National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Dell Gallery @ QCA, Brisbane
15 July – 9 October 2005, 17 February – 6 April 2006

Sculpture occupies a curious position in contemporary art, for it seems that the term now brands any art dealing with real space. Yet as a popular descriptor for three-dimensional material objects, it has been sidelined by terms such as ‘installation’ and ‘object-based art’. Accordingly, the cross-section of works selected for the National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition at Dell Gallery offered a rare opportunity to reassess the specific concerns and current definitions of sculptural practice.

In its endeavour to showcase the hybrid nature of recent Australian sculpture, the National Sculpture Prize came close to being a forced exercise in diversity, with no two entries constructed from the same material. Nonetheless, there were some shared concerns amongst the participating artists, such as an interest in manufacturing processes and how these relate to the traditional sculptural practice of producing form from matter. The eighteen works also displayed a general affinity for ‘seductive production values’, whether factory-polished or handcrafted. This recourse to an ‘art of spectacle’ acknowledged that contemporary sculptural practice is shaped by the desire for visibility amidst the competing aesthetics of today’s material culture.1

The lush and sleekly commercial appearance of several of the works succeeded in lending the exhibition a popular appeal. Christopher Langton’s Dolly superimposes the glossy veneer of a blow-up toy onto what appears to be a digitalised model of a virus, while Christian de Vietri’s Einstein’s refrigerator 2nd law affects a slick design aesthetic that renders it as enticing as a new Apple iBook. An equally seductive yet more intimate form of craftsmanship distinguishes Term, Charles Robb’s fibreglass portrait bust. Positioned awkwardly at the junction of wall and floor, Robb’s sculpture provided an unsettling counterpoint to the easily digestible modes of display found elsewhere in the exhibition.

The most interesting works in the show were those where the artist had tried to draw meaning from form itself, rather than impose ideas onto a pre-made structure. Selving, Mikala Dwyer’s twisted circuit of warped and melded plastic balanced against a mirrored, wooden box, is a case in point. Dwyer uses transparency and reflection to explore the slipperiness of optical perception. Her work also blurs the limits of physicality, for it appears malleable and weightless from a distance, yet at close range is brittle to touch. Its smooth, translucent surface is marred by the scrapes and melted joins of its manufacture. Selving is thus both solid and ghostly, sealing the disparities between form and space in a frozen act of transmutation.

Like Dwyer’s playful exercise in plasticity, Neil Taylor’s Visual hermetic deals with the dialectics of interior and exterior space and the precarious relationship between volume and mass. Modelled out of wire mesh, his networked pipelines evoke cabling systems, bodily channels and microscopic organisms. When viewed from certain perspectives, this mesh flattens out against the blank plane of the gallery wall and takes on the appearance of an intricately detailed drawing.

This deceptive ethereality of form is also evident in the winning entry, American crater near Hanoi #2 by Glen Clarke. Clarke uses a suspended grid of red thread and origami shirts made from US and Vietnamese currency to map the negative space of a bomb crater. His work attempts to balance formal and technological concerns with social commentary on the ‘scarring’ of physical and emotional spaces. Yet for this viewer at least, Clarke’s overt symbolism relies on the work’s striking digitalised matrix formation for much of its impact. Moving past the installation, the slim, open passageways glimpsed between the rows of thread seem to draw the eye mercilessly through the sculpture’s very core. The ‘body’ of the work is thus revealed as a mesh of delineations and empty spaces, causing form to alternately dissolve and reconfigure itself in the manner of a computerised trompe-l’oeil.

The fall, Mel O’Callaghan’s combined video projection and sound installation, draws a delicate correlation between video and sculpture. The work shows a falling airman dragging his parachute into the sea, where it billows out against the current like a synthetic jellyfish. As the airman bumps numbly against the seabed, the parachute creeps down into the murky depths of the ocean/unconscious, exploring its surroundings with slow, hypnotic movements. For O’Callaghan, video acts as a portal into an atmospheric and ambiguous space, where parallel investigations into sculptural form and the psyche are carried out.

The varied nature of the works included in this exhibition indicates that the broader field of ‘spatial concerns’ has replaced ‘sculptural form’ as the predominant characteristic of sculptural practice. This shift in definition builds on the legacy of Conceptualism through the lens of populism to arrive at the notion that sculpture can be almost anything. The curators of the National Sculpture Prize appeal directly to the public’s desire for entertainment by using video and installation to create a more interactive and immersive experience. Whether this is to become a predictable outcome of curatorial exploitation or just an inevitable side effect of the opening up of sculpture, remains to be seen.


1. Drucker, J. ‘Affectivity and Entropy: Production aesthetics in contemporary sculpture’, in Fariello, M. and Owens, P. (eds) Objects and meaning, Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, 2004, p.130-140.


The selection of works from the National Sculpture Prize shown at Dell Gallery were by Geoffrey Bartlett, GW Bot, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Glen Clarke, Christian De Vietri, Mikala Dwyer, Richard Goodwin, Patrick Hall, Christopher Langton, Alasdair MacIntyre, Simeon Nelson, Mel O’Callaghan, Paul Procee, Charles Robb, Mona Ryder, Neil Taylor, Jurek Wybraniec.