Thursday, September 22, 2016


What more can one say? It is again the time of the year when the annual sculpture festival at Currumbin, Queensland, Australia is held – SWELL 2016. A commentary has been written on the festival for the last three years – see: ; ; and There is little more that one can add without repeating these views because this festival seems to be happy to use the same model each year – the same strategies, in the same places, in the same positions, with the same plan, the same graphics, and the same signs, the same Green area, the same shelters; indeed, with many of the same artists. There is clearly a ‘recipe’ that is used for this event. Why? Why is the festival not accepted as an annual challenge, an ever-new quest, never to be repeated? Why is it, to use the SWELL analogy, happy to tread water?

SWELL needs difference, variance to add life and enthusiasm to the occasion, rather than presenting the familiar and friendly face of the formula each year. Such an approach might be easy and safe, keeping everyone relaxed and comfortable, but it does sap some energy from the content, the outcomes, because one is constantly reminded of what has happened in the past and relates the current experience to this. That the organisers actually use images of other years in their promotional material, and display ‘old’ artworks in the ‘smalls’ gallery, only ensures that previous times and themes are recalled, rejuvenated.#

SWELL 2016 catalogue: MUM from 2015

SWELL 2016 catalogue: CHAINS 2013

For example, this year, in 2016, one notes how the southern end of the site is rather empty, a circumstance made more obvious by the prominence of the rock being decorated with a work having no matching presence or identity. This elephantine outcrop is simply layered with a net and a metaphoric rationale that tells of ‘catching the dreams and also holding the stories together.’ The text, the intent, is richer than the work that sadly smudges, smothers the slope. Looking at the catalogue one sees that there are only 48 entries this year, and soon realises that the publication itself looks different; but it is still somewhat the same. This time the catalogue is larger: instead of having one work/artist per page in the handy pocket-sized format of previous years, the 2016 publication has used a folded A4 format, A5, for the booklet, placing two artists on each page, spread over 12 double pages interspersed with the same site map, and squeezed in between copious advertisements and credits: all for the same $5.00.

One can add no more comment about this publication because it, too, is basically the graphic format seen in previous years. The artists' explanations offer the same self-conscious blurbs that usually emphasise a trite quality, or a pretentious aloofness; and sometimes nothing at all. There is in these texts something like a latent superiority, an assumed genius, that is frequently further highlighted in the pricing of the works. One has seen it all before. Will it ever change? Does a work have to carry an outrageous price-tag in order to be considered ‘art’? This approach makes it hard for the lay person to accept art as a serious pursuit. Is this the new source of awe, amazement, that the work itself might be struggling to capture? There is no work on display about which, as Martin Lings said of Islamic art: "One cannot marvel enough." There are many works that one can query and criticise, and puzzle over, not on the basis of "I know what I like," but by using the simple rigour of testing theories and analysing ideas as experienced, as felt, to realistically see and assess what is there/not there against what is being claimed: frequently things are otherwise. Superficial exaggeration of assumed intents is a common featured foible in the artists’ writings, frequently made cryptically obvious in the exotic titles of the works.

SWELL 2016 felt rather flat. One usually tests the sense of place with a preliminary drive-through. This year the initial approach revealed very little but traffic chaos. Where were the prominent sculptures? One was not amazed; the eye was never startled or intrigued: one was not encouraged to stop and stare, or even to pause. When one did eventually find a space to park the car and walk along the esplanade, the sculptures were quickly discovered to be various and sundry in their qualities, all set, spread and sprawled out as usual along the grass and beach, between trees, shrubs, bins, paths and drains, with the same identifying plaques and the usual 'KEEP OFF . . .' signs. It seems that many parents cannot read; or is this the new relaxed, ‘informed/tolerant’ method of raising children? One dare not get involved in commenting on a child climbing or otherwise physically engaging with a work, for this is the era of the selfie: everyone is right and has a right to self-expression.

A few weeks ago, at an art gallery event in a small, regional country area, a young lady was snapping away with her camera in a room that had signs everywhere declaring: 'NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED.' When she was told about these notices, after having been caught taking a photograph, she turned abruptly, snarled explicitly that she knew what she was doing, etc', etc., claiming that she had a right to do it, mocked the complainant with a scowling attribution of ignorance, and turned away with an expressive display of insult. She did not take any more photos! This is the era of roaring road-rage; anything-rage. The individual is always correct; one cannot be corrected except by the rager. So the children are left to do whatever. One merely turns a blind eye to this rude parental negligence.

Each piece of sculpture tried to do something different, but few works surprised or delighted. Some were expressive of a task; others grappled hopelessly with an ‘intellectual’ idea; some were interested only in technique and skill; other were, at best, explained as being ‘experimental;’ some seemed to be merely hopeful indulgences. Frequently one was left struggling to be polite with even a glimpse of enacted admiration: only occasionally did a work gleam a little, catch the eye differently. One was generally left numbed: more 'ART'? The ‘ART’ was the same; the esplanade was the same; the Small Gallery was the same; the support house was the same: one could see 'art' when it was merely street furniture, a bike, a stake, a sign, a bin just as in previous years, the same: one had seen it all before.

That some artists had been at SWELL before in other years meant that one could recogise the style: chains; old metal parts; spot welded coloured steel pieces; polished stone; old bikes; timber pieces; etc. It was this recognition that complicated the experience. SWELL needs to do more to engage people differently, each year. It is really not good enough to keep repeating the same everything year after year. This is supposed to be a creative exhibition; a festival: well, an exhibition of creativity – excitement; ART; ideas. Sadly it is becoming just the annual SWELL event, where we see the same things again and again, as old props. What other art festival employs these static tactics? If the SWELL management cannot or will not accept the challenge to be creative each year, then it needs to go. It needs to pass on the quest to those who will take the work on and present a truly exciting, new SWELL each year: a truly ‘swell’ SWELL.

One always has to overcome complacency. SWELL has become self-satisfied; contented; lazy; almost careless: certainly, it seems, heedless of the visitors understanding and experience. That the visitors come, might only be that Queensland does not have a surplus of such events; that the money still pours in might keep folk happy, satisfied: but is SWELL merely turning into an event for sponsors to advertise? Is success just a mathematical calculation? SWELL must keep its vision alive and alert – every year. The organisers expect the artists to be vibrant and creatively challenging, so why should they themselves not set an example? All that is on offer is the familiar format for the expected ‘brilliant pieces’ of sculpture to be slotted into. The strategy has become too transparent. It needs rigour and renewal.

Try new ways of exhibiting; new lighting; new graphics; different spaces; new places; try organising different ways of access (parking is a serious problem); try to constantly surprise; try setting the example for all. Dragging along the baggage of the past might make folk feel safe, laid-back and snug, but it places a shroud around what should be a bright and open re-engagement. One can only hope SWELL 2017 will accept the challenge: not surprisingly, it is already advertising for sponsorships! Why not spend more time on ideas, possibilities, new ways of engaging with the artists, the public, and the place – Currumbin Beach and its esplanade?

One has to ask why, when this is an annual event, the Gold Coast City Council does nothing to improve the infrastructure in this foreshore. It is really as ‘crappy,’ bland and ordinary, as most places along the Gold Coast are. Knowing that it has this event every year, much more could be done to improve the experience of place: better planting, better lighting; better access; better signage; etc. That the beautiful old banksia trees are dying, or getting damaged, vandalised, and are being replaced with boring new gardens complete with concrete edge-stripping and quirky border plants, is astonishing. What landscaper has done this quaint, ‘blob’ planting that gives little thought to the whole?

Remnant artwork from 2013?

SWELL needs to aim to become the best festival in the world, not the same old SWELL at Currumbin each year that is repeatedly declared locally to be so ‘successful.’ Take the challenge on! Do not shirk it again and again as in the past. Currumbin, Queensland, can be better than this. Currently SWELL seems to be resting on its laurels, doing the same, and getting the same response from the same people for the same show. It needs a new energy with new ambitions to do more and better, always.

# This year Ivan Lovett’s the wire animal was missed: that special skill in creating such realism in expression with simple, ordinary chicken wire is unforgettable. Remembering this quality and noticing its absence just shows how the past can interfere with the present when things are repeated. One is constantly reminded of other times, other events, other experiences, other works - seeking them, comparing them - when surely the essence is to be in the present: NOW – its WOW!



For the SWELL CATALOGUE 2016 and the SWELL LIST 2016, see:

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