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    Sculptures among trees and headstones bring a cemetery to life

    Deborah Singerman

    Sculpture in Sydney is not confined to museums and galleries. As well as being the 20th year of the rapturous Sculpture by the Sea, it is also the eighth year of a completely different sculpture walk, well away from coastlines and shores but no less arresting. Hidden’s 43 works are carefully selected and carefully placed among the landscaping and headstones at the city’s oldest, largest and most multicultural working cemetery, Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney’s west.

    Although initially within the wide, open piece of land near the café, curator of the last six years (and an artist herself) Cassandra Hard Lawrie, has “placed the artworks in proximity to the graves in the Anglican and General part of the cemetery. I use two areas—one in a newer section but most of the works are situated in an older Victorian area.”

    As she told the Sydney Morning Herald, “It’s an old, beautiful crumbly Victorian cemetery, and I just see it as a piece of history and something that’s got all these gorgeous trees and birds.”

    It suits the sub-themes of history, culture, remembrance and love. “Hidden was set up to connect with the local and wider community—to invite people into the cemetery for not just the purpose of usual visitation—burials and family history research.” 

    As well as creating awareness of Rookwood's heritage importance,” the exhibition also attempts to break down the current cultural attitudes to death and dying—and to open a dialogue on something that we have become culturally uncomfortable with”, she says.

    “Early families connecting with the cemetery responded to death and the culture around cemeteries in a different way. In the past families would picnic in the cemetery” (in fact one of this year’s interactive exhibits invites visitors to put out their hampers). “Rookwood has been interested in establishing a living community feeling at the cemetery and Hidden is just part of that overall mission.”

    The setting funnily enough is calming and the steady flow of people meandering among sculptures showed the same type or respect as at a gallery of well-known masterpieces, except here there was fresh air and, though well-signed, an informality reflecting Lawrie’s focus to select a diverse exhibition that offers “'something for everyone'—all ages and all levels of experience with art engagement.

    “We are interested in works that can unpack the various layers of the cemetery—and to do this in not necessarily an obvious way. Conceptual interpretations of the cemetery allow for the themes that are embedded in the cemetery to be offered in varying and lateral ways, rather than presenting the literal motifs of the cemetery.” 

    On the ground, intertwined within the trees, running up the trees, humorous, solemn, floral, human and of animals, Lawrie commends the site-specific works for demonstrating the depth of the themes and related ideas. They explore “family, love, memory, life celebration, local history, spirituality, multiculturalism, built surface, architecture and environment. Rookwood represents a diverse range of cultures and being so large is also beautiful parkland.”

    “As the exhibition has grown in standing in the artworld, it has meant that we receive a greater number of artist applications.  This has meant we have a lot more to choose from and can offer greater diversity of artists, concepts and use of materials each year.”

    BUILDING MATERIALS USED TO GREAT EFFECT

    It is an artistic apotheosis of building materials. “There are many artists who have created works with standard building materials over the years (such as timber, concrete, Hebel and steel) and have worked with more traditional construction techniques, such as carpentry and welding. There are also materials related to building such as lighting, plumbing and building accessories.”

    This year steel, flyscreen and shade cloth, fluorescent light tubes, aerated concrete, cvanised steel pipe and PVC plumbing pipes feature. Other years construction timber, formply and PVC, plywood, pine, exterior door, clear light roofing and metal flashing have been used.

    • Hidden is a unique event,” Lawrie says. A few other events take place in cemeteries around the world. “Forest Lawn in the United States has permanent artworks. Earlier this year, Centennial Park in South Australia had a sculpture show. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in England did a circus show. We have also been contacted by other cemeteries in New South Wales and Victoria about setting up a sculptural show so I think there’s more interest out there too.
    • There are many famous cemeteries throughout the world, and while Rookwood may not be as high profile as some, it is certainly unique in its own right. Nearly everyone in Sydney, and possibly even Australia, has a connection to this iconic site.”

    It is also as local as they come. Sponsors are Rookwood Cemetery, Auburn Council, Sydney Olympic Park, and the Peacock Gallery Auburn Arts Studio.

    Hidden finished October 23; Sculpture by the Sea is open until November 6. 

    Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma; [email protected]

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