Sunday, March 6, 2011


I've not long returned home from a talking gig at Sculpture on the Edge.... I was one of the 'keynote' speakers at the sculpture symposium and this year's theme was 'Monumental v/s Ephemeral - the changing face of sculpture'

(phew! them's fighting words!)

I was invited by Jan Ireland (the force behind SotE) to speak - obviously representing 'team ephemeral'... I thought it might be useful to jot down and share something of what I said (I did not present a completely formal 'paper' or closed speech - when giving any presentation I tend to write a few notes to myself - to keep me on track and to highlight specific collections of words that I fancy... and then I go for it freestyle! so (taking from my notes) this is a somewhat modified version of what I presented  - including a few of the pics from my powerpoint I used to highlight my cause.......

My name is Rhonda Ayliffe... and just in case you suspect you are alone in are scratching your head and wondering what I might be doing talking about sculpture -  fear not - I'm surprised too. Generally, when asked to explain my art-making, I say I have an inter-disciplined practice (and this way, no single medium or art form has to take the blame for what I do!)
I'd like to start my chat today by briefly noting my bemused concern about the wording of this year's theme.... 'monumental VERSUS ephemeral'? 'the CHANGING face of sculpture'? really? I'm not convinced...
Arguably humans have always made ephemeral art objects.... and ephemeral works have certainly existed alongside monumental, monolithic sculptural works... and long after monumental works are no longer viable, I suspect the ephemeral will carry on. There is nothing either new, nor changing about the monumental and the ephemeral in sculpture and today I will be talking about an idea I'm currently exploring through studio practice.... and how/where the ephemeral sits within the scheme of my making.
First - some parameters and definitions - just for the purpose of this discussion.... 
monumental = BIG (be that in size, scale, or money) and permanent (think stone, metal, clay)
ephemeral = fleeting, impermanent... (oh and I'll add something else to this as we go on)...
now its time for a bit of time-travel .... I'd like you all to cast your minds back.... imagine eras/ages/civilisations/countries from long ago.... Egypt, Mesopotamia, Inca, Mayan Aztec, Ancient China, Greece and Rome... (you get the idea)
Now as I rattled each of these off, I'm sure that many had immediate visions .....  
(ahhhhh time to wheel in a bit of 'death by power point'! you'll have to just imagine most of the images... of pyramids, the sphinx, large stone sculptures, stepped pyramids of the mayans, greek marble human forms..... that rushed by as I pontificated....)
I contend that monumental sculptural work (and I include here architecture - the ultimate monumental sculptural form) -  has gone hand in hand with the rise and rise of an empire... or what is generally  considered 'civilisation'.... so let's think of the pattern that has repeated itself in all these ages and geographic locations: as military leaders or religions or economies have risen to power,  gaining access to a wealth of resources, so we have seen the emergence and ascent of monumental sculpture. 
and what is the purpose of all this large, permanent monolithic structures? 
garden ornaments anyone? 

monumental sculpture made a monumental statement about power.... be that political, military, economic or cultural domination - make no mistake, dominant powers celebrated, consolidated and reflected their dominion through monolithic structures: monumental sculpture was part-propaganda, part-PR, but always ALL about power.
Even as the Renaissance saw both the rise of the merchant class and the idea of the artist as individual genius, the monumental art game continued. On and on - unto the Industrial Revolution (now the real game of colonisation and dominion over lands and nature on a grand scale could begin...) on to the modern then post-modern era (and nothing much changes folks) sculpture became a tool of colonisation - and then globalisation, the icon of so-called 'taste' or 'class', the weapon of the wealthy, the spoils of the battle... 
monumental sculpture uses monumental amount of materials and money, created monumental abuses of nature..... to make a monumental statement about - well...  monumental power (and greed).
Heck - Given enough resources an artist can even move mountains (think Turrell and Roden crater) - or create a fitting bauble for the bling-bling art collector...


just as monumental sculpture has been the centre-piece and sentinel of cultural domination... so too do they serve as monument and remnant of cultural demise. 

what then of the ephemeral?
first I'd like to put ephemeral into two piles - just because something is impermanent doesn't mean that it's not monumental in scale, resource-use or money....

Chirsto and Jean-Claude's wrapping of Little Bay is a spectacular example of what money, (arty) muscle and a bevvy of willing minions can accomplish.... go forth young people! dominate that landscape (bugger the crabs and little creatures.... we're making GREAT ARRRRRRT!)
Nope, I'm thinking about the other pile of ephemeral - I'm thinking about work that is less complicit in purpose and product with the dominant past art paradigms - and definitely not the sort Christo and (puppy) Koons and Co. create.
 I'm thinking about ...

* work that touches the earth lightly (Long, Fulton..... and more!)

* work that engages with the environment and may create a dialogue of sorts (Nash... and more!)

* work that exists beyond the gallery or museum (guerilla knitters... and more!)

* or extends into the practical (artist-as-family's food forest and chaco kato's compost cylinders from CERES .... and more!)

and that's the territory I like to think my practice is heading....

'closed book' - installation - Bermagui headland 2011
world book encyclopaedias, borrowed beach rocks, brick

(well this was the basic structure of what I hope and think transpired.....
I was too busy watching out for incoming rotten fruit to be sure!)



  1. How I wish I was there! I am sure the images were as great as what you said and together made a fantastic presentation. Congratulations!!!
    PS How do you manage to prepare for all this???

  2. Wish I'd been there. Very thought provoking, and so well researched.

  3. Ronnie, I'm on the beach at Bundeena in the Royal national Park, and sitting on the beach is a waterlogged Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 3, burnt on one edge and looking absolutely stunning and Ronnie-like. I won't have a photo til I get home tomorrow but is there any chance it could be one of yours? I'm sorry I cab't say a flotilla of paper boats landed here but I'm very excited by the encyclopaedia. Carol

  4. OMG carol what a tale! what circularity! (no its not one of mine.... but now I wish it were..... oh oh oh I can't wait to see a photo!)

    ps did you everyone know that apparently today is 'world book day'? I think I must celebrate somehow eh?!

  5. Congratulations Ronnie, your talk sounds really interesting and I wish I could have heard it! I for one hadn't thought about the connection between sculpture and power in the way you phrased it... I hope you got a big round of applause and lots of interested people coming to talk to you afterwards. Fantastic! Sara x

  6. I can't believe someone else is setting fire to encyclopaedias, even though it really is such a cool idea. And your talk gave lots of food for thought, it would have been great to be there to cheer you on. Carol xx


thanks for all your lovely comments - your words are greatly appreciated xx