Tag Archives: Melbourne

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?


The Burns Memorial

“Notices paint the way to the “Banks of Coon” and to the Auld Brig, upon which a man in a bowler-hat stood with his camera ready. He offered to take my photograph with the Burns memorial as background. I said the honour was too great for a normal man, and begged to be excused.”

j b morton (beachcomber), “a lowland jaunt”
George Anderson Lawson, Robert Burns Memorial, Treasury Gardens

There are probably more memorials to Robert Burns in the Anglophone world than any other person except for maybe Queen Victoria. You can find a Burns memorial almost everywhere some Scots have lived; so if you live in Scotland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland or the USA there is likely to be one nearby. (For an incomplete list of the Burns Memorial nearest you see Wikipedia.)

Melbourne’s own Burn’s Memorial was erected on 23 January 1904. The memorial’s original location on the west side of St Kilda Road and it was moved to its current site in the Treasury gardens in 1970.

It is an edition of the Robert Burns Memorial in Ayr in Scotland by the Scottish-born, Liverpool-based, sculptor George Anderson Lawson in 1892. It is the same sculpture as in Montreal, Halifax (Canada), Vancouver, Winnipeg and Detroit, only the plinths which were manufactured by local stonemasons are different.

These statues were purchased with funds raised by the local Caledonian society. Every Caledonian society in the world appears to have been raising money for a Burns memorial at some stage in their existence. Melbourne’s cost £1000 (the equivalent of about $158,000 worth today x 60+ for all the Burns Memorials in the world).

On the frontside of Melbourne’s Burns memorial, “BURNS” is spelt out in bronze letter. (This summer as bushfires raged some Melbourne half-wit sprayed “Australia” above “Burns”.) On the other sides there are bronze panels depict scenes from his poems: Tam O’Shanter (1790), To a mountain daisy (1786), and The cotter’s Friday night (1785). This follows the traditional form of a memorial statue where moments in the life of the hero are depicted.

For me the memorials raises many questions. What is the point of a literary memorial and why do people believe that there was a need to represent heroes in sculptural form? Did the Caledonian societies get value for money buying all those Burns memorials? And, surely a writer’s best memorial is their words and not their physiognomy? But then who now remembers any of Burns words apart from a few lines of Auld Lang Syne?

I wasn’t able to photograph all sides of the plinth because there was a tradesman was eating his lunch. I have often seen people sitting at the base of the Melbourne Burns memorial, it is mostly used as a bench now. I asked the man if I could take his photograph with the Burns memorial as the background and but he politely refused.


Maquettes of Melbourne’s Sculptures

This is a collection of photos of Melbourne public sculptures and their maquettes. Maquette is an arty French word for a ‘model’ from when French was the language of art (now the language of contemporary art is any language that you speak). They are made in a variety of media from wood, wax, clay or anything other inexpensive media that works for the sculptor.

Sculptors make them as visual sketches for themselves but they are also used to get commissions for sculptures. The sculptural equivalent of architectural models. The City of Melbourne has a small collection of these maquettes in their storage, as have the Arts Centre, that were submissions for sculpture commissions.

These models are made directly by the sculptor whereas the full-scale version may be the work of both sculptor, assistants and other fabricators. The models for bronze sculptures are made out of bees wax and multiple bronze editions of these scale models are sometimes made.

Louis Laumen’s Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial (aka Dungala Wamayirr) was originally design to be on opposite sides of each and to be on a higher plinth. Here they are along with James White’s Edmund Fitzgibbon Memorial, along with another unknown statue (possibly Peter Corlett’s John Cain but on a plinth).

Marc Clark’s Portal (See my post on the hostile installation of this sculpture.)


Discarded in the street

A creature with wings cast from a dead bird, a drink-can and a cotton reel and ointment tube as peg-legs. These are the ghosts that haunt the urban landscape, hungry ghosts made from what we throw away. When I first saw Discarded’s low relief sculptures on the street I thought of the frottage work by my favourite Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, for like Ernst surreal creatures, Discarded’s creations are at once absurd, etherial and poetic. Urban textures and debris transformed into treasures.

Street art sculpture is uncommon, even in Melbourne there are less than half a dozen people practicing the art at any one time. Like Junky Projects, the Melbourne-based street-artist who assembles street art sculptures from rubbish found in the street, Discarded assembles her figures from discarded items that she picks up in the street. To this Discarded adds another step, casting and making ceramic copies that she glazes and returns to the street. The ceramic replicas are combined into figures and glued on poles, concrete edges and other pieces of urban infrastructure that are unusable to the muralists and graffiti writers.

Discarded is a professional ceramics artist working in Melbourne; not surprising given the  obvious skill her works exhibits in multiple areas of ceramics from casting to painting. Her own street art is inspired by the work of many other streets artists. “They put in their time and money and give it up for other people to see.”

Discarded’s figures don’t have an obvious meaning, they is open to interoperation. Discarded told me: “I’ve had many instances of my work being very misconstrued. The most alarming was a project I did a couple of years ago on telegraph poles which people thought was signals for people to steal their dogs for illegal dogfighting. So I try to make it a playful/serious, comment on our relationship with the earth.”

Discarded explains: “I sort of have a love/hate relationship with the art world, so it often really inspires me to go to see exhibitions and galleries (best ever experience was going to see the Biennale at Arsenale and being in Athens where street art is wall to wall). But I hate the way art is currently situated in our culture, where generally only what makes it to the gallery is valued. I think we have to remember that the current situation of our art culture is not a set thing, it’s constantly evolving and street art plays a big part in changing the way we view art and also how we can imagine it to be.” And I can only applaud this attitude.

Persistence is an important quality of a street artist: how long does their work last in the urban environment and how many years do they persist in putting things up in the street. Discarded’s work persist even under layers of aerosol paint. As an artist she has persisted more than most, five years so far, and although not prolific she keeps on assembling her creations.

Another important quality for any graffiti writer or street artist is exposure, how far across the city their work can be found. In this respect Discarded is limited and I have only seen her work in the city and along the Upfield train line. It is not as easy for a female street artist to work as it is for a male. So, just be glad that Discarded is still installing her art on Melbourne’s walls and keep your eyes open for her latest creations.

(Thanks Discarded for the interview at a distance.)


A Hostile Installation

A hostile installation is where a public sculpture is installed in a very unsympathetic way, like John Kelly’s Cow Up A Tree which has been located behind a ‘temporary’ coffee shop in Docklands for years. There are a few hostile installations of public sculpture in Melbourne and then there is hatred directed at Marc Clark’s Portal, 1973.

This is what the sculpture should look like. Marc Clark’s maquette for Portal.

The hostility directed at this sculpture is exhibited in both neglect, storing a sign next to it, and blocking views of the sculpture with a corrugated iron ticket booth. Clark’s Portal as its name indicates is meant to be a gateway, standing at one of the entrances to Myer Music Bowl. Instead there is a rectangular booth stuck directly front of it. What is wrong with the Myer Music Bowl? The Myer Music Bowl is run by the Melbourne Arts Centre, who should know how to take care of a sculpture.

This is how it has been installed

Sculptor and educator Marc Clark did nothing to invite this. This is Australian passive aggressive indifference; all antipathy with no responsibility. Both Clark and his sculpture are victims of the hostile attitude; they just happen to be in the way of philistine forces from some staff at the Myer Music Bowl.

A versatile sculptor Clarke created the formal abstracts, like Portal, and representational sculptures, like his Captain Cook statue at the Captain Cook Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens or his bust of botanist and explorer, Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller in the Botanic Gardens.

Sculptures need to be maintained and do not magically remain in perfect condition. Fortunately they are more easily repairable than other public art (see my post on the conservation of street art). There are sculptures that are regularly repainted like Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. Public sculptures are sometimes damaged in accidents, like when a truck hit Peter Corlett’s Mr Poetry and broke its leg. Portal needs to have rust and moss removed and it’s surface repaired and repainted.

A new location has to be found for the ticket booth or Portal, so that both can function as they should.


COVID-19 and Melbourne’s art world

If you are like me then you are already bored with all the articles, posts, tweets about COVID-19. So please forgive me for this blog post; I am writing it for a future record rather than for you my present unfortunate readers. On the upside, this short blog post contains my most complete report on what is going on in Melbourne’s art galleries but with fewer images.

The art galleries have closed in Melbourne. Art Almanac has a list of gallery closures and event cancellations but the short version is everything is cancelled or postponed. So instead of my regular wander to view exhibitions and street art this Thursday I will once again be staying at home, as I have since mid-March.

A few commercial galleries like, Charles Nodrum Gallery, continued with their exhibition program during March, without the usual opening drinks, and remained open by appointment, asking patrons to call ahead to arrange a suitable time to view the exhibition.

Some street artists and graffiti writers, normally nocturnal creatures, are still venturing outside to practice their art but they won’t have many actual viewers even in the best locations. The famous Hosier Lane is empty, as it often was a decade ago when the art in it was better. I infer this from what I have seen in recent posts and photos for I have seen little more than a few blocks from my home.

Many artists are working from home or alone in their studio as they have always done. What they produce and what is the cultural impact of this pandemic maybe a topic for future blog posts when the art galleries are open again.


A decade ago in Hosier Lane

Instead of going out paint-spotting today; photographing graffiti and street art around the city I am staying home. I have been cleaning up my photo collection of graffiti and street art. The photos need to be named, tagged, filed. In the process I saw my photos of Hosier Lane and, the then adjoining, Rutledge Lane from a decade ago in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Hosier Lane was not created so that people could sell product or attract tourists. It was a place for graffiti writers and street artists, where they could spray in the centre of city. Not that those original intentions mean anything in what it has become. So here is a photo-essay about Hosier Lane from over a decade ago when there were a lot less tourists and a bit more respect for the art.

Stormie Mills (cut off) Reko Rennie, Drew Funk and Vexta all on one wall in December 2009.

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