Category Archives: Public Sculpture

Attempted Banana Split

Another fortnight and another attempt to decapitate another sculpture in Melbourne. Last time it was Gandhi, this time, a 2 metre tall, half-peeled banana with a skull carved into its flesh. Like the Gandhi statues Adam Stone’s Fallen Fruit, 2021 had only recently been installed. The last time I blamed right-wing Australians this time, I don’t know what to think. What is it about Melbourne that is causing people to attack sculptures?

Adam Stone, Fallen Fruit

Various Melbourne commercial TV and radio tried to create some controversy over the sculpture’s price. Consequently, a likely suspect is your typical conservative “concerned citizen” seeking revenge for what they consider is misspent public funds. There are a lot of crazies who used to stay in their suburbs in the city street post-lockdown, and this fruit has fallen amid rotting vegetables.

Most of the media have loved the image, and it has made news as far away as Nigeria. The vandalism has been given a temporary patch filling in the cuts. The saw marks go all the way around in what was clearly an energetic but inefficient attempt to chop the skull off at the jawline.

I remember seeing Stone’s Fallen Fruit at a smaller scale and cast in bronze in an exhibition at  Fort Delta in 2016. I remember because it is a memorable  image, and Stone had a few other faces appearing out of the flesh of peeled bananas. (See my post.)

It is a striking image intended to slow down car drivers entering the partial pedestrianisation of Rose Street. Funding for the sculpture came from the TAC (Transport Accident Commission). It is definitely cheaper than the cost of emergency services at a single fatal collision. The funding also paid for a road’s resurfacing, a road mural by Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung artist Otis Hope Carey, along with new public seating, planters growing native species, more bicycle hoops and a bike pumping station.

Scaled up in fibreglass, steel and automotive paint on a concrete base, Fallen Fruit is on the corner of Brunswick and Rose streets in Fitzroy. The intersection is busy with pedestrians enjoying coffee and the other attractions of Brunswick Street. It fits in with the area; there is graffiti by Phibs and the rest of the Everfresh crew on the wall behind it and a paste-up of Grant Alexander McCracken (1961–2020) poet and a human installation used to stand at that corner spruiking the Rose Street Artist Market.

Tim Van, Eyes Wide Shut

Bananas have a remarkable presence in contemporary art. Maybe because they aren’t apples, lemons, pineapples and grapes, fruits with traditional meanings, or simply because of the phallic humour from their shape. The following gallery, Brunswick Street Gallery, I visited had a painting by Tim Van with a boxing gloved hand holding a banana. It was bananas in art for the rest of the day, from Andy Warhol’s album design for the Velvet Underground to Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian.


Vigil – the Heart of Cabrini

There is now a monumental sculpture, Vigil – The Heart of Cabrini by Simon Perry, out the front of Cabrini Hospital in Malvern. A sculpture of this size is not all the work of the sculptor. It starts with the decision to have one, then a commissioning process to find the sculptor. Then the location and design must be finalised before the sculpture is fabricated, installed and officially unveiled. A project that can take years.

This sculpture started in late 2016 with a committee to organise commemorations for the centenary of the death of St Frances Cabrini. After the committee agreed on having a sculpture as part of the commemorations and sculpture sub-committee was formed to write an artist brief and then find a sculptor. I have some minor responsibility here because, in a brief email reply to a member of the sculpture sub-committee, I mentioned Simon Perry amongst a few other local sculptors. Full disclosure, for this little effort, I was treated to a coffee and given the inside story.

If Simon Perry’s name isn’t familiar in Melbourne, his Public Purse in the Bourke Street mall certainly is. As well as creating sculptures, Perry teaches at RMIT.

Wisely, the sculpture sub-committee talked to more people and more sculptors than just the three I mentioned. They met with eight sculptors at their studios and received six expressions of interest. By February 2017, the sculpture sub-committee had made a shortlist of three artists to commission to do a concept design. After receiving these concept designs in April, Perry was considered to be the “preferred artist”. However, he wasn’t formally commissioned until late in 2018 as approval had come from the Centenary committee, the hospital’s Major Projects Committee and the local Stonnington Council.

I didn’t think that Perry would be chosen because I thought they probably wanted a statue. It turns out that some of the committee did want a statue, but Perry’s proposal won them over. It examined the symbolism in the commission brief, found visual connections and gave them a physical form. The heartbeat pattern of a cardiogram provides it with an overall shape. A shape that could also refer to the habits of nuns who established the hospital. These dark curved shapes (stainless steel clad with bronze) are pierced with holes that light up at night, like stars. The peaks of the cardiogram have gold (polished bronze sheets) hearts on top that slowly rotate in a stiff breeze.

Perry’s concept design then had to be finalised. Then the sculpture was fabricated by Derek John of DJProjects with lighting by Luke Adams, one of Perry’s many former students. So that, after five years since the sculpture was conceived, it was finally installed and officially unveiled in November 2021.

The turning hearts on the tops of the sculpture’s 7.4m spires can be seen from Wattletree Road making it an aid to navigation. Located to one side of the main entrance and surrounded by a small garden with plenty of seating, Vigil is on hospital land but directly abutting and accessible from public land.

I’ve spent too much time for a healthy person visiting hospitals in recent years, so I’m aware of the need for an aesthetically appealing place to sit just outside a hospital. Or to look at from one of the windows to ease your troubled thoughts. So I hope that Perry’s Vigil does that for Cabrini Hospital.


Who vandalised the Gandhi statue?

A day after the Mahatma Gandhi statue at the Australian Indian Community Centre in the Melbourne suburb of Rowville was unveiled, someone attempted to behead it with a power tool sometime between 5:30pm on Friday, November 12 and 5:30pm on Saturday, November 13.  For a full report, read SBS or ABC News.

In my extensive research on public sculpture and art crimes, I have looked at almost every report of statues in Australia being stolen or vandalised. So I am aware of the patterns of actions and evidence pointing to motivations.

Each year many bronze sculptures are stolen by scrap metal thieves, but this was not the work of scrap metal thieves. They would have ripped off as much of the statue than the head because they want the weight of scrap metal. Nor was this done by drunken vandals who act impulsively and don’t come equipped with the right tools for the job.

The symbolic action of decapitation is rare and indicates a political or religious aspect to the vandalism. Political vandals are well aware of their own side’s efforts and less aware of the actions of other political views. This can be demonstrated by the right-wing’s confusion in England in 2020 over what statues would be targeted by BLM protesters, leading to right-wingers protecting statues of abolitionists. Political attacks on statues are rare in Australia, and decapitation has only occurred a few times and always by right-wing vandals. (See my blog post about the majority of those incidents.)

Symbolic vandalism of statues in Australia by people with a left-wing anti-colonial political agenda, such as those against Captain Cook, used paint or, in the case of Stephen Langford’s ‘damage’ to Governor Macquarie statue with paper and water-soluble craft glue. These symbolic vandalism is preceded by public campaigns for the statue’s removal; petitioning to remove statues to people who have committed genocide and massacred Indigenous people. When, in other countries, the left-wing has torn down statues, it has been done in public view by a crowd and media as the point is to remove a symbol.

Some people have suggested Khalistan supporters (over the Indian Farmers Protest andSikh separatism), as identical statues in Davis, California and one in Washington DC were also damaged. See reports by the Hindu America Foundation. There have been recent demonstrations supporting Khalistani in Melbourne. However, as no Khalistani flags were displayed at the Gandhi statue, as was done in Washington, and there has been no other propaganda from the vandals. So if it were done by Khalistan supporters, they were incompetent.

I rather suspect right-wing Australian vandals because of the symbolic decapitation, the ambiguity of the message and the choice of target. The vandals are likely to be the same right-wingers who engage a farcical version of their perception of the left, like the anti-vaxxers using the pro-abortion “my body my choice” slogan. Ambiguity and incoherence are current right-wing strategies because it disrupts the discourse and their masks objectives. So I conclude that the attempted beheading of Gandhi is most likely an Australian right-wing response to a symbol of anti-colonialism, peace and non-violence.

Khalistan demonstration in Melbourne Dec 2020


David Smith in Melbourne

The great American modern art critic Clement Greenberg grandly described David Smith simply as “the best sculptor anywhere”. Although David Smith never came to Australia, his influence on Melbourne’s sculpture can be seen in several public sculptures. There are works by Dan Wollmering, Anthony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett that are clearly influenced by Smith.

Smith had a massive influence on Australian sculpture, a tidal wave of American mid-century modern rolling across the Pacific Ocean. He helped change sculpture’s format from the vertical portrait to the horizontal landscape; Henry Moore’s abstracted figurative sculptures of mothers were already reclining in that direction. He also changed the basic structure of sculpture from a solid core to an extended form, which he created in space and steel. And the source of inspiration from an external model, illustrating the civic consciousness, to the sculptor’s unconscious, connected to the collective unconscious.

You can see Smith’s influence in Geoffrey Bartlett’s sculpture at RMIT (on the right). It almost quotes Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (on the left). It is part of an early series of sculptures and similar to his sculpture that used to be in the NGV’s moat. It is a framed landscape that contains a gravity-defying dynamism. A tension and stored energy in the collection of forms attached to rods that suggest pivot, pitch and spring. I always expect Bartlett’s early sculptures to do something.

Smith wrote clear and concise statements about sculpture. “I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole sculpture appears.” (David Smith “Notes on My Work” Arts, Feb 1960 Special David Smith Issue)

Dan Wollmering Xanthe

This could be the instructions for Dan Wollmering’s Xanthe 1988. It is sited in a garden outside the white neo-classical Glen Eira City Hall (in Caulfield at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads). An energetic 3.5-metre metal sculpture with its curving and angular forms frames the spaces between its metal form. One part responding to next part like a guitar solo.

It is entirely modernist, not only influenced by Smith but the blue edges and white planes colours reference to the Cubist works of Fernand Léger. Xanthe was a brave choice for Caulfield City Council, with the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault still hanging over local commissions of modern public sculpture.

Vault is another example of Smith’s influence. Even though it has the metal planes and colourful skin of Anthony Caro’s sculptures. For Smith’s influence din’t just roll west; it spread across the Atlantic too. He influenced British sculptors like Anthony Caro and generations of English (and Australian) artists through him.

Ron Robertson-Swann Vault

If there was an Abstract Expressionist version of the Village People (an ugly, alcoholic version of the disco ensemble), David Smith would be the construction worker (both shared the same moustache). (Jackson Pollock the cowboy, and you can fill out the rest.) For there is the macho energy of Smith’s background as a car and tank fabricator in his welded metal sculptures. And like disco, it is a style from the last century.

Will David Smith continue to be an influence on Melbourne sculpture?


Stolen Olympics Discus Thrower

A discus thrower sculpture has been stolen from the front yard of a suburban house in Bunbury Street, Footscray. There is now a sign in the yard asking for the return of the stolen sculpture.

The stolen discus thrower
(photo by Dougall Irving)

Having written about both suburban garden sculptures and stolen sculptures, I am very interested. I was even more curious when Dougall Irving’s email alerted me to this crime suggested that it was “one of the statues from outside Myers during the 1956 Olympic”. He included a photograph from the collection of Museums Victoria that looks like he is right.

Although clothed, the sculpture is based on classical Greek sculptures of discus throwers rather than actual discus throwers in action. And this neo-classical style would be right for a commercial sculpture made in Melbourne in the fifties.

During the Olympics, the Myers Store on Bourke Street was decorated with the Olympic Rings on this facade and on its awning the flags of all the participating countries along with seven statues of athletes, including a discus thrower. Myers Emporium (as it was called then) had every reason to publicise the Olympics as it was the official ticket seller.

The sculpture looks like fibreglass or some kind of plastic, which would explain its long life and durability. Given this material and this blog post reducing the chances of it being sold as Olympics memorabilia, there is some hope that the thief might regret the theft and return the sculpture. I hope so.

Thank you, Dougall Irving, for alerting me.


The Unofficial Sculpture Park

About a dozen contemporary, non-figurative site-specific assemblages, created from locally found material. Rusted metal springs blossom like a bouquet on top of another pile. A truck tire is supported by a log. A mobile of rusted metal hangs from the branch of a tree.

The unauthorised public sculpture park just off the Capital City Trail in Royal Park. The sculptures are large enough to see them from the train between Royal Park and Flemington Bridge on the Upfield Line. I’m not sure how many years, probably before the last two years of COVID lockdowns. A wide dirt path goes past the sculptures, people walking their dogs and enjoying the  spring sunshine.

Except for the path, the site is overgrown, strewn with building rubble, concrete, and granite ‘bluestone.’ Why is it here? Is it the location of the demolished building from who knows when? I look back 30 years in old Melways and can’t find anything marked. It is strange that this waste-ground is so close to the centre of Melbourne, DCM’s Melbourne Gateway “the cheese-stick” can be seen poking above the trees.

Two blue male superb fairy-wrens flit around. Something moves in the long grass. I wonder if I am in danger of stepping on a snake. I stamp my feet to send warning vibrations. Google maps notes that it is a “white skink habitat”; maybe all the rubble is their home.

It looks like it is all the work of one anonymous artist, someone with a background in contemporary art. Much effort has gone into these sculptures, both psychic and physical, as there is evidence of planning and heavy lifting. Notice that each of the three blocks piled into a column has been turned 45 degrees to the previous one. Carefully positioned blocks keep a rusted lid hanging on a concrete pillar.

Is this a revival of the 1960s Italian art movement Arte Povera? There is the use of unprocessed “unartistic” materials and rejecting the usual sculpture techniques, aestheticising and commercialisation. The anonymous creator of this sculpture garden is doing all of that. However, unlike Arte Povera, there is no social criticism evident in the work.

Perhaps if these sculptures were in a garden or even an official sculpture park, I would critique them differently. Question their heroic architectural intentions or zombie formalism. I have some sympathy towards unauthorised public sculpture.


The Nest in Darebin Parklands

“Look, a sculpture!” A cyclist says to her companions as they roll by following the curve of the cycle trail through Darebin Parklands.

David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett, The Nest, 2012

The Nest by David Michael Bell and Gary Tippett is obvious. A brown sphere positioned halfway up a hill, half surrounded by a pond. Large enough to be a minor landmark in the park. The round form fits with the undulating landscape.

Although it can be seen from the cycle trail, access to the sculpture is via a circuitous route. You can’t walk directly to it because there is a pond is packed with rushes and reeds, providing a home for waterfowl in front of it. You have to walk through natural a parkland of indigenous flora and fauna to reach sculpture.

The simple round form of The Nest, made from recycled wood, becomes more complex on closer inspection. The pieces of wood making the form creating patterns. Their brown painted hand chiselled surface. You can look at an easy to navigate 3D sketch of The Nest and even see inside it.

David Bell, Raising the Rattler Pole

Its sculptors have an unusual career path. Bell moved from being a theatre stage manager to a prop maker to public sculpture. “Five years ago, I did my first public artwork with Gary Tippett, a film industry colleague, in Wodonga’s main street. Since then, public art has been my full-time passion and interest.” What’s On Blog’s interview with Bell. Bell’s up-ended tram on the corner of Spencer and Flinders Street Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies. (Bell and Tippett are not alone in moving from theatre to public sculpture; there is also William Eicholtz.)

Bell and Tippett know how to make a dramatic statement dressing the urban stage. The main problem with their sculptures is that they are set dressing, meaningless decorations that get looks but say nothing. The best that can be said for them is that they fit in their location. They are passable but not great; the cyclists don’t stop for a second look as they pass by.


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