Statuemania (noun) is a portmanteau word used for over a century to describe the obsession with erecting statues.
Statuemania is alive and well in Australia. However, Australia’s love of statues is like a gambler who has already lost a fortune but keeps placing bets. Having spent a fortune erecting a memorial, Australia tries to solve more problems by erecting memorials and statues. And consequently, per head of dead or living military personnel, Australia has spent more on war memorials than any other country. The Australian government is spent $140m-plus for the WWI centenary, compared to the British government spending £55m ($94m) Paul Daley reported in The Guardian (15/10/2013). Lest we forget that Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance was the most expensive sculpture commission in the country’s history.
But the multitude of military memorials is just the pointy peak of Australia’s statuemania. More bits of cast bronze are scattered across the country like shrapnel. A statue of Shakespeare in Ballarat, a city that never existed in Shakespeare’s life. A whole street of statues and other memorials along North Terrace in Adelaide; the avenue of heroes, a feature that Melbourne aspired to but could never agree on what road, Swanston Street, Exhibition Street, or St. Kilda Parade.
There is a circle of thirty-two bronze busts on grey concrete plinths outside the Rod Laver Area. One of every person who has won the Australian Tennis Open. The Australian Tennis Hall of Fame is all the work of one woman, Barbara McLean. McLean specialises in making sculpture portraits from photographs. I’d prefer to see one of McLean’s leggy surrealist sculptures than another of her portrait busts, but I can guess which one pays the bills.
Phrenology should not be conducted on these busts because it will reveal nothing. The image of the Australian Tennis Open winner does nothing to our understanding of their place in history. The shape of the skulls of those depicted means nothing but the monied influence of their supporter says everything. What these statues show is political power and how it distorts history. They create the antique relationship to public space where private money can buy a position in a public space forever, preserving a world where money buys respect; the statues of Michael Gudinski (also at Rod Laver Arena), or General Sun Yat Sen in Chinatown, for example.
Why is it a problem? You might be thinking, why aren’t I enjoying all this public art; after all, I am the author of a book on the topic, Sculptures of Melbourne. Sculptors won’t tell you it’s a problem, not while people put money in their pockets. Statuemania keeps foundries and sculptors in business. It preys on the weakness of uninspired, uninformed people who want to do something good. In the last decade, new sculpture foundries have been established in Melbourne to cater to the increased demand.
These statues are “art” in the same way that photographs of bananas in a supermarket advert are “art” as opposed to “copy”. And in the past, statues were serious art, which doesn’t ensure they always will be. That public money is spent on a statue takes away from better public art.
Statues were once exhibitions of technological accomplishment, wealth and power, shock and awe. The technical achievement of casting a giant bronze statue was a public demonstration that the society had highly skilled professionals and the wealth to employ them. Now the technology of making sculptures has been superseded. However, colossal statues are still made as demonstrations of wealth and power. Statue measuring competitions exist because they are erected by patriarchal dicks.
”For more on this topic, read GaryYounge’s “Why Every Single Statue Should Come Down”.