Tag Archives: Captain Cook

Statues of Cook

It is always the Cook Memorial in St Kilda that is covered in paint. There are others; there several public statues of Cook in this state alone. How many does the country need?

Marc Clark’s Captain Cook

Out the back of the hyperreality of the Captain Cook cottage, a building he never lived in, transported to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. Marc Clark’s statue of Cook there was initially commissioned by a real estate agent for the entrance of a subdivision, the most typically Australian of origin stories.

Another by John Walker stands at the front of St. Paul’s Church in Bendigo. Why is there even a Cook statue in Bendigo? Cook never visited the gold mining city near the coast that didn’t exist in his lifetime. Cook stands like a saint on a pillar in front of the red brick, gothic revival “cathedral” bringing the British Empire to Australia. This location exposes the role this icon is meant to perform. The site only makes sense in a religious way. Cook has become an icon complete with a martyrdom, to people who identify as white English speaking monarchist Christians.

All of these statues are as far removed from the historic Captain Cook as Mel Gibson was from William Wallace. The statues depict a cosplayer, a model dressed up in a costume posing for a sculptor. The colonial Captain was reinvented for the late British Empire and then repurposed for the Australian neo-colonial empire, merging iconography of Empire and Church. Invented to stand defiantly against the tide of historical studies and hold onto the idea of the exceptionalism of English/Australians.

Australia has been assigned to Cook in the same way that Christian saints are patron saints of something. The connection may be tenuous but miraculously confirmed by the faithful. It is this mythical figure that is being worshipped in conservative Australia. Religions may be practised without acknowledgement, acts creating a pattern of uninformed worship.

So why is the Cook Memorial in St Kilda the focus for iconoclastic actions against this unofficial saint? The edition of John Tweed’s statue was relocated in 1988 to its current location for the Bicentennial of some colonial history that Australia was celebrating. It is a typically Australian space, a bare, empty patch of ground in the middle of some roads. It does allow for good photographs of paint pours without the distracting elements in the image.

In 2017 on January 26th pink paint was poured over the head of the bronze Cook Memorial in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda. In 2019 on the anniversary of Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii, the statue in St Kilda was yet again covered in paint. This time red paint on his hands and face, a streak of yellow down his trouser leg and ‘Good Riddance’ sprayed in black on the plinth, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. In 2022 on January 26th, it was covered in a massive pour of red paint that coats both the figure and the entire front of the plinth.

For several years the local city council has employed security guards to protect the statue with mixed success. The legality of these actions would depend entirely on whose country you were in at the time. This ongoing statue war is expected to continue as no peace or cease-fire talks have been arranged.


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


Tweed’s Cook Memorial

There are many inappropriate public sculptures in Melbourne, memorials to people who have no connection to Melbourne, memorials to evil men, dumb and ugly things. If I was to put together a list of inappropriate public sculptures in Melbourne I would judge them: irrelevance, offence and aesthetics. So an irrelevant, offensive and aesthetic non-entity like the Captain Cook Memorial by Sir John Tweed would be top of my list.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

It also appears to be top of the list of inappropriate public sculptures for some of Melbourne’s Indigenous people. People with paint who wanted to celebrate the anniversary of Cook’s death added red paint on his hands and face, a streak of yellow down his trouser leg and ‘Good Riddance’ in black on the plinth. It was not the first time, in 2017 someone poured pink paint over the head of the statue, and it won’t be the last.

Tweed’s Cook Memorial is an anaesthetic non-entity of Edwardian sculpture; created at a time, in the early twentieth century when British art was a non-entity in art history. The one in Melbourne is just another edition of a statue that has an appropriate location in Cook’s home town of Whitby in England.

Commenting on the “current multitude of memorial designs” around the world and the “public physical interpretation of memory” Peter Tonkin and Janet Laurence writes: “the creators of memorials build an image of immortality, often inflating the event’s importance.” (“Space and memory: A meditation on memorials and monuments” Architecture Australia Vol 92 No 5 Sep/Oct 2003 pp 48-49)

There are three or four memorials to Boer War in Melbourne, then there is that massive temple complex called the Shrine of Remembrance, along with all the memorials to subsequent wars in which Australia served its imperial masters; evidence that Australians are loyal foot soldiers to the largest imperial power. There is even a memorial to General Gordon, although troops from Australia was unable to fight in that nineteenth campaign.

A century after many of the wars that sparked the initial round of memorial building in Melbourne Australians are still desperately building memorials (along with war museums and ‘interpretive centres’) like a junky with expensive habit. (For an idea of how expensive this habit is see my blog post An Expensive Identity.)

The quantity of memorial reminds me of the stone age barrows in Kent that were constructed without any associated burials. As the purpose of both constructions appears to be a claim to land ownership under the guise of a memorial. ‘Lest we forget’ that the phrase was first used on a memorial to colonialists killed by Aboriginal people defending their land in the frontier wars is noted by K. S. Inglis in his book Sacred places, war memorials in the Australian landscape (Melbourne University Press, 1998).

I find Melbourne’s public art fascinating because it is an official expression of a civic identity and values that attempts to permanently occupy public space. Both the glut of war memorials and the scarcity of statues of women or Indigenous people shows the official priorities of Melbourne, reveals its collective consciousness. In the case of Tweed’s Cook Memorial it is an imported, British colonial zombie consciousness.


We Protest!

Benny Zable’s Greedozer costume, the full face gas-mask with the red radioactive sign on the end of the filter canister, was a regular feature at many demonstrations in the 1980s. He was a living sculpture with a message.

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Zable’s gas-mask along with other the ephemera of mass protest demonstrations has been curated at the City Gallery in the Melbourne Town Hall in an exhibition curated by Malcolm McKinnon. The small exhibition traces the history of protests in Melbourne from 1962 Women’s Day marches through to recent anti-fascist protests. There is a “wreck the draft poster” from the Students for a Democratic Society printed on National Service Registration forms. And an improvised cardboard sign from the taxi driver protests that block Flinders Street in 2008.

John Ellis, Challenging Captain Cook, 1976

There is no denying the cultural importance of these events and images; protests are part of the spectacle of a democratic society. A photograph of a young Aboriginal protester from the 1976 in front of the Captain Cook Cottage still resonates with the current statue wars. Along with photographs and posters, there are protest signs in the exhibition but no banners; there wasn’t enough space in the small gallery and, maybe all the good old trade union banners are at the Potter Museum of Art’s exhibition State of the Union (I don’t know I haven’t seen it yet). The photographs of banners makes me wonder if protest marches are reconfigured religious processions, mass displays of passionate faith.

The exhibition attempts to give a balance between the government/police and other views. But can there ever be a balanced when the police using batons against peaceful protestors or driving over them with a police car at the S11 protests? The pretence that there is a tolerance of protests is one of the foundations of the illusion of a liberal democracy.


Sculptures in Catani Gardens

Winter is here in Melbourne but I’m thinking about the public sculptures in Catani Gardens and walking by the beach in the summer. St. Kilda was Melbourne’s first beach front suburb and has been on the decline since it was established in the gold boom era. Some might claim that this decline has been arrested since the hight of its seedy existence in the seventies but this might only be temporary as there were earlier attempts. Often these attempts involve urban redesign and the addition of sculpture and other monuments.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

The Catani Gardens were established in 1906 and developed as a tourist attraction on reclamation work on the land. It extends along the St. Kilda foreshore from the pier to where Beaconsfield Parade meets Pier Road. The gardens were then known as Captain Cook Lawns as the Captain James Cook Memorial stands near the intersection of Fitzroy Street and Jacka Boulevarde. It is another edition of the Cook Memorial by Sir John Tweed. Erected in 1914 only two years after the memorial in Whitby, England was unveiled. The local council intended to have a collection of statues representing British navel heroes to accompany Cook. The statute was relocated in 1988 to it current location to make way for a bicentennial rotunda, perhaps mapping the popularity of Captain Cook as a figure in Australian popular culture.

Unknown artist, Vice-Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell, 1938

Unknown artist, Vice-Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell, 1938

The only other navel figure in the park is the bust of Vice-Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell founder of the Australian Navy. The bust was original installed in 1938 five years after his death in 1933. The bust stares out to sea and sheltering several spiders. It is not in its original location on the edge of the footpath as it was moved when the road was widened.

The bust of the Vice-Admiral was stolen sometime in the nineteen-seventies and was never recovered; stolen bronze sculptures never are, they are melted down for the metal (see my post Stolen Sculptures). The current bust is new, recast from the original plaster mould. Did the English or European foundry keep the mould (there were no Australian sculpture foundries at the time) and if so why isn’t the sculptor known? The bust was restored as part in the 100th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy and an additional copy was made for the HMAS Creswell Naval base at Jervis Bay, NSW.

Charles Adam Irwin, Sali Cleve drinking fountain, April 1911

Charles Adam Irwin, Sali Cleve drinking fountain, April 1911

The ornate pillar with the sailing boat on top also has a nautical theme is the Sali Cleve drinking fountain designed by Charles Adam Irwin and erected in April 1911. It has also been relocated because of road widening.

Paul Montford, Carlo Catani, 1932

Paul Montford, Carlo Catani, 1932

The Catani Clock Tower was dedicated on the Saturday 22nd August, 1932 and presumably the gardens renamed at the same time. The Italian-born civil engineer, Carlo Catani worked for St. Kilda Public Works Department and design the gardens. Clock towers were an important part of civic infrastructure before everyone carried one in their mobile phone. The brick memorial clock tower has a bust of Carlo Catani by Paul Montford and a bronze plaque that reads: “In Honour of  Carlo Catani” “A Great Public Servant Of Victoria 1878-1917”. Creating sculptures for architectural war memorials, like figures on the Shrine of Remembrance or the Cenotaph in St Kilda was what Montford most wanted to do but mostly he made busts.

The gardens still retain some of their original Edwardian formality and enterprise, it still looks like is a place to promenade and admire bronze statues of worthy notables, although now people are wearing significantly less formal attire. The rough volcanic rock walls are from another era of garden design. They look like parts of the Alexandra Gardens by the Yarra River that was established in 1901 not surprising given both were laid out by Catani.


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