A stretch of Australian beach is transformed by abstract artworks, writes Pamela Wade.

"I don't know why Australians bother going to the beach overseas," the sculptor remarked. "Ours are so gorgeous and theirs, well, have you been to Blackpool?"

She was missing the irony: because of her efforts, and those of her colleagues, one of Perth's most beautiful beaches had been transformed into a seething, sandy scene that wouldn't have been out of place at Blackpool or Brighton.

The beach in Cottesloe, a western suburb of Perth, is normally a long stretch of luxuriously soft white sand edging clear, turquoise water.

The beach's surf lifesaving towers are usually the only structures on the sand, but every March they're joined by an assortment of others, attracting large crowds: the Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe exhibition. Next year is its twelfth year, which makes it second only to Sydney's Bondi sculpture trail. The artists come from all over the world, including New Zealand. Some are repeat exhibitors, but the mixture changes each year, although it seems likely that Japan and China will continue their strong presence.


The works are erected within a 200m length along the beach, the foreshore and along the groyne. Some are designed for their specific site, others are more generic, but all spark interest and comment among the visitors.

Size, materials and message all differ - this year the exhibits included three large fibreglass babies with disturbing faces, a box of delicate hand-blown glass balls set into the beach, submerged mermaids that could only be seen properly by snorkellers, and an Aboriginal dot-painting made of Swiss balls half-buried in the sand that was popular with the children.

All the sculptures begin the three-week exhibition tidily labelled with signs saying "Please do not touch the art works", but it's not long before the more robust of them succumb to the attentions of younger visitors. It's to the organisers' credit that no one minds especially.

From dawn until midnight the exhibits have company: early morning joggers and dog walkers, school parties and coaches of pensioners, swimmers and tourists, family groups and loose associations of teenagers, serious art critics and squiffy patrons from the bars across the road. As the sun drops and flocks of rowdy lorikeets swoop through the Norfolk pines, the grass fills with picnickers equipped with rugs, food, bottles of wine and beer. All are focused on the horizon, where the sun drops in a gaudy display, disappearing behind Rottnest Island with one final green flash. This is when the sculptures take on another form, as silhouettes against an intensely glowing sky, and the crowds continue to swirl along the sand as the warm night deepens.

Many restaurants and bars along Marine Parade, an indoor exhibition of smaller works, as well as the sculptures themselves, all make Cottesloe a must-visit.


Getting there: Air New Zealand offers almost daily direct flights between Auckland and Perth.

Details: 2016's Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe is on March 4-20.


The writer was a guest of Air New Zealand, Tourism Western Australia and Sculpture by the Sea.