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Category Archives: Public Sculpture

The sculptor and the swan

Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.

The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’. 

Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.

Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.

Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.

Cookie, the black swan memorial drinking fountain

In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3)  “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.

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Elemental Forces in Public Art

Considering the use of the so-called ‘elemental forces’ of water, fire, earth and air in public art; with examples from Melbourne’s public and street art.

Air 

Although it is the space between, air is the most under used element in public art. Aside from making flags and banners flutter it is used in a couple of sculptures. The 15-metre-high wind-powered sculpture by Duncan Stemler, Blowhole in the Docklands. Elsewhere in the world there are musical sculptures that are played automatically, like Aeolian harps and the common wind chime. On a more subtle level there is scent of gardens, of incense and the burnt eucalyptus leaves of smoking ceremonies carried in the air.

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole

Water

Water was the first one to be used for public art with public drinking fountains and other water features from artificial lakes and waterfalls. There are many fountains and drinking fountains in Melbourne there are also mist sprays on the rocks in Footscray, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins. Street artist have also used water, one summer blocks of coloured ice were left to melt in Hosier Lane, the coloured liquid running between the bluestone cobbles. The street artist, CDH used hypochromatic ink for stencil works where the piece that only became visible when wet. Finally there is the unofficial colouring of fountains and moats often in conjunction with protests.

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom

Fire

From the eternal flame at the Shrine of Remembrance, candle light vigils, to Indigenous smoke ceremonies fire is used in a variety of public art. Camp fire with Aboriginal story teller at Federation Square. It is not all sacred; there are profane gas flares at the casino and temporary public art events like, fireworks displays. Fortunately there is little use of fire in street art, aside from a rare CDH pyrotechnic painting.

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH (photo courtesy CDH)

Earth

Earth art is the principle form of public art. From its landscaped gardens, the city is an artificial constructed landscape, complete with kitsch floral clocks. The metal and stone used in sculpture is also from the earth but that might be labouring the point. Street art also use earth and plants in guerrilla gardening.

Melbourne’s Floral Clock

Tweed’s Cook Memorial

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.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

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.


Most controversial public sculptures in Australia

Readers in Melbourne might think that this will be about the flat yellow steel planes of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka the Yellow Peril) but it is not. Although the controversy lasted a year, mostly letters to the paper and angry city council meetings. A few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on Vault read my post: And it was all yellow.

Other readers might think that the controversy was the statue wars of 2017 when statues of Captain Cook and Governor Macquarie were vandalised with paint. “No pride in Genocide.” Again a few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on this read my post: Statue Wars 2017.

There are two sculptures that were so controversial that the sculptures were actually decapitated.

Robert Hitchcock Yagan 1984 (photo by Nachoman)

The Yagan statue by Robert Hitchcock is located on Heirisson Island in the Swan River in Perth. It was decapitated and the head stolen in 1997 by an anonymous vandal who identified themselves as a ‘British patriot’.

The decapitation occurred the same week that Yagan’s actual head was returned. Yagan was murdered in 1833, shot a point-blank range by an eighteen year old Englishman William Keates was speared to death in revenge. Yagan’s head was taken as a trophy to England; if this had been done today it would be a war crime. After passing through multiple British hands Yagan’s head was eventually buried in an unmarked grave along with the body of another Indigenous Australian, some dried viscera and a Peruvian mummy in a corner of Everton Cemetery in Liverpool.

The statue was restored with a new head only to be decapitated again in 2002 leading to a second restoration and another slightly different head. The pattern of racist attacks only stopped when the area was fenced off. There were no witnesses to either of these crimes although WA Police Headquarters has views across the Swan River to the statues site.

Greg Taylor, Liz and Phil Down by the Lake, 1995 (image gregtaylor-sculpture.com)

However, even the Yagan statue is not the most controversial public sculpture in Australia which has to be Greg Taylor’s Liz and Phil Down by the  Lake 1995. Made of cement fondue coated with iron oxide to give them a rested appearance. It was part of a temporary exhibition for the National Sculpture festival organised by the Australian National University in Canberra.

Seated on a park bench by Lake Burley Griffin were two naked figures. The wrinkly old naked Liz and Phil looked, the very opposite of regal, frail and human; only the crown on Liz’s head reminded the viewer who was being depicted. The fact that Lese-majeste is not in Australian law but that didn’t stop Returned Service League chief Bruce Ruxton calling for Taylor’s execution.

Then the head of Liz was stolen on the night of 13 April. The police log stated boldly: ”The Queen has lost her head and doesn’t know where to find it.” After the beheading a former Sydney policeman decided to dress the sculpture in bedsheets printed with the Australian flag. The following night the Duke’s head was removed along with further vandalism that severed legs from both figures and caved in Phil’s chest. The entire sculpture was was removed on 16 April, two days later.

Taylor told the Canberra Times: “It’s a pretty sad day for freedom of speech and freedom of expression when you can’t even put a piece of art up without its opponents being able to control themselves.”

In a secondary controversy the Australian Federal Police on May 14 issued a denial that the Queens head had been found in home of a right wing militia member who had infiltrated the computer and communications sections of the Defence Department and possessed an arsenal of weapons.


Unveiling the Molly Meldrum Statue

At the unveiling of a new public sculpture, after customary the welcome to country; the politicians and philanthropists make speeches to thank everyone involved, often forgetting the sculptor. But Molly Meldrum did not forget to thank the sculpture Louis Laumen.

Meldrum had a signed cowboy hat, as well as, words of thanks for Laumen. He spoke about Laumen’s other sculptures at the MCG, gushing how much he loved all of them. (He didn’t mention Laumen’s most recent statue of Nicky Winmar or the argument over its location.)

Meldrum was the last to speak, after Uncle Colin Hunter, Mayor of City of Yarra Daniel Nguyen, Minister for the Arts Martin Foley, Eddie McGuire and founder of Mushroom Records Michael Gudinski. And, as usual, in spite of his slurred speech, it was difficult to get Meldrum to shut up. He did say that he resisted the proposal to honour him with a bronze statue and tried to derail the plan by insisting that his dog, Ziggy, was included.

It was a cold grey Tuesday in Richmond and a crowd of about three hundred people had turned out. They were patiently waiting through the speeches to see the new bronze sculpture unveiled.

It turned out to be a very colourful statue as it turned out with plenty of gold, white, black and brown patination. Now that it is well known fact that classical sculpture was painted people are not shy about polychromatic patination. It is on a very low plinth, a little more than a step, because it wouldn’t do to put Meldrum on a pedestal.

It is located in a micro park opposite to the stairs going up the beer garden at the Corner Hotel, a somewhat fitting location given that it is a notable band venue. Along with the statue, there is a new mural by 23rd key on the train embankment wall. A green and white image of a concert crowd bookended with painted copies of band posters.


Nicky Winmar Statue – Significance and Beauty

Hanging above my desk is HaHa’s stencil portrait of Nicky Winmar and I have long wanted to see a public bronze statue of Winmar ever since that football match at Victoria Park in 1993. I’ve never been interested in Australian football nor do I think that more bronze statues are a great addition to a cityscape. I wanted one because Winmar’s gesture in reply to racist taunts is both significant and beautiful.

HaHa, Nicky Winmar, 2009

HaHa, Nicky Winmar, 2009

Australia is still in love with monuments and memorials. There is no shortage of recent official monuments and memorials in Melbourne from traditional bronze figures to abstract monuments, like the Great Petition. These permanent monuments express the desire to establish a national mythology but given the lack of statues of both women and Indigenous people it is not representative.

Public sculpture is an obvious indication of the political and social values and structures of a place. Public sculptures make obvious public statements, from the choice of subjects to the style of the finished work it is all deliberate. This is why Australia needs a statue of a proud Noongar man standing victorious in defiance racist taunts.

If someone had asked me which sculptor I would like to sculpt Winmar I would have picked Melbourne-based sculptor, Louis Laumen because of his experience in sculpting sporting heroes around the MCG. Not that anyone asked me (nor I am surprised that they didn’t, I have no power or influence) but the commission did go to Laumen. I don’t like Laumen’s style but I know that it will be appreciated by the crowds of football supporters. My one criticism is why Laumen keeps on making statues with their mouths half open; Wayne Ludbey’s photo shows that Winmar was tight lipped as he points to his chest.

The only problem now facing the statue of Winmar is that it hasn’t been decided where to install it: Melbourne or Perth. Perth because Perth’s Optus Stadium on Noongar land. It is a strange problem for a sculpture and the Indigenous Past Players Association is right to question the process because generally a location for the sculpture is agreed before it is commissioned. There is an obvious solution to this problem; bronze sculptures can be made in multiple additions. So lets put our hands in our collective pockets and pay Louis Laumen and Fundêre Foundry in Sunshine for another edition of this important sculpture.


La Trobe Uni Sculpture Park

I studied at La Trobe University in the 1980s; recently I went back to its Bundoora campus to see some of its sculpture collection. The university describes itself as a “sculpture park” and features sculptures from every decade from the 1960s, when it was established, to the present. I am not going to look at all of the sculptures but have chosen to look at four.

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Charles Robb’s Landmark, 2004 was the main reason for my visit. In front of the West Lecture Theatres, Landmark is a traditional memorial statue of La Trobe that has been turned on its head with the plinth looming above the upside down figure. Made of fibreglass, polyester resin, steel, polystyrene, polyurethane, sand, automotive lacquers and acrylic paint to look like bronze and stone.

Robb’s anti-monumental sculpture was donated to the University through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the Artist 2006. Landmark was originally installed as temporary sculpture in the City of Melbourne in 2005 when it was award a judge’s commendation the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award.

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Outside of the LIMS building (La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science) is Reko Rennie, Murri Totems, 2012. The work was commissioned by La Trobe Uni in 2012. Rennie is an interdisciplinary artist who mixes his Kamilaroi heritage with graffiti style. The four aluminium pillars are a mix of contemporary art and traditional Murri designs. Each pole represents one of the five platonic solids – icosahedron, octahedron, star tetrahedron, hexahedron and dodecahedron on to which Murri designs have been painted.

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Bart Sanciolo’s Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1980-1983, is near the Thomas Cherry Building. You can’t miss it. This ten metre tall pointy pyramid of bronze was presented to the university in 1987 as a 150th Gift of the Italian Community to the People of Australia. This was the one sculpture that I remember from my years at La Trobe; I remember it because didn’t like it then and I still don’t.

Sanciolo was born in Messina, Sicily in 1955 and arrived in Australia in 1968. I also disliked his sculpture groups that were in the western and eastern internal moats of 101 Collins Street, Melbourne CBD. They looked an ugly pile of figures and have fortunately been removed by the owner. Sanciolo’s sculptures are big but I don’t know if that is a good quality.

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The bronze figure of a woman on the Peribolos Lawn is Herman Hohaus’s Sofia, 1970. Although Sofia is the goddess of wisdom, this Sofia seems more concerned with her hair. The sculpture was purchased with funds donated by Dr Roy Simpson through Friends of La Trobe University 1986 but it seems more suited to a private garden than a university. Herman Hohaus was born in Germany in 1920 and moved to Australia 1954 where he lived until his death in 1990. The NGV has one of Hohaus’s sculpture in its collection (but not on display) another crouching female form in bronze.

There are sculptures on the campus by Inge King, Jock Clutterbuck, Robert Kipple and other notable sculptors; more on La Trobe University as sculpture park.


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