After several delays due to the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, the long-awaited Hermanus FynArts Sculpture on the Cliffs exhibition was at last opened at Gearing’s Point on Saturday. The participating artists had been busy installing their works over the past two weeks and all but two of the 12 outdoor sculptures, which will be added in October, now grace the rugged cliffs along the coastline.

FynArts Festival Director Mary Faure at the opening of the 2020 Sculpture on the Cliffs exhibition at Gearing’s Point on Saturday. Behind her, from left, are Gavin Younge, the curator of the exhibition, Nanette Ranger, one of the participating artists and Jane Taylor, who gave the opening address. PHOTO: Hedda Mittner

Before the opening address by Prof Jane Taylor, who currently holds the Andrew W Mellon Chair in Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance at the University of the Western Cape, FynArts Festival Director Mary Faure thanked Pioneer Freight for their sponsorship and also expressed her gratitude to the Overstrand Municipality, Safe Security and ADT for their support of the project, which annually elicits much local interest and is enjoyed by all who visit Hermanus.

The theme for this year’s Sculpture on the Cliffs is ‘Vertical Animal’, but as Emeritus Professor Gavin Younge, curator of the exhibition emphasises, “That’s Animal in the generic sense – as opposed to Vegetable and Mineral, although of course both are present in the diverse materials used. The aim was to allow the artists maximum freedom of expression and interpretation in exploring our relationship with nature.”

Gavin Younge is an Emeritus Professor and this year’s curator for the Sculptures on the Cliffs.

Prof Younge has himself exhibited at FynArts in the past as well as at the world’s biggest outdoor exhibition, known as ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. This international event features over 100 pieces by sculptors from around the world and has been running for 22 years now. It stretches along 6 km of shoreline, providing a massive annual injection of revenue for the city and country.

In preparing for this year’s event in Hermanus, Gavin sent out a call for proposals from 20 – 25 South African sculptors, from which he selected 12 for the exhibition. His decision was guided not only by the merit of each proposal, but by the challenges of the site and his desire for diversity, in terms of the artists’ location, length of experience, gender and demographics, as well as the materials to be employed. However, he emphasises that there was no question of tokenism; each artist was chosen with artistic excellence in mind.

The site itself presents several challenges to artists creating large works: no drilling is permitted into the paving or rocks on the cliffs, the pieces will be subjected to extreme weather for the year they are on display and there is always the risk of vandalism. An interesting factor is the effect the environment will have on the artwork. It will often change character altogether when in place, as compared to when it was still in the artist’s studio.

A casualty during the period of erecting the sculptures for this year’s exhibition was Karen Lijnes’ beautiful ceramic mobile, ‘Freedom Tree’. About 20 minutes after it had been hoisted into place during one of our recent storms, it came crashing down and she and her engineer husband had to go back to square one to devise a more stable means of anchoring it.

Although FynArts provides a small amount of funding for each of the selected artists, Gavin decries the lack of funding for the Arts in general in South Africa. Works of this size and complexity are, of course, enormously expensive to produce. “It would be wonderful, too, if local businesses were prepared to come to the party with sponsorships of their own,” he maintains. “What I would really have loved to see is the appointment and training of local guides to walk visitors around the exhibition, as well as the running of workshops for school children based on the work on show.”

‘Taking Flight’ – Jaco Sieberhagen (Stainless steel, paint). Presented in silhouette, a running boy dissolves into a flight of seagulls. The artist uses this medium to comment on the divide between society, culture and nature.

Taken together, this year’s exhibition has a wonderful sense of playfulness about it, from Guy du Toit’s ‘Hare with baggage waiting for his ship to come in’ and Right Mukore’s outsized wooden goose with a bell in its beak, which he calls ‘Watchdog’, to Wilma Cruise’s two little baboons on a bench, with its invitation to ‘Come sit’. Hermanus artist, Jaco Sieberhagen’s ‘Taking Flight’ depicts a running boy dissolving into seagulls, and judging by the number of seagulls and dassies lining the wall beside the work, it’s proving to be a hit with locals. Another piece inviting interaction is entitled ‘Kombuis’ by the Land and Nature Art Collective in which a large engraved sandstone rock provides a hollowed out space to catch rainwater for birds to drink. And certainly no visitor can walk past David Griessel’s many-legged ‘Travelling Hermit’ without a smile.

Given this lively sense of joy and energy, as well as the world-class quality of the work, the furore that has broken out around one work, ‘The Hunt’ by Nanette Ranger, can be put down to nothing else but some form of lockdown lunacy by a small group of local residents. This sculpture of a naked woman with the mask of a kudu on her head (what could be more relevant in the time of Covid-19?) has called forth not only a torrent of scurrilous invective, but criminal threats of injury to both the sculpture and the exhibition organisers.

Gavin Younge is speechless. “Clearly, these people have completely misunderstood the intention of the piece which is based on classical Greek mythology. I have no objection to art criticism when a piece’s success or failure is based on merit; it is certainly not unusual. But this emotional outburst on social media is utterly irrational. In fact, I find it depressing that this intimidatory attitude of members of the Hermanus public is receiving so much coverage. Can you imagine what message it is sending to the rest of the world? And sadly, it is drawing attention away from the excellent work on display.”

Ironically, this is surely an example of the human animal at its most illogical, narrow-minded and mean-spirited – and of how deeply we have become estranged from our natural environment. As it is, we are doing our best to wipe off the face of the earth some of the most beautiful and strange creatures the Great Creator wrought for our delight.

A selection of smaller work by the artists who are taking part in this year’s Sculpture on the Cliffs are on exhibit at the FynArts Gallery in The Courtyard off Harbour Road (behind The Wine Glass). For further information about the exhibition, contact FynArts administrator Chantel Louskitt on 060 957 5371.

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