Tag Archives: Bruce Armstrong

Bruce Armstrong @ NGV

It may not be a Norwegian Blue but there is definitely a large dead bird in the middle of the foyer of the NGV. Although hieratic, priestly, stiff and formal like ancient Egyptian art, Bruce Armstrong’s sculptures somehow have a sense of humour. “That’s what you think” says the monstrous Knuckles holding a club behind his back.

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The two guardians that thirty years ago stood in front of the NGV on St. Kilda Road are now in the foyer of the NGV at Fed Square for the Bruce Armstrong exhibition. They are joined with their maquette, the original model for the sculpture and many other works of art by Armstrong.

The exhibition is in the foyer on each of the NGV’s three floors; It continues the series of local sculptors that started with the Inge King retrospective in 2014, Lenton Parr in 2015 and, now Armstrong.

Fish, gryphon, snake, eagle, bull, bear, cat, crocodile, carved from Red Gum with great big cracks or knotty Cypress wood. Armstrong works is a traditional process; he finds the creature in the shapes in the wood that he carves, as he removes more and more. Big and rough his sculptures are surreal and shamanic taping into our collective unconsciousness.

Armstrong’s art is so associated with wood that even when he makes bronze editions wood is still the model. The exhibition reminds the visitor that Armstrong works in other media and that he won the Archibald Price in 2005 of a self-portrait with eagle.

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Bruce Armstrong, Still Life (Mirror), 1994

It also reminds the visitor of Armstrong’s carved big blocks of buildings in the early eighties, as in Worlds and worlds, 1984, where a great building sits on the back of tortoise. For the city is also part of our collective unconsciousness.

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Bruce Armstrong, Worlds and worlds, 1984

Armstrong is well known for his public sculptures in Melbourne. His Eagle, “Bunjil” is perched over Wurundjeri Way in the Docklands. Its maquette and several of its close relatives are in this exhibition.

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Bruce Armstrong, Bunjil maquette, c.1996


How to Photograph Public Sculpture

The most photographed public sculpture in Melbourne is probably Larry La Trobe or The Three Businessmen… because of their potential for selfies. The most televised public sculpture in Melbourne is Lady Justice by William Eicholtz because there is a shot of it in almost every story on a County Court case.

Sculptures of Melbourne cover

I have some experience in photographing public sculpture for this blog. I did take a few of the photographs in my book Sculptures of Melbourne but most, like the cover photograph by Matto Lucas, were taken by professional photographers.

Here is some practical advice to people on photographing public sculpture and then some advice on copyright issues regarding photographing public sculpture in Australia. There isn’t any technical information and my only advice regarding equipment is a telephoto lens for sculptures high up on buildings.

To get a good photograph of a public sculpture you will probably need to visit the location twice to determine the best time of day to take the photograph as you can’t get the sculpture to turn to face the sun. It is pointless trying to photograph a sculpture with the sun behind it unless you just want its silhouette against the sky. Bronze sculptures on plinths are particularly difficult to photograph, but many modern and contemporary sculpture can be viewed and photographed from all angles.

However, just as you thought that sculptures stand still they are moved, or building works occur around them and they are fenced off, or they have been ‘capped’ by a tagger or sticker. The first time I went to photograph David Bell’s Raising the Rattler Pole – The Last of the Connies just after it was installed in 2013, it was surrounded by fencing and there were workers rebuilding the corner. I had to hold my camera above my head to take some shots over the fencing. Not the best way to photograph a sculpture and so I returned a few weeks later.

Photographing a sculpture may involve cleaning up the site, removing rubbish wedged in parts of the sculpture and wipe the sculpture with a dry cloth to remove spider webs and dust. While photographing King’s Sun Ribbon at Melbourne University for my book Fiona Blandford had to remove the rubbish left behind by the builders working nearby.

In Australia you do not need copyright permission to publish photographs of sculptures that are permanently installed in a public location. The laws are different in other countries. For more on this see the Arts Law Centre of Australia, “Without my Permission: photographing public sculptures” by Jasmine McHenry.

In Australia you only need copyright permission from the artist to publish the photographs if the sculpture is temporary. This includes illegal temporary street art installations. So I had to track down every street artist whose sculptures that I wanted to have photographs of in the book, not exactly the easiest of tasks. Sometimes I felt like a detective working from an obscure clue: who was the street artist who signed his sculptures with GT? Determining if a sculpture is permanent or temporary may also be more complicated than the drafters of the law anticipated but I didn’t run into any problems with this with my book so I tried to err on the side of caution.

Bruce Armstrong, Eagle

Bruce Armstrong, Eagle, 2002, Docklands


Working on Melbourne’s Sculpture

I’m currently polishing the manuscript for my book Melbourne’s Sculpture – from the colonial to the ephemeral. It is due to be published by Melbourne Books later this year. Making sure that all my photos are labelled correctly, organising the bibliography and list of index terms is dull work. There has been some dull reading too; just be glad that I read some of those dull books so that you don’t have to.

Malfunction, Leopards, 2011, Fitzroy

Malfunction, Leopards, 2011, Fitzroy

It has not all been dull; I have been enjoying meeting sculptors and exploring the city to see new sculptures. Just working at my computer when I received a phone call from Bruce Armstrong in reply to an email that I’d sent about a month before through John Buckley Gallery who repents him. The email from Maurie Hughes came at just the right time as I was struggling to make sense of sculpture in the 1990s.

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging, Footscray

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging, Footscray

Some of the highlights have been enjoying great steaks and wine over a lunch with Lou Laumen at the Station Hotel in Footscray. Visiting Peter Corlett in his studio at the back of his beautiful garden and visiting Meridian Foundries with him. He gave me a little tour of the foundry and introducing me to Peter Morley and the workers.

I have not been stuck in front of the computer the whole time. I have been visiting new parts of the city in my search for significant public sculptures to photograph. I hadn’t been out to Footscray or Preston in years. I had never been out to see EastLink offices in Ringwood; the offices are a beautifully designed. EastLink was very helpful, allowing me to use their photographs of the sculptures for free and providing me with a folder of articles on them including one by Ken Scarlett that I was looking for.

Sometimes I have felt like a detective tracking down information from a scattering of clues. I had to make contact with some artists for copyright permission, sometimes anonymous street artists based on little more than a photograph or the initials GT. (I am still trying to get in touch with Mal Function.) Trying to locate George Allen’s Untitled, 1957 a couple of tons of rock that just disappeared. Discovering the lies that Charles Summers told to Governor Darling about the casting of the Burke and Wills Monument.

It has been fun having my ideas challenged and changed. Sculptors who are conservative artistically but a progressive politically. Large corporations are more progressive artistically than local governments. City governments are capable of planning and enacting long term. Enough to make my mind spin a couple of times.

I’ve had a lot of help from artists, academics and various test readers who volunteered to read my manuscript. I still have to polish the manuscript some more and check the acknowledgements section to make sure that I’ve got all the names right. I will be glad when I can hand the manuscript and photographs over to the publisher next Monday. Not that I will be finished with the book but it will mark another point in the process. (See my December post: Book Deal.) I still have to find an image for the front cover.

Culture Rubble, 1993 by Christine O’Loughlin

Culture Rubble, 1993 by Christine O’Loughlin


Public Sculpture @ Footscray

Working on my book on Melbourne’s public sculpture has given me an excellent excuse to explore Melbourne. In Footscray I wanted to see and photograph two public sculptures. Adding to my desire of explore the city was watching The Secret History Of Our Streets an excellent BBC Two production that introduced me to the work of Charles Booth (1840-1916), a pioneer sociologist mapping the streets of London. (There is an online archive of Charles Booth’s work.)

In the busy commercial centre of Footscray at the intersection of Nicholson and Hopkins Streets in the pedestrian mall. There was a gentle mist rising around the rocks of Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom. The fine spray of water at the base of the rocks is intended to represent the smoke in aboriginal ceremonies. The series of rocks helps define the intersection, adds to the pedestrian area and the rocks connects the place to earth.

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

The sculpture is very recent but people are taking to it; it was hard to get a photograph without someone’s child or dog getting in the way.

Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom is a sculpture by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins. Vicky Couzins is from the Western Districts of Victoria and is a descendant of the Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong clans and she was one of the trio of artists that created with Birrarung Wilam at Birrarung Marr. Maree Clarke is from the Mutti Mutti, Wemba Wemba and Yorta Yorta; she was one of the many indigenous artists involved with Scar – A Stolen Vision in Enterprise Park along the Yarra. (For more about Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom.)

Looking for Bruce Armstrong sculpture, Two People Hugging I found myself in a well designed neighbourhood of mostly public housing. The traffic of busy Moore St was gone; the pavement changed to pavers rather than concrete and even the sound of my footsteps changed. There were several small squares (sunburnt from the recent heatwave – I hope the trees grow in) in the area and public seating.

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging

Two Persons Hugging located in a square midway down Vipont Street, a quiet street; you wouldn’t know that it was there unless you were a local. This square at the start of a series of stepped parks and playgrounds that lead down to the parklands along the Maribyrnong River.

Two Persons Hugging is an early work by Armstrong; I haven’t been able to find an exact date. The monumental carved wood is solid and the two persons are inseparable and awesome. The wide plinth at the base of the sculpture adds to the seating options in the square.

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and after he graduated from RMIT in 1981 his sculptures are influenced by many mythologies creating archetypal beasts. Along with being represented in major art galleries and international collections Armstrong has public sculptures in several other Melbourne’s suburbs including Moonee Valley, Ascot Vale and Chadstone Shopping Centre.

The position of both of these sculptures, in their different parts of the suburb makes them landmarks for that small area, defining the way that people see, move and talk about the place. These two sculptures might only get a small mention in my book amongst the other work their sculptors have done but I’m glad that I took the time to see them and how they work with their locations.

The centre of Melbourne’s art scene will continue to move slowly counter clockwise around the centre of the city towards the western suburbs. It had already moved through St. Kilda and Prahran by the 1970s and was moving up to Fitzroy by the 1980s. Look out Footscray.


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


Designland

Melbourne is becoming like Disneyland; years ago John Birmingham pointed this out in his book Dopeland. The spectacle of gas flares outside the casino, buskers, sidewalk artists and sculptures every 500m. I walk along it often; I like pedestrian spaces. I’ve enjoyed meals in the restaurants along it and taken visiting Canadian relatives to this attraction. I’ve also often thought about Birmingham’s “Disneyland” remark.

Following a design trend that has worked for many other cities, Melbourne has been rehabilitating its river and docklands areas. The banks of the Yarra River are a designer public space from Birrung Mar down to the Docklands. The designer city came to Melbourne with the arrival of the Casino and the transformation of Southbank. Melbourne’s rehabilitation through designed environments has extended further including the north bank of the river.

The rehabilitation of the Yarra River’s city foreshore has included a large number of public sculptures. What are these sculptures supposed to do in this designed urban environment? Architecturally the sculptures seem to function only as a way of breaking up the pedestrian spaces. Some sculptures became lost amongst the commercial frenzy of Southbank cafes (see by blog post: Ophelia will return).

Sometimes it is hard to determine in this designed environment what is a sculpture and what are sculptural architectural elements or a marketing design concept like the jocular three fins projecting from the river water or the fake half sunk ship outside of the Melbourne Aquarium. Or something else, entirely like the lighting design.

Some of the sculptures along the Yarra try to recreate a sense of history in a post-modern way while others are just sculptures in a modern sense, independent of history or reason. There is no consistency in taste or style for the sculpture; novelty is preferred in this environment.

Two of these sculptures, “The Travellers” and “Constellation” are about the variety people who have immigrated to Melbourne. “The Travellers” by Lebanese artist, Nadim Karan (on Sandridge Bridge across the Yarra River) and “Constellation” by Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett (between the King and Queen Street bridges). “Constellation” is five large figureheads reflect upon the ethnic and cultural diversity of Melbourne’s settlement. Not that most people would see this in the sculptures; they would merge into the overall design of the area.

Nadim Karan, “The Travellers”

Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett, “Constellation”

The shopping mall mentality of urban planning has created a spectacle that although it attempts some signs of authenticity, like the antiques on the wall of chain Irish pubs, only adds to the feeling of hyperreality. Even when the art attempts to connect to the past they only add to the feeling of hyperreality. Like the old anchors along the foreshore or the giant knot work anchor suspended over a plaza in outside the Docklands Stadium.

I like these many of the sculptures along the Yarra but is this Disneyland the right environment for them?


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