Every year, hordes of tourists and locals alike – numbering more than 500,000 – descend on one of Sydney’s most famous coastal stretches, the Bondi to Tamarama walk, to take in the sights of the annual Sculpture by the Sea. Celebrating its 23rd anniversary this year, the exhibition, which is open to the public until November 10, features selected works of artists from all over the world. And for 2019, the exhibition highlights artists from 19 countries, with a total of 111 sculptures that line the popular track.

Among the attractions (towards Bondi Beach, a Statue of Liberty contorts in a hurricane-like shape and elsewhere, a pencil pierces the cliffside), Joel Adler’s Viewfinder, which plays on the traditional periscope, is impossible to miss, capturing passersby intrigued by both its sound and size. Weighing in at five and a half tonnes of galvanised steel and a concrete base to stabilise the structure as it clings to the cliffs at Marks Park, Viewfinder presents as an industrial object from afar but up close, reorients our proximity with the ocean below, courtesy of a mirror affixed to the structure that reflects the sea underneath. Projecting a perfect square seascape, the  sculpture works equally well in-situ as on Instagram, where it has generated as much interest offline as on the coastal track. 

An industrial design graduate from Sydney’s University of New South Wales, 26-year-old Adler channelled a keen interest in art (he cites Richard Serra as a pivotal influence) into his entry for Sculpture by the Sea, winning the coveted spot in this year’s line up and being awarded the Clitheroe Foundation mentorship program, for which he received $15,000 towards the completion of the sculpture and mentorship from a local artist of his choice, partnering with Sydney-based Chris Fox. Below, Vogue Living chats to Adler about bringing Viewfinder to life, how he hopes audiences will engage with the work and what it’s like to make art in a digital age. 

Tell us about Viewfinder. 

“It’s like a periscope but with just one mirror; it angles your view down and it angles it back a little bit as well. It shows the portion below the cliff but also underneath the cliff that you wouldn’t have been able to see. It’s really just a mirror, a big mirror – it weighs about 200 kilograms on its own – and it’s double-sided as well. So, from the outside of the sculpture, you can see the sky reflected on the front of it, a lot of people don’t notice because it’s angled in a way that you really have to get on the edge of the cliff down… It has this opening at the bottom that reflects that wave view back up to the viewers on the path.”

What was the process like? Tell us about each step of the way, from ideation to execution.

“I submitted sketches and a render, where I created the work in 3D and then rendered it onto the cliff to show where I intended to put it. I photoshopped the crashing waves to show what I thought it might look like, and from that [the Sculpture by the Sea team] got excited about it and said they would love to do it and put me in contact with some engineers and the people who could help me make it happen.

The work changed a lot in the month leading up to Sculpture by the Sea… It went from being about six meters tall to three. [But] I think there are also advantages to how it has changed in the sense that you can have more of a relationship with it and stand really close to the mirror. From Marks Park it would have been a little square in the distance reflected in the water.

[In terms of the actual work, it is] made of galvanized steel as a framework… I applied solutions to make it look like it’s been there for a long time and that was part of the statement of the work. It’s kind of about industry and progress, and how on the outside, when you walk up to the work you think it’s just this rusty box that really, is kind of ugly. Then when you see into the work, it starts to make sense why it exists, and you could almost see that as a metaphor for industry and progress, where  it’s a terrible industrial thing that also has some amazing benefits and has also created positives in the world. It’s a bit hopeful; a bit innocent.”

How long did it take to construct Viewfinder?

“It took us around two months to build. A lot of changes happened because of engineering… We had a series of geothermal engineers also looking at the site and trying to figure out if the cliff was going to break when we put the sculpture on it, because it weighs five and a half tonnes. [There are] three and a half tonnes of concrete at the bottom to stabilise it and to stop it from falling over. The actual work itself only weighs about two tonnes.”

“…I’m really lucky that the compromises resulted in it being a more interesting and interactive work… Now, people can stand right up against the sculpture and almost get enveloped in this water view. I wasn’t expecting the actual sound of it. Because it’s this big, angled glass mirror and then there’s this tunnel, it also amplifies [the sound]. A lot of people walk past it and they hear the sound, which will make them look inside. [In that way], it brings strangers together. You’ll see people grab someone and say, ‘Have you looked in there?’ People just want to share the experience, which is really fun to watch.”

Sculpture by the Sea features a lot of Instagram-friendly art. Did you consider Viewfinder’s social media appeal when designing it?

“It’s something I’ve been playing with… You know, everyone goes home at the end of the day, but I can see it on the Instagram feed. I have to admit that part of it was designed for Instagram. [The sculpture features] a perfect square and it works really well like that and people are clearly playing with it and being receptive to it.

But there’s something you can’t capture with a phone and it’s been fun to watch people take a photo or video and then just sit there and watch it because it’s not going to show up in the camera in the same way as when you can just see it and hear it… It’s kind of a blessing and a curse; people will see it and stop looking at their phones because they are trying to work out what it is, but then they pick up their phone again because they are trying to record it.

… Putting up a photo and video of it is different – different tides, different light – so I think people still want to come and experience it as an experience, rather than a static image.”


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