Sydney-based contemporary sculptor Alex Seton’s latest body of work, “Refoulement,” which is currently on show at Sydney’s Sullivan+Strumpf Gallery until October 11, cements his reputation as one of the most important contemporary sculptors in Australia and internationally. The new body of work follows on from his epic 2014 Adelaide Biennial installation, “Someone died trying to have a life like mine,” which is one of the most talked-about artworks of the year in Australia. Comprising 28 intricately carved marble lifejackets, the work references an incident in May 2013 when the lifejackets of 28 asylum seekers were discovered washed-up on Cocos Island off the coast of Western Australia.
Marble as a sculptural medium is heavily entrenched within the history of art; it is laden with the legacy of thousands of years of tradition. So for a 21st century artist to be able to claim the medium as his own and recontextualize it within a contemporary conceptual framework requires great skill, vision, and confidence. Seton has all these qualities and more, which has led to his rise through the ranks of Australia’s art scene. His best-known works are his intricate and incredibly detailed marble sculptures of familiar objects such as t-shirts, flags, and balls of paper – objects with characteristics that would normally preclude their recreation in such a material.
The genius of Seton’s practice is not just his technical skill and knowledge of the medium, it is also, and perhaps even more so, his ability to envision and conceptualize what would seem to be impossible: objects that give the illusion of defying the fundamental laws of nature. At the same time as he endows his objects with the characteristics of the items he coopts, Seton also subverts the traditions of the medium with which he works. Another important factor in the success of Seton’s practice is the manner in which the objects are presented – the way they are positioned, modeled, and posed. The effectiveness of the different modes of expression in Seton’s work again testifies to his intuition and foresight.
Seton took the title of his latest body of work from a principle of international law known as Non-refoulement which forbids the expulsion of refugees to any country in which they might be subject to persecution. Refoulement is the expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognised as refugees, according to the UN. Seton’s “Refoulement” exhibition continues his interest in what he describes as questions of who we are as a society, what we value, and what constitutes a sense of national character. “The ongoing political tissue of how we treat those seeking asylum and whether we do harm under current policies is a test of that character,” he says.
The lofty, two-storey gallery space of Sydney’s Sullivan+Strumpf is the perfect venue for the display of the centerpiece of the exhibition, a monumental installation entitled “Last Resort,”2014. Placed upon an island of marble offcuts from his Adelaide Biennial installation sit the forms of two inflatable palm trees carved from Wombeyan marble. Each crease, crimp, dimple, and crease is carefully reproduced to create an almost perfect illusion; there is even a rubber valve inserted in the base. The marble has been carefully selected for its pink and orange highlights which give the work a burnt sunset feeling. As the title suggests, “Last Resort” is envisioned as a sort of false utopia inspired by the shattered dreams that so often define the asylum seeker experience.
Upstairs are another three intricately carved sculptural works: a lifejacket similar to those in the Adelaide Biennial installation, a life raft, and a paddle – all memorialized in marble as poignant and contemplative monuments. As Seton explains: “I’ve chosen some of the forms because they are used as objects of assistance and emergency and others because they are objects of throw away value only. These objects resonate with me in the same way that they will resonate with viewers – they are all familiar objects to us that we have once used or can at least recognize.” His use of polyester rope on the raft and wood for the handle of the paddle anchors the works in the reality of the everyday.
If there is one criticism of the exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf it would have to be the small number of works which leaves one wanting more. But considering the complexity and scale of Seton’s practice, this minor issues is easily forgiven.
“Refoulement” is at Sullivan+Strumpf until October 11 and will then travel to the McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery followed by the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art.