Mar 6, 2015

Mildura 1 - McClelland 0

Mildura 1 - McClelland 0

Kevin Mortensen: Objects in a landscape (detail). 1973
Mildura Sculpturescape 1973 - best in exhibtion
Image from Sculpturescape catalogue no credit provided, possibly Ken Scarlett

I became frustrated while comparing individual works shown in Mildura revisited: sculptures exhibited 1961-1978 5 September 2014 - 26 Jan 2015 Curator:  Ken Scarlett, Mildura Arts Centre and the 2014 McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award 23 Nov – 19 July 2015 Curator: Robert Lindsay, McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park. It was always going to be an unfair competition and Mildura revisited was so far ahead that it seemed appropriate to steer this short piece in another direction.

There can be no doubting that the Mildura Triennials were the great innovator of Australian open air sculpture displays, some 40 to 50 years ago, and the current McClelland version is but a pale, safe, bourgeois and sanitised example by comparison. The core difference is the strategies of the curators, Mildura’s Tom McCullough believed firmly in consulting with every branch of Australian sculpture and, in effect, devolving and democratising the selection process to the artists themselves. It was risky but also guaranteed that almost every significant Australian sculptor of the time enthusiastically participated in his shows. He had been well advised that winner take all competitions were demeaning and instead used his modest budget to acquire significant works or reward the better temporary works, resulting in an Australian sculpture collection that is almost second to none.

McClelland’s Award is acquisitive which really means that winning works cost the gallery substantially more than their actual worth. Lindsay also has an unfortunate mock collecting policy which allows past triennial participants to leave their work behind on permanent display thus confusing any notion of a curated collection.  He regularly accepts gifts of out of context works that were commissioned for other sites; this also devalues the few fine works that they have actually acquired.

Included in the opening events for Mildura revisited was an “In Conversation” session involving a group of the original, now old artists, these included Domenico de Clario who gleefully reminded us that theory based art practice had won the great battle in Australian sculpture that was slugged on the banks of the Murray so long ago. 

He treated the audience to a fine example of the theorist’s fundamental technique, borrowed in this case from the architectural profession, who, to convince clients to let them build impractical art galleries, disparage ideas of flexible/art friendly display spaces by repeatedly using the expression “White Cube” as if it is completely evil and devoid of any merit at all. De Clario deftly steered all who were listening towards the proposal that “site specific” was good and “white cube” was bad.

Since site has always had a crucial and dominating bearing on how any sculpture may best communicate its message it seems worthwhile to look more carefully at the display philosophies of both Mildura revisited and McClelland.

In 1973 Tom McCullough wrote in his introduction to the catalogue of Sculpturescape, an 8 hectare site between Mildura Arts Centre and the Murray River, “It has been a major experiment for a public Art Gallery to move a serious, selective exhibition away from a museum bound atmosphere as much as possible” ….and always honest, he included, “Of course, not all sculptors were interested in showing their works in a landscape of any shape or form. One artist wrote in declining our invitation, “a landscape is Sculptural, it does not need sculpture.”

McCullough’s landscape was in fact a ratty and confronting swathe of uncared for land that had previously been used as a Mildura tip. This did not seem to deter the artists, liberated, as they thought, from the stereotypical “White Cube” gallery.

Almost all of these artists failed to comprehend the powerful narratives of this tatty ex-tip scrub. And the more they scratched holes, scattered their rubbish, dumped large objects on it, bandaged trees or planted gardens, the more they vandalised this struggling landscape (beautifully shown in a remarkable B&W ABC Mildura Sculpturescape documentary that played constantly in the gallery foyer). Overtaken, as they were, by the sheer newness of this exhibiting experience nobody seemed to notice that works that claimed to be site specific were instantly compromised by being in close proximity to any number of other works and the site became general rather than specific. The old tip just swallowed up the art and made it all look like random rubbish; proving that, at least, this landscape did not need sculpture.

McClelland now displays its prize entirely in its own bush land which, in its own way, is just as strange as Mildura’s. It is a patch of dense, scrubby urban landscape surrounded by suburbs and is the kind of area where irresponsible people would illegally dump rubbish and unwanted vehicles. Robert Lindsay’s approach is to hack ersatz “white cube” display rooms in the bush and connect them with a path. His exhibitions force all works to be viewed passively from his ugly pathway that uses tan bark/woodchips as surface. Narratively speaking it is a gross insult to a forest to grind up its relatives for people to trample, dumped as they are, in full view of the living generation.

Given that most of the works included in the McClelland exhibitions would be more at home in a genuinely urban environment and rarely attempt to comprehend the McClelland context, the result is weird to say the least. There is always a preponderance of slick architectural jewelry and works that depict cute animals, vehicles and small buildings, these always swamp the hand full of genuinely engaging sculptures.

At the heart of both exhibitions, though separated by considerable time, is a human arrogance that interprets landscape as a resource that can be exploited by dumping art on it. The idea that we can change a place from ex-tip to sculpture park simply by saying the words and erecting a cheap fence, defies reason. It is this self-interested and convenient re-zoning that always causes the greatest number of problems. It is hard to fathom Lindsay’s logic for fencing his event off from the McClelland Sculpture Park especially when it wreaks “arbeit macht frei”.

Undeterred by this, artists throughout Australia, since the Mildura days, have repeated the same fundamental mistake by enthusiastically lobbying the controllers of any area of land for its use as sculpture, or “public art” display.

With Lindsay announcing his retirement it may be an appropriate time to encourage his successor to completely rethink the McClelland Award, bring it up to date, make it relevant and attempt to solve the complex range of issues involved with displaying sculpture in a variety of “landscapes”.

The first little task should be to correct the McClelland's title by making it either a survey or an award because it cannot be both unless it becomes a well curated invitational event.

Lindsay’s style of convenience out-door curating relies on ignoring many of the issues that affect both site and the sculptures displayed in it; this is in marked contrast to the way art is displayed inside the gallery where every minute detail is attended to.

We do not need concepts of the anthropocene, object oriented ontology and imagined realities to guide us towards identifying McClelland’s shortcomings as there are far more reliable approaches. A casual viewing of any of Monty Don’s great garden TV shows or even an evening at home with Grand Designs could be enough to set the new curators off on the right foot.

In trying to name the narratives of McClelland’s outdoor spaces I found myself wondering what this place could be if it was not an art gallery. Golf course came to mind, and so did reception centre, but neither of those took into account the current treatment of the landscape so I settled on a coastal camping ground with a better than normal office and shop.

These holiday sites are the only other example where gloomy living spaces are hacked into this kind of bush, open areas are minimally maintained and, for the short period of time when they are used, are littered with cars, boats, and other items of Bogan bling.

The 1970’s Mildura Sculpturescape style of open air sculpture display, still practiced by McClelland, has surely had its day. It must be time to start looking for models that offer both sculptor and viewer a much more rewarding contemporary experience that sets an example in terms of sustainability and allows each artistic proposition to be expressed according the artist’s own intentions. Doubtless many participants in these exhibitions have felt that their work has been most compromised by the very unsatisfactory way that it is obliged to connect with the ground. This is via the compulsory attachment of a brutally ugly concrete slab, surrounded by the outdoor equivalent of a muesli coloured shag pile carpet.

Matthew Harding: Void. 2014 McClelland Award winner.
Hacked bush, mock muesli shagpile and bling
image from Mclelland catalogue Mark Ashkanasy

40+ years ago Mildura was envied by sculptors throughout the world, McClelland claims “World Class” but cannot substantiate it, because to put things into very sharp focus, just 11.4 kilometres down the road is a garden park that was voted  ‘Landscape of the Year’ at the 2013 prestigious World Architecture Festival Awards (AKA Olympics of Architecture). The Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) and Paul Thompson, sets an example that the McClelland Sculpture Park must heed if it is to survive.

Lindsay’s current DIY approach should cease.

It’s time to call in the experts: the Landscape Architects.

Write a good brief that aims to convert McClelland into a genuine and effective “Sculpturescape”.

Have a well-advertised landscape design competition.

Win a few awards and all will be well again.

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