Sculpture by the Sea, an international exhibition at Cottlesloe beach near Perth, has succeeded in democratising art. It also proves that sculpture is best seen in the open air, its natural home, writes Mukund Padmanabhan

If you are fascinated by Henry Moore's anthropomorphic forms and organic abstractions, the chances are you have longed to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan, which houses one of the world's largest collections of the sculptor's works. Even pictures of its vast sculpture garden — a succession of rolling lawns framed by forested mountains — demonstrate that monumental works are best seen in the open air, sculpture's natural home.

Invited to visit Sculpture by the Sea, a three-week long exhibition of international sculpture on Cottlesloe beach near Perth, it is difficult to detach sculpture from setting. The sand is white, the weather warm, the water a Mediterranean blue. In the evening, the sky over the Indian Ocean turns a sun-blushed scarlet.

Use of space

But open air sculpture is not only about natural backdrop and backlighting. It is also, as I discover while browsing among the 70-odd works by Australian and international artists that fleck the beach and the grass banks leading down to the sand, about using available spaces for maximum aesthetic effect — the outdoor equivalent of interior designing.

There is some big ticket sculpture here, but I find myself searching out for those that have been installed with an eye on the setting. Aboriginal sculptor Sharyn Egan's ‘Dwert' (wood, flax and meadow grass) of a dingo suckling her cubs, is placed cunningly under the shade of a large plant. From a distance, a large flotilla of paper boats on a steep bank, ruffles, sways and then rearranges itself like a bed of ochre flowers in a strong breeze. As the sun dips, the rusty patina of Greg James' massive ‘Coastguard' — a part of a project to explore the value and status of chess pawns — glows with a muscular assurance at the end of the groyne.

Sir Anthony Caro, once an assistant to Moore, is the most celebrated name on show, with two large pieces that reflect the signature style he developed mid-career of making intuitive and deliberately anti-expressive assemblages of industrial parts. But the darling of the exhibition is the iconic Chen Wenling, who is the very antithesis of Caro in a way. Exaggerated expressiveness and social metaphor are at the heart of the 41-year-old Chinese sculptor, whose ‘Red Memory Smile', one of his works from a series of dramatic lifelike bronze statues painted a fire engine red, conveys extreme and often conflicting emotions in a manner that teases out the emotional quandaries of the human condition.

Mirroring life

The large stooping sculpture may lack the self-evident political context of his famous and dramatic work of an enormous airborne bull ramming its head into American stock broker Bernard Madoff, who was convicted for running a massive Ponzi scheme. In a conversation, Chen Wenling, whose land-owning family went through difficulties during the time of the Cultural Revolution, says his red series is a reflection of life during that period. The only Indian work is a piece that resists being undermined by its simple and somewhat obvious political iconography – Rajesh Sharma's cycle bearing tender coconuts with a board that bears its title ‘Indian Cocacola'. It comes with unimpeachable approbation. The wife of David Handley, the Founding Director of the exhibition, believes it is the best on display.

Sculpture by the Sea is in its seventh year in Cottlesloe, but was founded by Handley in 1997 at Bondi beach near Sydney, where it is held every October/November. In June 2009, it travelled to Aarhus (where it will be held biannually) after the King and Queen of Denmark were so impressed by the Bondi exhibition that they wanted something similar in their country.

Run by a not-for-profit company, Handley says the principal motive is “to facilitate the dreams of artists.” The exhibition, which works with various partners to subsidise costs, has grown by leaps and bounds. Not every work is sold, but by the third day, Handley tells me that they have done 100,000 Australian dollars already. For many artists, the exposure counts as much as the money. Ron Gomboc, who has a pretty little sculpture garden of his own in nearby Swan Valley, has exhibited all the seven years at Cottlesloe. “It's an opening for any artist — an opportunity to be exposed to people from all over the world,” he says.

The organisers say that 200,000 visitors came to the exhibition this year, but how one arrives at such a figure is not entirely clear. Cottlesloe — which is touted as Australia's most expensive suburb — swarms with sun- worshippers, swimmers, snorkelers, and people out to catch a breath of air. While some of them do spend a little time on the sculptures, can they be strictly categorised as exhibition-goers?

But this is probably the very point of taking art to a public beach — it persuades almost everyone to have a look, which can have its lighter moments. At a café overlooking the beach, I overhear a perplexed young waitress wonder why the municipality has installed such shockingly colourful garbage bins by the side of the road — she was referring to David Kenworthy's ‘Modular Wadjalla', a series of cheap illuminated plastic bins which, according to the exhibition brochure, is to create a “psychedelic pop experience.” I see-two prim and elderly women walk up to Chen Wenling's ‘Red Memory Smile' and hurriedly back off with a ‘eeeeesh' on noticing that it is stark naked. At another corner of the beach, someone is telling her friend — in a tone of supreme confidence — that all the sculptures are from Western Australia.

But such things, a participating artist suggests during one of the exhibition's cocktail evenings, are inevitable in the process of democratising art. “Everyone gets a little tired after a while of showing in stuffy, cloistered galleries to a small circle of so-called connoisseurs. If I can get a few beach bums to look at my work even for a couple of minutes, it's good for me and even better for art in general.”