Art needn’t be exclusive, as Richard Tulloch discovers when, along with half a million others, he passes judgement over 2011’s crop of creations at Sydney’s open-air exhibition by the sea.

Why do hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom would never visit an art gallery, spend a few hours every November filing along a narrow cliff-top path past a hundred sculptures? Simply because there is no public art event, anywhere in the world, as spectacular – or as much fun – as this one. No, I haven’t seen them all, but I defy anything to beat this.

Sydney‘s annual Sculpture by the Sea is billed as the world’s largest outdoor art event, and with 500,000 visitors each year it certainly ranks amongst the most popular too.

Sculpture @ the sea

David Handley, the show’s founding director says, “The location by the sea has a lot to do with it.” More than a lot, I would say. Where else within a kilometre or so can you find rugged cliff-tops, clean sandy beaches, grassy knolls, crashing surf and the chance of seeing pods of whales swimming past?

Walking or jogging south from the famous Bondi Beach to neighbouring Tamarama is a fine thing to do at any time of year. Hundreds of sightseers and fitness fanatics do it every morning. It wouldn’t matter too much if the sculpture were second rate, but in fact it’s very good, showcasing the best of Australian and international work. The 2011 edition features Bert Flugelman, Sir Anthony Caro, Ken Unsworth and Chinese sculptors Chen Wen Ling and Wang Shugang.

Buddha bakes on Bondi beach

There’s something very democratic about placing art out in the domain of the joggers and dog walkers, rather than in the confines of a snooty cultural space where only Time Out readers are likely to discover it. And whilst an expert jury chooses the winners in various categories, Ordinary Joe can scoff, ‘What could they possibly see in that rubbish?’, and then cast his own vote in the people’s choice award.

If you think modern art is too highbrow for you, this event could change your mind. Part of the appeal is that much of the sculpture doesn’t take itself too seriously. While competition to enter is fierce, and everything on display is likely to be extremely well executed, there are plenty of humorous works to make us smile.

Tapping into the natural environment

The setting, along the Bondi-Tamara coastline, allows the artists to bring new dimensions to their work. Sculptors can float their work in the water, or perch it on a headland to provide a frame for the horizon. They can squeeze it into a rock crevice or send it tumbling down a grassy slope. Kinetic work moves with every breath of wind off the sea.

Best of all, there is no entrance fee, no dress code, no pressure to buy or even to make an intelligent comment on the art. If you hate a particular sculpture, you can stare out to sea as you walk right past it.

But believe me, you will want to look.

Toads on Tour by Hannah Kidd
Toads on Tour by Hannah Kidd

Sculpture by the Sea takes place in Sydney every November, as well as in Cottesloe, Perth, Australia, every March and, since 2009, every June in Aarhus, Denmark. For more info visit wikipedia or the official website.

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