I felt little for the majority of the sixty-three sculptures on exhibition. It is difficult to be daring when there are so many technical challenges and expenses to making sculpture. Consequently many are like a large piece of jewellery — well designed and made but too boring, slick and trite to be anything other than ersatz art. Stuff so bland that zombie formalism looked thoughtful. There were a few made me wince as their combination of materials was the visual equivalent of ice-cream with pickles. There were, of course, a couple of kitsch pieces and one case of questionable cultural appropriation.
Finally there were some sculptures that were appealing for various reasons; not bad for a group exhibition. I was surprised when I checked who was the artist of some of the works that caught my eye: Drasko (who I know from his street art and art transport business) and Michael Meszaros (who has done many public sculptures). Meszaros’s wavy bronze piece, Smoulder, is like curls of smoke. Drasko Boljevic’s Baby is almost a minimal comic-book version of Munch’s Scream.
Tahani Shamroukh’s A Labour is one of the few pieces of contemporary art in the exhibition and one of the few that had anything to say. It is realism; it doesn’t look like anything other than what it is and it is life. A cube of used work clothes and boots, the kind that labours wear, is as real as the $5 bill amongst them. It reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s Ton of Tea (2011), a one square metre block of compressed oolong tea. I was not surprised that Shamroukh’s A Labour won the Art Almanac Prize.
The Association of Sculptors of Victoria 2019 Annual Awards and Exhibition is at Collins Square, an enormous multi-towered building in the Docklands with a network of foyer areas almost the size of a city block. The foyer works well as an exhibition space for the sculptures. They need this kind of space for their work, not just because some of it is large and heavy, but because it is impressive semi-formal space with an instant audience. The kind of place with marble floors and a paintings the size of sail by John Olsen hanging at the top of one staircase with a painting of the city by Ricky Kasso above another.
Collins Square is also the kind of place that is professionally managed and this has resulted in a peculiar decision to ban one sculpture from the exhibition. The story of the sculpture’s censorship has legs even if the bust of a man didn’t; from Channel 7 to the Sydney Morning Herald and other media outlets. I don’t blame the Collins Square management for their crazy decision because Australia’s culture of censorship is arbitrary, inexplicable and the consequences for even minor transgressions can be sever. There has been a censorship controversy over images of male nipples in the past, Del Kathryn Barton’s son’s bare chest in 2011, and it could happen again because in this country the irrational is privileged over reason, ethics and taste.