DRINKING HEAVILY TO NUMB THE PAIN AT THE HEART OF EXISTENCE, EMBARCADERO — "I can't remember when we've had a field this strong," said U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge chief judge Chris Nihil. "I don't know if it's the drought, global unrest, or just the sense that America's glory years are gone and not coming back. But, for whatever reason, many of this year's entrants were not content to simply model objects from sand. Rather, they played with what sand signifies. The medium really became the message. Sand — lifeless, atomized, and all-consuming — came to the fore. Frankly, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner, but I'm glad it happened now."
That medium-as-message mentality shines in this year's first-place winner, 'Ozymandias,' by local English teacher Lance Boyle. The sculpture illustrates Shelley's famous poem of that name:
I met a traveller from an antique land
- Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
- Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
- Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
- And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
- Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
- Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
- The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
- And on the pedestal these words appear:
- `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
- Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
- Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
- Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
- The lone and level sands stretch far away."
"It's such a natural subject," explained Nihil. "You've got lone and level sands right in the poem! It's the kind of sculpture that will make people smile and feel good about getting the reference. 'That's clever,' they think, and then they feel clever themselves for seeing it. When you can trick people into feeling good about acknowledging their mortality and insignificance, you're approaching genius-level public art. It's hard to imagine Boyle ever topping this. But he'll always be able to cling to this memory, at least until he winds up like ol' Ozzie, and also the guy who wrote the poem."
Second prize went to Blake Thunder for "Like Sands through the Hourglass," a playful cross-section of, you guessed it, an hourglass. Commented Nihil, "Blake actually had a three-episode run on Days of Our Lives back in the '80s as Brad Handy, a handsome plumber with a taste for the good life and also for business tycoon Randall McQueen's gorgeous wife Elsa. So the reference back to that classic soap opera's tagline ["Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives"] is extra fun, even as it evokes the passing, ephemeral character of life. Especially that part of life depicted on soap operas: full of excitement and change and sexual adventure.
"But really, it's the details that make this one stand out. If you look closely, you can see that there is a blockage in the narrow part of the hourglass, keeping the sands of time from passing through. And if you look even more closely, you can see that the blockage is caused by a human skull, a classic symbol of death. No doubt this is a reference to Brad Handy's 'accidental' fall into a faulty septic tank, a death brought about by Thunder's contract dispute with the network. For Thunder, even the normal flow of time was interrupted when his dreams of stardom were crushed. The days of our lives went on, but not for him. Brilliant."
But it's the third-place winner that has drawn the most comment: Stewart O'Nan's "future/futility." O'Nan didn't touch the pile of sand given to him, but instead, tied a spare sandbag to his leg and leaped over the B Street Pier's railing into the briny blue. By the time rescue workers were able to locate him in San Diego Harbor's fetid waters, it was too late. "By leaving his pile of sand just as he found it," explained Nihil, "O'Nan managed a brilliantly economical statement on the ultimate fate of all human endeavor. I don't think he would have even bothered to title it, except we needed a name on the entry form. 'Hourglass' posited the possibility that an individual human tragedy could have significance to other people. 'Ozymandias' slyly advocated for human wisdom and humility. But 'future/futility' stares right into the abyss and admits that soon, these sculptures will be nothing but sand. And in a little while longer, the spectators who are admiring these sculptures will be nothing but dust. And eventually, everything will crumble and break and be lost to the proverbial sands of time. There's no sense in pretending that anything lasts, or has some kind of ultimate meaning."
Concluded Nihil, "We were seriously considering giving O'Nan the trophy, but we were afraid of the effect it might have on the crowd. We didn't want a mass suicide on our hands. At least 'Ozymandias' will remind them of that Breaking Bad episode. Even if nothing matters in the end, everybody likes TV."