While the 37-year-old sculptor Alex Seton carves everything from teddy bears to collapsed soccer balls from Carrara marble, his work honours a tradition which found some of its most profound expressions in Greek and Roman statuary and civic structures over two thousand years ago. At the same time he is playing with what we know about the perishable qualities of the objects he depicts and what we know about marble, with skill and wit.
Last year Seton was invited to take part in the prestigious 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart. His entry: 28 life-size marble life jackets titled Someone Died Trying to Have a Life Like Mine was assisted by a $20,000 grant from the Australia Council. His work had been inspired by life jackets washed ashore on the Cocos Islands after the sinking of a boat carrying asylum seekers, and was one of the most accomplished and memorable works of the Biennial.
Whether it will stand publicly as an eloquent memorial of Australian political imperatives and our deficiencies in the human rights arena or be relegated to the back room of a commercial gallery or the artist’s studio will be of interest to all those who believe the arts can intersect in a thoughtful way with politics. In any case, it will remain one of the most original sculptural assemblages to have been created in this country in a very long time.
In a culture which often favours the ephemeral and the disposable, sculptors who decide on stone as their medium have a harder time of it than painters, ceramicists, jewellers or photographers. While the Renaissance and Baroque periods witnessed its unassailability, and masters like Michaelangelo and Bernini had the requisite skills to carve it as if it was butter, marble carving slipped down the ladder of prestige in the 18th century when painting began to dominate the salons.
Marble is harder than limestone or alabaster, but is considerably softer than granite which the ancient Egyptians were fond of for reasons of permanence. Even today, certain Egyptian carvings of deities retain their polished surfaces in the face of 4,000 years of sandstorms. The working of marble requires a raft of metal tools and abrasives and considerable patience and precision. On can only marvel at the skills of stone cutters past and present who seem to be able to “see” the form they wish to realize in a block of marble, and need only to ‘release’ it from its matrix.
Now Seton has created a new work with powerful ritualistic overtones. Forty-one folded flags have been carved in marble, each tied with a fibre cord (halyard) to represent the 41 Australian soldiers who perished in the wars in Afghanistan. Seton has long been interested in the powerful symbolism of flags and took as his inspiration the ceremonial flag which is often draped over a coffin at a military funeral and subsequently presented to the family of the dead soldier. This work was created specifically for Canberra’s War Memorial and mounted in a dark room where it projects a Spartan sobriety and a sombre rhythm.
Because it is carved from a material which is both materially lovely and with long-standing associations with the historic, mythological, ritual and commemorative statuary, it suggests both endurance, gravity and longevity. His comments: “The anonymous nature of the individual flags highlights the quiet humility of service and sacrifice” are expanded by his musings on its origins.
“As of today… has come quite a way since the work was first begun. The idea for the piece came from an ongoing body of work around nationalism and the flag. I had been thinking about what a nation asks of its citizens in its name, and had begun to look at the people and moments we memorialise as a culture.”
Seton chose pearl marble from the far north of Queensland near Chilagoe. “It was important to create these works from material from our own soil — the journey of each of these soldiers began on land far from where it ended,” he has said. When he first assembled the work at Jan Murphy Gallery in Brisbane there were 23 flags, but after the installation was finished, a news report revealed another Australian soldier’s death in Afghanistan. “The work had not yet been on public display and it was already outdated. Looking at the empty plinth we had installed alongside the works the next morning, the enormity of what we ask not only of these individuals, but also of their families and their communities, truly hit me,” he wrote.