SET IN STONE

Sculp­tor Anne Fer­gu­son’s work is all the more pow­er­ful for its mod­esty, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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