Alice in Wonderland Sand Sculpture Exhibition – Sydney, Australia, 2018
This January saw the marvellous and topsy-turvy world of Wonderland brought to life in three-dimensional glory in the sun-baked grounds of Blacktown Showground on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. Using more than 250 tonnes of sand, ten Australian and International Sand Sculptors worked for twelve days to create huge sand sculptures depicting characters and scenes from Lewis Carroll’s classic book. Wrought in stunning detail, the sculptures bore a mix of styles, from those faithfully modelled after the original John Tenniel illustrations, to those rendered with a more contemporary twist. The exhibition was accompanied by music that evoked a mood of curious discovery and fantastic, bold adventure. And while the sculptures themselves were definitely the draw-card of the exhibition, the event was complimented with an array of activities for children, including giant chess games, sand-sculpting workshops, and a picnic area to enjoy at the finish (just as Alice, waking from her dream of Wonderland, runs off to enjoy her tea).
Wandering about the sculptures was a magical experience indeed, and I was struck by the skill and imagination applied to bringing these beloved scenes and characters to life. The only thing that could have improved the exhibition was if the order of the sculptures had followed that of the book, allowing visitors to follow in Alice’s footsteps and recall the narrative as they moved from scene to scene. With this in mind, I have done a bit of reshuffling to recreate the ‘natural order’ of Lewis Carroll’s narrative with my photos below, each accompanied by the relevant quotes from the tale (though one could argue that the relative lack of logical ‘order’ in the original novel renders any lack of ‘order’ in this exhibition rather appropriate!).
I hope you enjoy my photographic tour through this sand-sculpted Wonderland below.
Down the Rabbit Hole
“Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down Alice went after it…” (Chapter I)
Standing right in front of the entrance, this sculpture was the perfect way to begin the exhibition. The design was gorgeous: the white rabbit draws faithfully on Tenniel’s illustrations, while the twisting background evokes the earthy roots among which the rabbit-hole appears. The spiralling pattern of these vines draws our eye towards the hole until, just like Alice, drawn by an inescapable curiosity, we feel on the brink of tumbling in. The spiralling direction evokes a sense of movement, mimicking Alice’s inevitable pull, and her downward (and inwards) fall. If you look through the hole at just the right angle, you can glimpse Alice on the other side.
The reverse side of the sculpture is equally symbolic. The chessboard so integral to the world of Through the Looking-Glass – Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland – intertwines with the roots around the hole, as if the waking and dreaming worlds – above and below – rest against each other like opposite sides of the mirror, and all it takes is a slip through a rabbit hole or a step through the mirror to move from one side to the other.
The Hall of Doors
Chasing the rabbit down a long passage, Alice “was close behind it when she turned the corner, but the Rabbit was no longer to be seen: she found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof. There were doors all round the hall, but they were locked…” (Chapter I).
One of the most famous scenes in Wonderland, featuring the ‘DRINK ME’ bottle and ‘EAT ME’ cake, you can spot Alice here peeking wistfully through one of the doors into “the loveliest garden you ever saw” beyond (represented by the flowers).
The Pool of Tears
“…her foot slipped, and in another moment, splash! she was up to her chin in salt-water. Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into the sea… However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. … the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there was a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore.” (Chapter II)
Beautifully imagined, the animals swimming through the pool of tears comes to life here, with Alice leading the way. I particularly love the concerned expression on the mouse’s face (having just been frightened with tales of Alice’s cat).
“She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. (Chapter IV)
A more modern style of depiction, Alice is crammed into the tight space of the white rabbit’s house, her foot headed for the chimney, where it will go in an attempt to make more room! (See my own Giant Alice moment from the 150th Anniversary celebrations in Cambridge)
“She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on top, with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.” (Chapter IV)
Uttering the immortal words, “Who are you?” the hookah-smoking Caterpillar is perhaps one of the most iconic Wonderland characters, and his disdainful attitude and hookah-induced languor is beautifully conveyed here in the heavily lidded eyes and facial expression.
A Fish Delivery
“The Fish-Footman began by producing from under his arm a great letter, nearly as large as himself, and this he handed over to the other, saying in a solemn tone, ‘For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.’ The Frog-Footman repeated, in the same solemn tone, only changing the order of the words a little, ‘From the Queen. An invitation for the Duchess to play croquet.” (Chapter VI)
A near-exact rendition of Tenniel’s original illustration, this beautiful sand sculpture was unfortunately damaged the night before my visit by whichever mindless vandal thought it was amusing to do so. As the Red Queen would have it, “Off with their heads!”
Pig and Pepper
“The door led right into a large kitchen, which was full of smoke from one end to the other: the Duchess was sitting on a three-legged stool in the middle, nursing a baby: the cook was leaning over the fire, stirring a large cauldron which seemed to be full of soup.” (Chapter VI)
Yet another faithful rendition of Tenniel’s illustration, though with the curious omission of the Cheshire-Cat (perhaps he has grown invisible for the moment). The cook holds a pepper-grinder, by which she has saturated both the soup and the air with too much pepper, and soon everyone is sneezing, the baby is crying, and Alice finds that it soon turns into a pig.
“…she was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire-Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off. The cat only grinned when it saw Alice. [ … ]
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!’ [said Alice].
‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.” (Chapter VI)
The Cheshire-Cat was one of my favourite sculptures. Who could resist that broad grin and all those pointy teeth? His languishing attitude and gleeful expression here capture his humorous, playful mood. My niece enjoyed practising her best Cheshire-Cat grin with me.
A Mad Tea Party
“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it. […] The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it.” (Chapter VII)
This glorious set piece would have been even more impressive had not the vandals who struck the “Fish Delivery” sculpture the night before thought it amusing to ruin this artwork as well. One would like to imagine that they were at least enacting some kind of ironic performance of the text, embodying the Red Queen’s desire to behead everybody. Unfortunately though, it seems unlikely that anyone who finds destruction of art amusing – especially at the expense of all the children and adults who came excitedly to see it the next day, and whose hopes were disappointed – would possess such awareness. Below you can see the sand being rebuilt, ready for the artist to resculpt it.
The Croquet Game
“Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life: it was all ridges and furrows: the croquet balls were live hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingos, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches. … The players all played at once, without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.” (Chapter VIII)
The Mock Turtle
“They very soon came upon a Gryphon, lying fast asleep in the sun. …’Up, lazy thing!’ said the Queen, ‘and take this young lady to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history.’ … They had not gone far before they saw the Mock Turtle in the distance, sitting sad and lonely on a little ledge of rock” (Chapter IX)
This was my favourite sculpture because of its beautiful illustrative quality, as if the pages of a Victorian illustrated storybook had been brought to life. I loved the composition, balanced between Alice and the Gryphon at the seashore with the path leading behind them to the Mock Turtle in the distance. The level of detail is stunning, and all the characters – particularly Alice – are rendered with a realism that adds depth and emotional pull to the whimsicality of the scene.
Who Stole the Tarts?
“The King and Queen of Hearts were seated on their throne when they arrived, with a great crowd assembled about them – all sorts of little birds and beasts, as well as the whole pack of cards: the Knave was standing before them, in chains, with a soldier on each side to guard him; and near the King was the White Rabbit, with a trumpet in one hand, and a scroll of parchment in the other. …The first witness was the Hatter. He came in with a teacup in one hand and a piece of bread-and-butter in the other.” (Chapter XI)
The famous courtroom scene, involving the most ridiculous and illogical trial in literature. Alice becomes so frustrated with the proceedings that she begins to argue with the Queen, growing more and more cross until…
“‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
‘I wo’n’t!’ said Alice.
‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
‘Who cared for you? said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’
At this point the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.” (Chapter XII)
The sense of tumultuous movement and cascading cards in this sculpture is wonderful. Alice’s pose draws from Tenniel’s illustration, but the new addition at Alice’s feet, where the cards turn into leaves as they settle to the ground is an imaginative and poetic touch.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum
“They were standing under a tree, each with an arm round the other’s neck, and Alice knew which was which in a moment, because one of them had ‘DUM’ embroidered on his collar, and the other DEE.’
‘I suppose they’ve each got “TWEEDLE” round at the back of the collar,’ she said to herself.”
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter IV)
Last but not least, was a sculpture of that most contrariwise of pairings, Tweedledee and Tweedledum. This memorable duo doesn’t actually make its appearance until Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but I suppose they were far too iconic to leave out of an exhibition like this. This sculpture was a beautiful and faithful realisation of the original Tenniel illustration.
Overall, the exhibition was a marvellous taste of Carroll’s Wonderland, a fine display of the talent, creativity and imagination of the sculptors involved (and Sand Sculpting Australia more broadly), and a wonderful day out. Did you attend the exhibition? Let me know what you thought of it below!
*All quotes are from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.