Category Archives: Public Sculpture

Book Deal

I’m very happy to announce that my forthcoming book on the history Melbourne’s public sculpture will be published by Melbourne Books next year. It is the blogging dream – a book deal based on the blog.

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

As regular readers of this blog would know one of the topics that I regularly write about is public sculpture. Not that the book will be exactly what I’ve written in my blog, far from it, there have been many additions, revisions and corrections and there are still many to do.

Which public sculpture represents the identity of Melbourne? I started thinking about this question and so I wrote a blog post about it (see Melbourne’s Sculpture). The question is still haunting me and now I have to choose an image for the book’s front cover.

As I wrote more and more blog posts about public sculpture I became more interested. I noticed that very few people were writing about public sculpture, it is considered a dull topic by art critics and art historians dismissing it as the work of second rate artists working on commissions. However the public want to know about these sculptures I was finding some interesting stories about public sculptures politics, crime and the history of the city. Putting all these blog posts together I found that I was writing a history about a major change in public sculptures; a true story with a beginning, middle and end.

Although it is every blogger’s dream to write a book, it took prompting from my wife, my inspiration, Catherine, for the idea to form. I also needed the copy editing skills of Sue Wind and the advice of many people to get the manuscript to this stage – I’ve already added getting a proper thank you list together to my ever growing 2Do list… write, edit, sort and label jpg files, the front cover image…. ?

La Pok's guerilla gardening Melbourne

La Pok’s guerilla gardening Melbourne

Hester, "a world, fully accessible by no living being", 2011

Hester, “a world, fully accessible by no living being”, 2011

Paul Montford, Adam Lindsay Gordon, 1931

Paul Montford, Adam Lindsay Gordon, 1931

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

Charles Web Gilbert, Matthew Flinders Memorial, Melbourne

John Kelly, “Cow Up a Tree”, bonze, 1999, Docklands

John Kelly, “Cow Up a Tree”, bonze, 1999, Docklands


Who Pays For Public Mistakes?

Many public sculptures are mistakes, very few are really successful. Given that permanent public sculptures are expensive due to the cost of materials like bronze and marble. Given that a sculptor creating public sculpture has to learn from experience the question must be asked who should pay for these public mistakes?

Micheal Menzaros, The More We Know, bronze, 2013, Melbourne University

Micheal Menzaros, The More We Know, bronze, 2013, Melbourne University

This question came up when I was examining the recent sculpture The More We Know 2013 by Melbourne sculptor, Michael Meszaros. It is located out the front of the entrance to the Medical Building at Melbourne University, near the corner of Grattan Street and Royal Parade.

The More We Know is about the advance of medical knowledge and it commemorates Melbourne Medical School’s 150th anniversary. It is the idea of a group of nine Melbourne Medical School alumni from 1972 who last year commissioned the sculpture from Meszaros. The sculpture represents progress in the increasing complexity of the figure including the gaps in the figures; the more we know the more aware of we are of the gaps in our knowledge.

The statue is not only expresses how medical knowledge, practice and technology evolve but also the evolution of Meszaros’ sculpture. The linked group of figures is a development from his earlier sculpture, further down Grattan Street outside of main entrance of the Royal Women’s Hospital. The figures go towards and away from the hospital; there is doctor with a stethoscope, a pregnant woman, a woman holding a baby, a nun like nurse, a woman with a nametag.

Michael Meszaros's sculpture at Royal Melbourne Hospital

Michael Meszaros’s sculpture at Royal Melbourne Hospital

The profile faces in The More We Know are a development from metal outline profiles in Meszaros’ Distant Conversation, 1992 that once was in the lobby of the Telstra building. All of this far more complex than Meszaros’ earliest public sculpture in Melbourne, his 1978 realist figure of John Pascoe Fawkner at 447 Collins Street.

In 1979 in The Age the critic, Robert Rooney described Meszaros’ John Pascoe Fawkner (and its companion, Stan Hammond’s John Batman) as a “miserable pair of bronze nonentities”. Former Age art critic Peter Timms was more forgiving saying that it “shows a need for social coherence which we all desire; a sense of hierarchy and order. But I guess we all acknowledge that that’s not the reality anymore – so is sculpture the way to achieve it? I don’t know.”

Michael Meszaros (b.1945) is the son of the Hungarian born sculptor and medalist Andor Mészáros (1900-1972). Michael Meszaros studied architecture at Melbourne University before turning to sculpture. He is still working in the same studio in Kew that his father built. He is a former member of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and was also instrumental in the original push for legislation to recognize the artists’ moral rights. Meszaros’s niece, Anna Meszaros is also a sculptor, notable for her fourteen relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross outside several of Melbourne’s inner city churches.

There are many sculptures by Michael Meszaros in Melbourne. There is his memorial to William Guilfoyle, curator from 1873 to 1909, a cluster of bronze sprouting seeds with large acorns at the Royal Botanic Gardens. His copper birds at 350 St. Kilda Road and the others that I have mentioned in this post.

I started writing this post with some sympathy towards Meszaros, not because I admired any his sculptures but I did appreciate his development over his 43 years of working as a sculptor. However I lost what sympathy I had when I read his public submissions to the federal Minister for the Arts Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts 2011. Meszaros’ submission exposes his anti-intellectual, conservative position and demonstrates that while he might be good at getting sculptural commissions ranging from small medallions to public sculpture he lacks training in both diplomacy and a greater understanding of the art world outside his own studio.

In the submission Meszaros complains about ephemeral artists, performance ‘sculptors’, sound sculptors, etc. claiming that they alienate the public. This raises the question if Meszaros’ own sculptures engage or alienates the public? I’ve never seen the public interact with any of his sculptures aside from people using the plinth of his figure of Fawkner as a seat. No one touches the sculptures even though they are at street level and no one takes selfies with them. Meszaros’ Telstra figures Distant Conversation, 1992, have been alienated from Telstra’s lobby and ultimately the from Telstra; the sculpture was finally acquired by Grollo Australia. Café tables in the lobby of 565 Bourke Street now surround his Rainbow, 1990. After a while his sculptures just fade into the background of the city and are ignored.

Michael Menzaros, Rainbow, steel, 565 Bourke Street

Michael Meszaros, Rainbow, steel, 565 Bourke Street

Meszaros complains in his submission that: “In may (sic) circles, commissioned artists are looked on as a lower form of commercialised life. By that definition, Michelangelo was a commercial sculptor.” In cherry-picking evidence Meszaros disdain of education meant that he didn’t realize the irony of this comment as Michelangelo found many of his commissions annoying.

To prospective clients each commissions looks like a triumph because they are not an absolute disaster. A sculptor working on commissions doesn’t have to rely on repeat customers, he just moves on to the next commission. In this way organizations pay for his development as a sculpture and have to live with his mistakes. That said; Michael Meszaros has built a reputation through commissions involving Melbourne University, for decades, he received commissions for portrait medals of retiring Melbourne University academics.


Plinth Projects

It is like the start of a joke… A man walks into a plinth

Annie Wu, A man walks into a plinth...

Annie Wu, A man walks into a plinth…

It is Annie Wu’s sculpture for Plinth Projects in Edinburgh’s Gardens in Melbourne’s suburb of North Fitzroy. Plinth Projects, an artist-run public art program supported by the Yarra City Council, first used this vacant pedestal in March 2013. A suburban version of London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, temporary public sculpture on an unused plinth.

Edinburgh Gardens is a large park that was established in 1862. The centrepiece of the park, amid a semi-circle of mature elms is an empty pedestal that once held a statue of Queen Victoria. The plinth stands a circular garden bed.

The old plinth had been erected for a temporary memorial statue for Queen Victoria in 1901 immediately after her death. Melbourne would have to wait until 1907 for the permanent white marble and granite memorial to Queen Victoria paid for by public subscription. It is not known who was the sculptor for the statue of Queen Victoria In Edinburgh gardens but it is similar to the figure of Victoria on top of James White’s marble figure on top of the permanent memorial, depicting the Queen holding an orb and scepter.

The marble plaque on the plinth: “ Presented to the citizens of Fitzroy by the Hon. George Godfrey MLC 1901.” George Godfrey (1834 – 1920) was solicitor born in London who arrived Melbourne 1858. He was the representative for the seat of South Yarra in the upper house of the Victorian Parliament from 1895 to 1904.

The original statue is often described as ‘timber’ but from an image on an old postcard it likely that it was made of ‘stuff’ an inexpensive mix of plaster, straw and timber frame that was often used for temporary statues in the 19th Century. The statue of Queen Victoria went missing over a century ago – council workers probably removed it after the period of official mourning and when it started to deteriorate and the timber frame was exposed.

The plinth remained, left empty almost a century. Plinth Projects’ has a seasonal exhibition calendar with a five-month-long exhibition over the winter and month long exhibits during the more pleasant seasons. The old plinth is in remarkably good condition and has been repainted by the Plinth Projects.

In March Oscar Perry placed a cylindrical bale of hay on the plinth in his Harvest Showdown / Early Classics, Hits and Rarities. It was a strange memorial to the death of ELO’s Mike Edwards in 2010 when a bale of hay rolled down a hillside and collided with his van. In April Spiros Panigirakis, A Tentative Sign examined the privileged position of the plinth adding an overturned lectern in front and a ladder up to the plinth. Mutating over a period of five months between May to September, Sarah crowEST presented a human proportioned lumpy form of paint splashed material on the plinth. Renee Cosgrave painted colourful designs on the plinth in October.

Annie Wu A man walks into a plinth… painted the same colour, Wu’s sculpture doubles the hight of the plinth and mirrors in a pared down, in a simplified modern form, the three steps at the base of the plinth. The title brings a sense of irony to its austere form.

I went to see the current installation; I would have gone to the official launch in the park but the weather last Sunday was unpleasant. There are other temporary public art programs in the city. On my bike ride to Edinburgh gardens I went past a few remaining installations in MoreArts, another inner city suburb temporary art exhibition organized by the Moreland City Council (see my post on this years MoreArts). There is a lot of graffiti and street art along the bike track, another part of Melbourne’s temporary public art.

Liz Walker, Estate, MoreArts

Liz Walker, Estate, MoreArts


Birrarung Wilam and other public art

The aboriginal population of this area didn’t have a say in the establishment of Melbourne. They were dispossessed, their land was declared empty and unowned and Australian law legally reduced them to being part of the fauna and flora. Consequently they rarely figure in Melbourne’s public sculpture, they were not part of the collective consciousness of Melbourne for most of its history. They were being officially ignored and neglected.

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Australian aborigines briefly appear on the bas-reliefs on the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers. The story of the expedition is told in four low relief panels around the base of the statue. Burke and Wills were unwilling to deal the local aboriginal people, the sole survivor John King was help by the Yandruwandha people and lived with them until found by the rescue mission. To prepare the panels Summers lived for six weeks with local aborigines to design the figures on the lower panel and depicts them as dignified, well-proportioned people.

This is the first time that aboriginal figures appear in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. After that public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population vanished. For over a century Aboriginal art and identity was official ignored. In the last twenty years it has slowly changed and there is public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population by indigenous artists.

Birrarung Wilam  shields

Birrarung Wilam shields

Amongst the new aboriginal art along the Yarra River in Burrung Marr there is Birrarung Wilam (meaning river camp) by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.

Made of stone, wood, stainless steel, bronze, nickel and audio installation, 2006, this is a complex installation with many elements. The twisting, textured eel path represents a major food source, the feminine mound “camp site” and the masculine the five metal shields along the riverfront. Marking the site’s eastern and western ends stand intricately carved hardwood message sticks representing the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation. The metal shields represent the five clans of the Kulin Nation.

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

The performance space is magnificent even remembering that the stones were moved by machines and not by hand while remembering that these ancient British monuments are themselves reconstructions. The best part the ancestral stones the petroglyphs of animals carved on the stones. The monolithic carved ancestor stones are placed to form a semi-circular performance area. Unfortunately they are sort of hidden behind ArtPlay, the children’s arts centre next to a playground.

Birrarung Wilam may be a very large and complex work but it is still dwarfed by the scale of this riverside park. There is room for an entire north bank of the Yarra River and meeting up with the carved poles of Scar – a Stolen Vision (see my post).

Indigenous artist were also represented in 2011 the Laneways Commissions with an all indigenous year that included Reko Rennie Neon Natives, a neon light display, Yhonnie Scarce’s Iron Cross in Brien Lane, Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council: Judy Nicholson, James McFayden, Asley Firebrace-Kerr and Derek Smith is still up on a wall off Burke Street, and Urban Doolagahl by Steaphan Paton. Very few people in Melbourne would have heard of the Doolagahl before Steaphan Paton introduced them by his retelling of the story in an urban context revives an ancient tradition.

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council, off Burke St.

This public art publicly acknowledges the existences of Aboriginal Australia in Melbourne’s collective consciousness.


An Expensive Identity

The Australian government is spending $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013).

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

A Boer War Memorial in South Melbourne

War memorials are a very important part of constructing a national identity for Australia. They stand as demonstrations of loyalty to the Empire, the British or the American empires. Australia defined its national identity by the wars where Australian troops served and were identified as Australians. The first war that Australian colonial soldiers fought and died in was the Boer War and there are many monuments in Melbourne to the Boer War, or as the Brunswick memorial refers to it as the “South African War”. The first war memorial constructed in Melbourne was the monument to the 5th Victorian Contingent in 1903, a gothic revival style shrine by architects George de Lacy Evans and sculptor Joseph Hamilton.

Initially the construction of these memorials is understandable. As the Australian troops who fought in the Boer War and First World War were buried where they died their immediate families in Australia had nowhere to grieve. There are many war memorials scattered around Melbourne and its suburbs frequently with a statue of a soldier on top of them. There are so many local war memorials that a law was passed in 1916 to control their numbers.

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Shrine of Rememberance, Melbourne

Canada's WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Canada’s WWI Memorial, Ottawa

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is huge. It is far larger than other British colony’s war memorials, except for the later constructed Australian War Memorial in Canberra that combines a shrine, a museum, and an extensive archive. The Shrine of Remembrance dwarfs the Canadian war memorial in Ottawa. The Shrine was built between 1927-1934; paid for largely with public donations, although the Victorian and Commonwealth government did make some contributions. General Monash was the driving force behind the Shrine and its status; his background in civic engineering finding expression in this enormous quasi-religious area of the city that has become dedicated to memorials to Australian soldiers and campaigns.

WWI created a rupture in funerary conventions in Europe and America with the accumulating memorials overwhelmed people. “Whereas around the turn of the century full-length figures were far the most popular, after 1914, and in line with growing nerves about statuemania, busts assume the lead.” [Penelope Curtis, Sculpture 1900-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999, Oxford) p.43] But it did not slow the production of statues in Australia. Charles Marsh Web (Nash) Gilbert (1867-1925) made a total of 9 WWI memorials, more than any other Australian sculptor.

The present fervour for war memorials and ‘Anzackery’ is because there is almost nothing that unites Australia. It is populated by disposed aboriginal tribes, exiled convicts, British colonists and post WWII immigrants from around the world. Australia it is not united by race, language, religion or any ideals. There is no Australian dreaming.

There has always been very limited social cohesion in Australia (in WWII fearing invasion by the Japanese separate trenches were dug in Swan Hill by the Catholic and Protestants that faced each other). Australia is simply an artificial construct of British law that exists as a client state for the benefit of the Anglo-American empires, so the sacrifice of Australia young men for these foreign causes is very important to Australia’s national identity. This limited social cohesion is reflected in Melbourne’s public sculptures (see my post Heroes of Every Nation).

This explains the investment in making these wars and battles a central element of Australian identity. And as uncertainty grows about what these memorials mean to the collective consciousness of Melbourne more didactic plaques and visitor centres has been added. A recent addition to the art deco Boer War Memorial by Irwin and Stevenson is a large bronze plaque with low relief figures and text to explain Australian involvement in this colonial war in South Africa. The addition of this didactic plaque demonstrates the uncertainty of this monument’s meaning in the 21st century.

Lest we forget the conscientious objectors, the pacifists and the traumatized soldiers who were shot for cowardice by the British Army, those dying in the most brutal of wars so that British imperial forces to murder civilians around the world, Kurds, Indians, Irish, so that Bertrand Russel could be jailed by the British for writing that American army was very good at breaking strikes. Of course none of this will be remembered in Australia’s orgy of commemorations of the centennial of WWI. What is the cost of this national identity?


The Flâneur’s Surface Archaeology

Public sculptures, old buildings and ghost-signs are the surface archaeology of the city. Surface archaeology is established archaeological practice for providing data on settlements. The urban archaeologist conducts a pedestrian survey of the surface features, digital camera on my belt to collecting samples. By looking and researching the history you can see distinct layers in the psychology of Melbourne through its history.

The Duke & Duchess of York Memorial Drinking Fountain, 1901, corner of Elizabeth and Victoria St.

The Duke & Duchess of York Memorial Drinking Fountain, 1901, corner of Elizabeth and Victoria St.

The city is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time; there are so many unfamiliar areas and so many changes to familiar routes. There are constant changes, sometime ago I asked Terry the postman, whose route is in the CBD, if there was more building work going on, but he didn’t think so.  So accustomed am I to my various routes that I note the smallest changes.

I take note the ephemera of the city, the layers of posters and graffiti, like a detective gathering evidence on the endless mystery of the human existence that exists, so tightly packed together, in all directions. For this reason I find myself interested in buildings for different reasons other than their architecture; I warm to their history and function. Look at the modifications, alterations and their changing functions. For this reason I like to look at the back of buildings rather than their façade.

This week I’ve continued to wander the city. In my perambulations I saw the Platform exhibitions; I could not resist the opportunity when passing through Flinders Street Station to walk down Degraves Street. Sophie Neate and Sean McKenzie Glass Room was engaging installation about the mystery of the machine made. I particularly enjoyed Chris Rainer’s Topographic Schematic no.24 because of the musical composition. Rainer’s installation suggested the idea of military interception of all communications, symbolized by tape going through the plastic model watchtower and German soldiers.

Blue Elephants on the curb of Rutledge Lane

Blue Elephants on the curb of Rutledge Lane

Equally I could not resist the opportunity when in the city to walk down Hosier Lane. I could get all excited about the Banksy that got painted over last week but I’ve seen it all before, these things happen every couple of years and nobody expected them to last forever. (see the report in The Age).  I’m just taking more photographs of the city before it disappears. My photographs of the city become like a stamp collection and I enjoy looking at the collections of other of Melbourne’s flâneurs. Do utility boxes have to look utilitarian? (See ones painted by notable Melbourne Street artists at Land of Sunshine.)


MoreArt 2013

This is the fourth year of MoreArt 2013 Moreland City Council’s annual public art show. I enjoy the transformation of my regular bike path along the Upfield line. There are installations in Jewell, Brunswick, Anstey, Moreland and Gowrie. The unused ticket booths of these formally manned train stations have been turned into spaces. Phil Soliman uses a locked seating area at Moreland for his The Great Pyramid; a model of the three pyramids at Giza made of fava beans on a commercial prayer mat along with some stones (stone throwing is optional).

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramind, Moreland Station

Phil Soliman, The Great Pyramind, Moreland Station

The best locations in this exhibition are in some neglected urban spaces between Moreland Road and Tinning Street as they are completely desolate and already surrounded by chain link fences. I talked with artist Liz Walker about the attraction of these vacant spaces at the opening. “You see things in the ordinary that you wouldn’t notice before.” Liz Walker told me.

Liz Walker, Estate, Moreland

Liz Walker, Estate, Moreland

Lots of people were appreciating and using Bush Projects Soft Infrastructure at the Mechanics Institute. The large purple tubes (100% recycled P.E.T. felt, stuffed with straw) surrounded the garden and trees and made comfortable and warm seating for the large crowd of people at the official opening. The idea of soft infrastructure of recycled material for events like the MoreArt show opening.

Bush Projects, Soft Infrastructure, Mechanics Institute, Brunswick

Bush Projects, Soft Infrastructure, Mechanics Institute, Brunswick

It was a typical Moreland Council opening with Red Brigade Band marching in followed by some folk music and a cue at the bar. I was keeping a weather eye open, the grey clouds had been threatening all day and the wind was freezing my ears. Right on cue as the speeches started there was a light drizzle but it didn’t last long.

Red Brigade at the Mechanics Institute

Red Brigade at the Mechanics Institute

Then there was the usual round of speeches from a Wurundjeri elder, the Mayor, curator and judges.

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me a sound and video installation that really used its location of the old ticket booth won Indoor Award. Phil Soliman received a honourable mention for his installation.

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me, Jewell Station

Michael Carolan Hey You Try Me, Jewell Station

The Outdoor Award was won by Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come at Coburg Mall for its multi-cultural community engagement.

Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come

Alica Bryson Haynes The Shape of Things to Come

Riza Manalo won the Brunswick Station Gallery Award for an artist to curate a program of art at the stations along the Upfield Line for her work The Visitor.  (No photo available as it is a projection on the Mechanic’s Institute.)

Riza Manalo, The Visitor

Aaron James McGarry, I adopted a Koala, called: third draw down


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