Tag Archives: Yarra River

The sculptor and the swan

Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.

The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’. 

Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.

Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.

Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.

Cookie, the black swan memorial drinking fountain

In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3)  “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.


Yarra Sculptures

My brother-in-law, Tom wanted to take a hundred photographs of the buildings in Melbourne’s docklands and riverfront, so earlier this year I went along with him for the early morning walk. We got out at Southern Cross Station, the former Spencer Street Station and crossed the tracks out of the old city. This is not walking Docklands’ public “Art Journey” as Bronwen Colman, the urban art director of the Melbourne Docklands precinct planned but a psychogeographical meandering along the Yarra River.

Webb Bridge, Docklands

Webb Bridge, Docklands

The Yarra River is the reason for Melbourne’s location, it was the transportation hub for the new settlement and it became an industrial site. When the modes of transportation changed in the late 20th Century the river became a neglected site. Another use had to be found for this polluted waterway and like many cities around the world Melbourne turned it into a parkland, river walk, casino, aquarium, restaurants and arts centre. The Yarra River started to be redeveloped in the 1970s with the construction of the Victoria Arts Centre and this urban redesign required more public sculpture.

Patricia Picinni, Seats

Patricia Piccinini, Car Nuggets, 2006

While Tom was photographing the architecture I was looking at and occasionally photographing the sculptures. Just off Batman Hill Drive at the Kangan Institute of TAFE’s Automotive Centre of Excellence I spotted three seats by Patricia Piccinini, the Car Nuggets, 2006. The chrysalis forms of cars or motorcycles about to metamorphose is both typical of Piccinini’s oeuvre and appropriate for the location.

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole, 2005

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole, 2005

We could hardly miss seeing Sydney-based artist, Duncan Stemler’s Blowhole, 2005; a 15 metre tall kinetic wind-responsive stainless-steel and aluminium sculpture located in Docklands Park. In 2008 two of the anodised aluminium cups were blown off but there wasn’t much wind and it wasn’t doing much when we were there.

The area feels deserted until we crossed the river at the Webb Bridge and then things were there was the noise of a flock of parrots enjoying the palm trees. Tom didn’t mind the lack of people, he was happily photographing the architecture of all the new buildings.

As we progress up the south bank of the Yarra there are a few more people were around. I remember reading stories about the early days of Melbourne where people disembarking from ships at the port kept walking up river for what to them seemed like ages until they saw the city. It is very similar today or maybe the city was finally waking up on the weekend.

Further reminding me of the early days of Melbourne the area has these touches of hyper-reality in the old pump house with boilers made by the old Robinson Bros. foundry. I recognised the name of the foundry as they had made Percival Ball’s Francis Ormond Memorial at RMIT.

Megafun, John Dory, 2006

Megafun, John Dory, 2006

On the north bank of the Yarra River poking its head out from amongst the apartments is a giant metal John Dory fish. It was originally on a floating platoon during the 2006 Commonwealth games and was constructed by a company called Megafun. Megafun also provided technical and project management support to Scar – A Stolen Vision in 2001, the aboriginal poles further along the north bank.

The crowds started to build up around the exhibition building and the casino. We had to find some shade so that Tom could see his camera’s screen properly; he was up to his 81st photo.

Simon Rigg, Gaurdians 1997

Simon Rigg, Gaurdians 1997

Outside the eastern end of Crown Entertainment Complex are The Guardians by Simon Rigg. These two large sculptures carved from Italian statuary marble and clad with ceramic tiles. Rigg has a number of other marble public sculptures around Melbourne, including Babylon, 1995 is at 101 Collins Street, as well as, in Beijing and New York.

We come to Inge King Sheerwater, 1994 in front of the Esso building. (See my post on Inge King.) Tom puts his camera away, he has taken his hundredth photo and we cross the Yarra heading up Swanston Walk to Chinatown for a well earned yum cha.

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994


Birrarung Wilam and other public art

The aboriginal population of this area didn’t have a say in the establishment of Melbourne. They were dispossessed, their land was declared empty and unowned and Australian law legally reduced them to being part of the fauna and flora. Consequently they rarely figure in Melbourne’s public sculpture, they were not part of the collective consciousness of Melbourne for most of its history. They were being officially ignored and neglected.

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Australian aborigines briefly appear on the bas-reliefs on the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers. The story of the expedition is told in four low relief panels around the base of the statue. Burke and Wills were unwilling to deal the local aboriginal people, the sole survivor John King was help by the Yandruwandha people and lived with them until found by the rescue mission. To prepare the panels Summers lived for six weeks with local aborigines to design the figures on the lower panel and depicts them as dignified, well-proportioned people.

This is the first time that aboriginal figures appear in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. After that public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population vanished. For over a century Aboriginal art and identity was official ignored. In the last twenty years it has slowly changed and there is public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population by indigenous artists.

Birrarung Wilam  shields

Birrarung Wilam shields

Amongst the new aboriginal art along the Yarra River in Burrung Marr there is Birrarung Wilam (meaning river camp) by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.

Made of stone, wood, stainless steel, bronze, nickel and audio installation, 2006, this is a complex installation with many elements. The twisting, textured eel path represents a major food source, the feminine mound “camp site” and the masculine the five metal shields along the riverfront. Marking the site’s eastern and western ends stand intricately carved hardwood message sticks, by Glenn Romanis, representing the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation. The metal shields by the river, representing the five clans of the Kulin Nation, were designed by Mandy Nicholson who also designed and helped carve the petroglyphs on the stones.

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

The performance space is magnificent even remembering that the stones were moved by machines and not by hand while remembering that these ancient British monuments are themselves reconstructions. The best part the ancestral stones the petroglyphs of animals carved on the stones. The monolithic carved ancestor stones are placed to form a semi-circular performance area. Unfortunately they are sort of hidden behind ArtPlay, the children’s arts centre next to a playground.

Birrarung Wilam may be a very large and complex work but it is still dwarfed by the scale of this riverside park. There is room for an entire north bank of the Yarra River and meeting up with the carved poles of Scar – a Stolen Vision (see my post).

Indigenous artist were also represented in 2011 the Laneways Commissions with an all indigenous year that included Reko Rennie Neon Natives, a neon light display, Yhonnie Scarce’s Iron Cross in Brien Lane, Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council: Judy Nicholson, James McFayden, Asley Firebrace-Kerr and Derek Smith is still up on a wall off Burke Street, and Urban Doolagahl by Steaphan Paton. Very few people in Melbourne would have heard of the Doolagahl before Steaphan Paton introduced them by his retelling of the story in an urban context revives an ancient tradition.

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council, off Burke St.

This public art publicly acknowledges the existences of Aboriginal Australia in Melbourne’s collective consciousness.


Armstrong’s Melbourne Sculpture

“Bruce Armstrong’s name is synonymous with current sculptural practice in Melbourne.” Boasts John Buckley Gallery’s website. There is good reason for this boast Armstrong’s sculpture Eagle (aka “Bunjil”) erected in May 2002 at Bunjilway is now an iconic image of Melbourne. However, Bruce Armstrong is hardly a household name.

Bruce Armstrong, "Eagle", 2002

Bruce Armstrong, “Eagle”, 2002

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong "Constellation", 1997, wood and steel, detail

Geoffery Barlett & Bruce Armstrong “Constellation”, 1997, wood and steel, detail

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and studied painting and sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He has sculptures in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Canberra. In the 2005 Armstrong was an Archibald Prize finalist with a self-portrait with eagle.

“Bunjil” is not an isolated work Armstrong’s sculptures have been around Melbourne for decades. There are two more of Armstrong’s eagles, “Guardians”, 2009 out the front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street. At Yarra Turning Basin there is a series of angled pillars, Armstrong’s “Constellation”, 1997, made in collaboration with Geoffrey Bartlett. His “Tiger” 1985 is out at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Bruce Armstrong, Untitled, 1986

Armstrong’s two lions beasts (Untitled 1986) once guarded the front of the National Gallery of Victoria but are now out the back in its sculpture garden. When Armstrong’s two lions untitled beasts were out the front I overheard a man and woman from the country who were looking at them. “I reckon I could do that with my chainsaw” the man remarked. I’m sure he could be I doubted that he would make the effort to move such enormous logs and do all the carving.

The muscular nature of the sculpture is part of what makes Armstrong’s work powerful, the monumental physical displays of power. There is an unrefined power to the statues of Bruce Armstrong, the large lumps of materials from which they are carved are still visible. His huge animals are usually carved from native red gum and cypress although the monumental 23-meter tall “Bunjil” is cast aluminium painted white.

Armstrong’s sculptures are totemic, in a Jungian collective unconscious way; it is serendipitous that his Eagle happens to correspond to the sea eagle creator, Bunjil, of the Kulin Nation. His public sculptures work as totemic features along paths or guarding gateways. And because of their monumentality they are treated with a kind of awe.


Ophelia will return

Ophelia hasn’t jumped in the river and drowned she has been removed for a full restoration and will be returning to Southgate in November. Not Hamlet’s Ophelia but Deborah Halpern’s “Ophelia”, 1992, the concrete and ceramic sculpture with the face that was named “the official face of Melbourne” by Tourism Victoria in 1996.

The familiarity of the city landscape comes with a kind of blinkers that limit the number of things that are seen. As we become so familiar with the landscape we forget the past. Change in the city is continuos and there is a kind of social amnesia that most of us suffer from. Most people, including myself, cannot remember/imagine the city without certain public sculptures and so assume that a particular sculpture has been there for far longer than it actually has.

Deborah Halpern, Ophelia, 1992, concrete and ceramic, crowded out by outdoor dinning.

In case you hadn’t noticed Deborah Halpern’s 1992 “Ophelia” has been removed from the Southgate Complex on Melbourne’s Southbank. Bear Brass bar and restaurant has taken over the location with more out door smoker’s sections, it had already crowded the sculpture out when I photographed it over a year ago.

“We have been working extensively with the artist, Deborah Halpern and look forward to welcoming her (Ophelia) back very soon.” Jo Gartner, Southgate’s Events and Marketing Manager told Black Mark. “When Ophelia returns she will be located on the promenade directly opposite our main entrance, creating a natural meeting place for Melburnians on the river, and providing a stronger visual connection with the artist’s other major work Angel in Birrarung Marr.”

This is the second of Halpern’s Melbourne sculptures to have been moved from its original iconic location to a riverside location. Halpern’s “Angel” has been moved from the NGV’s moat to its current location (see my post: More of Melbourne’s Public Sculpture). Halpern’s concrete and ceramic tile sculptures were colourful and popular Melbourne icons of the 1980s and 90s. Have they now fallen from favour as tastes change? Or does their new locations give them new life?

 


Psychogeography of the Yarra River

“Urbanism is the modern fulfilment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomisation of workers who had been dangerously brought together by urban conditions of production.” Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)

The Yarra River divides Melbourne more than just geographically. It is the polluted, poisonous brown snake that divides the northwest of the city from the southeast. It is a psychological division of the city. The Yarra River is the major psychogeographic feature of Melbourne.

Psychogeography’ is a portmanteau neologism by the Lettrists, a proposal for a study of the relationship between psychology and geography. In reality it was an excuse for the avant-garde of Paris to drunkenly wander the streets and for Stewart Home and other British Neoists to write magico-nonsense (Mind Invaders, ed. Steward Home, Serpent’s Tail, 1997). But if we take Debord seriously then the psychogeography Melbourne appears to divide and restrict the movement of its inhabitants, with a spoked network of railway tracks, tram tracks and roads. Whether this “safeguards class power” as Debord argues or merely the result of stupid and short-sighted governments is a matter for political debate.

For more on the psychogeography of Melbourne see Mapping Melbourne and Simon Seller’s “Urban Wasteland: A Pyschogeographical tour of Melbourne”.

The Yarra River was called Birrarrung meaning “Place of Mists and Shadows” by the Wurundjeri tribe, the local aboriginal people. In 1803 when NSW Surveyor-General Charles Grimes named it “Freshwater River”. In 1835 it was renamed “Yarra Yarra” by John Helder Wedge of the Port Phillip Association, in the mistaken belief that this was the Aboriginal name for the river. The name was subsequently condensed to the Yarra River.

The Yarra is not a wide river and there are many bridges; for a visitor of the city the river may not seem like a major boundary but it is to Melbourne’s inhabitants. People living south of the river rarely go further across than the CBD or MCG. And people living north of the river rarely go south of the river. I could go into generalizations about the affluent southeast and the working class northwest of the city or how the radial spread of the city train-lines, tramlines and roads to explain this division.

The river has become a tourist attraction. In a copy of London’s Southbank, the south bank of the Yarra was made into an arts precinct, later extended with a restaurant and casino area. Princess Bridge has become a prime location to photograph the city at sunrise or sunset. The south bank of the river was the first to be improved, although this had always had parks and boatsheds. A riverside walk and sculptures have been added to the north bank of the Yarra it remains dominated by the railway lines and Flinders St. station until the construction of Federation Square and Birrarung Marr park.

I live in the north and I rarely travel south of the river, except to go to the NGV or other venues in Southbank. I am sorry that I haven’t written more about the galleries and street art south of the river.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)


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