Art project. If these two words conjure up visions of five-year-olds constructing wondrous things from coloured paper and glitter glue, spare a thought for Noah Birch, site manager for Sculpture by the Sea, a bi-annual waterfront exhibition held in Perth’s Cottesloe in March and Sydney’s Bondi in November.
Birch’s role as site expert and logistician for the seaside cliff path and beach locations is invaluable for advising whether a sculpture is suitable for the exhibition. The submissions come in the form of a concept or small model and he takes a technical view. “I say ‘if you’re going to build this full size, I’m concerned about this, this and this, can you please outline these structural details? Maybe you need to consult an engineer?'” he says. “It’s a lot of nudging along, trying to make sure the structure doesn’t overtake the conceptual underlay of the artwork.”
Structure isn’t the only thing Birch nudges along. After the submission is accepted, he is responsible for ensuring the sculptor delivers the work on time, much like a program manager overseeing individual art projects.
“A challenge for a lot of the newer artists is working that large. We really have to monitor their progress. You can be straightforward with most of them, you can say ‘you’re looking a little bit behind’,” he says. “I do a lot of studio visits to make sure they’re staying on track. It’s a pretty tight timeline if you have a full-time job and you only have four months to make a big work.”
Birch must also closely monitor international artists, who work to the date the sculpture boards a shipping container. “We know it takes eight weeks from Japan to get the container here, which means they have to be ready, and you try to work backwards and get those progress images.”
Artistically, he also has to pull the reins if the sculptor has deviated from the initial vision. An artist himself who has exhibited twice at Cottesloe, Birch says he’s equipped for the hard conversations. “I check in with each artist at least three or four times before the exhibition. Creative projects evolve in the studio and sometimes you have to pull the artist back and say ‘that might be an interesting work but that’s not what you submitted’.”
Keeping tabs also means he avoids a logistical nightmare. “If the work has been sited, moving one piece means I have to move all the other ones,” Birch says. “They are all related to each other in how they’re arranged. We can see that not everyone is going to like every artwork but you should be able to see the next one that you like from where you are. So if there’s a huge change to any one of those artworks, it can have massive implications.”
Where the art is
The importance of placement should not be underestimated. Sculpture by the Sea is foremost an exhibition, which means all works are for sale. Viewing the work in a particular context therefore has affects its saleability. Birch liaises with the sculptors to acquire an understanding of the visual experience they want.
“Some works you really need to access 360 degrees. Other works have a front and it’s okay to put them up against the brush. It might not always come through on the application, so it’s really important to have this conversation about how they feel their work would be best viewed,” he explains.
“You can use site to emphasise aspects of the work as well. A small work in a paddock looks even smaller but put it in a space where you have to come quietly to approach it, it makes the work feel bigger and it’s a much more intimate experience.”
Image above: ‘seas nest’ by Zhang Yangen (Sculpture by the Sea Bondi 2012). Photo by Howard Jones, courtesy Sculpture by the Sea.