Why do I write about Melbourne’s sculpture? Most art critics and art historians are not interested in a collection of bad to mediocre art but I am because public sculpture shows the collective consciousness of the city. Love it or hate it public sculpture says something about the identity of the city. The taste of homogenous consensus maybe bland, even ugly, but to those in power it is acceptable. Public sculpture is concerned with the perpetration and manipulation of memory and space in collaboration between artists and city councils.
The idea of a collective consciousness was invented by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to refer to the public expression of shared beliefs and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. A collective consciousness is like a public superego exhibiting the ideals that the public aspire to. It tries to tell the official history or represent the shared values and aspirations of a culture. It is different from a ‘zeitgeist’ because it is intentionally expressed.
Public sculptures because of their durability are excellent representations of the collective consciousness. Public sculpture is the collective consciousness of a city exposed in something like an archaeological cross section with all the layers clearly defined by the commission and installation dates. From the 19th through to the 21st century, from Melbourne’s first public sculpture, Charles Summers’s River God Fountain to the very latest Laneway Commissions.
Melbourne is of a similar age to many cities and what has happened with Melbourne’s public sculpture is representative of many former British colonial cities around the world, including in the USA. Melbourne’s sculpture initially was part of the English art tradition. In the 19th century the English and Australian establishment were essentially the same; Australian sculptors trained at the Royal Academy or the Royal College of Arts. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal was born in Australia and lived in England, India and Australia.
Public sculpture reflects the way that the city is understood. It is an image for the city, an expression of civic pride and the idea of civic good. Originally a public sculpture was intended records a triumph, to memorialise ownership, to preserve and glorify the memory of a king, queen, general or hero. The height of plinths was an indication of the glory of the heroic sculpture. During Melbourne’s history plinths, the architectural support for the sculpture, have become smaller or disappeared completely.
Melbourne has changed as dramatically from the small settlement founded in 1835 that used horses as transportation to a large modern metropolis. During that time there have been many changes to the way that people use public space, the way that people think about Melbourne, their values and aspirations. There has been major political changes, Australia changed from a British colony to a separate country. Given these dramatic changes in the city and its infrastructure it would be surprising if public sculpture hadn’t changed equally dramatically.
There is another cross section of the work of sculptors in the foyer of the NGV at Federation Square with a selection of busts by local sculptors over the 20th Century. Many of the sculptors were familiar to me because of their public sculptures in Melbourne – Paul Montford, Bertram Mackennal and Web Gilbert. The busts are not arranged chronologically but the layers of different styles are still clear. It is like looking at a series of stone tools from an archaeological dig; there are same basic forms with modifications and changes in techniques and materials.