SET IN STONE
Sculptor Anne Ferguson’s work is all the more powerful for its modesty, writes Sebastian Smee
THE pillar, as pillars do, looks grand, unbudgeable: a remnant of some ancient civilisation, perhaps, or a symbol of some potent idea. The little shelter, by contrast, looks nothing if not makeshift. Made from weathered bronze, it sits atop the pillar like Simeon Stylites. It’s about the size of a toilet roll with one side cut away and a little dome on top, no more majestic than a terry towelling hat.
Connected to its base is a ladder, but the rungs come in fits and starts, and it cuts out halfway down the column. There it joins with an elegant vertical and a slender parabolic curve, neither of which looks designed to help anyone’s passage up or down.
The work is by Anne Ferguson, one of Australia’s finest living sculptors, and it’s called Small Dwelling .
Like much of Ferguson’s work, it is engaged with the language of architecture. It hints at functionality, like a model for some larger project
or vainglorious folly. But in truth it is quite useless. Grasping this, we are forced back into the realm of abstraction and material, of imagination and metaphor.
The arrangement of the piece’s simple elements looks as deeply considered, as patiently contemplated as a Zen koan. Like a koan, it presents itself in rational terms (‘‘ You know the sound of two hands clapping, so what is the sound of one hand clapping?’’) but its meanings remain irrational, provisional, open- ended.
A small dwelling may have its private meanings for Ferguson, but it made me think about irreconcilables in the relationship between solitude and creativity; between the usefulness of dwellings and the blessed uselessness of poetry; and between the hopeful, humble frailty of individual creativity up against the daunting grandeur of an inherited tradition.
Ferguson is the subject this summer of a cramped but involving survey show at Mosman Art Gallery in Sydney. Born in Broken Hill, she was encouraged into art by Australian modernist Rah Fizelle, a family friend, and Thea Proctor, who led a life- drawing group she joined.
Having studied everything from wood carving to welding and blacksmithing, she committed to sculpture only after the hard years of motherhood were behind her. A period studying traditional carving in Japan in 1981 had a profound influence, as did her friendship with great Australian sculptor Robert Klippel, which lasted from the 1970s until his death in 2001.
Mosman, where Ferguson has lived since 1964, deserves great credit for hosting this exhibition. But it is a show that might just as easily have been mounted by the Art Gallery of NSW or the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
If the public no longer expects to see survey shows of artists such as Ferguson in our state and national galleries, it’s because those galleries are increasingly half- hearted in their commitment to living Australian artists. They much prefer a safe bet: a dead artist whose prices at auction are climbing is considered ideal.
Although we do see living local artists in our state galleries, it’s usually in the patronising context of prizes, themed shows or small token installations. Only a very small number of artists ( usually those in fashion in academic circles) are singled out for special treatment. Two such shows are opening this year at the AGNSW, one at the NGA, and none at the National Gallery of Victoria ( even though that institution has a whole building exclusively dedicated to Australian art).
That said, a survey of Ferguson’s work is not an easy thing to mount, as a hefty proportion of her energies during the past 30 years has been given over to public commissions. These can be found on site at, among other places, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra ( the Sandakan Memorial and the Australian Service Women’s Memorial), St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta, Mosman Square, the Australian National University and Parliament House.
Necessarily, they are represented in this show only by photographs, though they form the backbone of Ferguson’s recent oeuvre. For sculptors of ambition, public commissions are an attractive prospect: at least in theory. They allow the artist to work on a large scale, to be appropriately paid and to have the finished work prominently placed and cared for.
It all sounds dandy, but in truth it’s never long before rude reality snaps sculptors out of their daydreams, transforming almost every aspect of the process into a grisly ordeal. Words such as stakeholders must trigger murderous rages in the hearts of some public sculptors, given that those with vested interests in public commissions tend never to rest until their particular whims are catered to. The result is that many public commissions are compromised to death.
Ferguson may be one of the most sensitive and modest of artists, but she has mastered the art of standing firm. Compromise goes against all her artistic instincts, all that she believes the creative process to be about. As a result, her public works are notable not only for their sensitivity to the original brief and their powerful presence but for their integrity, too.
Her contributions to the new Parramatta Cathedral, which was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1996, include an altar, a cathedra ( or bishop’s chair), a lectern and a baptismal font, all made from dark granite ( the wooden elements were provided by Kevin Perkins).
I saw them all in situ in 2006. Each piece has a weighty but refined presence. The forms, including an inverted pendentive ( a cube that becomes spherical at its base), are radically simplified but subtly detailed. As an ensemble they give the otherwise blond and light- filled interior a powerful base note and focal point.
The two memorials at the AWM prove that Ferguson’s distaste for compromise in no way stems from egotism. Both these works are visually modest, but all the more powerful for their restraint.
Each is the distillation of years of research and contemplation. Ferguson disavows the usual conservatism and triumphalism of war memorials to embrace forms and materials that encourage open reflection. In doing so she seems to allow for the things about war that can’t be said, that can’t be softened or set to rights by a beautiful turn of phrase or shallow, kitschy sentiment. I make a point of visiting them whenever I am in Canberra.
Still, it is the work Ferguson has made in private, apart from commissions, that most intrigues me, because I sense in it a poetic fragility absolutely unfettered by social or political constraints. This is the work given prominence by Michael Hedger, the curator of the Mosman show, and much of it is entrancing.
One early work, Box of Grass , is a simple rectangular field of brass ribbons sticking up like blades of grass, all contained within a Perspex box. Ferguson’s exquisite touch is to scatter thin, curving strands of wire across this ‘‘ grass’’ so that they sit almost weightlessly on the surface, affixed by spots of glue that suggest dew.
Other works by Ferguson, such as her war memorials, embrace a flat, landscape format rather than a vertical, figurative one. Often they are made from delicate, provisional- looking materials, such as glass, wire, or ribbons of metal. Sea Beds , for instance, from 1998, sets two forms that resemble decaying metal bed frames on a thin, fragile- looking floor of green and black resin. Strands of silver thread cross this floor beneath the beds, converging at one edge then dangling down over the plinth.
Works like this suggest working models, tentative explorations, a poetry of place infused with feelings of precariousness, change, impermanence. They stand in contrast to, but never entirely separate from, the implacable solidity of Ferguson’s other works in marble and granite, her favourite materials. Aside from anything else these works in stone are enormously assured technical achievements: Ferguson seems able to do almost anything she likes with marble, and her work in this medium is constantly reminding us what an extraordinary substance it is: hard, cool, soft, smooth, rough, light, veined, scored.
Two works in marble and granite that play with vaults and arches — Untitled ( Table Series) , 1995, and Facade , 1990 — were for me the real showstoppers, as mysterious and strangely timeless as any contemporary sculpture I can think of. Both suggest architectural models brought to an unusual, almost sensual degree of finish. In their forms, they call to mind the arched colonnades of Italian cities or the silence and purity of monasteries such as San Marco in Florence.
But again, the final form of these works remains irrational. Parts are left rough- hewn; they seem unfinished. And while the forms hold out the promise that we might — at least in our imaginations — enter and make use of them, other elements continually obstruct this fancy.
In the end, we are made to remember that they are just forms, shapes, provisional manifestations of the artist’s imagination. But, like memories, which are also fragmentary and partial, they may haunt us even when we turn away.
Ferguson’s masterpiece, Untitled ( Table Series)
Speaking the language of architecture: Anne
Small Dwelling , left, and
Presence with integrity: Ferguson’s Sandakan Memorial in Canberra