of neon lighting who is referencing their experiences of the central desert sunset making Australian sculpture? Many would say yes knowing what the work is referring to, although if the work is judged as Australian or not based on a perception of a kind of Australian materiality and appearance then does it still pass?

Some could say that Australian sculpture just has a certain feel, an Aussie kind of personality, and that might be agreed upon by most as something one can identify but not define. But it could equally be argued that if there is no set description then maybe the question can only be answered by people who share the same notions of what those defining parameters are. Perhaps if there is to be a definable Australian sculpture then whatever that definition is might need to accompany the question.
From anonymous sculptor

2 Greg Johns

Australia is a place which is profoundly different in nature to the place from which its European colonizers/invaders came in the 18th century. It had produced a land based culture actively engaged with maintaining the status quo of an ecological system which they saw as being sacred and were intimately part of. Some 60,000 years old according to current knowledge, it was not surprisingly profoundly different to the incoming technological culture which believed in conquest, control and large scale modification of the land so that it served their perceived human needs.

Aboriginal culture did not traditionally make a lot of three dimensional objects but the carved wooden Pukumani burial poles of the Tiwi Islands are clearly saturated in deep mythological meaning/ connection with the land. When object making incorporates broad based, significant statements about our place in the universe into its form, whether it be intellectually or dare I say it about timeless questions of spirit it always attracts me. Is it sculpture though? Does it matter? There is significance within the poles within the cultural context that they were made in, significance that can at least partly reach out beyond the culture they were made in to a broader audience. Traditionally they were made as burial poles not as sculpture and I feel one has to be careful of cultural assimilation if they are claimed retrospectively as sculptural objects. In the contemporary situation the Tiwi artists are clearly moving their carving into the sculpture area, a cultural evolution is occurring and that is valid.

In relation to the incoming cultures one would expect then that sculpture would over time take on at least some of the forms and sensibilities of this extraordinary and profound place – not that there aren`t other cultural facets to feed sculpture, many incoming influences through immigration from Asia, the Middle East and currently Africa to name a few. Also the rise of technology, its influence, particularly on the young is enormous. The historical aspect of sculpture and the rise of an international approach where place means nothing are further determining factors. The impact of Duchamp too is considerable.

What I feel is worth stating from the beginning is that the interior wisdom of the Australian continent owes sculpture absolutely nothing, to be touched by it you have to show respect and care for it, to mine it you need its permission. This modus operandi was and still is largely foreign to the incoming European culture whose value system is still dominant in contemporary Australia. When permission is given, after respect has been put into practice, it is a profound, humbling and invaluable experience to walk across this ancient landscape which exudes wisdom and is a great teacher. Silence is one of its significant teaching tools, as Margaret King – Boyes, the anthropologist/teacher I studied under and worked with said to me “a culture which is shaped by silence is greatly different to one shape by continual noise”. Few Australian sculptors have had contact with the Australian interior; they cling to the major cities of the coast, green belts, zones of major economic activity, safety areas which psychologically provide umbilical cords back to the security of mother Europe. There are other influences in contemporary Australia to shape sculpture but surely the wisdom of the interior should be one major contributor, at present it is not. The Aboriginal cave paintings and Tiwi burial poles( which were not made as sculptures initially) are extraordinary works, speaking intimately, deeply of place, culture and spirit – there forms and what they express are different to cultural production in other parts of the world ( although similarities with African cave paintings can be seen, both are land based cultures). The cave paintings are an area I have looked at closely; they have had a considerable influence on my own attempts to make sculpture which can be said to be Australian sculpture. I believe the profundity and exquisiteness of the cave paintings throws many of the notions of international art making into the beige basket of mere intellectual manoeuvring. Intellectual relativity is not alone an adequate tool to explore the universe.
Incoming cultures can connect with this place; we all have base level human potentialities to do this. Humility is perhaps the first port of call to accessing the interior wisdom – to learn to walk softly, quietly across the landscape, listening to the silence and taking in the cacophony of exterior stimuli. Following this acquired skills of observation, symbolic interpretation, and an awareness that linear time is not the only form of time which operates (circular time, to use a broadly inclusive description, where all is interconnected and fold back loops exist is also operational). Visual observation of the Australian landscape, large horizon lines, eroded forms, cracking, rounded rock forms sculpted over thousands of years, heat hazes, our clear light and blue, blue sky to name a few provide a rich palette so different from the northern hemisphere to draw from – these alone should see fresh forms arising in sculptural practice. I have attempted to utilize these visually observed forms in my sculpture since the early nineteen nineties. Secondly symbolic interpretation is important, including an awareness of expressed motifs connecting to universal motifs ( e.g. it is no accident that circular forms occur in many cultures who see their universe as being interconnected, where cause and effect laws are recognized. The circle is the universal symbol of interconnectedness). The Wandjina spirit figures with their circular heads “speak” locally, but also universally of creation figures in many cultures and of the connection with the whole, the stillness before time and multiplicity emerged. They are in a localized way an extraordinarily rich symbol of this place and the sacredness of it, but one that also connects with the wonders of universal spirit – as such they are inspiring. Symbolic interpretation allows you to see beneath the surface, to engage the “subterranean” operating tools which drive what can be seen in the visible world. In Australia as David Tacey points out so well in his book “Edge Of The Sacred” life and death and our sense of beauty are much closer together than in Europe. I often use this symbolism (in the Horizon Figure series at the top a longish fire symbol sits alongside a gentle hill like landscape) to hint at this notion of the close interplay of two extremes as a creative force in our landscape. As such it is a revealing mechanism for something deeper. Felt response too, which defies quantifying, is another asset sense when you walk through the Kimberly, Kakadu or the Flinders Ranges. These natural areas can have a great felt presence, connecting you to the timeless, which is why the huge sculptural carvings at Mt. Rushmore in the U.S.A. are such a travesty, the underlying sacredness of that place, its ability through natural forms to connect people with the wondrous was wiped out by the literal carving of four president`s heads.

Writers such as Tim Winton and David Tacey, song writers of the ilk of Shane Howard and painters such as Fred Williams all who have roots which extend back to Europe have partly transformed themselves, developing ways of seeing which allow them to interpret this place in the context of this place rather than out of a European context. In sculpture John Davis made a contribution in that he gathered materials, twigs etc. from particular areas of Australia and constructed sculptures from them. These works perhaps somewhat literal nevertheless had a real sense of place about them; you could call them Australian sculpture. Rosemary Gascoine whose major area of cultural production was two dimensional also made a contribution with her weather affected sculptures, many bleached by the Australian sun. Inge King, Norma Redpath and works by a number of sculptors shown along the River Murray during the Mildura Triennials (60s – 80s) touched on the area as have a number of works in the Palmer Biennials ( Stephen Newton`s sculptures are an example). Since the early nineteen nineties this has been my main area of exploration and development. My approach is through form, symbolism, materials, hybridism where influences from pre European arrival in Australia, the land and Aboriginal culture intermingle with the long history of European sculpture brought into Australia and through attempting to give the works a spiritual presence. People often comment on the totemic feel of my sculpture – I enjoy that comment being made.

You do not have to make sculpture in Australia which has the feel of this place; you can work in many different frameworks and produce significant work. At the same time Australia has deep, profound, ancient offerings which can be “mined”, offerings from a context extremely different to Europe which should result in sculpture which is different, conceptually and in form to European sculpture. A few Australian sculptors are beginning to engage with this place, to enter the silent void, it is a challenging road to go down, a quiet road away from the congested bitumen freeways of our noisy coastal cities.

3 David Kerr

I.  Certainly there is sculpture made in Australia and certainly Australia exists as a geographic and political region in the world that is seen as different from other regions. However it doesn’t follow that the culture or sub cultures within Australia will produce art that is different enough to be distinguishable from other regions with the exception of indigenous art that is produced with roots in its traditional stories and cultural practice. Most other art production is unavoidably in conversation with an international art world by a cultural osmotic process that has grown exponentially with the digital age of communication.

II.  What would Australian Sculpture look like if we set out to make it look Australian? It may carry nuance that related to the vast distances, the profound interior, the clearer light, the specific or intense colours of place, the long history of indigenous cultural production, the larrikin colonial persona, the mateship ethos, the inventive problem solving of necessity, the coastal fringe of water based population centres, or the antipodean isolation. However, none of these qualities are unique to Australia and all are claimed in similar ways by many other nations and cultures as distinguishing feature of their landscape or culture. Only overt and specific cultural or geo-political references in the art will signal place but this does not make it a genre that can be called to be different from other art in the world.

III.  An artist/sculptor may be thinking globally and acting locally and they may decide to produce art that is of a place, this place, or of Australia. This is fine and admirable, and, if successful, would contribute to Australian and world culture. However, if a group of artists/ sculptors set out with a common mission it is difficult to see how this would produce a genre or style that could be identified as being Australian without it slipping into a nationalistic project with stereotypical themes (for which there is no real and equable cultural value).

IV.  A local personality, perhaps a teacher or a very influential (perhaps narcissistic) person can spawn a school of practice that can be recognised, perhaps retrospectively. It is possible that this could be with the intent of refining a local /regional investigation of place and culture. This doesn’t mean that it can be attributable as a national movement or style for it reflects more the specific circumstances of that group.

4 Stephen Newton

From being in place to tracing the paths of becoming

This essay speculates on the question, is there Australian sculpture? It argues that perceptions and definitions of Australia (place) and sculpture are always going to be carried out through a culturally constructed lens at a given moment in time.

The essay goes on to examine the phenomenological dimension of the sculptors’ relation to landscape and place. It then indicates the expansion of contemporary sculptural practice into conceptual, spatial and textual strategies. These strategies may intentionally shift the agency of the work away from the factuality and actuality of place.

The paper concludes by arguing that Australia’s geography, landscape and history offer points of departure for many artists who draw from their life experience and connection to place to address wider, global issues. These issues can manifest from a deep engagement with place while addressing current concerns of society worldwide.

“To not have a sense of place is a primary cause of our loss of touch with nature, disconnection from history, spiritual vacancy, and estrangement from our own sense of self.”
Miwon Kwon
“Bathed in light, submerged in sound and rapt in feeling, the sentient body, at once both perceiver and producer, traces the paths of the world’s becoming in the very course of contributing to its ongoing renewal. To be … is not to be in place, but to be along paths.
The path, and not the place, is the primary condition of being, or rather of becoming.”
Tim Ingold

The question, is there Australian sculpture, is both question and provocation. Even benignly collating widely accepted keyword definitions, one soon realises that the act of defining implicates the act of perceiving. For example Wikipedia states that ‘Australia is a large continent surrounded by oceans. Six of its seven major cities are on the coast, with the capital city located inland. The country is known for its vast interior desert wilderness called the Outback.’ Keyword definitions can be a little oversimplified. To its inhabitants and visitors, Australia is country, place, and landscape, where personal connections are developed out of lived experience. Far more than a continent surrounded by oceans, Australia has a tangible identity and character that can be deeply felt, holding distinctive meanings and values for everyone who has lived or spent time here.

A person’s lived experience evolves as part of a broader cultural consciousness, together contributing to a perception of place. There may be sharp differences however, between generally acknowledged definitions of place a personal perception of the same place. This is because a personal perception of place is built on sedimented meanings which are both public and private.’ Altogether the Australian landscape encapsulates a vast physical and sensual geographic space, open to personal and cultural perception and interpretation.

Perceptions of landscape and place are deeply embedded in our collective psychology, loaded with myth, memory and meaning. Our relationship to landscape and place helps us understand who we are and where we belong, they are contexts for human experiences, constructed in movement, memory, encounter and association. Our perception of place is defined by the contact and physical relationships we have with things, material and phenomena. These relationships take the form of subconscious shifts between objective fact and subjective feeling which become implicitly interwoven into our memory. Landscape and memory are inseparable because landscape is the nerve centre of our personal and collective memories, making all landscape a cultural landscape.

Our participation in landscape and place takes the form of a reciprocal exchange between an object and a subject. In this sense the natural environment can be considered a ‘transactional system’, operating through constant interaction between person and place. A very similar system of exchange is at play between the sculptor and their material, with conceptualising, processing and actualising being part of an ongoing relationship between artist, material and the phenomenal world.
Contemporary sculpture has expanded object, medium-specific, idea and process-based frameworks. The contemporary sculptor can approach relationships between object, context and viewer as one of critical acuity involving ideological and transformative conditions of viewing. Artists and audiences are seeking a more relational, collective experience, and it is landscape and place which become potent agents for interpretation, memory and imagination.’

Unlike other artforms, contemporary sculpture and spatial practice have opportunities to engage with place and landscape in complex ways. Sculpture redefines the nature of objects in the world and our own spatial experience. Sculpture makes us consider environment and place as an important condition of its viewing. In this way, sculpture can elicit meanings which, although not overtly present in formal ways, are nonetheless potent referents to landscape and place. These sites of meaning can be objective and subjective, physical and psychological. While a sculpture could be place-inspired, material-driven and phenomenal in process, its meaning may not necessarily be found at the end of a path leading back to place. Just because a sculpture is inspired by place does not mean it will necessarily be imbued with some expressive dimension of landscape and place.

To fully understand the relationship between sculpture and place is to understand place and landscape as unfolding and continually changing narratives. A place only becomes real by being experienced, and an artist’s response to place is best made when they are participating in it, affecting and being affected by it.’ This lived experience allows the artist to connect with place while generating sites of meaning on other intertextual and actual levels.

Out of lived experience ideas of place and landscape become interconnected and expanding concepts. The resulting work then, is the production of a site or sites which act as a discursive, functional and critical arena .

We are not only talking about site-specific art, where the art is slavishly related to the spaces and places where the work is conceived or presented. Instead the shifting and discursive nature of a site as separate to a place means that place, space and landscape can be played upon as provisional entities. References to landscape and place can still be strongly evident in a sculpture, despite a lack of referents and didacticisms connecting it to a cartographic dot.

Contemporary sculpture and spatial practice has the ability to move beyond the phenomenologically-oriented mode of site-specificity. Sculpture can advance a different notion of place, establishing a site for the work which may be far removed from a geographically defined sense of place.

Sculpture and spatial practice has the ability to respond to Australia’s landscape beyond associations with the geography of place. The idea of an Australian sculpture is neither grounded, fixed or singular, but a constantly shifting and discursive terrain.

Stephen Newton is an artist, sculptor and PhD candidate with the Sculpture Workshop, Australian National University.

Bishop, Claire. Installation art: A Critical History, London, Tate Publishing, 2005.

Curry, Patrick. Radical Metaphor: or why Place, Nature and Narrative are Each Other but aren’t Themselves, Earthlines 6, August, 2013.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, Routledge, New York, 2011.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-specific art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, Massechusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Lippard, Lucy. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, New
Press New York, 1997.

Taylor, Ken. Landscape and Memory: cultural landscapes, intangible values and some thoughts on Asia. Icomos Open Archive, In: 16th ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium: ‘Finding the spirit of place – between the tangible and the intangible’, 29 Sept – 4 Oct 2008, Quebec, Canada. http://openarchive.icomos.org/139/,
(accessed 27 march, 2014).

Tilley, Christopher. A Phenomenology of Landscape; Places, Paths & Monuments. Berg, Oxford, 1994.

Tilley, Christopher. The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology. United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2004.

5 John Neylon

*Gotta serve somebody  –   John Neylon March 2018

Question: Is there Australian sculpture? Answer: Yes. Next question: So what?

Believing that such a creature as ‘Australian Sculpture’ exists is as easy as believing in kookaburras. You don’t have to see one everyday to know that they are out there doing their thing. I’m not sure, when it comes to kookaburras, what that thing really is. But, when as a kid, I saw a couple of kookas announcing a newsreel in the Rundle Street Hoyts Savoy Theatrette I felt, well – Australian. So perhaps that’s one of the defining hallmarks of ‘Australian sculpture – it makes you feel Australian.

Problem. While it was relatively easy to feel and even look ‘Australian’ in the mid 20th century it is no longer so. All those non Indigenous folk who who have scrambled aboard this life raft, as David Malouf has described Australia, from early European landings to the present day, eventually reach some kind of accommodation with this place, with all the comforting narratives that come with calling a place home. But these accommodations have become so diverse that, today, one generation or community’s perception of what constitutes being ‘Australian’ finds it hard to accommodate others. Now, art, at one level, doesn’t have this problem. Since the mid 20th century people calling themselves (or classified as) Australian artists have been free to express and critique notions of national identity as found in the mythopoetic imagery of Nolan, and the re-engagement with landscape in the work of Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Fred Williams and others. In this reengagement the function and priorities of art within Australian society changed. The volatility of the 1970s decade and beyond relocated explorations of Australian identity away from relationship with land and into broader arenas of political activism which critiqued the possibility, for example, of Australia becoming a vassal state of American imperialism. Parallel to this, politicised and increasingly theorized artists, began to challenge the hegemony of systems and their apparatus such as art museums and the art market. At this point, this thing called ‘sculpture’ came into its own as an endlessly deployable entity, increasingly freed from the confines of the gallery. Performance, gesture, anti-form, post-object, funk, conceptual and environmental/earth art trends created an impression of being aligned with international art trends with the end result that more experimental art shed any real sense of obligation to somehow be ‘Australian’. But on the ‘new skin-same snake’ principle, ‘Australian art’ (art that intended to give expression to being in a particular place) survived. The Mildurascape project in particular gave regional anchorage to sculptural expression which was torn at the time between international formalism and conceptual art and minimalism. Installations made from stones, mud and sticks, sited under gum trees kept alive the idea that if art was to be ‘Australian’ it had somehow to be connected to the land. Again – whatever that means. The weight of Indigenous and non Indigenous art practice of the later 20th – early 21st century has demonstrated that giving sculptural expression to country and all that it means has no limits.

At this point it might be useful to reflect on why sculpture in its various forms is so suited to the task of crystalizing a sense of connection with place and time. Assuming it is made from appropriate materials it can survive, out of doors in all weathers, heat up and cool down in symphony with local climate, be deployed in a wide number of different forms, be sited almost anywhere, adapt its scale according to site, be walked on/around/through/over/under. It can be smooth, patterned or rough to the touch, make sounds, change appearance as light plays over it and can have visual conversation with its surrounds. It can be as tough as old boots and last almost forever or melt into nothingness. It is in short a sensory chameleon. It can take any form it chooses. Best of all it occupies the same space as we do. It is in effect, one of us. From this last perspective perhaps the test of an ‘Australian sculpture’ is that we can live with it, not as some piece of furniture but a member of a notional family of connection to place. That’s why out of doors, public sculpture doesn’t work when its just clever, sophisticated, stylish, cute or overly compliant with tick boxes that commissioning agencies use as a crutch. It earns its way into this notional Australian community by bringing something to the table. Perhaps it’s a viewpoint, a reminder, a framework through which to look out, back or forwards. It, in other words, is useful.

But we do live in a pluralistic art world in which communities find different uses for its art. Some works set out to be very useful (like site specific sculptures ‘brightening up’ an intersection). Others address the private, inner life and consequently invite reflection through nuances of form and other symbolic elements. Many memorialize events. Aren’t all these forms ‘Australian sculpture’? Your definition might say ‘yes’. Mine doesn’t. Not quite. ‘Australianness’ (if there is such a term) is such an elusive, contradictory and problematic qualification that it seems silly to even be talking about it. But it does, in its most altruistic (and definitely non nationalistic) sense refer to the manner in which diverse communities can unite within a common culture of shared values, mutual respect and celebration of the best that the country has achieved or has to offer. Whether it likes it or not, art gets coopted into such unifying narratives. But not all art. Art conceived and made for ‘white cube’ environments can frankly, do and be whatever the hell it wants. But art sited in a public (as opposed to private) out of gallery sites carries some expectation or obligation to address the social/cultural space in which it functions. If it so intends and is successful in its mission, then it might possibly qualify or could be viewed as ‘Australian sculpture’. It probably can’t escape this classification anyway. The principle (and indeed the usual selection/commissioning processes of incorporating elements that address the history and cultural ownership of a particular site), has become almost mandatory. This, of its very nature, guarantees that most commissioned works, have to perform some duty – to be as previously stated – useful. It also guarantees that such work automatically falls into the category of ‘Australian’, simply because it happened to be made in Australia for Australians and Australian conditions. Like the Holden.

Now here’s where the fun starts. Australia is littered with sculptures which proudly proclaim their Australian credentials. These are big sculptures; the Big Cray, Big Koala, Big Prawn, Big Croc, even a Big Captain Cook. For an alternative kind of Australian sculpture to lay priority claim to public spaces and earn membership of a wider community it needs to be persuasive and strategic in the manner in which it goes about its business. Otherwise it will never be accepted as Australian sculpture in the true sense of serving and being owned by its communities. Perhaps in this context the Palmer Project with its associated biennials and conservation programmes can be viewed as an open lab or proving ground for a particular kind of ‘useful’ Australian sculpture? Consider that sculptures are arranged across a landscape that has no mercy for any that can’t cope with the forces of light, distance, weather, aridity and human history that are thrown at them. Some Palmer works try to hold their ground on skylines or open slopes. Other huddle in the meagre protection offered. From a distance or in the shimmer of a heat haze, they simply disappear. Like a cluster of desert-dwelling mystics such works meditate on what it means to belong here and draw something from this sense to inform the experience of daily living. So perhaps this species of Australian sculpture performs a discrete function – to strip away the outer skin of appearance and the comforts of urbanised living and imply through visual metaphors that in order to live and survive here roots have to be put down, like knowing who you are and where you came from and being cognisant of place. Call it adopting a spiritual approach if you like. But I prefer – getting to know where you fit in. If any public sculpture can demonstrate through usage that it contributes to this process in any way, then it deserves to be called Australian.

*Bob Dylan, ‘Gotta serve somebody’, Slow Train Coming album, 1979

John Neylon is an Adelaide-based art writer and curator. He has written numerous reviews and essays on South Australian sculptors and the Palmer Project in particular and two books on sculptor Greg Johns (The Edge of Time: Greg Johns Sculpture 1977 – 2015, Wakefield Press, 2015 and Horizon, Greg Johns Sculpture 1977-2002, Macmillan, 2002. In 2014 he received the national Lorne Sculpture Biennale Scarlett Award for critical writing (contemporary sculpture).

6 Will Powrie

Is there Australian Sculpture ? and what would inform such a question ?
Australian sculpture does not spring from changing fads and cultural trends influenced or directed by the rattling tongues of the art world intelligentsia. It goes beyond transient discourse and taps into something deeper, older and organically born.

For many sculptors who have ventured into the expansive interior of this country it is the sheer unique physicality and utter strange beauty that informs their practice and draws them in. Unique colours, textures and forms that are intrinsic and unique to this part of the world.

Then what really deepens and complements how a sculptor perceives the country, is when they understand and are influenced by the indigenous perspective of country as a cultural landscape, notions which can challenge and form a specifically Australian sculptural vocabulary.

7 Ken Scarlett

After several years of research, this was the question I asked in the Introduction to my book Australian Sculptors, published in 1980. Now, nearly 40 years later, the answer is still elusive and the situation even more complex.

Looking back, it is possible to identify a limited number of individual artists who have produced works that have shown links to the Australian bush: the rugged bronzes of Norma Redpath, the very organic works of Stephen Walker and the fragile constructions of John Davis, which gave a sculptural significance to the ragged, untidy bush. Rosalie Gascoigne, with her acutely observant eye and wonderful ability as a forager was another distinctive voice; her assembled works could only have been constructed by an Australian in Australia.

We also often pride ourselves on our laconic sense of humour, and if there is any such thing as an Australian sense of humour, then Bob Jenyns was surely one of the few sculptors who could raise a smile with his apparently naïve works. And Barry Humphries … could we call him an Australian sculptor?

Acknowledging that we began as a British colony, it was not surprising that Britain was, for many years, the major influence on our early sculptors; they were either British citizens or they travelled to London in order to train. The influx of European artists to Australia after World War II greatly advanced the introduction of Modernism, and consequently expanded the scope of local sculpture. Then later, as our allegiance switched from England to USA, our artists became increasingly influenced by the developments in America, and now, finally, we have become aware of our proximity to Asia.

These multifarious influences, it would seem, left little room for the development of a typically Australian attitude to contemporary sculpture.

But how, these days, does one define an Australian? And what is an Australian attitude?
Years ago it was common for Australians to refer to Britain as ‘home’, but that has become a term of the past with the influx of Greek and Italian families during the 50s, followed in more recent times with an extremely diverse range of peoples from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, China and a range of countries in Africa.

Our country towns may still, to some extent, remain in the past, but our major cities have become decidedly cosmopolitan with a high proportion of the population not speaking English at home. So, if statistically, a high proportion of Australians are regarded as urban, shouldn’t the art that emerges represent the fact that we are largely city dwellers; the bush, may no longer be relevant as a source of inspiration
What, then, of the future? It is possible, that after two or three generations of inter mingling, the racial and cultural differences will become far less obvious and it may be possible to define a new breed of Australians. On the other hand, globalisation may be so wide spread and so dominant that even regional differences will have become extremely rare.

Johns is acutely aware of the implications of globalization, but has deliberately chosen to embrace this ancient land, stressing that, ‘I am interested in both a symbolic and visual reading of the Australian landscape.’ * Having proved over many years that he had mastered the formal language of sculpture, he is now employing his skill and understanding to make statements relating to the land, its Indigenous peoples and its new arrivals. He has bravely ventured into an area that very few Australian sculptors have entered.

8 Deb Sleeman

From her opening address for the Eighth Palmer Sculpture Biennial

I want to talk a little about the land .. how we have acted upon it and how it acts upon us….
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of sailing along the northern coast of Australia; from Darwin past Melville island, Coburg peninsula, Croker island the Golburn islands , along the coast of Arhnemland, to Elcho and the Wessel islands and then from there across the gulf of Carpentaria to Cape Yorke.

I felt there was a palpable difference in the land as we were sailing… that is one of the beauties of moving slowly through a landscape at a walking pace. One has time to see and feel and contemplate. There was a difference… the land was fecund, yes teeming with life but there was another element of aliveness that I’d not experienced before. I contemplated this for days as we sailed through the landscape and I concluded it was because the land was alive in its spirit as well. It’s been interfered with far less than anywhere else in Australia I have encountered… it is entire as it has always been
and it is different because of that.

I suddenly felt the difference, the brokenness and paucity of the south in comparison. Its not just what we have done with clearance, grazing and fencing, the introduction of weeds and use of chemicals, its the sheer thoughtless disregard for the country,
its the fact that we have taken what we want with no consideration of the consequences.
We did not understand the fragility, the differences of this country compared to the ones we came from.  Nor did we take the time to understand the knowledge and complexity of keeping it alive that the traditional owners had.

As Paul Carter so poetically put our invasion of this land ‘.. to found the colony – to inaugurate linear history ( in this Country) was to embrace environmental amnesia and actively forget what wisdom the ground and its people might possess.’

This disregard and arrogance has altered the landscape so completely, so irrevocably that all we have left in a lot of places, are the bare bones.

In the Australian canon of art and literature we yearn for the arcadian bush , and the images that live in our imaginations are just that, in our imagination. We still have amazing bushlands, there are many places being rehabilitated such as here at Palmer but there is so much change that has happened that we can’t pretend that we will achieve what existed before.

Even in its compromised state this country is still breathtakingly beautiful, there is still a feeling of and from the land that imbues one with emotion and awe at certain times.
Janine Bourke, when she writes of Emily Kngwarreye’s work talks of ‘the time of origin’ present in her art….’…. a time that doesn’t participate in profane temporal duration…. because it is composed of an eternal present.’

Maybe….. it is this eternal present we catch glimpses of now and then, maybe that what I felt sailing in the north. And even though we cannot access that knowledge, it is impossible to be in this land and not have it act upon one in some way.

JS Neilson spent his whole life clearing the mallee by hand but his poetry was a wonderful contradiction to his occupation…
‘I’ll go as to a fair
With bells and men and a dance-girl
With a heat wave in her hair.
I’ll ask the birds that live on the road;
For I dream (though it may not be)
That the eldest song was a forest thought
and the singer was a tree.’

This is the land acting on us….
When one lives in the bush for a while… 30 or 40 years it does act upon you. You become friends with the trees and the plants , the rocks and the animals. You become familiar with that place and it speaks to you. You notice the subtleties, the details; it is like watching a child grow up, except you are the child and the place is teaching you.
I believe that as artists it is important to say things about the land and what it teaches us…

That’s what each of the artists who are showing at Palmer today are doing. They are imagining the land, relating to it, longing for it, conveying their personal relationships with it. They are trying to say what really is impossible to say, to make the immutable, mutable ..to render the invisible, visible.

I believe its an artists job to point culture towards what is essential, what is important-
The Palmer Biennial , with its spectacular landscape is one of the few contexts in which the hero is the land….its important because of that reason.

It is easy to make a sculpture to put anywhere, – somewhere. Its another matter to put one in a landscape such as this.

It constantly amazes and delights me what happens every two years at Palmer…. The artists challenge themselves to speak; with meaning , with humour , with this place.

9 Ken Wach

Sculpture’s a wonderful thing but I think that we should all get a grip. For a bit of stand-back clarity, let’s imagine that we were talking about literature and transpose the issue. Let’s ask ourselves the following question: “Is there Australian Literature?” or should the question be rephrased, as “Is there Literature in Australia?”

Most people, for all sorts of good reasons, now agree with the latter: of course, there is literature in Australia, but we, for convenience, simply call it Australian Literature because of its geographical location and not because it sums up, encapsulates, expresses or mirrors what is Australian. It’s my view that for now, we should stick to Literature in Australia; that is, literature, of various categories, written in Australia or by Australians.
Let’s make it a little more clear: let’s ask ourselves the following question: “Is there an Australian mathematics, or poetry, or cuisine?” Then ask: if there were to be one of these things, what would it consist of? There might well be something like this when generational traditions and customs develop and consolidate in the future, but it will likely be centuries in the making – as it has in other countries. It’s my view that for now, let’s stick to Sculpture in Australia; that is, sculpture, of various categories, made in Australia or by Australians. Let’s keep it simple and the aims and claims achievable.

Besides, “ Is There Australian Sculpture?” is a slightly odd yet understandable question to pose.

It’s odd because in Modernism and after sculpture’s artistic purpose and its “language” of form should not be constrained by identity formation or the social “manufacture” of national characteristics. Do we really want to see sculpture as three-dimensional illustrations of socially predetermined national characteristics? Should sculpture mirror the changing features of Australian identity? Should sculpture be a declarative item of national selfhood? Should sculpture be concerned with the contrived fabrication of social identity. It seems to me that all this is a form of overreaching that is bound to fail.
In my view, sculpture should adhere to its own ages-old self-contained attributes, its irrefutable presence, its sense of being, its ability to shape collective memory and guide inner thought? Why not leave sculpture to independently distil aspects of contemporaneity with its own self-sufficient language of form? Anything else leads to a perilous path for the ages-old art of sculpture: gift shop kitsch waves on one side and “accepted” nationalism beckons on the other. There’s something more to think about: Scots are said to be canny – it’s supposed to be an accepted national characteristic; is this actually true and does this mean that the Irish can’t be canny because its been “taken”? Rodin’s sculptures are said to be typically French in their tactile eroticism; is this actually true and does this mean that Italians can’t achieve this because its been “done”?

To bring the matter closer to home: what actually are the discernible typical national characteristics that might be seen in the themes, materials, techniques, scale, or whatever, of Australian sculpture? Ask yourself a truly difficult question: what is genuinely idiomatic of Australian life? Here’s the fundamental quandary: why bend one’s artistic aims to fall in in line with a deficient concept by plunging into a whirlpool of dubious national characteristics, especially those that are based upon suppositional assumptions and hearsay? In my view the sculptural imagination should be kept free of such extraneous burdens.

Let’s also remind ourselves that Michelangelo did not walk around Florence trying to capture or embody the essence of the Renaissance (it had not been named then) or what it was to be Italian (Italy did not exist then); Henry Moore did not strive for “Englishness” but made sculptures that fused Continental ideas with local materials; David Smith did not have “Americaness” on his mind but aimed for a particular type of three-dimensional extension of Abstract Expressionist ideas.

Of course, we all think and talk of these three great sculptors as being somehow quintessentially Italian, English and American because we are told so and led to it by social convention, polite conversation and general convenience. However, thinking as sculptors, is all this really the case, or is it something in a manner of speaking? The deeper question remains: “Do they, should they, in their sculptures embody, or attempt to embody, anything of their respective so-called national characteristics?”

The fact is that each of them (Michelangelo, Moore, Smith), by and large, trod self-generated paths guided by self-motivated aims – this is the way it should be – it must be remembered that it was only later, after the fact, that their sculptures were socially or politically construed to display purported national characteristics.

Images come and go, characteristics change and flow but sculptures can be, and often are, co-authors of our conception of the art of a time, even an age – all this, without even trying to incorporate national characteristics. First, there is the sculpture; later come the critics, academics and curators and, a little later, come the pasted-on attributes. Some of this type of layering of “meaning” and “interpretation” is unavoidable; but despite that we can be certain that the art of sculpture has an intrinsic content and a context and cultural substance that should not be plastered over with extrinsic nationalistic sentiments.

Let’s not confuse the zones of connection: one is inherent to sculpture; the other is attributed to it. Think of the body of sculpture: one is central to its core, the other peripheral in its circulation.

All my comments derive from thinking of sculpture as a three-dimensional autonomous object in a space of its own – because this is what is generally created and found in Australia. In the last decade or so this conception of sculpture has been discredited, as it often descends into decorativeness or morphs into design-based accoutrements for architecture – as handmaidens that “attend” to a building, a plaza or a mall. What has notched into this change is the rise of sculptures that relate solely to the self – that is, the real, remembered or imagined persona of the artist. This self-referential change becomes even more complex when considering sculpture that “arises” from or is done in conjunction with another art form – say, painting. Interestingly, there are a number of painters who now “do” sculptures without ever doing sculpture at art school. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a solo exhibition where an artist shows drawings, note-books, prints, paintings, sculptures and sometimes even ceramics – all at once, as though engaged in a quest where all output is not so much created as manifested symptomatically like a side-effect. What are we to make of the self-projectionist sculpted objects in such a personalised kaleidoscope – what becomes of the collective “Australianness” of sculpture in such an opening-out of the individual ego?

My aired-out view is simple: let’s drop this hot potato of issues – it dilutes the art of sculpture, subordinates its purpose, blurs sculptural presence and fuzzes the sculptural imagination.


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