Tim Richards enjoys chance meetings with apes and aliens at a sculpture park where reality gives way to fantasy.
I've only recently watched the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so I'm understandably unnerved to discover a giant bust of a chimpanzee in bushland on the edge of Melbourne's suburban sprawl.
A minute before, I was strolling across neat lawns behind the McClelland Gallery, admiring a gold-faced statue of Dame Joan Sutherland and some neoclassical statues that were rescued from the 19th-century Federal Coffee Palace before its demolition. Now I'm following a narrow track through native trees and things have taken a more primal turn.
Not that there's an ape-supremacist plot at work; the giant chimp, White Ape, is the 2005 work of sculptor Lisa Roet. It's one of many large pieces installed in the gardens and bush surrounding the 40-year-old gallery, east of Frankston.
It's a surprise to discover the diversity of the sculpture trail's landscape. I'd expected artworks placed neatly within well-tended gardens and McClelland does have that on offer but the back of the gallery's grounds is a place where wild things grow and sculptures are at first half-glimpsed through eucalyptus leaves.
The untended nature of this area adds a frisson to the art encounters; rather than the landscape being neutral, it becomes a powerful part of the experience.
As I move on through the trees, my Planet of the Apes experience continues. Further along the path are what look like two transplanted chunks of city streetscape, bearing a no-standing sign, traffic lights and a slice of kerb beneath the gumtrees. If Charlton Heston came riding in on a horse at this point, I wouldn't be surprised. Or maybe he could bestride the rhino statue I find around the next bend.
The remainder of the bush track gives up more sculpture secrets one by one: a high shelf bearing enormous plastic utensils, a group of stylised horses drinking from a trough, a leaning corrugated-iron tank that contains a camera obscura, and a vast circular labyrinth of low stone walls.
As the path heads back to the lawns, I pass a giant, rusty alien figure and other items that seem to have escaped from a science-fiction future, including a set of giant white egg-like spheres.
In front of the gallery things are less dramatic, though undeniably picturesque. Dotted around and within a lake are pieces that have a connection with nature, including works powered by the wind. There is even a clutch of those rusty, angled, abstract sculptures that used to decorate corporate forecourts in the 1970s, looking a little forlorn on the far shore.
I pass a party of ducks that seem to be admiring Snuffle, a 2003 work by Sebastian di Mauro that resembles enormous curling tongues made of artificial grass.
On the adjacent lawn, children run and play between two of the larger works that encourage visitors to walk within their perimeter. It seems obvious this is a great way to introduce youngsters (and adults) to art - especially when the sun is shining and there are surprises lurking in the bush trail down the back.
McClelland Sculpture Park is open 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday at 390 McClelland Drive, Langwarrin. Entry free. Phone (03) 9789 1671; see mcclellandgallery.com.
Sculpture around Victoria
The McClelland Gallery isn't the only place to stroll among the art. Here are other sculpture parks and walks in the state.
Heide Museum of Modern Art The sculpture park contains dozens of works, the most famous of which are its corrugated-iron cows. See heide.com.au.
Yering Station More proof that vineyards go well with big art, this Yarra Valley winery hosts an annual sculpture exhibition from October to December. See yering.com.
Werribee Mansion The grounds are scattered with works that were entered in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Prize. See parkweb.vic.gov.au.
Mildura Sculpture Park Opposite the Mildura Arts Centre, this park's most noted work is the One Sun, One Earth, One Peace sculpture. See milduraartscentre.com.au.