In March 2014, a homeless man Gary Makin went snorkelling in the NGV’s moat collecting the coins. He was arrested – he should gone equipped with a buskers licence and told the police that he was a living sculpture. He would have been the most artistic thing that has been in the NGV’s moat for years.
That was until a few days ago when street sculptor, Will Coles placed some of his concrete giant soya sauce fish into it.
The moat of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is now mostly empty, except for the prosaic coins and fountains. Once there were sculptures standing in its waters. Geoffrey Bartlett’s Messenger 1983 stood in the moat before being moved to the sculpture garden in the back of the NGV. Four years later Deborah Halpern’s Angel (1987-89) stood in the NGV’s before being moved to Birrarung Marr in 2006.
As a psychogeographer I am fascinated by the moats around Australian cultural institutions. There is something curiously medieval about moats. There are moats at Melbourne Zoo around some of the enclosures; there is also a moat around La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus. A moat, even an ornamental one, creates a clear separation between one area and another.
At the time of their design, La Trobe Uni opened 1967 and the NGV in 1968, their architects were clearly expressed with these moats the cultural divisions in Australia between the cultured and the barbarian hordes. The moat around the bastion of culture that is the NGV on St. Kilda Road symbolically removes it from the rest of the world, creating a fortress or a sacred island to protect the art inside.
Now there are no sculptures in the NGV’s moat; Will Coles sculptures have been removed. Now there only a few fountains including the curved steel fountain at the city end of the moat, Nautilus dedicated to the architect of the NGV, Roy Grounds.
Then there is the famous water wall entrance of the NGV that still delights small children. Originally the NGV had more courtyards and fountains, regularly spitting out jets of water amidst rocks. I find fountains in art galleries quaint, but there are a surprising number of water features in art galleries including MOMA.
Recently a friend asked me if I would move on to writing about fountains now that I had completed writing my book on public sculpture (Melbourne’s Sculptures – from the colonial to the ephemeral, due to be published by Melbourne Books later this year). I feel a kind of dread and can already smell the chlorine.