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IAN KIRKWOOD: Let’s create an art walk

Half Gate, Sculpture by the Sea, IT’S Sculpture by the Sea time again, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to flock to the south-side Sydney beachfront between South Bondi and Tamarama.
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As we noted in Thursday’s Newcastle Herald, this year’s event features 107 exhibits utilising the talents of 118 artists: 79 from these shores and 39 from across the ocean (to stick with the ‘‘by the sea’’ imagery).

It’s the 19th time round for the Sydney event, which began in 1997 with 64 sculptures and an estimated crowd of 25,000, a fraction of the 520,000 said to have seen last year’s show.

I mention the exhibition not because I want to swell Sydney’s coffers, but because a similar event, in Newcastle, has been tossed around from time to time, although with little in the way of obvious progress.

Interviewed in April for the opening of the Memorial Walk, restaurateur Neil Slater recalled how the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk – and the Bondi to Tamarama section that hosts Sculpture by the Sea – had been one of his main inspirations in pushing to have the Newcastle walkway brought to fruition.

Slater said at the time that he would love to see big sculptures placed on the rocks at some of Newcastle’s beaches, believing that large public art installations on the ocean front were a natural extension of the coast-walking ethos at the heart of the Bathers Way project.

Talking with Slater again on Thursday, he pointed to another sculpture project – the Lorne Sculpture Biennale, on the Victorian ‘‘surf coast’’ past Bells Beach and Torquay – as one of his inspirations.

The first Lorne event was held in 2007. As a biennale it is held every second year. Although there was a three-year gap between the 2011 and 2014 exhibitions, planning is in full swing for the 2016 event.

Interestingly, the Lorne event has survived with far smaller crowds than in Sydney, with 50,000 people attending last year and 70,000 expected next year.

Last year it had 41 large sculptures and 37 smaller pieces, meaning it was more than double the size of the inaugural event.

Slater said he had initially seen the Lorne set-up – a not-for-profit community-backed event – as a model for something similar in Newcastle, but he had come to realise that it would be a lot harder than he had initially imagined, for a variety of reasons.

I have to say that I was thinking more of a few permanent pieces rather than a full-blown sculpture exhibition and competition.

I know I’m not the only person who’s looked at artist John Petrie’s red steel Pasha Bulker sculpture at Nobbys and wondered how Newcastle’s various beach headlands would look with a series of big pieces of public art spaced at strategic points along the way.

Consider some of the pieces in this year’s Sydney exhibition. There’s Dust, by Norton Flavel, a giant metal hand, suspended miraculously in mid-air by a thin column of sand being poured from its clenched fist.

Imagine it standing – a symbol of the unstoppable passage of time – on the rocks at the northern end of Newcastle Beach.

Or Flying Fish, by Gille and Marc Schattner – a massive winged fish held aloft by an equally sizeable column of coiled steel rope – standing out on the rocks behind the Pasha Bulker statue, its base appearing and disappearing each day with the rise and fall of the tide?

Newcastle has had a burst of public art in recent years. The winged figure of Destiny keeps watch over the harbour from Dyke Point. Then there’s the two BHP memorials at Mayfield, Constance the Camel at Newcastle Museum, Resilience in Foreshore Park and the two climbers that Jeff McCloy put on the former Hunter Water building in King Street.

In two dimensions, the Hit the Bricks festival has gifted the city dozens of pieces of street art, including the haunting murals of indigenous boys by Melbourne artist Adnate.

As the Sculpture by the Sea website indicates, many of the individual pieces are for sale after the exhibition, and while Newcastle often complains about getting Sydney’s hand-me-downs, this is one area where I wouldn’t mind if we got a couple of Bondi’s best once they’ve finished with them.

Or we could build our own. We’ve got our share of top-notch sculptors and casters, and last time I looked there was plenty of scrap steel over at Mayfield. Let’s get cracking!

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