Life is short, but the art brut

When Gold Coast artist Frederic Berjot designs his next sculpture, he never goes for beautiful. He prefers to create sculptures that depict desolation and loss.

“I don’t want to create ‘beautiful’ sculptures,” says the French artist. “Beauty doesn’t interest me unless it helps me emphasise despair, lies, corruption, fear, isolation. I also focus on societal issues like racism and themes that challenge and define sex.”

Frederic was born in Meaux, not far from Paris, and migrated to New York and finally Australia in 1989. At Sydney’s National Art School he studied and worked alongside renowned Australian sculptors Michael Snape and James Rogers, before moving to the Gold Coast in 2002.

Having trained as a chemist who later rejected his “traditional upbringing, the boredom of working class life and bureaucratic discourse,” Frederic says art provided him with an escape from what he knew and reconnection with the unknown.

Since settling into the local art scene, Frederic has been involved with Swell Sculpture Festival, founded the Gold Coast Art Festival and The Stone Song Sculpture Symposium, commissioned for public sculpture and murals by the City of Gold Coast, sold sculptures to the chairman of the GOMA (Brisbane) and is now working on the underwater sculpture park at Wave Break Island.

He’s also established three Artist Run Initiatives, including the first and only urban gallery in Surfers Paradise, Urban Paradise.

In August, Urban Paradise held its one-year anniversary party. The atmosphere inside the gallery’s timber-concrete interior, which brings to mind a ghetto beach villa, was ultra serene with house music, drinks and nibbles – worlds away from the doof-doof-fist-pump of Cavill Avenue.

A highly professional gallery devoid of pompous art buying routines and exorbitant commission fees, Frederic says Urban Paradise houses an active artist community.

“Urban Paradise is a gallery run by artists, for artists,” he explains. “They communicate and support each other with sales, commissions and finding jobs.”

The gallery centres on art brut, a French term meaning ‘outsider art’. Spotlighting artists that haven’t completed official art education, or those from social or ethnic minorities, Urban Paradise bears a certain rawness. In return for exhibiting commission-free, the artists operate the gallery.

An inherit challenge of running an independent art gallery in a commercial district, however, is reconciling artist community direction with government strategy. Frederic recalls various run-ins with councils.

“Public servants who buy art can be prescriptive in what they want and what they show. This is why sex has been wiped out of Australian art,” he explains. “Sex is a huge part of France’s art history. But in Australia, I think the lack of sexually descriptive art is a bureaucratic choice, not an artistic one.”

Frederic says in the past he’s been perplexed by the City of Gold Coast’s tender process for the public artworks to be built as part of the City’s Cultural Strategy 2023.

“Artists from Urban Paradise, in the last 12 months, have seen bias in the Council’s tender process for public arts. This year, we’ve seen a local sculpture tender go to Brisbane and Belgium sculptors without being offered to local sculptors,” he says. “We understand that the Council wants cultural development to align with the policies of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. But we don’t accept them supporting particular artists to the detriment of others.”

We asked the City of Gold Coast about this and a spokesperson pointed out that external organisations contracted or funded to create public artworks are not bound by the City’s Procurement Policy, which prioritises Gold Coast businesses.

She also says that the City’s new major public art commission, to be launched soon, will be open to local, national and international artists in line with the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Legacy program.

“In keeping with models of best practice internationally, and our commitment to world-class public art outcomes, some commissions and projects are open to national and internationals artists and organisations,” said the spokesperson.

Earlier this year, after realising that an artist who was receiving funding had a connection to the RADF committee, Frederic confronted the Council about the bias and improving the selection process.

As a result, an investigation into the RADF selection process was undertaken. City of Gold Coast found no evidence of bias, but they have highlighted some administrative improvements that will clarify the application and assessment process for applications.

According to City of Gold Coast they are also developing a public art plan and revising public art policy with the aim of creating a framework that boosts arts and culture beyond the Games. These will be presented mid-next year.

Urban Paradise relies on sales and volunteering artists to operate. Despite its size, it’s made a significant imprint on local tourism, with thousands of visitors each month photographing themselves with Frederic’s ‘Self Portrait’, a human-like sculpture sitting, head between knees, by the entrance.

“We think we are really the only window for tourists to experience locally made art on the Gold Coast, and the reactions and support so far have been extraordinary,” he says.

“The ‘Self Portrait’ sculpture has attracted thousands of people, as though they want to help him or be part of his suffering.”

For an artist whose imagination and dreaming was always more powerful than his knowledge, this is the exact response he was after.

“Art is escape, healing and discovery, war and peace,” says Frederic.

It seems ‘outsider art’ on the Gold Coast is coming straight from the core.

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