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?
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.
Another fortnight and another attempt to decapitate another sculpture in Melbourne. Last time it was Gandhi, this time, a 2 metre tall, half-peeled banana with a skull carved into its flesh. Like the Gandhi statues Adam Stone’s Fallen Fruit, 2021 had only recently been installed. The last time I blamed right-wing Australians this time, I don’t know what to think. What is it about Melbourne that is causing people to attack sculptures?
Various Melbourne commercial TV and radio tried to create some controversy over the sculpture’s price. Consequently, a likely suspect is your typical conservative “concerned citizen” seeking revenge for what they consider is misspent public funds. There are a lot of crazies who used to stay in their suburbs in the city street post-lockdown, and this fruit has fallen amid rotting vegetables.
Most of the media have loved the image, and it has made news as far away as Nigeria. The vandalism has been given a temporary patch filling in the cuts. The saw marks go all the way around in what was clearly an energetic but inefficient attempt to chop the skull off at the jawline.
I remember seeing Stone’s Fallen Fruit at a smaller scale and cast in bronze in an exhibition at Fort Delta in 2016. I remember because it is a memorable image, and Stone had a few other faces appearing out of the flesh of peeled bananas. (See my post.)
It is a striking image intended to slow down car drivers entering the partial pedestrianisation of Rose Street. Funding for the sculpture came from the TAC (Transport Accident Commission). It is definitely cheaper than the cost of emergency services at a single fatal collision. The funding also paid for a road’s resurfacing, a road mural by Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung artist Otis Hope Carey, along with new public seating, planters growing native species, more bicycle hoops and a bike pumping station.
Scaled up in fibreglass, steel and automotive paint on a concrete base, Fallen Fruit is on the corner of Brunswick and Rose streets in Fitzroy. The intersection is busy with pedestrians enjoying coffee and the other attractions of Brunswick Street. It fits in with the area; there is graffiti by Phibs and the rest of the Everfresh crew on the wall behind it and a paste-up of Grant Alexander McCracken (1961–2020) poet and a human installation used to stand at that corner spruiking the Rose Street Artist Market.
Bananas have a remarkable presence in contemporary art. Maybe because they aren’t apples, lemons, pineapples and grapes, fruits with traditional meanings, or simply because of the phallic humour from their shape. The following gallery, Brunswick Street Gallery, I visited had a painting by Tim Van with a boxing gloved hand holding a banana. It was bananas in art for the rest of the day, from Andy Warhol’s album design for the Velvet Underground to Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian.
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.