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Tag Archives: Melbourne City Square

Re-Vault

Four people wearing yellow chemical coveralls are slowly moving in the City Square in Melbourne. It is Re-vault a performance about Vault, Ron Robertson-Swan’s ill fated sculpture that once stood in the City Square, hence all the yellow. It is one of EPA’s performances, part of Melbourne 47 “senses of the city” paid for though Melbourne’s Arts Grant Program and Monash University.

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Two of the performers are manipulating planes of steel grids for concrete reinforcing. These modernist grids refer to the angles of the steel planes of Vault. The other two people are tied together with yellow and black barrier tape. They act as pedestrian control and a human safety barrier creating a space between the shallow pools and the Christmas kitsch that is under construction in most of the square.

Jonathan Sinatra’s performance piece comes 35 years after Vault’s removal. The Christmas construction means that the performance could not be anywhere near the original location of Vault, in the northwestern part of the square. Not that it mattered as very few people passing by would have any idea of Robertson-Swann’s sculpture that now located in the forecourt of ACCA.

Although the limited audience of passing school groups, tourists and locals had no idea of the original sculpture the performance did. Aside from the obvious yellow there were a couple of other references. Vault was intended as a grand interlocking sculpture and Re-vault’s body-sculpture also acts as an interlocking sculpture, although less grand.

I take a seat at the Caboose Canteen order a pulled pork slider and a cider and watch the performance unfold. It is a beautiful day, the first day in Melbourne over 30 degrees since March. It was the perfect seat until the performers move one bridge up. It reminds me that these band of shallow water and the very shallow water pouring down the surface of the John Mockridge Fountain are the vestigial remains of the all important ‘water feature’ found in the original architectural brief for the square. In the original city square water the smell of chlorine filled the air as water poured over an enormous multi-stepped fountain. There was so much chlorine in the air that it pitted the bronze sculpture of Burke and Wills. Fortunately water is being used more wisely now.

Re: Vault my review of Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city (Indra Publishing, 2004)

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Piano Piano

There are pianos everywhere in Melbourne from the City Square to the Palm Plaza in Dandenong. There are 24 pianos on Melbourne’s streets this January, most of them are in the CBD especially around the Arts Centre. All the pianos have been donated and then decorated by various artists and arts groups. They are part of Play Me, I’m Yours by British artist Luke Jerram. You can play on them any time that the small boys have stopped making big noises on them.

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I stop to look at the painted piano in the City Square and Yarn Corner’s yarn-bombing. The now annual yarn-bombing of the City Square looks great this year. A great deal of thought, knitting and crocheting has gone into it with the patterns and the co-ordinated colours are a real step up from last year.

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Luke Jerram has an very impressive CV with many diverse projects from his glass microbiology models to his interactive waterfall in Bristol. His Play Me, I’m Yours project has been installed in many cities around the world. (Have a look at his website.)

Play Me, I’m Yours, was made possible by the Betty Amsden Participation Program, a four year program of large scale “art for all” participation events. Betty Amsdem OAM is a major sponsor of the arts in Melbourne (as well as,  3MBS, the RSPCA and Guide Dogs Victoria) and a vocal advocate for philanthropy.

Ultimately both the pianos and the yarn-bombing are radical gestures that empower the community to create for themselves rather than simply being spectators in this event and festival driven city. It is something that the Revolutionary Dadaist Council of Berlin would have approved.

There has always been a piano for people to play on the mezzanine floor of the City Library where their exhibition space is located. I was looking at “A Celebration of Co-Mix: an exhibition of past entrants from the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award Graphic Short Stories. (Comics have come along way in my life from the subject of moral panic to the Lord Mayor’s award.) As I was looking and reading the exhibition an old woman slowly moved her walker towards the piano. At first I thought that she was just looking for a place to sit down but then she started to play. I could hear why she had made the effort; for a woman who was barely able to walk she played with a smooth ageless grace.

I had less grace when I played some 8 bar blues on the piano in the Victoria Mall in Coburg. The upright piano sounds soft when played outdoors.


And it was all Yellow

Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture, “Vault” (aka the Yellow Peril) was only in the Melbourne City Square for a year but it haunts Melbourne like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. The sculpture certainly haunts the architects DCM who choose it. It was only in the City Square for a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. The sculpture has been the subject of endless discussion when it was completed and Wallis wonders why Melbourne became so obsessed with this sculpture. Wasn’t there anything more important to talk about in Melbourne?

“I actually think Melbourne is better off than Sydney, because of the experience of Vault. Vault was a public issue, and I think Melbourne is a lot more sophisticated as a result of these arguments being aired, over a long period of time.” Ron Robertson-Swann, Oct. 2002 (Carolyn Webb, “Melbourne’s mellow peril” The Age 3/10/02)

Vault has no meaning besides being art; it is simply an arrangement of yellow steel planes. The significance of it to Melbourne is the subject of the book.

The cast of characters spans Melbourne and clearly describes the conflict’s political dimensions.

For the sculpture: DCM (architects), Cr Ivin Rockman, Cr McAlpine, The Age, Eric Rawlison (director of the NGV), Professor Patrick McCaughey, Contemporary Art Society, Norm Gallagher (BLF)

Against the sculpture: Cr Don Osborne, Cr Jack Woodruff, The Sun, Premier Ruper Hamer, Bert Newton, Australian Guild of Realist Artists, Peter Thorley (chief commissioner of Melbourne)

Wallis does note that the conflict was as much aged-based as it was one between the left and right. It was Cr Osborne who popularised its derogatory nickname – “the yellow peril”. As well as, covering the controversy, Wallis comprehensively examination of the whole process from the competition for the commission, the commission and construction, the Melbourne City Council politics and the public reaction, the dismantling, removal and exile to Batman Park.

It is interesting to note that BHP contributed to the cost of the steel for Vault. That with a larger budget for the sculpture the City Square might have had a Henry Moore or Hans Arp sculpture. And that if the budget had been smaller friends of Montsalvat sculptor Matcham Skipper might have been able to pay for a place for him in the City Square.

Wallis looks closely at the reactions of the public to the sculpture, not in just the newspaper’s letters to the editor page. He looks at people climbing it, graffiti, homeless sleeping under it. The way that people moved around the sculpture was part of the commission and part of the concern of its critics.

The controversy over “Vault” extended the conservative position on Melbourne’s public sculpture. Long after their experience with “Vault” Melbourne City Council shunned any public sculpture commissions, paralyzed by fear of another controversy. The little good that came out of the whole incident was that it started the push that eventually the federal government introduced legislation protecting the moral rights of artists.

The book is well written and attractively laid out – I like the side texts that expanded the history through sidetracks. The book also features lots of great photographs, cartoon clippings from newspapers and other evidence of sculpture’s significance in Melbourne. And there is sort of a happy ending to look forward to as the sculptor and the people of Melbourne finally accept “Vault” in its new location outside of the ACAG.

Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city, (Indra Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1920787003, 9781920787004

Penny Webb reviewed Peril in the Square (The Age 14/5/04)


Sculpture @ Melbourne City Square

Historically no city in Victoria was designed with a square because the then Governor Gipps didn’t like them because they encourage democracy. Melbourne City Square was only built in 1980 (when democracy was no longer a threat) and marks the start of the architectural rejuvenation of Melbourne’s CBD. There are currently several statues: Loretta Quinn’s “Beyond the Ocean of Existence”, Charles Summers’ Burke and Wills Memorial, Pamela Irving’s “Larry LaTrobe” and a wooden wombat without the usual City of Melbourne brass plaque to identify the sculpture or artist along with the Mockridge Fountain in the square.

The missing statue from the city square has to be noted – “Vault” by Ron Roberson-Swann was only in the city square for less than a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. Melbourne City Council had to change the direction of their public sculpture in response to the controversy over “Vault” and so the quirky and the historic have replaced the formal modernist. Whimsy and idiosyncrasy are not part of the collective consciousness; they are about a personal mix of elements. They are the opposite of any kind of political statement.

Keeping with the quirky mood of sculpture in the City Square are the two animal sculptures: Pamela Irving’s “Larry LaTrobe” 1992 and the wooden wombat, “Warin” 2002, by Des McKenna.

Des McKenna, "Warin" 2002

On the Flinders Lane corner there is Loretta Quinn “Beyond the Ocean of Existence”, 1993, a bronze sculpture. This generative sculpture stands on the opposite corner to the 19th memorial sculpture to Burke and Wills, standing on the corner of Burke and Swanston Street. Created by English born and trained sculptor, Charles Summers in Melbourne in 1865; Summers had previously created the Fitzroy Gardens, River God Fountain in 1862. The sculpture of Burke and Wills has been relocated many times as the city has changed and the corner is its 5th location.

Loretta Quinn "Beyond the Ocean of Existence" 1993

Loretta Quinn, "Beyond the Ocean of Existence", 1993

“Beyond the Ocean of Existence” follows the traditional sculptural form of a god or hero on top of a column. But the tradition has been twisted, a large bulbous form and tendrils support an angelic version of her little girl figure with her hair swept back. The figure of the little child is central to Quinn’s sculpture. The figure minus the wings is repeated in “Within Three Worlds” (see my entry on Loretta Quinn’s sculpture “Within Three Worlds” at Princess Park). Other works by Loretta Quinn include the Artist’s Seat at Linden House, St. Kilda and “The Crossing of the First Threshold” in Southgate Melbourne Victoria.

When “Beyond the Ocean of Existence” was installed it did not have a café behind it and the area of the city square had more trees. Near the statue there is a painted pole by indigenous artists, Maree Clarke and Sonja Hodge. The poles have been there a long time even though the city of Melbourne does not consider it permanent.

“The Mockridge Fountain” by Ron Jones, Simon Perry (who also crested the Public Purse in the Burke St. Mall) and Darryl Cowie  c.2000 is a concrete fountain that makes a little bit of water go a long way. However even its water conservation features did not prevent it from being turned off during the drought between 2007 and 2010.

Leaves placed on the Mockridge Fountain


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