A new sculpture celebrates an epic community journey from the You Yangs to the sea. SHANNON BRYAN meets the artist behind Remnant Canoe.
A permanent legacy of Geelong’s Mountain to Mouth (MtM) biennial extreme arts walk has been installed at Big Rock in the You Yangs Regional Park.
Internationally renowned artist Benjamin Gilbert created a sculpture in honour of his ephemeral Canoe, carried by MtM participants over 80km from the mountainous You Yangs through Geelong to the mouth of the Barwon River before being set alight in May 2014.
The new sculpture, Remnant Canoe, was unveiled at a twilight picnic at the You Yangs in May.
Gilbert’s passion for sculptural form began in his father’s old green shed where a metal table and an antique vice were the tools of his childhood imagination.
“I grew up having a shed with absolutely no rules,” says Gilbert of his early life in Yackandandah, a country town in north-east Victoria.
“We made a lot of cubby houses!”
Following his passion for creating things with his hands, coupled with the practical sensibility of a rural upbringing, Gilbert went on to study furniture design but managed to fail sculpture.
“In the end, failing sculpture was a good prerequisite for doing well as a sculptor,” says Gilbert, who shuns usual artist pretensions to thinks of his work more as a trade.
“I like to make new things every day – to repeat things would send me mad.”
Gilbert found a home for his work in civic sculpture, which he believes is more about architecture than traditional sculpture because he has to consider safety elements and ergonomics, as well as aesthetic.
“Saying, ‘Don’t touch the sculpture!’ really stinks, it’s got to be safe to play on,” he explains.
“I design objects for the young and the old to enjoy.”
Gilbert started his company, Agency of Sculpture, between ice carving competitions in Scandinavia and Russia – an unlikely outcome for someone from hot, dry rural Australia.
These days Gilbert is commissioned by architects to design and produce an alternative to the status-quo of civic play spaces. Some of his most well-known pieces are in play spaces around Australia, such as the famous aerial acorns made for Canberra’s National Arboretum.
His Humpback Gunship, made with smoothed edges in case tiny fingers explore the metal surfaces, was bought by a council in the Danish city of Arhus in Denmark with encouragement from Princess Mary.
A slew of awards has followed Gilbert throughout his career, from his maiden first prize in 1997’s Alvar Aalto design competition at University of Tasmania to his 2015 Vic Health Community Art Project.
“It’s a real delight to do works that are meaningful and part of a much bigger project,” says Gilbert of his work with City of Greater Geelong on Canoe.
“I remember the event having a softness to it and people of all walks of life were gentle with each other and with Canoe, like they were carrying a fragile egg.”
Gilbert believes it’s what we do as groups that really bonds society and lets it grow, which is why the Mountain to Mouth concept resonated with him on many levels.
“It was a wonderful experience and created a chance for strangers to meet – that doesn’t often happen in our culture outside of sport,” he says.
“People were quiet and respectful, which is rare for Australians as we normally make so much noise and talk a lot!”
Gilbert says the original brief for Canoe was something that could be wheeled, was robust and could take on a mythical nature as an object – like a theatre mask that represents a face.
“The idea for me was for it not to be too easy to carry so that people needed each other to make it work and that it would be OK for people of any height to find their place within the group.”
Remnant Canoe is made from stainless-steel bars using the same base and wheel of the original Canoe.
“As a country boy it’s such an honour to make something permanent for a regional park – to be enjoyed by generations to come,” Gilbert says.
“I’ve tied it into the You Yangs with stainless-steel bars creating a teepee structure under the canoe, like the sticks the children use in the park to create their cubbies from nature.”
Mountain to Mouth returns in May 2018 for a two-day, 80km journey creating a contemporary songline from the You Yangs to Barwon Heads.
Along the way, walkers and communities will come together to share arts experiences that celebrate our connection to the land.