A young woman reaches for two children. Their large hands emphasis the desire to touch. The ground is strewn with bronze garlands engraved with poetic words that further invoke the separated families. Taken Not Given is a kind of memorial, a reminder of a Parliamentary apology, and a public recognition of the hurt caused by forced adoptions.
The sculpture is by Melbourne-based artist Anne Ross. For the last 26 years Ross has been doing public art commissions around Victoria, NSW, ACT and Hong Kong. Her figurative sculptures are generally playful fun however, for Taken Not Given, she had to reach another tone — one of an absence — of longing.
It was commissioned by the Victorian Parliament after its apology for forced adoption practices following the 2012 Commonwealth Senate Inquiry into forced adoption policies and practices. And was unveiled on 26 October 2018 on a small quiet triangle of garden on the corner of Lansdowne St. and St Andrews Pl. beside the government buildings and opposite Fitzroy Gardens. It can be seen as you come along the street but is obscured from the corner by a large patch of plants. There was no desire line of trampled grass indicating where people had walked over the lawn to the sculpture or read the accompanying explanative panel.
Aside from looking at the aesthetic qualities and style of the sculpture and the landscape gardening when I see a new piece of public sculpture I ask: how is it being used? And, what is it intended to do?
Is this an apology cast in bronze? A solid reminder to the Victorian government not to take children from their parents again.
Or is it art-wash? Buying an indulgence from art to pay-off past sins. Is the sculpture used as a proof of their virtue for apologising and a distraction from the victims?
I’m not sure; but I’m sure that the questions are worth considering. Your answers are welcome in the comments.
In several of Melbourne’s lanes and alleys there a lot of people were talking about the graffiti. There was usual school group with art teacher in Hosier Lane, a young woman taking photos, and a middle aged man who had seen the ABC documentary on graffiti in Melbourne and had learnt to appreciate what he had previously regarded as rubbish. It is an unlikely scenario; strangers talking to each other about art in a city alley full of rubbish bins but in Melbourne it is common. Even if you can’t read the writing on the wall street art inspires communication, it is a social lubricant, providing a contact point for strangers in the big city.
Isn’t that the whole point of art? – To provide a reason or focus for communication. There is a lot of unofficial communications on the street. The streets will always provide a forum for politics that can’t be censored. Many political groups will use a sticker campaign to get their message on the streets. It is an obvious choice if you fear censorship or reprisals or just hassles.
"Corrupt Cops Killed Carl" sticker in Brunswick
Currently on the streets of Brunswick there is a sticker campaign against the Victorian police. A sticker: “Corrupt Cops Killed Carl” commenting on the death in jail of Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. There are more stickers on the theme of corruption in the Victorian police scattered around the streets of Brunswick. Another much stranger and bigger political paste-ups on the streets of Brunswick (and Fitzroy and Coburg – how big is this poster campaign?) is advocating considering the alternatives.
"Seek an alternative" poster in Brunswick
Finally in this discussion of the graffiti discourse I must mention the Dunny Art blog. Following in the footsteps of photography Rennie Ellis’s books on Australian graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and focusing on traditional, pre-aerosol graffiti Dunny Art, photographs graffiti on toilet wall around the world. The comment and reply nature of these ad hoc discussion walls is another forum that can’t be censored.
Aerosol Arabic, Thirst for Change, Sparks Lane, Melbourne
“A Thirst for Change” by Mohammed Ali aka Aerosol Arabic is a legal 2 story high piece at the dead-end of Sparks Lane. It is part of the Melbourne International Art Festival and was sponsored by the British Council Australia. Aerosol Arabic is a British artist from Birmingham who merges graffiti and Islamic art.
The piece is divided into two sections; the upper section is dominated by the words “A Thirst for Change”. Behind these words are motifs from graffiti art and Islamic geometric patterns. Underneath this slogan is generic scene city at night by a river framed by a dripping wet blue cloud. The scene is captioned with “Do not waste water even before a flowing river” – the Prophet Mohammed. Melbourne should take this message to heart.
Melbourne is currently in very low on water. There are water restrictions and people are trying to save water where they can. However, as Australian politics is restricted by a paranoid mob mentality that cannot understand water purification, Melbourne does not have water recycling.
Street art often strives to be propaganda, to deliver a message, to speak to the people in the street. Aerosol Arabic’s piece “A Thirst for change” has echoes of the slogan “change” in Obama’s US presidential campaign. There is nothing wrong with Aerosol Arabic’s propaganda message; Melbourne does need to conserve water. And there is a need to raise awareness of Islam as a religion that cares about the environment.
If this is such a good and timely message why hasn’t the Victorian government embraced this beautiful piece? The piece is hidden away from the public. Sparks Lane is rarely used by anyone apart from delivery drivers. Street artists rarely venture this far up Flinders St. and there only a couple of stencil works in the lane. There is controversy about this piece because street art, even legal street art, is politically charged in Melbourne. Unfortunately small-minded philistines who can’t see the big picture dominate Australian politics.
“The premise that “illegal graffiti is a serious problem” is used to justify the reversal of the onus of proof, with the example of the offense of “going equipped for stealing etc”. This raises the question does the Minister consider that illegal graffiti is as serious a problem as burglary? How does this compare to the serious problem of politicians who vote twice in elections? Here also there has been problems in “demonstrating the requisite intent” resulting no convictions ever being recorded for the offense.”
I sent this email to Victorian Department of Justice following up their reply to my entry “Lex Injusta”. And I have received a reply citing an estimated cost of graffiti of $300 million a year (Graffiti and Disorder Conference, 2003). This is a weak argument as graffiti policy, unlike many other crimes, determines the cost of graffiti removal. Further in comparison, burglary costs an estimated $2,430 million a year (Australian Institute of Criminology).
The identification of graffiti as ‘a problem’ by 26% of households in an ABS 2005 survey on crime was also cited by the Victorian Department of Justice in their reply. However, according to the same ABS 2005 survey “the most common household crime in all survey years was house break-in.” And the percentage of people who believed that house break-in was a problem was 33%. And 30% of respondents believed that there was “no problems in their neighbourhood.” We can go on all day about statistics, remembering Mark Twain’s remark that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.
Statistics and public opinion can be manipulated to show support (or not) for the recent draconian anti-graffiti ‘laws’. Although Victoria has something called human rights legislation it is not worth the paper that it is printed on as it can be overturned with a few words from the right person. The main effect of the human rights legislation appears to be getting people, like the Minister, to write excuses as to why they are violating human rights. It would be better if Victorian politicians set a good example to the next generations by respecting human rights and principles of justice rather than finding excuses to ignore them.