Category Archives: Public Sculpture

Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?


Prahran Square

In order to avoid the threat of democracy no city in Victoria was designed with a square. Now that democracy is no longer a threat squares are being retrofitted into city plans. I’ve visited two new squares in Melbourne: Prahran Square and the smaller Maddern Square in Footscray. Both are multifunction spaces made from converting carparks.

Prahran Square

Prahran Square is on the site of the old Cato Street car park in Prahran with the carpark now beneath the site. It is a very large space like a amphitheatre with steep sides. Facing in on itself it ignores the borrowed scenery of the old buildings around it. The central elements of the square are all created by the architects. Taken from the same set generic contemporary elements that architects around the world currently use, including the fountain with jets of water flush with the pavement. The green playground equipment is more central and sculptural than any of the actual sculpture.

Indigenous artist Fiona Foley’s work, murnalong, is literally on the periphery of the square. ‘Murnalong’ means ‘bee’ in the local Boon Wurrung language, a subtle reference to the location. Attractive as these cast aluminum bees are, they fail to identify the place; firstly because they can hardly be seen and secondly because there already is a building in Melbourne with several large gold bees on it – Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower. So that identifying the place in conversation; “You know the place with the bees?” could be confusing.

Jamie North, Ringform 1 and 2, 2019

Not much of the arts budget was spent on Jamie North Ringform 1 and 2. There is minimalism and then there is North’s basic forms; a couple of zeroes scores well for being garden sculpture.

The only public art that is allowed to work in the square are The Pipes 2019, a site-specific visual and audio installation co-designed by light artist Bruce Ramus and sound designer Material Thinking, because they were designed in collaboration with Lyons Architects. The visual and audio can be seen and heard almost everywhere in the square.

When I visited, none of the shops were occupied and there was also two temporary black wooden cubes with street art painted on them; the standard city council move to use street art as an urban social-aesthetic solution.

The Foley’s bees is the only part of the square that refers remotely to the location. Otherwise, it could almost anywhere in the world and I expect to see it or its underground carpark in a movie that is not set in Prahran. There is much about Prahran Square that is forced, contrived and strained; it was controversial and the two year build doing nothing to assist local traders. The arts do not account for a single percent of the $64 million budget.

Maddern Square, Footscray

Contrast this to Maddern Square in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. It is smaller in many ways, less money was spent on the space and the public art is all aerosol. It has a drinking fountain, shady trees, seating and a shipping container being the only facilities that the square needs. The architectural elements in the square are the same set of contemporary elements that are used everywhere but at least you know where you are because it uses the backs of buildings: “Keep Footscray Crazy”.

Thanks to William and Matt for showing me these squares.


The Burns Memorial

“Notices paint the way to the “Banks of Coon” and to the Auld Brig, upon which a man in a bowler-hat stood with his camera ready. He offered to take my photograph with the Burns memorial as background. I said the honour was too great for a normal man, and begged to be excused.”

j b morton (beachcomber), “a lowland jaunt”
George Anderson Lawson, Robert Burns Memorial, Treasury Gardens

There are probably more memorials to Robert Burns in the Anglophone world than any other person except for maybe Queen Victoria. You can find a Burns memorial almost everywhere some Scots have lived; so if you live in Scotland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland or the USA there is likely to be one nearby. (For an incomplete list of the Burns Memorial nearest you see Wikipedia.)

Melbourne’s own Burn’s Memorial was erected on 23 January 1904. The memorial’s original location on the west side of St Kilda Road and it was moved to its current site in the Treasury gardens in 1970.

It is an edition of the Robert Burns Memorial in Ayr in Scotland by the Scottish-born, Liverpool-based, sculptor George Anderson Lawson in 1892. It is the same sculpture as in Montreal, Halifax (Canada), Vancouver, Winnipeg and Detroit, only the plinths which were manufactured by local stonemasons are different.

These statues were purchased with funds raised by the local Caledonian society. Every Caledonian society in the world appears to have been raising money for a Burns memorial at some stage in their existence. Melbourne’s cost £1000 (the equivalent of about $158,000 worth today x 60+ for all the Burns Memorials in the world).

On the frontside of Melbourne’s Burns memorial, “BURNS” is spelt out in bronze letter. (This summer as bushfires raged some Melbourne half-wit sprayed “Australia” above “Burns”.) On the other sides there are bronze panels depict scenes from his poems: Tam O’Shanter (1790), To a mountain daisy (1786), and The cotter’s Friday night (1785). This follows the traditional form of a memorial statue where moments in the life of the hero are depicted.

For me the memorials raises many questions. What is the point of a literary memorial and why do people believe that there was a need to represent heroes in sculptural form? Did the Caledonian societies get value for money buying all those Burns memorials? And, surely a writer’s best memorial is their words and not their physiognomy? But then who now remembers any of Burns words apart from a few lines of Auld Lang Syne?

I wasn’t able to photograph all sides of the plinth because there was a tradesman was eating his lunch. I have often seen people sitting at the base of the Melbourne Burns memorial, it is mostly used as a bench now. I asked the man if I could take his photograph with the Burns memorial as the background and but he politely refused.


Jewell Station Forecourt

I first saw Fleur Summers’s sculpture, Making sense, from inside the train. Aside from the Fairfield Industrial Dog Object (FIDO), there are few public sculptures at Melbourne railway stations but there is now one at Jewell Station.

Fleur Summers, Making sense

Summers’s sculpture marks the new entrance to the station like bunches of dead flowers. A cluster of biomorphic forms, like metal fungus protrude from the grass in Jewell Station’s new forecourt. Each of the forms crowned with a black lumpy form.

Fleur Summers is a local artist and a lecturer in sculpture at the School of Art, RMIT. Her sculpture was selected from four finalists in a competition for a new sculpture. Given the biomorphic forms it is not surprising to find that Summers started her professional life as a microbiologist.

I’m not sure about the scale of the two clusters. They are intended to be at a hight where the metal heads of the stems can be torched and gradually polished by the public. Raising the question does the public connect to sculptures by touch?

In another attempt to establish a connection with the public art students from Brunswick Secondary School helped fabricate the work. I am skeptical of manufacturing connections in this way because even the casting of the local faces failed to establish a connection for another Brunswick art project (see my blog post).

Jewell Station was once an old brick station at the end of road with light industries. The entrance was an ugly mess of tarmac paths with pipe handrails leading to the sidewalk and the carpark with the bike path running through it. Now there are curved concrete forms terracing the entrance with a variety of paving and other surfaces. The new forecourt is not unsympathetic to the late Victorian Gothic station’s architecture without having anything in common aside from location.

The new forecourt has another gesture this time trying to establish a connection with local history. There are a few printed bricks about Brunswick quoting local politician James Jewell (1869-1949) for whom South Brunswick Station was renamed in 1954. Although there are a number of memorials around Brunswick to the free speech movement during the Great Depression when Victoria police wouldn’t allow public speech critical of the government. It is one of the features of Australia’s unique democratic system is that there are no civil or human rights that are protected from arbitrary government encroachment.

How Jewell’s new forecourt’s sculptures and paths work with social distancing or when people return to using public transport in greater numbers remains unknown. Will Summers’s metal flowers shine or will people, like I did, avoid touching them.


Maquettes of Melbourne’s Sculptures

This is a collection of photos of Melbourne public sculptures and their maquettes. Maquette is an arty French word for a ‘model’ from when French was the language of art (now the language of contemporary art is any language that you speak). They are made in a variety of media from wood, wax, clay or anything other inexpensive media that works for the sculptor.

Sculptors make them as visual sketches for themselves but they are also used to get commissions for sculptures. The sculptural equivalent of architectural models. The City of Melbourne has a small collection of these maquettes in their storage, as have the Arts Centre, that were submissions for sculpture commissions.

These models are made directly by the sculptor whereas the full-scale version may be the work of both sculptor, assistants and other fabricators. The models for bronze sculptures are made out of bees wax and multiple bronze editions of these scale models are sometimes made.

Louis Laumen’s Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial (aka Dungala Wamayirr) was originally design to be on opposite sides of each and to be on a higher plinth. Here they are along with James White’s Edmund Fitzgibbon Memorial, along with another unknown statue (possibly Peter Corlett’s John Cain but on a plinth).

Marc Clark’s Portal (See my post on the hostile installation of this sculpture.)


A Hostile Installation

A hostile installation is where a public sculpture is installed in a very unsympathetic way, like John Kelly’s Cow Up A Tree which has been located behind a ‘temporary’ coffee shop in Docklands for years. There are a few hostile installations of public sculpture in Melbourne and then there is hatred directed at Marc Clark’s Portal, 1973.

This is what the sculpture should look like. Marc Clark’s maquette for Portal.

The hostility directed at this sculpture is exhibited in both neglect, storing a sign next to it, and blocking views of the sculpture with a corrugated iron ticket booth. Clark’s Portal as its name indicates is meant to be a gateway, standing at one of the entrances to Myer Music Bowl. Instead there is a rectangular booth stuck directly front of it. What is wrong with the Myer Music Bowl? The Myer Music Bowl is run by the Melbourne Arts Centre, who should know how to take care of a sculpture.

This is how it has been installed

Sculptor and educator Marc Clark did nothing to invite this. This is Australian passive aggressive indifference; all antipathy with no responsibility. Both Clark and his sculpture are victims of the hostile attitude; they just happen to be in the way of philistine forces from some staff at the Myer Music Bowl.

A versatile sculptor Clarke created the formal abstracts, like Portal, and representational sculptures, like his Captain Cook statue at the Captain Cook Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens or his bust of botanist and explorer, Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller in the Botanic Gardens.

Sculptures need to be maintained and do not magically remain in perfect condition. Fortunately they are more easily repairable than other public art (see my post on the conservation of street art). There are sculptures that are regularly repainted like Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. Public sculptures are sometimes damaged in accidents, like when a truck hit Peter Corlett’s Mr Poetry and broke its leg. Portal needs to have rust and moss removed and it’s surface repaired and repainted.

A new location has to be found for the ticket booth or Portal, so that both can function as they should.


The Saigon Welcome Arch

It is a strange sight in the middle of the tasteless utilitarian architecture of Footscray’s low rise suburban shopping. Two matching curving arabesques of wings and bird’s neck reaches high into the sky. The forms of the fabled Vietnamese Lac birds The inside of these enormous forms is lined with golden printed metal with an image with a mass of flowers, butterflies and a woman in traditional Vietnamese dress.

On one edge, in clear lettering is “Saigon Welcome Arch”. Footscray is such a welcoming place, or at least it aspires to be, a short distance away there is and Indigenous welcome, the ‘smoking’ ceremony at Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins.

The Saigon Welcome Arch in Footscray is packed into the intersection of Leeds and Hopkins streets with a cafe one side and a pharmacy on the other. This is about creating a better urban space by making a place out of an otherwise nondescript T-intersection. It doesn’t fit into bland cheap utilitarian architecture of the place, it burst free from it.

But does any of that matter aside from aesthetics how does this public art work? On a large scale of architecture and human interaction the arch is a landmark in Footscray and the Saigon Night Market operates every second a Friday of the month under it and along Leeds Street (I should go, sculptures and public art is different at night). On the small personal scale of comfort for tired legs there are matching curving white seats at the base of each of the arch’s wing.

It was created in 2016 by architects McBride Charles Ryan and local artist Khue Nguyen as part of the redevelopment of the Little Saigon precinct. Khue Nguyen came to Australia as a political refugee in 1988 and in 2010 he was a finalist in Archibald Prize for a self portrait.

There aren’t a lot of gateways in Melbourne but Khue Nguyen has done another on the opposite side of the city for the Springvale retail area. This time it was in collaboration with Hassell Architect. In Buckingham Ave two towers topped with a flat red roof hang large golden banners printed with a Vietnamese design. Springvale, like Footscray, also has a large population who were, or whose parents were, from Vietnam.


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