It is always the Cook Memorial in St Kilda that is covered in paint. There are others; there several public statues of Cook in this state alone. How many does the country need?
Out the back of the hyperreality of the Captain Cook cottage, a building he never lived in, transported to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. Marc Clark’s statue of Cook there was initially commissioned by a real estate agent for the entrance of a subdivision, the most typically Australian of origin stories.
Another by John Walker stands at the front of St. Paul’s Church in Bendigo. Why is there even a Cook statue in Bendigo? Cook never visited the gold mining city near the coast that didn’t exist in his lifetime. Cook stands like a saint on a pillar in front of the red brick, gothic revival “cathedral” bringing the British Empire to Australia. This location exposes the role this icon is meant to perform. The site only makes sense in a religious way. Cook has become an icon complete with a martyrdom, to people who identify as white English speaking monarchist Christians.
All of these statues are as far removed from the historic Captain Cook as Mel Gibson was from William Wallace. The statues depict a cosplayer, a model dressed up in a costume posing for a sculptor. The colonial Captain was reinvented for the late British Empire and then repurposed for the Australian neo-colonial empire, merging iconography of Empire and Church. Invented to stand defiantly against the tide of historical studies and hold onto the idea of the exceptionalism of English/Australians.
Australia has been assigned to Cook in the same way that Christian saints are patron saints of something. The connection may be tenuous but miraculously confirmed by the faithful. It is this mythical figure that is being worshipped in conservative Australia. Religions may be practised without acknowledgement, acts creating a pattern of uninformed worship.
So why is the Cook Memorial in St Kilda the focus for iconoclastic actions against this unofficial saint? The edition of John Tweed’s statue was relocated in 1988 to its current location for the Bicentennial of some colonial history that Australia was celebrating. It is a typically Australian space, a bare, empty patch of ground in the middle of some roads. It does allow for good photographs of paint pours without the distracting elements in the image.
In 2017 on January 26th pink paint was poured over the head of the bronze Cook Memorial in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda. In 2019 on the anniversary of Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii, the statue in St Kilda was yet again covered in paint. This time red paint on his hands and face, a streak of yellow down his trouser leg and ‘Good Riddance’ sprayed in black on the plinth, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. In 2022 on January 26th, it was covered in a massive pour of red paint that coats both the figure and the entire front of the plinth.
For several years the local city council has employed security guards to protect the statue with mixed success. The legality of these actions would depend entirely on whose country you were in at the time. This ongoing statue war is expected to continue as no peace or cease-fire talks have been arranged.
January 27th, 2022 at 4:16 PM
great piece Mark!
January 27th, 2022 at 4:19 PM
Thank you, David.
January 27th, 2022 at 9:10 PM
Everyone needs to see the sculpture of Cook by Michael Parekowhai in the NSW art gallery. This depiction of Cook, gigantic, shiny polished steel, downcast, looking over Sydney Harbour like ‘what have I done’ . Not for demolition.
January 27th, 2022 at 9:42 PM
I was looking at a photo of Parekowhai’s sculpture today; it is wonderfully reflective in pose and material. It’s title is The English Channel.
February 1st, 2022 at 1:47 PM
Terrific review Mark, I wonder if St Kilda council could have a conversation with the local First Nations people about the statue with the idea of leaving the paint on it! Part of a truth telling strategy! Remove the security guards and use the funds saved to place didactic panels beside the moment telling the invasion and frontier wars story! Doing something of this nature would go somewhere towards redress. If we don’t acknowledge the past we can’t move forward to the future.
February 1st, 2022 at 2:58 PM
I like the idea of leaving the paint on and letting layers build up over time, unauthorised paint removals might also be carried out but these would present some dangers (working at heights and chemical) to the participants. However, the experience of other countries, Rhodes at Oxford, shows that new didactic panels don’t address the symbolic function of statues and only add to the memorialisation of the figure. Mixed with a permanent paint pour it might be different.