Museum of Brisbane 11 March - 23 May 2004
Why is sculpture so hot? Not an entirely irrelevant question regarding an exhibition of contemporary Queensland sculpture titled Temperature. Curated by Frank McBride, this is the second exhibition to be held in the art galleries of the new Museum of Brisbane (MoB).
Temperature is a large survey exhibition of 27 artists. Accustomed as we have become to experiencing sculpture through the dynamics of site or surrounding space (the combined impact of the primary structures of Minimalism and the immersive environments of installation), this exhibition is quite a shock. With the exception of three works that are configured spatially (Donna Marcus entire lower gallery wall, Yenda Carson corner of a small room, Sandra Selig suspended beneath the towering foyer ceiling), all other works feel as though they jostle for breathing space, lined up in the main galleries as in a traditional corridor formation. The sense of traditional placement is further heightened through the dominant use of plinths. Nevertheless, this doesn't seem to quell the upbeat mood of the exhibition.
In his introduction to the sumptuous catalogue, McBride notes that the exhibition's intention was to gain a better understanding of Queensland artists' enthusiasm for sculpture. Certainly the renewal of public spaces where sculpture is a focus is stimulating strong interest from artists. In Queensland, government percentage policy developed in 1999 is giving sustained support to predominantly sculptural works incorporated into new government buildings. Many of the artists in this exhibition have participated in a number of these projects. Nevertheless, one wonders whether there are other dynamics at work in the increased interest in sculpture beyond the trend for urban renewal. Wayne Tunnicliffe in his introduction to Still Life 2003, the first in a five year series of exhibitions of contemporary and historical sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, suggests that despite the ways the virtual and digital are altering our understanding of what is real, we are dependent as ever on our encounters with objects. He notes the unabated popularity of home improvement TV shows which he says encourage us to create exhibition spaces at home for our household goods, which describe much more about ourselves than merely our taste and values. It is as if the objects have come to say everything about us. Could then the enthusiasm for sculpture have a rather anxious undertow?
A strong theme running through Temperature is the reuse of everyday materials: Astroturf, blankets, aluminium teapots, belts, linoleum, dolls, doyleys, cake tins, plastic containers, shoes, kitsch ornaments and drinking straws are all there. The reuse of materials has played a distinct role in 20thcentury avant-garde art, bringing art and life into closer battle and overlapping the sacred and profane. But even as recycling has gone mainstream, as viewers, we still delight in the playful transformation and creative reinvention of the mass produced or outmoded.
One work drawing from this theme is Sandra Selig's Modulus, 2004 constructed from red and white drinking straws. Suspended beneath the elaborate plasterwork of the neo-classical vaulted ceiling of the foyer of Brisbane City Hall, the work grows as if mimicking its surroundings. It appears to be furtively multiplying and constantly changing itself before our eyes like the growth of crystals, or bacteria or a game of Chinese whispers. There is the economy here of a line drawing or an echoing sound or a word game. Modulus both fills the vaulted space and is as easily dissolved within it, quite magically.
Scott Redford's My beautiful blue polar bear, 2004 consists of a number of oversized highly glazed turquoise blue ceramic ornaments placed on an equally high gloss white table top. Derived from a small kitsch found object the blue bears are brought to life to inhabit an environment especially built for them. It's as if they have grown too big, too quickly, and have outlived their playfulness. They now are too curious for their own good. In a way it's a tale of the Gold Coast, its theme parks and 'anything could happen' scenarios. In another way it captures our times of faux perfection, ridiculous plans and things gone wrong. But in all this there is ironic play, caustic wit and joyous transformation.
Why should the reuse of materials hold such fascination and continued delight? Martina Margetts ('The New Alchemists' in Recycling Forms for the Next CenturyAusterity for Posterity), writing about recycled objects, suggests our fascination is held by the ambiguity they display, which seems to capture the feeling of reality and unreality we simultaneously experience in the world. In another way the reuse of materials taps into the shared sheer delight of creative invention: we all would love to do it, if only we had thought of it.
Temperature picks up these threads of inquiry, it is upbeat, playful and inventive and yes, gives considerable food for thought.