There are many inappropriate public sculptures in Melbourne, memorials to people who have no connection to Melbourne, memorials to evil men, dumb and ugly things. If I was to put together a list of inappropriate public sculptures in Melbourne I would judge them: irrelevance, offence and aesthetics. So an irrelevant, offensive and aesthetic non-entity like the Captain Cook Memorial by Sir John Tweed would be top of my list.
It also appears to be top of the list of inappropriate public sculptures for some of Melbourne’s Indigenous people. People with paint who wanted to celebrate the anniversary of Cook’s death added red paint on his hands and face, a streak of yellow down his trouser leg and ‘Good Riddance’ in black on the plinth. It was not the first time, in 2017 someone poured pink paint over the head of the statue, and it won’t be the last.
Tweed’s Cook Memorial is an anaesthetic non-entity of Edwardian sculpture; created at a time, in the early twentieth century when British art was a non-entity in art history. The one in Melbourne is just another edition of a statue that has an appropriate location in Cook’s home town of Whitby in England.
Commenting on the “current multitude of memorial designs” around the world and the “public physical interpretation of memory” Peter Tonkin and Janet Laurence writes: “the creators of memorials build an image of immortality, often inflating the event’s importance.” (“Space and memory: A meditation on memorials and monuments” Architecture Australia Vol 92 No 5 Sep/Oct 2003 pp 48-49)
There are three or four memorials to Boer War in Melbourne, then there is that massive temple complex called the Shrine of Remembrance, along with all the memorials to subsequent wars in which Australia served its imperial masters; evidence that Australians are loyal foot soldiers to the largest imperial power. There is even a memorial to General Gordon, although troops from Australia was unable to fight in that nineteenth campaign.
A century after many of the wars that sparked the initial round of memorial building in Melbourne Australians are still desperately building memorials (along with war museums and ‘interpretive centres’) like a junky with expensive habit. (For an idea of how expensive this habit is see my blog post An Expensive Identity.)
The quantity of memorial reminds me of the stone age barrows in Kent that were constructed without any associated burials. As the purpose of both constructions appears to be a claim to land ownership under the guise of a memorial. ‘Lest we forget’ that the phrase was first used on a memorial to colonialists killed by Aboriginal people defending their land in the frontier wars is noted by K. S. Inglis in his book Sacred places, war memorials in the Australian landscape (Melbourne University Press, 1998).
I find Melbourne’s public art fascinating because it is an official expression of a civic identity and values that attempts to permanently occupy public space. Both the glut of war memorials and the scarcity of statues of women or Indigenous people shows the official priorities of Melbourne, reveals its collective consciousness. In the case of Tweed’s Cook Memorial it is an imported, British colonial zombie consciousness.