Tag Archives: Melbourne

Sculptures of animals in Melbourne

As statues of people have come into further question recently. What about public sculptures of non-human animals? Just them; not when they are with humans, like all the equestrian statues. Most of the animals depicted are not native to Australia. There are imperial lions and even a few unicorns and dragons. The symbolic use of animals in sculptures is an ancient tradition.

Melbourne and Bruce Armstrong were fortunate that his symbolic work, Eagle (Bunjil) from the Jungian collective unconscious, has resonated with local Kulin Nation mythology.

Aside from heraldic use as supports on coats of arms there are a few sculptures of native animals. There is large wooden wombat called Warin who used to live in the city. The extinct Tasmanian tiger  can be found in Richmond, Anton Hasell’s Yarra Thylacine. A couple of stone kangaroos surmount the drinking troughs while the water spouts are emus on the nineteenth-century Westgarth Drinking Fountain at the Exhibition Buildings. 

Fiona Foley, Murnalong, is not the only bee sculpture in Melbourne, there is Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower, but it is the only indigenous bee sculpture. Ray Ewer’s made a plaque for a memorial fountain to Cookie the black swan. There are even animals most people wouldn’t even recognise, Alex Goad’s Tethya, the cells of a local sea sponge. 

Pamela Irving’s Larry LaTrobe is located in the centre of Melbourne, outside the Town Hall; this ugly bronze dog makes a grab for being Melbourne’s most popular statue. The other dog sculpture in the fight is the Fairfield Industrial Dog Object (FIDO), and FIDO is a mighty big dog.  There are more dog statues around, including this fine bronze greyhound resting soulfully on a tomb in Boroondara Cemetery.

There are sculptures by artists who have depicted other animals as the focus of their practice. Lisa Roet’s art reminds us that we are great apes, like our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. Her work uses scale, notably the temporary, giant, inflatable statue of one of David Greybeard, a chimpanzee studied by Jane Goodall. 

Les Kossatz is best known for his sculptures of sheep. The balance between the realism and the comic energy in Coming and Going at the back of the Arts Centre of the sheep coming and going through trap doors. 

John Olsen’s signature image of a frog leaping was made into a bronze sculpture in a pond in Queen Victoria Gardens.

Where John Olsen’s Frog is a signature image made into a sculpture, Floyd’s sculpture is literally called Signature Work. Going down a rabbit hole of post-modern semiotics. Depicting a toy rabbit, a toy that represents an idea of a rabbit, or rather the repeated use of that image of it in Floyd’s art. 

There are also a few horse statues, not surprising in a city so owned by the gambling industry that there is a public holiday for a horse race. I am not a fan of all these sculptures anymore than I’m a fan of all the statues of homo sapiens. Some are horrible, while others are just tasteless or boring. June Arnold’s Dolphin Fountain in Fitzroy Gardens with bronze dolphins, birds, sea horses, and starfish is Melbourne’s most kitsch sculpture. 


Art Precincts

“A media release is not a creative precinct,” said the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, when he announced plans to spend millions to create the Collingwood Art Precinct centred around the refurbished old Collingwood TAFE building. Arts precincts are a popular idea in urban planning. But is there anything more to a precinct than an official artwash announcement designating an area of a city and repurposing old buildings into studios or performance spaces? How sustainable are arts precincts? And what is their impact on grassroots creative precincts?

Keith Haring mural at the Collingwood arts precinct

In the past local city councils often ambitiously declared an area “an arts precinct” and hoped for the best. The City of Yarra once proclaimed the “Smith St art precinct” on one side of a block with one art gallery, a couple of designers and a community radio station.

If we were to count the Collingwood Art Precinct, then Melbourne currently has several arts precincts, the main one in Southbank centred around the NGV, State Theatre, Concert Hall, ACCA, Buxton Contemporary. Melbourne also has a Sports and Entertainment Precinct around the Tennis Centre and MCG. And there is the Brunswick Design Precinct with the TAFE design faculty and Siteworks in a converted old school building and heritage house. These different precincts raise the distinction between the arts, entertainment and design in the collective consciousness as reflected by city planners and politicians and built into the city’s structure.

The Southbank arts precinct has changed from swampland to an area for popular entertainment. Wirth’s Circus and others used to pitch their tents where the Arts Centre now stands. It was a decaying area of warehouses in the 1980s; the old police horse stables are now part of the College of the Arts, and a brewery has become the Malthouse Theatre.

Southbank only has training facilities and high-end exhibition and concert halls, cutting out the mid-level entirely. There is very little street art, no artist-run spaces, and no commercial galleries. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, full of institutions exhibiting highly finished art and expensive cafes beyond the budget of the arts and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat.

Performance artists in ACCA forecourt 2016

Compare this to grassroots locations that spontaneously emerge in the inner city. One such area is around the Brunswick Tram Depot, between Moreland Road and Albion Street. It did not occur due to media releases but available and affordable space. It is light industrial on the edge of inner-city suburbs with lots of warehouse space, some of which have been converted into artist studios and a gallery. Neon Park is the kind of high-end commercial gallery with a stall at the Melbourne International Art Fair. There is no public space, and the closest thing to a park is a planter box. Still, it does have bluestone laneways that are regularly covered in fresh graffiti. And there is live music and cheap cocktails at Red Betty’s in Houdini Lane.

In spooky synchronicity, an artist working in that area sends me this SMS message as I write this. “You should get really topical and investigate how the local council funding of studios in Moreland, such as Schoolhouse and Pentridge, have adversely impacted the homegrown grassroots economies of all the independent studios in the region.”

So much for the guff from the Minister for creative industries. The point of arts precincts does seem to be the media opportunity for the politician. Generally to announce funding to convert the old building (or build new ones) rather than to support the arts where it already exists.


Looking at Urban Design

When I started this blog, I used to write posts like a diary, snapshots of Melbourne’s exhibitions and culture. I would write what galleries I went to, what I saw and what I thought. Now I try to have better-structured posts, but sometimes I miss being able to string together a whole heap of stuff together, like recently when I have been to several events about city planning, urban design and a garden show.

Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak’s wall at the Flower and Garden Show

Two weeks ago, I went on a picnic walk and talk led by Professor Alison Young about public space and the arts precinct. This was not a walking tour but an interdisciplinary conversation (music, architecture, criminology and art) about Melbourne University’s VCA and Conservatory as a park-like place with a pedestrian permeable campus. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, with institutions showing highly finished art and expensive cafes. Cafes beyond the budget of the art and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat. There are no artist-run spaces or commercial art galleries in the precinct, where even graffiti and street art are rare.

Then, last Saturday, I went to “Can parklets be reclaimed as a form of tactical urbanism?” A live podcast recording by artist Troy Innocent, urban design researcher Quentin Stevens, urban geographer Rachel Iampolski and event facilitator Kiri Delly. It was at Twosixty, a temporary public space on Sydney Road in Brunswick, with a large mural by Mike Makatron of a kangaroo bounding up an overgrown Sydney Road as the wilderness returned.

Before I went to the talk, I had no idea how small parklets are. They are the size of a couple of car park spaces, or during the pandemic, they became a common part of Melbourne’s coffee and dining experience. After the talk, we went to the demonstration parklet in Saxon Street just outside Siteworks. Young people were using it for parkour practice, and then a bunch of urban designers turned up. Good times.

And then, yesterday I went to the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Amongst the many exhibits and displays, I wasn’t expecting a wall of painted foliage by Mike Makatron and Conrad Bizjak. Still, given that they have painted so many murals in Melbourne, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I wasn’t surprised to see the Association of Sculptors of Victoria. They have been exhibiting regularly at the Flower and Garden Show for many years now. Several stands were selling sculptural garden decor, but some of the association of sculptors exhibitors were trying to do more. Even if they were carving a Dali inspired giraffe (Peter Saville, Wild Life) or creating a Claus Oldenburg inspired trio of giant blue paperclips (Madi Whyte, Rule of Three). No matter how impressive and popular a kangaroo made from a tractor chain might be, I wonder what these machine parts mean when welded into the shape of an animal or a dragon playing guitar. 

For sculptural elements in gardens looking at the shop window floral designs or RMIT fashion’s display was more aesthetically grounded than any of the garden ornaments. I continue to think about private garden sculptures (see my earlier post). My advice is to go large at home.


Street Art Sculpture 12

This is my annual post about street art sculpture, a topic that I’ve been focused on for decades because it crosses over into my interest in public sculpture. It is the most difficult of all unauthorised art for street art sculpture often requires more materials, planning and choice of location than other forms of street art and graffiti. Even creating a small piece of black glazed ceramic with the raised letters “Black Lives Matter” on it and gluing it to a power pole takes infinitely more effort than writing it with a marker.

The ABC reported about a googly eye prankster operating in Adelaide, but all I’ve seen in Melbourne is this pink rock attached to a power pole in Brunswick. That pink rock rocks. 

Prof Alison Young pointed out a series of tiny blue creatures inhabiting caves in some ill-formed concrete at the VCA. They were probably made a few years ago, given how many have been damaged, but they are still recognisable.

The year’s highlight was a series of unauthorised sculptures with a contemporary Arte Povera attitude installed in a field in Royal Park is, something very formal, physical and site-specific. 

If you are make something that will survive outdoors in Melbourne, then it will last. I love how this old Will Coles cast concret sculpture in Hosier Lane survives under multiple layers of aerosol paint.

I keep finding tiny doors all over the city; I have no idea how long they have been there or what is behind them.

Street artists will sometimes create three-dimensional versions of their art. The art toy scene is another step further in this practice.

For more about unauthorised public sculptures, see my earlier posts:


Dr Louis Smith & the arts

To one side of the entrance to the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton stands a bronze bust of a man with a moustache. It is on a granite pedestal plinth with the following words engraved:

The honorable Dr LL Smith FRCS

Erected by public subscription 26th March 1914

Chairman Exhibition Trustees 1884-1909

A trustee from 1881

Dr Louis Lawrence Smith (1830-1910) was a celebrity doctor, anatomy museum director and politician in colonial Melbourne. A witty, self-promoter, and as unscrupulous and corrupt as the best Australian politicians. He also had some odd connections to the visual arts.

Being a celebrity doctor, only the best will do with the bust by Australia’s first international superstar artist, Bertram Mackennal. It is not a significant work in Mackennal’s career, a small commission compared to others that he had from Melbourne’s doctors (you must see the grave commissioned by Dr Springthorpe at Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew).

Dr Smith arrived in Melbourne in 1852 at the start of the gold rush as a ship’s surgeon. His father was a theatrical entrepreneur in London, and from him, Smith learned how to gain attention by spending enormous amounts on advertising. Smith specialised in venereal disease at a time when there were no effective cures. Besides a medical practice, he ran an anatomy museum, a nineteenth-century cover for sex education, alongside his clinic in Bourke Street, until 1869 when it was ordered closed because it offended ‘taste’.

Dr Smith supported the early release of the bushranger turned sculptor William Stanford. He examined Stanford in Pentridge Prison and diagnosed that Stanford had contracted a lung disease from the fine granite dust that he had inhaled carving basalt. Dr Smith’s prognosis was that Stanford could not be expected to live long. Smith diagnosis was incorrect; Stanford did live for many more years, working as a stonemason and did not die of any lung disease.

A petition for Stanford’s release in 1869 failed. Stanford completed his fountain in 1870. In the 1871 Victorian elections, Smith won the seat of Richmond as the ‘people’s candidate’ and called for ‘an unconditional pardon’ for Stanford. Stanford was ‘discharged to freedom by remission’ in October 1871. Smith provided him with an interest-free loan of £900 (about $140,000 today) to buy a house on Madeline Street in Prahran and establish a monumental masons business on Dandenong Road in the then working-class suburb of Windsor. If all parliamentarians lent released prisoners as much money, recidivism would be far lower.

Stanford’s Fountain in Melbourne

Later Dr Smith gave a gift to the Royal Exhibition Building of a ‘Rembrandt painting’ The wayfarer. Smith claimed it had been given to him by the Duke of York in 1901. The painting was subsequently stolen during a burglary at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne on the 29 April 1932. The canvas was cut from its frame, making me doubt its authenticity, as most Rembrandts are painted on wood. And before we mourn the loss of a masterpiece from the golden age of Dutch painting, remember that there were thousands of more paintings attributed to ‘Rembrandt’ in 1932 than there are now. Even supposing the original attribution was even close to being accurate, the painting would be attributed to one of Rembrandt’s students or followers. The inaccurate attribution may itself have been a reason to steal it, saving the owners from the future embarrassment of owning a fake.

Everything I learn about Dr Smith raises more questions.


Hanging around Stelarc

Stelarc did a live performance on Saturday, 26 February, of his StickMan / miniStickMan. It was part of the “Future U” exhibition at RMIT Gallery that included Stelarc, Patricia Piccinini and other artists.

StickMan consists of an aluminium spine and limbs, powered by pneumatics electronics, the armature is suspended from the ceiling. Wires, cables and a coiled pneumatic hose are connected to it. Stelarc is strapped into the metal armature, pneumatic pistons pumping the limbs. He holds onto the handles of his StickMan, not to control it, but to hang on. Exploring the possibilities of this interaction with the machine and public, Stelarc pivoted on one leg, trying to remain relaxed while being controlled by the machine and the public.

Given the limited options of miniStickMan is somewhat repetitive except for the human element. The shadows of the man and machine are projected on one wall, a larger than life video of the live event the other. There is an industrial soundscape generated by sensors on the spine of the exoskeleton. It is animated by a background algorithm determined by the three of the limbs of miniStickMan. The public can change the position of miniStickMan.

This is not a dance or a performance with a beginning, middle and end. It is not about personal expression, beauty or taste, aesthetic choices or identity. It is a five-hour-long durational performance art piece about physical endurance and tolerance of the restrictions. I wonder if I should be sketching Stelarc, like a life model as he poses.

Stelarc, along with Chris Burden, was part of the masochistic body art/performance art of the 1970s, where the artist’s body is the medium for art. Stelarc would suspend himself with hooks through his skin. In the 1990s, he started integrating robotics with his body. He is one of the few artists to have his work reviewed by the BMJ (aka British Medical Journal). An earlier project, Stelarc’s Extended Arm 2000, a robot arm is on display in the corridor in a vitrine.

Stelarc is a performance art star of Australian contemporary art; he is like a septuagenarian rock star with a single name. When I ran into a friend and said that I’d just been to see Stelarc’s StickMan, he replied that he preferred Stelarc’s earlier work. Is he expecting a Stelarc’s greatest hits retrospective?


How long does graffiti last?

How long does graffiti and street art last if not deliberately removed, buffed with a fresh coat of paint? Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, even centuries. A medieval peasant cutting into the painted plaster on the church walls (for more about Medieval Graffiti). An ancient Roman scratching images of gladiators into the stones of the Colosseum.

Short answer: It depends on the medium used and the location.

Spray paint fades over time, especially in the full sun, but it does last for years, decades even. However, the same graffiti writer will paint over their own pieces to keep the paint fresh. Often it is only when a wall becomes inaccessible will they cease updating their piece.

Unlike graffiti, street art is not updated or replaced by the same artist. So the permanence of the media that a street artist uses. Paper and paste are surprisingly durable but will eventually deteriorate in Melbourne’s much-discussed weather. In the harsh and unforgiving outdoor conditions, there are casualties. Parts rust away and fall of pieces of rubbish nailed together by Junky Projects, making them meaningless.

Other media, like stone-carving, concrete casting, like Will Coles or Sandor Matos, or ceramics, lasts longer. You might be surprised at the number of unauthorised mosaics because you would think that there was almost none. Ceramics have been used as a medium for street art for decades, from the tiles mosaics of Space Invader to the work of Far4washere, a Melbourne based mixed media artist. The durability of ceramics to weathering on the street means that they have been used for authorised street mosaics (see my post about mosaics in public art in Melbourne).

The idea that graffiti was a fad contributed to a sense that it was ephemeral. The fact is that graffiti and street art are often on walls that nobody cares about; even legal projects used to bandage over an aesthetic sore spot. The building may be abandoned or scheduled for demolition. For this reason, development and other building work (a plumber putting a pipe through a Banksy) make graffiti and street art ephemeral. In Melbourne, Blender Lane, Centre Place and Lovelands are three street art/graffiti locations that have been significantly affected by developments.


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