Attending the opening of a lotus.

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In some ways, Bermagui could be a coastal town anywhere; 1980s feature-brick arches hosting ice cream parlours and shops selling sarongs, the cloying smell of incense cut through with waves of cigarette smoke and urinal cakes from the tavern’s gaping verandah, its armpitty patrons leaning away from the creep of the mid-morning sun. And then of course there’s the ubiquitous seaside motif – seagulls and brightly coloured, swirly whale-tails emerging out of toilet blocks and rubbish bins.

After navigating the mandatory whale tails at Bermagui’s annual Sculpture on the Edge exhibition last weekend, I noticed something that’s made me wonder if it might just be time to rethink this lynchpin of the clunky seaside theme. And that’s because there’s another ubiquitous marine symbol on the rise, one that is invariably represented at art exhibitions in touristy, coastal towns – the pink-lipped muscle.

You’ve no doubt seen this sculpture or one like it before – a set of interleaving ‘lips’, rendered in stone or clay. The artist’s statement usually describes the work as a ‘form’ that represents ‘sacred femininity’, as if there’s something subtle, abstract or interpretive about a weary gash at eye level. It may or may not reference an opening lotus flower.

These vag-sculptures resonate with a zeitgeist of baby boomer towns, full of women who have ‘realised their artistic spirit’ around the same time that they discover purple is their power colour. You can be sure that every stone-vag has had several predecessors, all rendered in felt, by women whose sacred femininity is actualised with the help of unflattering rayon pants and the inability to change a tyre.

This is not to suggest that Bermagui’s Sculpture on the Edge exhibition isn’t without its charms. Whale tails and stone vaginas aside, the exhibition provides more readable works than its Sydney counterpart, running concurrently. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. A well executed figurative sculpture is a joy and a delight. For me, the giant Rhino, artfully plated in translucent white plastic, was eerily compelling, while several other pieces made me smile or think. Most importantly, hordes of people were wandering around, discussing and taking photos of the artworks. There’s definitely room for art that rejects smartypants abstractionism and tired ‘styles’ in favour of something clever, surprising and aesthetically appealing. Sculpture on the Edge contained some quite splendid pieces. If you go, make sure you also have a look at the indoors exhibition at the community hall down the road.

And, as with all regional exhibitions, do check out the large stone flange, if for no other reason than it is set to replace the whale tail as the true icon of coastal Australia, welcoming visitors into its warm embrace alongside a perennially glowing Woolworths and a string of skin cancer clinics.

P.S Bermagui is currently at war over a proposed Woolworths. For all of the above, Bermagui is gentrifying in interesting ways. If I go there again I might talk more about that.

 

 

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