Category Archives: Public Sculpture

The Birdcage: suburban garden sculptures

Rarely does the sculptural elements of inner-city, suburban front gardens rise above the found object, the cast concrete, or an art student’s effort. I have been looking for examples for many years. After over a decade of looking, I have found a fantastic domestic garden sculpture. (I know nothing about the people who live at this house and I am trying not to intrude on their privacy while commenting on their front garden.)

Like their near relatives, the corporate sculptures in front of office blocks, domestic front garden sculptures are a kind of public sculpture. For while they are privately owned, they are on public display. And like all outdoor sculpture, they must survive the weather which limits the choice of media.

Most garden sculptures are either the corny or kitsch. The kitsch: represented by garden gnomes and other lawn ornaments, commercial sculptures cast in concrete or welded metal creations. And the corny represented by swans made from car tires,  ‘spoonvilles’ and recycled things turned into flower pots. There are also pseudo-sculptural elements of industrial readymade objects, railway sleepers are popular at the moment in Melbourne. Occasionally you will see the relics of what looks like a fine arts student’s sculpture, or that of a brave amateur, retired to the garden; however, these are rarely substantial enough to fill the space.

The importance of sculpture for suburbanites is dubious, for as it is not structural but aesthetic, it is not worthy of investment. Unlike the corporate version, privately owned sculpture on public display has no practical use for a sculpture in a suburban garden, place-making, way-finding, or even seating. Being only decorative is demanding a lot from a sculpture. 

Then there is the big metaphysical birdcage in a front garden of an ordinary house in the inner-city suburb. Like a Magritte painting come to life in a suburban garden, the giant birdcage is different from other domestic garden sculpture. It transforms anyone who sits inside the cage (which has a lockable door), into part of the art. The surreal, infinite regression of birdcages comments on the whole birdcage of suburban existence and existential angst.

It is a remarkable garden sculpture because it provides a private experience that wouldn’t work in a public garden. And, unlike other garden sculptures, the birdcage is almost too large for the small garden space.


Lisa Roet’s David Greybeard

The Jane Goodall Institute Australia asked local artist Lisa Roet to create David Greybeard for their sixtieth anniversary. David Greybeard is one of the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

I can’t think of a more appropriate artist; Roet has been making figurative sculptures about non-human, great apes for decades. Her art reminds us that we are great apes, along with chimpanzees, orangutang and gorillas.

I have only seen photos of the sculpture of David Greybeard in front of the Arts Centre Melbourne. When I was last in the city, high winds were predicted for later in the day, and the sculpture was deflated and tied down.

He is sitting with one hand, reaching down towards the pedestrians below. The architecture of the  recent edition to the Arts Centre lends itself to becoming a plinth. 

The sculpture raises several questions. Is an inflatable silver plastic a respectful media given its association with balloons, advertising, and bouncy castles? What would it look like with an inflatable form of a middle-aged human? How environmentally sound is the media; are we destroying a forest to remind ourselves about its inhabitants? I do know one thing about this inflatable; it has to be deflated and tied down in high winds.

How would David Greybeard feel about his inflated image? Maybe he would only care about its size and popularity.

deflated and tied down

I prefer other works by Roet in more traditional media — am I really such a media snob? Rather I like the detail that bronze and marble afford. At RMIT there are two great wrinkled hands cast in bronze, but not human hands. They are the hands of chimpanzees, our closest relative in the great apes. The two big hands are slightly raised from their bench level base (studded with skate-stoppers); one is vertical, the other horizontal.

The single finger, in marble at the Bendigo Art Gallery, is both familiar and alien. Like her sculpture at RMIT, these are not gestures, only hands or a finger. What is startling is that my relatives’ hands are not more familiar, like the back of my own hand. Roet’s sculptures remind the viewer how focused art is on the human figure as if we were the only species on earth.


Mimovich’s sculptures in Kew

Last year on Christmas morning, the ninety-nine-year old artist Leopoldine (Poldi) Mimovich died aged 99. This year Australia Post’s Christmas 2020 stamp features a painting by Mimovich. A madonna and child surrounded by Australian fauna and flora, illustrating Mimovich’s desire to adapt Christian images to Australia. Mimovich is best known for her Catholic liturgical sculptures which is why I hadn’t heard of her before I walked through Alexandra Gardens in Kew.

According to the bronze plaque in the garden, Mimovich gave the city ten sculptures in 1990. Her house and studio, at 33 Miller Road, was only a fourteen-minute walk away.

The sculptures are scattered around the garden: groups of children, a girl with a rabbit, a woman, a seated man with a long beard that flows over his foot. I could only find seven and one of them was concealed in the foliage so I wouldn’t be surprised if the other three were also hidden in the undergrowth.

Can you see the sculpture?

Unlike most of Mimovich’s sculptures, the ones in the public gardens have a secular theme. Like all of Mimovich’s sculptures, the figures have simplified forms, typical of mid-twentieth-century modernism. They work well with the garden setting, contributing to the scene a quiet, reflective mood.

During her very long life, she made many religious sculptures, and when she was no longer able to sculpt, she painted icons. In 1985 she received an Order of Australia Medal for services to sculpture. And in 1996 her experience as a post-war migrant coming to Australia was told in an episode of SBS’s series: Tales from a Suitcase.

Museums Victoria has a short biography of her: Leopoldine Mimovich, Austrian Migrant & Artist, 1949 by Stevenson, M. and McFadzean, M. (2010) This biography does miss one dramatic moment in her life. In 2014 her house caught fire in the afternoon as she dozed in her reclining armchair. She was rescued, unharmed, by three neighbours, but many of her sculptures were smoke damaged.


The Big Walking Stick

Big things are probably not the right place to start when looking at public art, but they are hard not to notice. However, there is something different about the giant (7 m tall) walking stick in Kew. It rarely gets a mention compared to the Big Pineapple, the Big Marino and the proposals for the Big Bong for the northern New South Wales town of Woodenbong.

Peter Schipperheyn, Grip of Time, 1978

The fibreglass and wood big walking stick at Kew Library is an odd figurative work; somewhere between kitsch and post-modernism, between Claes Oldenburg’s big things and a piece by Maurizio Cattelan. It is one of Melbourne’s stranger public sculptures and was a weird mystery until I learnt something of its history.

It was an early work by a sculptor young sculptor, Peter Schipperheyn. Schipperheyn is still based-in Melbourne and sculpting, often large, always representational and figurative sculptures, now carved in marble (see my post on his more recent work ).

In 1978 Schipperheyn was still studying fine art at the Caulfield Institute of Technology when he won the Abercrombie Sculpture Prize for a monumental sculpture design. The Abercombie Sculpture Prize was an open competition from Abercrombie gallery. Back in the 70s, there were fewer sculptors in Melbourne, and open art prizes were sometimes won by art students; it never happens now.

Schipperheyn’s youth explains both the pop realist style and the tasteless undergrad humour of the title of the work that was, at the time, Senility. The fibreglass part of the sculpture was probably made on campus. Did he also submit it for assessment that year? 

It was initially installed on the exterior wall of the Abercrombie Gallery in Johnston Street, Collingwood. But when Laurel Abercrombie closed her gallery, she gave the sculpture to the city of Kew.

It was relocated to the outer wall of the Kew Library where it works well with the bare brick external wall. It was renamed Grip of Time; as Senility was no longer an appropriate title for a public sculpture.

Unlike most public art, there is no intended meaning to his big walking stick. Is it poking fun at or supporting the elderly and frail? The different names for the sculpture suggest that the no-one, not even Schipperheyn, is sure. And it is this ambiguity that has saved the work.

In 1997 there was restoration work done on the sculpture by the artist and a new pole was donated by Citipower. Currently, the big walkings stick is a bit overgrown and some unsympathetic planted trees need to be pruned.


Nineteenth Century Fantasies

The front of the State Library of Victoria looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons. A male warrior attacks a dragon and a female paladin advances; Joseph Edgar Boehm’s St. George and the Dragon and Emmanuel Frémiet’s Jeanne D’Arc.

Many people can’t stand European nineteenth-century academic sculpture. Other people think that it was the last stand of a noble aesthetic tradition. I don’t agree with either; for me, it is like Frank Frazetta or the Brothers Hildebrandt’s fantasy illustrations, it is art about make-believe world. It is about men who wanted their statues of colonial explorers, generals, and other leaders like a boy wants superhero figurines. By making these escapist fantasies figurative art, they were trying to make their meaning more tangible.

The messages in some of these fantasy art can be horrible, racist and sexist (this is not a defence or an apology for these statues). Others make their creators look like an obvious client for future Freudian therapy – man’s eternal struggle with monsters of the deep. They can also be intensely sentimental, or overtly sexy.

Springthorpe Memorial

There are many examples of this academic fantasy art sculpture in Melbourne from the statues of St. George and Joan of Arc, to the angels by Bertrand Mackennal in the Springthorpe Memorial, or Paul Montford’s The Court Favourite and Water Nymph and, the incredibly racist, (and fortunately rarely on public display in the NGV) Emmanuel Frémiet’s Gorille enlevant une femme (gorilla carrying off a woman).

Not since the Baroque has there been art as theatrical. The theatricality of the academic fantasy art is the same as the CGI imagery of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings. And it was just as popular, with the painter John Martin showing blockbuster exhibitions in London in the late nineteenth century.

The nineteenth-century academic artist was portraying the world, not as it was, or is, but as they thought it should have been; a bucolic, mythic, existence. They used everything as a symbol, retreating from the world in search for a meaning that would justify their beliefs. For the world and its facts were increasingly at odds with the values and ideals springing from European religion, myths and legends. What Europeans were discovering was that they were just another great ape of a common species found around the world and not the chosen ones.

The high art of today is about reality and not fantasy. Today fantasy is rarely shown in state galleries or installed in front of state buildings but widely available in prints and posters. But there is still plenty of fantasy art available, it is just curated for a different market and the statues of dragons and warriors are made in a 25mm scale.

(Some people might note that what I am calling ‘nineteenth-century academic sculpture’ includes works made in the early twentieth century. This is the difference between dates and styles and that some styles will in places continue for generations after their significant period.)

Paul Montford, Court Favourite, c.1906

Adrian Mauriks 1942 – 2020

Even if his name is not, Adrian Mauriks’s public sculptures will be familiar to many Australians. As they are in every major Australian cities — in Melbourne, there are sculptures in the Docklands, in Laverton, and Richmond.

From multimedia installations to spiky, monumental forms and then curving smooth white biomorphic creations; Mauriks was a prolific artist who kept on developing his art rather than reproducing the more of the same kind of works.

Influenced by Arp Mauriks’s white curving sculptures with their organic forms were surrealist without being pretentious, for this was not surrealism of hyperreal dreams but the poetic totems. Landscapes of surreal white gardens with gateways and organic growths. Maurik’s Silence, 2001, commissioned by MAB Corp for Docklands, New Quay precinct, Melbourne is part of this later body of work.

A teenage Adrian Mauriks arrived in Australia in 1957 from Holland. He went on to get undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at the Victorian College of the Arts. Through his teaching at various tertiary institutes, including the University of Melbourne and Ballarat University he influenced many young artists. But it will be his many sculptures that will be his longest lasting legacy, a legacy that is not for an exclusive few but everyone, for people like me have never met him, but who enjoy his art.

Adrian Mauriks “Opus 15”, 1995, steel

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?


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