Fear & Loathing & Melbourne’s Public Sculpture

Melbourne’s public sculpture collection has been assembled without much thought and without much expense. Although I write blog posts about Melbourne’s sculpture it is not because I am particularly impressed with Melbourne public sculpture collection. Melbourne sculptures strike me as a cheap collection by a city that was desperate to install some public art.

As a collection of art the city’s public sculptures are not world class. Melbourne does not have many famous sculptors; the William de Kooning bronze out the front of the Arts Centre is an anomaly both for Melbourne and for de Kooning, who is better known as a painter. In contrast, Adelaide has sculptures by Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy, Barbara Hepworth and Donald Judd all of which are well known for their sculpture.

Although Australian Aboriginal art is popular with Melbourne’s international visitors there are no major public work of Aboriginal art. The City of Melbourne has also chosen to ignore the local street art movement in public street art – rather they choose to attempt to preserve a piece by Banksy. (Although both Aboriginal art and street art are primarily based painting a sculptural work would not be inappropriate or impossible.)

Edward Ginger “The Echo” 1997

Melbourne City Council’s choice of emerging sculptors rather than established sculptors has saved the city money and given new sculptures a break but very few have become established sculptors. Near the corner of Lt. Bourke St. and Swanston St. is Edward Ginger’s “The Echo” 1997. “The Echo” is a big red funky geometric sculpture that attempts to be an urban totem. “The Echo” is representative of Ginger’s other, usually smaller mixed media works; the intense colours, especially red, and funky geometric forms. Edward Ginger. Unfortunately Ginger has not exhibited since 1998

There is an element of what the late great Hunter S. Thompson would call “fear and loathing” in Melbourne’s sculpture collection. Melbourne’s population has a tradition of opposition to public sculptures, expressed in opposition to Ron Robertson Swan’s “Vault” and Paul Juraszek “The Sun & the Moon”. Melbourne’s conservative past is the reason most often cited for this rejection but there might other factors in the mix. One might be an imported tradition of opposition to public sculpture from Melbourne’s significant Irish immigrant population. Paula Murphy in her article “Rejecting public sculpture: monuments in Dublin” (Apollo v. 154 no.475 Sept. 2001 p. 38-43) discusses the rejection of public sculpture in Dublin in the 19th and 20th centuries. “The extent of the opposition to the public sculpture in place and the numbers of works that are now lost to the city suggest that this attitude apparently verged on a national pastime at the time.” Murphy suggest several reasons for this attitude, including the style of the work or the subject portrayed in it, but it is political reasons that account for the rejection of many imperial statues.

In Melbourne sculpture has been installed in the city as a token gesture. “Sculpture plays a vital part in public investment with regard to urban regeneration. Art is seen as a crucial component in improving safety, restricting crime, and encouraging a prosperous local economy.” (John Finlay,  “Christchurch: Sculpture as Urban Design Strategy” Sculpture 27 no9 N 2008) And Melbourne is squandering its investment in public sculpture.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “Fear & Loathing & Melbourne’s Public Sculpture

  • Natalie

    I couldn’t agree more. Melbourne is squandering it’s opportunities to develop a world class collection of public sculpture. The Docklands collection is a disgrace; VicUrban has failed to curate a cohesive, engaging and/or interesting collection of works. Compare this with Singapore where it’s VicUrban equivalent has encouraged the acquisition of an enormous number of internationally significant art. In the last 5 years our art consultancy alone has acquired works by Henry Moore, Salvadore Dali, Bernar Venet and has commissioned monumental pieces by Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor. Although we are Melbourne based, all our work is done in Asia and Europe as there just doesn’t seem to be the enthusiasm or political will present here. What a pity!

    • Mark Holsworth

      A major stumbling block is that Melbourne lacks a coherent cultural policy and little vision of the future, unlike Singapore. I read about the Singapore Renaissance in 1999 and I have been following it’s development on and off ever since. I have written several blog posts about Singapore’s art scene although not one about Singapore’s public sculpture yet.

  • nalysale

    Melbourne is squandering it’s opportunities to develop a world class collection of public sculpture.

  • Margaret Hurford

    I’m amazed that there isn’t a Henry Moore sculpture in Melbourne. Too late now I think.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Melbourne could have a Henry Moore back in the 1980s if the Melbourne City Council had invested twice the budget they had for Vault (aka the Yellow Peril) – but it is now far too late. What contemporary sculptor with an international reputation would you like to see in Melbourne’s public sculpture?

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