WELCOME SCULPTURE for Hospitality and Inclusion

The Sydney Modern is the new building of the Art Gallery of New South Wales opened at the end of 2022, located between the old building and the botanical gardens.  Its glass-fronted foyers are open and spacious, offering perspectives on Sydney Harbour.

In the entrance plaza, visitors are welcomed by three pairs of friendly giants.  The figures are inspired by mythology and folklore, and take their forms from the surrounding Moreton Bay fig trees.  These three huge sculptures are the work of New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard (b. 1976) who is now based in London (Here Comes Everybody, 2022, cast bronze with blue patina).  In each of the works, one figure piggy-backs another.  One figure has enormously long legs, the other enormously long arms.

In this way these strange, elongated figures represent a world of cooperation and mutual help – the gifts of one working in harmony with the abilities of the other.  The two become one.  The figures are playful and, in their crazy way, amusing as they ward off threats: in one case, a small dragon creature bites one of the long arms; in another case, a snake with spiky teeth curls around one of the arms as this giant builds a tower of stones.  Joyously, wondrously, these fantastic figures invite visitors to discover new worlds inside the gallery.  They delight young and old.

Sculpture can function the same way at the entry to our churches.  It can do more than provide a static monument to the church’s patronal saint.  The 2017 welcome plaza project at the parish of Sts Peter and Paul, Bulimba, is a good example.

There was a very ugly and inconvenient area between the church entry and the administration block of the parish school.  Working cooperatively, parish and school designed a fully accessible entry space with ramps, disabled car parks and funeral access that would serve to welcome people to the whole parish site.  Landscaping and paving were important elements, but the centrepiece was a figure of Christ.

The parish chose local sculptor Mardi Kearney as the artist.  For twenty years, she had been carving monumental statues from sandstone, mostly for schools.  As a child she had found religious sculpture cold and distant.  She wanted to do the opposite.  She tried to create figures that would encourage interaction from the students.  She wanted children and young people to sit beside the saint or the Virgin Mary, lean against it, hug it and confide in it.  Her smooth surfaces were intended to be tactile.  She was delighted to revisit one of her works and see ice cream on the nose.  Art, says Mardi, is a bridge to the Spirit, and the spirit is unleashed through participation.

Bulimba parish took her at her word and established a brief for a figure of Christ with space on Christ’s lap and beside him where the children could sit.  An accompanying text would say: Let the little children come to me… (Mk 10.13-16).  This meant that the sculpture would only be complete when children were sitting with Jesus.  It would stand as an invitation to all who approached the church and school.

The figure has become very popular with the littlies who come to ‘say hello to Jesus’ when they arrive at school in the morning or as they leave in the afternoon.  It is a favourite place for group photos in the school.  The parish recommends it as a good location for the family photos after the baptism of an infant – they have probably just heard the text of Mark’s Gospel in the baptismal liturgy.

However the work serves not just the young ones in the parish but the whole community.  The story speaks of Jesus’ radical stance of welcome and inclusion.  He delights to spend time with ‘the little ones’, those who have no power or influence in world affairs.  It encourages everyone to welcome and reach out to those who are disadvantaged or marginalised, those who are the subject of discrimination or exclusion.

The calm figure of Jesus, waiting for us in a landscaped alcove right in the centre of the entrance plaza, becomes a powerful sign of welcome, a prophetic symbol of hospitality and inclusion.

TOM ELICH, former parish priest of the parish of Sts Peter and Paul at Bulimba, is director of Liturgy Brisbane.

Note: the shop at the Sydney Modern has for sale a beautiful signed print, Going Where (2022) by Francis Upritchard (edition of 50, Somerset Satin White 300 gsm, Coriander Studio, UK).