I couldn’t miss the Terrance Plowright sculpture, More than a kick, in Federation Square. Larger than life, high-kicking the bronze statue is sculptural version of Michael Willson’s photograph of Carlton AFLW player Tayla Harris.
The sculptor, Plowright is from NSW and has made a large number of figurative public sculptures for places in that state but this is his first for Melbourne.
Federation Square will not be the permanent location for the statute — it will be there for a few weeks before being permanently installed (plonked, that’s a technical term for putting a sculpture somewhere that it wasn’t specifically made for) probably out the front of some football ground. Someone who knows more about football (most of Melbourne) will have more of an idea of which football ground.
There are several reasons why it is unlikely to be the MCG. Plowright is not one of the sculptors who are regularly commissioned to sculpt the larger than life statues of sporting heroes at the MCG, Louis Laumen and Julie Squires. His style is realistic, rougher than the highly polished figures around the MCG. Nor is the sculpture’s sponsor (NAB) the usual sponsor (Telstra) for the sports statues at the MCG.
A lot of people love statues of sports heroes but I don’t; it is too archaic a reason for a sculpture. Their active poses ultimately goes no-where, remaining static, on a pedestal, in memoriam.
As a temporary location for statues Federation Square sometimes works and sometime fails. It works because it is central location and a lot of people visit and it often doesn’t work because there is so much else going on there. In another part of the square, some edition of the Fearless Girl stands in front of the entrance to a bar.
Dan Wollmering is a Melbourne-based contemporary sculptor. He has works in sculptures parks in the China and the USA, a large metal sculpture Xanthe (also known as “The Future Vitality of Caulfield”) at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads, and closer to my home, a sculpture on the grounds of the Fawkner Leisure Centre. I took the train out to Gowrie just to see it.
Gowrie is a northern station on the Upfield line. It is past the Fawkner Cemetery where the train line goes through the park cemetery. I have only been to this part of Melbourne’s northern suburbs a couple of times before, so the area was all new to me.
Walking to the Fawkner Leisure Centre I asked directions from a sleep deprived young dad pushing his baby daughter around. She had been a “grisly little baby last night”. He was walking that way and happy to help in my search for the sculpture. We walked through the park at the front of the leisure centre where a lot of the outdoor exercise and the playground equipment looked like abstract sculptures, although nothing like Wollmering’s work.
I tried to describe Wollmering’s work to the dad; who said he thought that there was something curved and metal around the side.
Dwelling was commissioned by Moreland City Council with some funds from Monash University) sited in front of the child care entrance at the Leisure Centre in Fawkner Victoria. It is a circle of metal partially surrounded by a curved metal seat with a high back. Public art providing a place to sit is always welcomed by tired feet.
At one end of this bench is a local stone excavated from a council construction site with the word “Willam” (dwelling in the local Wurundjeri language group) carved on it. At the other is form like a half avocado with the seed still in; I had seen this form in Wollmering’s last exhibition (see my blog post.)
Around the back of the bench are more panels with text. It is amongst the most wordy sculptures in Melbourne. The text was written by Moria Bourke, the author of Loosing It (1998, Text Publishing), with lots of local collaboration; the local Indigenous elder was consulted and much of the text was taken verbatim from the questionnaire about how people felt about dwelling in Fawkner, their incorrect grammar included.
The young dad put the breaks on the baby carriage. We could have sat down but it was a freezing winter day. We didn’t read all the text but we did clear the circle of metal of leaves, sweeping them away with our feet, so that we could look at the full work.
Mission accomplished; the dad and his baby continued on their way and I headed back to Gowrie station to catch the train home.
Once upon a time, on this very spot there was a … but it is gone now and all that is left is a bronze plaque. Plaques are trying to rivet a superficial history into place, to stop a treasury of trivia from drifting away as busts of men loiter in bas-relief on the building.
As place making, or even, public information curation plaques are at the lower end. I became interested in them because of my interest in public sculpture. And I have found a few interesting items.
Tell anyone who thinks that plaques are a permanent memorial that they are dreaming. Changes inevitably happen. Remarkably there is a collection of commemorative plaques at Royal Melbourne Hospital, no longer in their original locations due to the almost constant rebuilding of the hospital, these plaques have been brought together in the interest of history.
When I see a plaque with more than just words I try to work out who made it as the creators of these plaques includes some notable local sculptors. There is John Dias by William Leslie Bowles at Trades Hall or Ray Ewers’s Cookie memorial on the banks of the Yarra. On the Melbourne Symphony’s building on Southbank is Julie Edgar’s bronze bas-relief portrait of Hiroyuki Iwaki Chief Conductor and Conductor Laureate. Michael Meszaros has created several plaques with portrait at Melbourne University and the work of the sculptor Stanley Hammond can be seen on three bas-relief busts at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Even though some of the work is signed but even then I have not been able to find out anything about them. Who is the M Mason who did the bas-relief street-scapes on the Scotch College plaques?
The multiple Scotch College plaques in Melbourne and East Melbourne raises the issue of paying for these metal didactic panels. No wonder why the elite private school Scotch College has so many.
On the other side of Australia’s unequal society the Indigenous history of Gertrude Street in Fitzroy is also well documented with a series of plaques.
Although many historical and commemorative plaques are dull; memorials and historical markers are not the only thing that can be done with a plaque. The Wheeler Centre has placed a “discussion marker” in Melbourne. And there are unofficial memorials like Will Coles’s Chopper Read plaques to this notorious stand-over man and artist.
So although most plaques are dull I think I will keep looking at them. I will let you know if I find any more worth commenting on.
A young woman reaches for two children. Their large hands emphasis the desire to touch. The ground is strewn with bronze garlands engraved with poetic words that further invoke the separated families. Taken Not Given is a kind of memorial, a reminder of a Parliamentary apology, and a public recognition of the hurt caused by forced adoptions.
The sculpture is by Melbourne-based artist Anne Ross. For the last 26 years Ross has been doing public art commissions around Victoria, NSW, ACT and Hong Kong. Her figurative sculptures are generally playful fun however, for Taken Not Given, she had to reach another tone — one of an absence — of longing.
It was commissioned by the Victorian Parliament after its apology for forced adoption practices following the 2012 Commonwealth Senate Inquiry into forced adoption policies and practices. And was unveiled on 26 October 2018 on a small quiet triangle of garden on the corner of Lansdowne St. and St Andrews Pl. beside the government buildings and opposite Fitzroy Gardens. It can be seen as you come along the street but is obscured from the corner by a large patch of plants. There was no desire line of trampled grass indicating where people had walked over the lawn to the sculpture or read the accompanying explanative panel.
Aside from looking at the aesthetic qualities and style of the sculpture and the landscape gardening when I see a new piece of public sculpture I ask: how is it being used? And, what is it intended to do?
Is this an apology cast in bronze? A solid reminder to the Victorian government not to take children from their parents again.
Or is it art-wash? Buying an indulgence from art to pay-off past sins. Is the sculpture used as a proof of their virtue for apologising and a distraction from the victims?
I’m not sure; but I’m sure that the questions are worth considering. Your answers are welcome in the comments.
On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.
I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.
This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.
Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?
Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).
At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.
A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria. The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.
On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.
I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.
That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.
Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.
The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).
Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.
It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).
The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.
Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.
It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.
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.
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.