Glass sits down with Greek artist Leda Alexopoulou to discuss the importance of public art

HALF AN hour before I meet up with Leda Alexopoulou, she sends me a photo. There’s a crisp blue sky, a wisp of cloud and her entrance to this year’s Sculptures by the Sea, Keep Walking. Half-human, half-snail, the magnificent bronze reflects Tamarama beach through its hefty spiral shell that sits atop two legs.

But what makes me smile is the addition of a beachy counterpart – a surfer crouches next to the work, placing his board above his head like a protective shell of his own. He grins over at his artistic twin, salt water dripping from his face. It seems that life imitates art, sometimes with a little push –  Alexopoulou tells me how she flagged the surfer down for the shot as he came in from the shoreline, “Hey, I need to borrow you and your board for a second!”

Apart from clocks, the passing of time in Sydney can be measured by many things. October means the smell of five-starred jasmine, sidewalks carpeted in purple jacaranda petals and a coastline dotted with art.

For the past 25 years, the salty stretch connecting Bondi and Tamarama has been transformed into the world’s largest outdoor sculpture exhibit. This year, surfers and sand collide with creatives from all over the world, including the Athens-born and trained Alexopoulou. 

Leda working on Do You Want A Piece Of Me 2020

Most artists have a story of some (usually) older and (not always) wiser force trying to convince them out of their craft with a healthy battering of you-won’t-make-any-money-style tactics.

For Alexopoulou, this came from her parents. Dinner was served with a consistent side of “art is not a proper job” and she was forced to study finance. After years of spreadsheets and a “depressing” job at an accounting firm, her creative flame burned itself loose. 

Alexopoulou flourished at the Athens School of Fine Arts, trying her hand at painting, sculpture and stage design. Originally, she thought she wanted to become a stage designer but her heart steered her down different avenues. The multi-hyphenate laughs, “I’m too selfish to go into staging and set design… I have this big imagination that always wants to go beyond everyone else’s directions.” 

Now, she paints, draws and sculpts those boundless creative urges to life. Whilst the themes of her works are consistent – mythology, nature and cycles of life – she seamlessly shifts between mediums, flexing her creative muscles wherever they fall.

I ask the artist if she has a favourite mode of expression, but her answer is diplomatic. She loves all her children equally. Even so, I can hear the favouritism leaking through when we begin to discuss public sculpture – there’s something about creating art in shared spaces that makes her tick, “Public art defines civilisation… It’s for the health of our collective soul.” 

Leda with The Rock Hero 2021 – Bronze

If public art is for the wellbeing our collective consciousness – if it’s aimed at addressing the archetypal struggles of our time – then it speaks volumes that Alexopoulou’s entrance into this year’s Sculptures by the Sea revolves around humankind’s destruction of our habitat. Keep Walking is a surrealist exploration of man’s hubris in the age of the Anthropocene. We are the only species on the planet who voluntarily – and at times happily – harm our own habitat. 

“I wanted to create a paradox. Snails have this fascinating shell structure. We find them fossilised in the mountains, it’s evidence they’ve existed for 500 million years. They’re incredibly adaptive to different conditions and changes in environments. Humans, on the other hand, are not. Our world is changing rapidly because of climate change and people have to relocate just to survive. We need a shelter but we’re not like snails… we can’t just cover ourselves under a shell and wait it out.” 

It’s a sobering lesson for a playful work. In Alexopoulou’s creative universe, the joke is on us. Bare legged, swallowed under the crushing weight of its shell, this lone little figure has no option but to clamber forward into the unknown; to keep walking.

Does our anonymous bronze wanderer have a nickname? Alexopoulou never made one, so we begin to riff on possibilities, settling on Sisyphaki. It’s a fitting combination. Begin with the infamous mythological king who enraged Hades for trying to cheat death twice, condemned to roll a boulder up a hill forevermore. Add the diminutive Greek suffix “aki” and you get little Sisyphus. 

It was only when she finished the sculpture that Alexopoulou made the connection between her work and the stuff of Homeric epics. The artist stared at her creation, blinded beneath its spiral dome, trapped in this absurd attempt to make a stable home on an unstable planet, “We are just like Sisyphus trying to go against nature… it’s meaningless.” 

With this striking message to match its materiality, Keep Walking is Alexopoulou at her boldest. The work is a confident shift away from previous pieces that are best described as painterly impressions of the natural world.

Take her entrance to the 2021 Larnaca Biennale, an imprint of Cretan rock she made by rubbing coal over handmade Japanese paper. Or there’s last year’s feature in Sculptures by the Sea, A Piece of Greece, where Alexopoulou brushed the Cretan coastline with squid ink, before placing a piece of fabric on top to create an imprint. 

Do You Want A Piece Of Me 2020

Rising up from the rockbed of its predecessors, Keep Walking stands on its own two feet. The real distinction here is between the proactivity and reactivity; the piece doesn’t mould around its environment like an imprint. It interacts with our world as its own fully formed entity. Moving away from flatter, daintier impressions, Alexopoulou comes into her own and takes up space. 

Where did the inspiration for this change of direction come from? The sculptor shares that when she puts pen to paper, some figures beg her, “make me real, make me real.” Keep Walking started off as one of these mischievous two-dimensional pinocchios, urging its creator to give it life in a world where it could feel the sun’s warmth. 

The artist is quick to point out that her Greek heritage also provides a steady stream of ideas. Alexopoulou has access to a rich library of mythos and age-old rituals of Hellenic life. Taking a closer look at her paintings feels like flipping through a textbook on Greek history – you might spot Myron’s discobolus, before darting across to doric columns, skirted by the Saint Panagia and strings of octopus drying on a line. 

But the connection runs deeper than symbols – Alexopoulou’s whole ethos towards the environment is shaped by her homeland, “Greece has given me a feeling that the earth doesn’t belong to me. You see the traces on the ground. You see ceramics where there would have been an ancient city. You see all these eras and can’t help being modest. I’m here now in the present, but there have been others living for thousands of years before me. We come here but we’re just passing through.” Let yourself be humbled by the layers of history. 

God’s Hand 2013 – Acrylic and Ink on paper

It seems Alexopoulou isn’t the only one with the planet on her mind at this year’s sculptures exhibit. Lucy Barker’s On Line Clothes Swap invites audiences to share resources by hanging up pre-loved clothes or removing them from the line. Further along, a huge stainless steel Gorilla peers out at the crowds. The brainchild of Japan’s Eiji Hayakawa, Giant in the Forest stares at the same species that devastated its home. A stone’s throw away from Sisyphaki, the off-key wail of greensleeves can be heard from a giant ice cream van, melting into the sand. 

If you’re a Sydney-sider, you might recognise the warped tune – it’s the Glue Society and James Dive’s Hot With A Change of a Late Storm. Originally exhibited at Sculptures by the Sea in 2006, the work became one of the world’s most potent visualisations of climate change, later featuring at the Paris Climate summit. The fact that the famed ice cream truck is back in 2023 is equal parts delightful and alarming – society still needs glaring reminders that climate action is pressing, almost 20 years on. 

If public art interrogates the ills of our age, Alexopoulou and her peers remind us of one of the most pertinent struggles we face – the fight for a future on this planet. They grapple with the uncertainty ushered in by the Anthropocene. They prompt us to reflect on our ways. They light the path forward into new modes of being.

Alexopoulou is standing there, lantern in hand, alerting us to a biting truth – we can’t afford to destroy our home because there is no other shell waiting for us to scurry into. It’s our choice whether we remain in darkness or step boldly into the light. 

by Christiana Alexakis