In a small garden beside a road to the Frankston foreshore, near a beachside restaurant, there is a giant Kangaroo Apple fruit. Not another giant roadside tourist attraction, like the Big Pineapple, but a sculpture by prominent local Indigenous artists Vicki Couzens (Gunditjmara) and Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Boon Wurrung). Unlike the big things, the Kangaroo Apple is not painted to appear real, although there are two green patinas on the surface of the bronze, a dark green for the fruit and a lighter green for the stem.
Couzens and Clarke have often collaborated on public art, from Frankston in Melbourne’s east to Footscray in its western suburbs (sometimes with other Indigenous women). There is Kangaroo Apple in Frankston from 2009, Frog Dreaming in Point Cook from 2009, Spirit of the Land in Oakleigh from 2010, and Wominjeka tarnuk yooroom (Welcome bowl) in Footscray from 2013. (For more about Wominjeka tarnuk yooroom see my post about Public Sculpture in Footscray. And my review of the Maree Clarke exhibition at the NGV, the first solo show by a living Victorian Aboriginal artist at the NGV.)
The sculpture is of the bulbous fruit of the Kangaroo Apple (Solanum laciniatum) a native shrub with purple-blue flowers, represented by the star-shaped floret on the side. It is a symbol of the arrival of ‘eel season,’ a harvest festival where women would wear the Kangaroo Apple flowers.
Kangaroo Apple was part of the Frankston foreshore renewal public art project. It is an example of relevant public art city councils should be investing in. It is not a major landmark sculpture for the area (nor in the career of the two artists). It is a way marker showing and reminding us where we are and where we have come from. A sculpture connected with the location, with connections to Country that give added meaning to a place.
Not that I approve of throwing trash into rivers, but I sympathise with the guys who threw a Gillie and Marc bronze statue of baby Sumatran orangutang into the Yarra last month. For post is about rejecting substitutes filling in for culture rather than sending sculptures to a watery grave.
It is possible to produce something made from acorns that almost tastes like coffee. Like ersatz coffee, ersatz art provides aesthetics without any stimulating quality. The borrowed German word for a substitute implies a diminished experience rather than an alternative.
Ersatz culture is presented as a substitute for something of superior quality. It is fake, a pretend, simulated or imitation culture that can be used to fill a space that would contain culture. It might appear to be the same as the real thing on a quick pass, but there is no depth. It does not comment on current issues or events. It does not risk failure. It uses sentimentality, nationalism and other affiliations to distract the audience from thinking about what is in front of them.
It occurs when an artist’s or organisation’s ambitions fail to rise above being popular with the public or the ruling elite. When the expedient, cost-effective and safest options are taken. If sincerity is the credit rating of an artist, the insincerity of ersatz culture bankrupts the future. Sure it fills the space and tastes like it, but it does not make for a meaningful life.
I’m not alone in describing statues as ersatz. When the U.S. Postal Service mistakenly featured a half-sized Las Vegas replica of the Statue of Liberty on a new stamp, a “stamp collector noticed the error when he spotted differences in the ersatz statue’s eyes and hair.” (Slate, April 15, 2011) And Melbourne, like Las Vegas and most big cities, is full of substitute culture, from statues by Gillie and Marc (or David Bromley) to reality tv shows.
The problem is culture substitutes fill in the space that culture occupies without providing a sense of identity or recognition of your existence (aside from selling you the t-shirt and other merchandise). Cultural impoverishment results in a lack of meaning in many people’s lives; an empty psychic space filled with addictions, despair and rage.
If hotel room art and other such vacuous stuff is the only part of your cultural diet, then there are problems. Sugar is not a substitute for fruit. It is why I prefer to look at, and even review, exhibitions by amateur artists rather than work by competent artists/designers like Ken Done, David Bromley, or Gillie and Marc. There is something essentially different between art desperately trying to achieve something, even if it fails, then commercially successful stuff.
Bad art is only a failure, but ersatz art occupies the space that would otherwise be filled with art. Bad art rots and rapidly breaks down, an actor dies on stage, and from that compost heap, new art grows. Ersatz art does not decompose as rapidly; nothing grows from it, as it fails to inspire. It neuters the generative power of art and will generate nothing but superficial sentimentality communicated in easy-to-read images. It has no impact on future arts and culture.
Gillie and Marc’s sculptures have no value other than a selfie feedback loop of ever-diminishing relevance. They tempt city councils and other controllers of property with the offer of free sculpture exhibitions that do nothing but raise the profile of Gillie and Marc. (Read an earlier post about a street artist’s reply to Gillie and Marc’s “Paparazzi Dogs”.)
I remember climbing on the pile of white bubbles with my siblings when we first visited the NGV. Health and safety have changed significantly since then. “Don’t climb” reduces the meaning of Peter Corlett’s Tarax play sculpture 1969. Corlett’s inspiration was from a formal teaching exercise about sculpture, starting with a composition with different-sized balls of clay.
It is no longer at the NGV but part of a collection of about a hundred sculptures by notable local and international artists at McClelland Sculpture Park. The park is a not-for-profit organisation located on sixteen-hectare property in Langwarrin on the city’s eastern edge. Like Melbourne University’s Parkville campus McClelland is a place where sculptures go to retire from public life. And along with the Bubble Sculpture, Ken Reinhard’s Marland House Sculpture 1970-72, Lenton Parr’s Customs House screen 1966 and Zikaras’ Untitled (GPO) 1964 all had previous lives as public art. Since 2012, the Southern Way McClelland Commissions have been installed along freeways. One moves from the freeway site every two years to McClelland’s sculpture park. However, I didn’t see Gregor Kregars Reflective Lullaby (aka Frankie the chrome gnome) because it was on loan to Frankston Council.
The collection attempts to tell the history of Melbourne’s post-war sculpture from the modern to the contemporary. Zikaras’ Untitled (Eta) 1961-62 is the earliest sculpture in the park. Phil Price’s spectacular, kinetic sculpture Tree of Life 2012 is the most recent.
Many of the sculptors were post-war modernists with optimistic dreams. The Centre Five group of Vincas Jomantas, Julius Kane, Inge King, Clifford Last, Lenton Parr, Norma Redpath, and Teisutis Ziakaras are all represented; an early Inge King recognisable from the bubbling molten and arty edges on the black steel.
There are notes of dissent and critical views. Ken Scarlett’s Monument to a segregationist is amazingly prescient in its critique of monumental colonial sculpture. He could see this in 1966; we are playing catch-up to his critical vision of the history of sculpture. Along with the more recent work by Colin Suggett, National Anxiety Index 2010 with a dragon ripping the rating arrow out of its scale.
Although the gallery had a retrospective of Fiona Foley, no Indigenous artists are in the permanent collection. Still, hopefully, the new board member, Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher (Wiradjuri), Director of Research Capability at the Indigenous Knowledge Institute and the Associate Dean (Indigenous) in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne, will work to rectify this.
There have been new acquisitions, including two audio works that caught my ears: Terrance Plowright’s Tubular resonance 2012 and David Chesworth’s In The Dark Wood At The Bottom Of The Garden 1996.
Adding natural synergies to Peter Blizzard’s jazzy constructions of stone and steel. The bush setting worked for some of the works. However, nature is irrepressible; birds nest in Louis Paramor’s sculptures, and spiders spin webs in David Wilson’s.
It is not an easy walk around the grounds, especially in wet weather where the paths can be slippery or the low parts of lawns sodden. Dirt paths lead to some sculptures; some can only be seen from a distance on islands in ponds. A small boy in gum boots enjoys the puddles, and a visiting dog looked like it was having its best day seeing Dean Colls’ Rex Australis.
I enjoyed seeing works by familiar sculptures by local artists. Even more was the encounter with the unfamiliar sculptures Gary Diermenjian, a surreal sight, evoking urban infrastructure and the remains of a failed civilisation.
The elegant minimalist breeze block gallery, gift shop and cafe building, designed by architects Munro and Sargents in 1971, is another modernist statement reminiscent of Heide I by David McGlashan in 1963.
Considering two sculptures at the Adelaide Station Environs and two in Rundle Mall. The former are two prominent local late-modernist sculptors; large sculptures focused on formal qualities. The latter are contemporary sculptures focused on facilitating interactions.
Robert Kipple’s Bronze Sculpture Number 714 1968 has a reflexive quality like all of Kipple’s mature sculptures; its subject refers to its own creation. An assemblage of wooden parts used for casting steel machine parts cast as bronze sculptures. The machine aesthetic of Dada and Surrealism played out a casual conglomeration.
There is a balance of tones, curves and straight lines in Akio Makigawa’s Elements and Being 1989. It is one of his largest sculptural groups with five separate elements: a column with a pillow on top, a square pavilion with a round roof, a curved form and two obelisks topped with a flame and a cloud. Lyrical, but its black and white stone appears cold and unapproachable.
Makigawa’s time in Australia reminds me of the end of the White Australia Policy (before that, Australia was an apartheid state like South Africa and now Israel). Makigawa was only allowed to move to Australia because the policy was officially over. For more on Makigawa, see my earlier post.
People passing by barely glance at these sculptures. The Makigawa looks like it is part of the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel. Both the Kipple and Makigawa sculptures project the statement that this is art, so do not touch.
Compare this to sculptures of the animals in the Rundle Mall: the four pigs and the pigeon. A bronze pig is going for bronze rubbish atop an actual rubbish bin. It is not high art, it doesn’t mean much, but it does a lot of work in the mall. A Day Out 1999 is the work of Sydney-based sculptor Marguerite Derricourt.
These are much-loved pigs; their noses and bodies polished by the hands of many people. Sat on by children and a few adults. The pigs were named by members of the public in 1999. Horatio, Truffles, Oliver, Augusta; plaques record the pigs’ names and the names of the namers.
A boy runs up and taps the chest of the stainless steel and brass Pigeon before running back to rejoin his family; his younger sister follows suit. This is not some feral pigeon; the ring on its leg indicates it is a racing pigeon or a pet. The angular metal pigeon, geometric rather than realist, is a recent addition from 2020. It is the first public sculpture of Paul Sloan, not the American actor, director and screenwriter, but the Adelaide-based artist.
These are more than selfie-props; they serve as waymarkers, physical elements of the mall outside the commercial. Unlike Kipple and Makigawa, neither Derricourt nor Sloan are well known. The aesthetic difference between these four sculptures is reflected in a debate in the Adelaide City Council about replacing words in their public sculpture commissions from “cheeky” and “subversive” to “beautiful”. If they want “beautiful” they should quadruple their budget because it is that much rarer.
In the light of the removal of the statue of James Cook in Cooktown earlier this year and the Hobart City Council’s decision to remove the statue of the racist head-hunter and state premier William Crowther earlier this month, I look at the absence of two others. And find out what happens when statues of the city’s founders are removed.
At 433 Collins Street, on a block bounded by Collins, William and Market Streets, and Flinders Lane, amidst Melbourne’s cathedrals of commerce, the gothic revival banks, with their carved stone and stained glass windows, there once stood an icon of modernism. Built in 1964, the National Mutual Building had 20 floors of office space, a retail area and a rooftop restaurant.
In front of it, the modernist architecture continued with a wide forecourt, with steps, concrete paver, and planters. Symbolic of the capitalism of the area, the Melbourne pub-rock band, Painters and Dockers, played “Die Yuppie! Die!” in the plaza. Also in the plaza, symbolic of implicit greed, were two statues celebrating the colonial establishment of Melbourne. The two figures were distanced, for neither were friends: John Batman and William Fawkner.
Gary Foley was decades ahead of the Black Lives Matter when he put the statue of Batman on trial in 1991. Foley and fellow activist Robbie Thorpe put the figure of Batman on trial for his genocide against the Indigenous population of Tasmania, rape, theft and trespass. Of course, Batman was found guilty, anyone who looks at the evidence would know that, but there was a desperate Australian nationalism that wanted to ignore it.
Its end came in 2012 when a slab smashed onto the forecourt. The ‘experimental’ architecture attaching the skin to the building was failing. The building sat empty, waiting for demolition. The statue of Batman by Stanley Hammond was removed without any bullshit by the site’s developers. The two statues are currently in storage, there are no plans for them, and it is unlikely they will ever return to public view. And for those concerned, Melbourne still has more than enough Batman memorials.
What has been put in place of Batman and Fawkner is more engaging. The seventies were severe, hard-edge geometric. You could sit around the raised garden beds and statues, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. Around the new building, there is a native, drought-resistant garden flowing down the hill. Instead of a bronze figure, there is a bronze fountain in the shape of a Banksia seed pod. A water feature that uses very little water. It wanders playfully between rocks and can be opened and closed with a sluice gate. Nearby a water wall flows down the side of the building.
There has been no evidence of any loss of knowledge of history nor any sanitisation of history. Nor was there any other disaster predictions made about removing statues in recent years because they were uninformed brainfarts from conservative commentators. Instead, it appears that people are enjoying the absence of Batman.
With one finger, the statue of Michael Gudinski outside the Rod Laver Arena points to the sky. A strange gesture – reminiscent of da Vinci’s John the Baptist. However, unlike da Vinci’s Baptist, Gudinski is not recommending the heavens but looking at the stars; he has promoted many music stars.
The Mushroom Group (aka Mushroom Records) founder Gudinski emphasises the ‘Entertainment’ part of the precinct. The mushrooms on the base signify the Mushroom Group that Gudinski founded. Over the years, many of the bands that he represented played in the arena.
The distinction between “Arts” and “Entertainment” is part of the collective consciousness, divided by the Yarra River and built into the city’s fabric. Like the arts precinct on the Southbank, Both have extensive parklands, trains, and trams. Melbourne’s entertainment district is the sports stadiums, which are regularly used for large stadium concerts, on the north bank of the Yarra River.
When I looked, some real dry stems were amidst the bronze mushrooms. The remains of some flowers. Gudinski is still being mourned a little over a year after his death on 2 March 2021. But what will it mean in a couple of decades? Who will recognise him then? Curiously, Gudinski’s name is in stone and, on a bronze plaque on the back of the plinth that gives more details about his life and words “Forever #1”. As if there was already some uncertainty of him being recognised.
Why does Melbourne need another statue? Celebrating music in bronze appears pointless. The three-dimensional representations of an abstract experience of organised sound seem to contradict Hegelian aesthetics. Rock now shares the money and influence with high-end culture for some odd memorials. That more of Melbourne’s music heroes are celebrated in bronze statues should be no surprise. In my review of the Mushroom Records exhibition at RMIT Gallery in 2014, I wrote, “rock music always wanted to be part of the establishment.”
It must have been a tight schedule for the Meridian Sculpture Foundry in Fitzroy team to complete the statue, remembering that making a bronze statue is a team effort. The figure was made by Darien Pullen, Meridian’s senior mould maker and wax technician. The casting and coloured patination on the surface of the bronze statue is the work of others. Peter Morley, the founder of Meridian, has created different patinas to make Gudinski’s overcoat darker than his body. This is achieved by gently blow-torching a cocktail of chemicals sprayed onto the sculpture’s surface.
“Margaret Francis Ellen Baskerville (1861-1930) was an artist, educator and Victoria’s first professional female sculptor. During her 50-year career she produced several notable works including the Alexandra War Memorial, Maryborough War Memorial, the Edith Cavell Memorial, the James Cuming, Footscray and the Ernest Wood Memorial Plaque, St Paul’s Cathedral. Margaret’s studio from where she created her sculptures was located in close vicinity to this lane.”
I was surprised to see the panel because, apart from a sculpture nerd like myself, would have even heard of Margaret Baskerville? Who else would care about an obscure turn of last century sculptor? The plaque is the work of the Victorian Women’s Trust, UEM Sunrise, a member of UEM Group, and Probuild. It is part of the art washing around the Aura tower construction site in the middle of the city.
It was on a wall in a lane so new that Google maps has not yet included it. It is on the north side of La Trobe Street, near the intersection of Swanston Street. The lane is part of a pedestrian detour over four times longer than the blocked footpath that has lasted many months. And this morsel of art history is to somehow ameliorate this inconvenience.
I am interested in Baskerville only because of her public sculpture. I didn’t know about the studio that plaque refers to or even how many studios Margaret Baskerville had in Melbourne over her career? When I last looked into it, I found that she had her studio in Collins Street. She married the painter and sculptor C.D. Richardson in 1914, and Richardson also had his studios conveniently located in Collins Street. Baskerville’s studio then was behind Assembly Hall in Collins Street; obviously, she had another studio near La Trobe Street at another time.
Maybe it was when she received her first public commission for the Thomas Bent statue. Tommy Bent was the kind of crooked politician and state premier that Australia is famous for, who corruptly enriched himself through public office. The kind who needs a larger-than-life statue to be impressive enough compared to their shortcomings. Originally, it stood at the Nepean Highway and Bay Street intersection in Brighton; it was moved to Bay Street in the 1970s.
Aside from being the first public commission given to a female sculptor in Victoria, the Bent statue is the first bronze sculpture in Australia to be welded together with an oxy-acetylene jet from cast pieces (before that, statues were riveted together). In the case of the Bent statue, there were over sixty pieces. Not that Baskerville did the welding or the casting (or the stone caving in later projects), her role in the project was to sculpt the clay model.
Baskerville found that Victoria’s first professional female sculptor was not always a disadvantage. She received the commission for the Maryborough War Memorial because the committee raising the money were all women and favoured giving the commission to a woman. And by the time she received her final commission for the Nurse Edith Cavell Memorial, she was not the only professional female sculptor in the state. By then, Ola Cohn was also at work.