The Story of Ascalon
On 15 June 2009, after a 12-month submission and selection process, the Chapter of St George’s Cathedral commissioned Marcus Canning and Christian de Vietri to create a contemporary sculpture on the theme of St George and the Dragon for the Cathedral grounds.
The commission was made possible by a generous donation to the Cathedral Arts Foundation, which was earmarked for the project. The donor, Mark Creasy, pledged $500,000 to enable Canning and de Vietri’s design to be realized as an 18-metre artwork.
Named after the lance used by St George to slay the dragon, the artwork aims “to evoke a sense of righteous power and victory over a force of darkness and oppression.”
Dr John Shepherd, Dean Emeritus (Dean of Perth, 1990-2014) praised Mark Creasy for his vision and generosity:
“Private funding has enabled us to keep the parameters as wide as possible,” he said. “The only guideline was the theme of St George and the Dragon.
“Above all, we looked for a work that would give permission to imagine, to stimulate fresh insights into the mystery of good, evil, life – something that stimulated in us a sense of transcendence, something we could turn like a diamond in our mind, and see new implications for living – a spiritual stimulus.”
West Australians Canning and de Vietri competed for the award against 98 other submissions from 17 countries.
The expert selection panel included Gary Dufour, Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of WA; Amy Barrett-Lennard, Director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art; John Moody, Chair of the Cathedral Restoration Task Force; Dr John Shepherd; and Mark Creasy.
Background to the Commission
The St George and the Dragon Public Artwork Commission began with a call for submissions in July 2008, in search of a contemporary representation of the theme of St George and the Dragon.
The Commission attracted international attention, with arts organizations around the world watching its progress.
In February 2009, the expert selection panel announced a shortlist of ten designs, which included artists from Australia, the US, Canada, the UK and Belgium. Three of the shortlisted designs were by WA artists.
People’s Choice voting attracted around 4,300 votes in the first round and over 2,000 votes in the second round, which focused only on the shortlisted designs.
The People’s Choice Award went to Gil Bruvel. The people’s second choice was Ascalon, by Marcus Canning and Christian de Vietri, chosen by the selection panel to receive the Commission, which was awarded on 15 June 2009 by the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi.
This decision marks an important moment for Perth public art and for the two WA artists, given the strong international competition. Canning and de Vietri were both schooled in WA and first collaborated in 2001 when Marcus curated Christian’s work, (in)security, as part of Tactical Intervention Strategies (T.I.S) at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.
Christian is currently based in New York. He has been working independently as an artist since 2000 and has exhibited his work internationally.
Marcus’s art practice has run parallel for the last decade with his professional appointments as a producer, director, curator, manager and designer of various cultural programmes and enterprises. He has been executive director of ARTRAGE Inc. since 2002.
The Dedication of Ascalon
At 5.00pm on Sunday 3 April 2011, a Solemn Evensong was held to celebrate the completion of the Cathedral’s forecourt and the installation of Ascalon. The Lord Mayor of Perth, The Right Honourable Lisa Scaffidi, officially opened the new steps leading to St Georges Terrace. The Very Reverend Dr John Shepherd (Dean of Perth, 1990-2014) blessed the new statue.
About Ascalon and the Artists
Artists’ Comment on the Design
Ascalon seeks to create a space of contemplation, exhilaration, and inspiration. It distils the essence of St George mythology in a contemporary, abstracted rendition that is timeless in its relevance, evoking the greater archetypal truths that permeate from his story and how these truths pertain to the individual and to society, now and for centuries to come.
In Medieval Romance, ‘Ascalon’ is the name of the lance used by St George to slay the dragon. Here, the lance is rendered as a monumental tube that emits a single beam of light into the heavens at night. It is set into a large fragmented landscape of black epoxy coated steel plate. An abstracted representation of the slain body of the dragon, this highly detailed and complexly faceted terrain has a crack running along its central axis that emanates from the point where the lance has entered the petrified, fossilised, and fragmented form of the dragon.
At night, light shines up through the crack, illuminating the luminous white form suspended above it.
The third element to the work is a billowing white cloak form that wraps and warps in a single undulating plane around the lance. It is cast in white epoxy coated hybrid composite, and despite its large dimensions, holds an ethereal lightness alongside its elemental power.
The form is an abstraction of St George on his steed and also references the recurring cloak form that features in many depictions of St George across Western art history, usually operating as a field similar to a halo or angel’s wings. The form aims to evoke a sense of righteous power and victory over a force of darkness and oppression.
The form of Ascalon has been developed and modelled in a digital environment in collaboration with New York-based architect Eldad Lev, allowing for a seamless ‘press play’ transition to fabrication using the latest in 3D printing and digitally controlled sculpting machinery.
Perth-based structural engineering firm Capital House, who were behind the Kings Park Suspension Bridge, are the project managers of the Ascalon fabrication and site build, and they have, amongst other things, designed a customised dampening system to tune the form to the specific wind conditions of the site.
Profile of the Artists
Marcus Canning and Christian de Vietri received their first art schooling in Perth – Christian at Curtin University of Technology, Marcus at the UWA School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Fine Arts. They first collaborated in 2001 when Marcus curated Christian’s work (in)security as part of Tactical Intervention Strategies (T.I.S) at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. It was a work that required 50 uniformed security guards to attend the opening of the exhibition – Christian thought of the idea, and Marcus hired the guards.
Since then, both artists have exhibited in the annual national survey of rising talent, Primavera, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and around the world across various media including video, projection, installation, event and conceptual works alongside consistent sculptural practice.
Christian de Vietri is currently based in New York. He has been working independently as an artist since 2000 and has exhibited his work internationally. His works came to prominence during the National Sculpture Prize at the National Gallery of Australia (2005), and many are now held in major collections around the country.
Other recent exhibitions have been held at Goddard de Fiddes Gallery (2005, 2006, 2007), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (2006), the TarraWarra Museum of Art (2007), the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane (2008), and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (2009).
In 2003, Christian received the Western Australian Citizen of the Year Award for his contribution to the Arts. He has also received the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award (2004), the Nescafé Big Break (2004), the People’s Choice Award for the National Sculpture Prize (2005), the Art and Australia Magazine Emerging Artist Award (2006), and the Columbia University School of Fine Arts Merit Scholarship (2007, 2008, 2009).
Marcus Canning’s art practice has run parallel for the last decade with his professional appointments as a producer, director, curator, manager and designer of various cultural programmes and enterprises. His most recent exhibitions include work at Goddard de Fiddes Gallery in Perth (2009), Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (2008), Arco Art Fair in Madrid (2008), Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne (2008), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (2008), and YBCA Galleries in San Francisco (2007).
Marcus has been executive director of ARTRAGE Inc. since 2002. He sat on the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board (2002–05), chaired the federal DCITA Festivals Australia Committee (2002–07), and was awarded the City of Perth Award at the WA Business News 40 under 40 Awards 2006 for contribution to the culture of Perth.
Marcus Canning on the Progress of Ascalon
As the St George’s Cathedral public artwork, Ascalon, neared completion, Marcus Canning answered some searching questions about the production experience.
Marcus Canning (front right) with Christian de Vietri and Dr John Shepherd (holding the scale model of Ascalon) and the Cathedral restoration and redevelopment team.
As Ascalon approaches completion, do you feel that the dreamt artwork is becoming a reality, or has it evolved since the original design was submitted?
The artwork was more imagined than planned. Translating it into a feasible plan for production has been quite a journey. Our structural engineers Capital House have been our back-bone at every step of the way and change in direction.
We’ve shifted materials, fabrication techniques, and some of the fabricators we thought we would be working with along the way in order for it to happen, but it’s happened, and is closer to the original design than we could have hoped.
This has only been possible through getting really adventurous with the industries, fabrication techniques and people we finally chose to work with.
The billow form is being sculpted by CNC router robots in a boat builder’s factory and fabricated using hybrid composite methodologies. It will be a grand formal statement in monumental lightness of being, which will resonate dynamically with the hard edged concrete presence of the faceted black mass forms around its base. These are now being fabricated in steel by the same firm that is doing most of the steel work on the new Perth Arena. They are currently assembled throughout their workshop and have the appearance of war machines.
In what ways has the process challenged you artistically, spiritually, intellectually?
All the major artistic decisions were made before we were awarded the commission. Since then, it’s been all about finding ways to make an unbuildable design a reality. This has been a bit of a brain-bender for all involved, but however mundane, delivering a large project on time, on budget, to brief is a challenge faced daily by anyone involved in building anything, and a work like this is no different.
Unlike an arena, railway, or new performing arts centre, this was always a project on a fixed budget with no options for blow-out. Most of the hurdles have been about this. We operate in a world primarily defined by a base material reality. Moments of true artistic and spiritual liberation are rare, and certainly need to be put on the back-burner once you’re dealing with the make-it-happen phase of a work like this.
I am certainly saving my spiritual reflections for post-project wrap when I get to spend quality time with Ascalon along with the rest of Perth.
How have you managed Christian’s long-distance involvement in the project?
Once the designs were wrapped with Christian and Eldad in NYC, the project has been managed entirely on the ground in Perth. This was always how it was going to roll, and overseeing the fabrication of the different elements to the work across five different factories scattered along the coast form Perth to Mandurah has been part of the adventure.
I get to see the actual work at every stage of it’s build, Christian will get the surreal experience of seeing it fully formed when when it gets installed on site.
Given what you know of public response to the original concept, how would you expect the realized artwork to impact upon the public consciousness?
I’m not even sure what the impact will be on my consciousness at this stage! Having a design that you have only ever seen in virtual space, and as a 30cm high model translated directly into an 18m high work is a truly bizarre experience. The scale of the work keeps surprising me as it is coming together. I think its presence is going to be truly awesome and will hopefully generate some real buzz and wonder.
With Ascalon on one side of the terrace and the new psychedelic light show running nightly across the facade of Council House on the other, I think we might have a new epicentre of energy in Perth by the end of 2010. It might just draw people to it like moths to a bright light!
The Shortlist with Artists’ Comments
In February 2009, the selection panel announced the shortlist of ten artworks. From these ten, the People’s Choice and Commission were awarded.
1. Bruce Beasley Good & Evil – stainless steel and black granite
This project has caused me to give a great deal of thought to both the legend of St George and the Dragon and how contemporary sculpture can address the complex issues of good and evil.
The sculpture speaks to the fact that we are not confused by Good. We know it and recognize it; what we have difficulty with is doing it. Evil, on the other hand, is complex, tricky and unclear. We know and feel its presence, but we are often unsure of just where it begins and ends. Evil is often confusingly complex.
The sculpture represents a positive view in that Good is prevailing at this point, but it does not represent Good as finally triumphing over Evil. The struggle continues.
2. Gil Bruvel St George and the Dragon – 316 grade stainless steel – PEOPLE’S CHOICE
The horse, comprised of square ribbons outlining its actual shape and hollowness, I see as a fragment of God’s breath pushing St George as if he were like a sail. The horse acts more as an energy source, helping to propel St George towards his perpetual adversary, the dragon: in current vernacular, the shadowy undercurrents of our instinctual behavior.
The dragon I have severely abstracted in order to gain distance from the proliferation of monsters in the current media environment, transposing it into a higher key and enabling a more universal psychological reading of something like ‘the recesses of the unconscious’.
3. Marcus Canning & Christian de Vietri Ascalon – black granite, chromed steel, powder-coated aluminium and lighting – COMMISSIONED WORK
‘Ascalon’ seeks to create a space of contemplation, exhilaration and inspiration.
It distills the essence of St George mythology in a contemporary, abstracted rendition that is timeless in its relevance, evoking the greater archetypal truths that permeate from his story and how these truths pertain to the individual and to society, now and for centuries to come.
In Medieval Romance, ‘Ascalon’ is the name of the lance used by St George to slay the dragon. Here, the lance is rendered as a monumental tube that emits a single beam of light into the heavens at night.
It is set into a large fragmented landscape. An abstracted representation of the slain body of the dragon, this highly detailed and complexly faceted terrain has a crack running along its central axis that emanates from the point where the lance has entered the petrified, fossilised and fragmented form of the dragon. At night, light shines up through the crack, illuminating the luminous white form suspended above it.
The third element to the work is a billowing white cloak form that wraps and warps in a single undulating plane around the lance. Despite its large dimensions (11m x 5m), it holds an ethereal lightness alongside its elemental power. The form is an abstraction of St George on his steed and also references the recurring cloak form that features in many depictions of St George across Western art history, usually operating as a field similar to a halo or angel’s wings. The form aims to evoke a sense of righteous power and victory over a force of darkness and oppression.
4. Wim Delvoye Twisted George – bronze
We model a classic ‘St George-slaying-the-dragon’ statue in 3D software, then, using the spear as a central axis, we twist the statue according to very mathematical methods.
The resultant digital file is then realized in bronze, ready for the ages.
5. Donald Gialanella St George and the Dragon Parallax Cross – CorTEN steel, stainless steel and gold leaf
This sculpture is designed around the principle of the parallax, meaning the angle and distance of the viewer determines which of two distinctly different images will be seen. When approaching the sculpture from the front at the optimum viewing distance, a perfect cross is seen. As the viewer’s angle of observation changes, the edges of the profile plates give way to the dimensional image of St George on horseback slaying the dragon.
When I embedded the cross inside the image of St George and the dragon using parallax architecture, I knew I had hit upon an elegant and novel solution that revealed the spirit of God within man’s struggle of good over evil.
6. Alex Sándor Kolozsy Victory Over Evil – silicone bronze, concrete and red granite
Since I like history and archeology and today you need to be politically right in details, I went to learn the true story of St George, and although the majority of Christian stories depict him as a Crusader in the Holy Land, I found that he was of Eastern Turkish origin born in the third century, served in the Roman Army, fought and killed the dragon in Libya and later died in Israel.
So I have selected the historically correct image of St George, depicting him in Roman-style armour seated on a large stallion war horse, like the Dutch Friesian. The monument is full of movement and action between the three combatants. A battle between good and evil, a life and death struggle for good to triumph.
7. Brian McKay & Ahmad Abas St George & the Dragon – aluminium, steel, glass and concrete
This is an abstract yet lyrical response to the competition theme.
Objects appear with multiple associations: the dragon as shade canopy, the cross as manifest light, the light as the Southern Cross.
We wanted this assemblage to function on several layers of meaning and utility, and, of course, as simply compelling objects in themselves.
8. Rodney Munday St George & the Dragon – bronze
My intention is to produce an impressionistic sculpture depicting a life-sized St George with the dragon rising six metres above him.
The arches of its body and wings create an architectural vault, which reflects the architecture of the Gothic Revival cathedral, at the same time casting the shadow of a cross.
Rather than depicting the usual image of St George slaying the dragon, I would wish to create an image of his courageous struggle against a power (in temporal terms) stronger than him; a reflection of George’s martyrdom at the hands of Diocletian in a world where the way of Christ is the way of the cross.
The figure of the saint would be life-sized in order that people should be able to relate to his humanity; and nude, to emphasize his vulnerability and to participate in the Christian-humanist tradition of Renaissance art, which viewed the human body as a symbol of man created in the image of God.
9. James Stewart & Bruce Wolfe St George Triumphant – bronze
We are inspired by the generations of paintings and sculptures of St George and the Dragon.
History tells of a Roman centurion who was put to death for his Christian faith. In recreating a modern interpretation of this story, we wanted to keep the classic elements of horse and rider and combine these with the dragon of today.
Our world has grown so vast and the threats so global that the only weapon we have is faith symbolised by the cross. The composition will lead your eye to the head and eyes of St. George before going up to the cross.
This bold sculpture will make a beautiful addition of the architecture of the Cathedral. The strength of the composition; the craftsmanship is an innate extension of the restored Cathedral. They were made for each other.
10. Joan Walsh-Smith & Charles Smith Transcendence – bronze, stainless steel, mild steel and gold leaf
This concept is inspired by the Dean’s message: ‘Ultimately St George and the Dragon is a symbol of hope for the future, and faith in the transcendence of the human spirit over all that can demean and distort.’
It takes the form of a stylised St George, clad in polished silver armour and great golden cloak, soaring above the vanquished dragon driven back down to the depths of the Underworld, the place of chaos and desolation from whence he emerges into our consciousness, symbolising all that is malevolent.
The killing of the dragon with the golden sword symbolises the conflict between light and darkness, the slaying of the destructive forces of evil and, ultimately, man overcoming his own dark nature and attaining self-mastery. This is dramatically illustrated symbolically, by an LED feature incorporated into the node point of the sculpture, where the tip of the sword meets the tail of the dragon in a powerful explosion of energy.