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Category Archives: Public Sculpture

Sydney Public Sculpture

“A city is the greatest work of art possible” Lloyd Rees

What I did on my summer holiday. Did you ever write that for school?

I went for a holiday in Sydney. I wanted to have a holiday and get away from my work but when your work involves public art, even walking around the block can involve looking at a sculpture or street art. I did take a few photographs of some sculptures in Sydney.

I saw sculptures that I like; I loved the golden tree in Chinatown, Golden Water Mouth by Lin Li. I saw some sculpture that horrified me like the bronze sculpture of Governor Macquarie with its very large feet.

I can’t help explaining the differences between lost wax and sand casting when looking at the Robert Kippel sculpture at Circular Key. The Jason Wing alleyway in Chinatown brought back memories of seeing an exhibition by him in 2009. My wife asked me if I was thinking of writing a book about Sydney’s public sculpture, after my Sculptures of Melbourne.

People keep telling me that Melbourne is somehow special in its relationship to public sculpture and I just don’t buy that intercity rivalry. Admittedly Sydney did not have the year long “Yellow Peril” stupidity but it was just a stupid overblown Melbourne City Council dispute after all and not the end of civilisation. Sydney was less in need of landmark sculptures having both major architectural and physical landmarks.

I ran into the sculptor, Lis Johnson in the Art Gallery of NSW shop who was up in Sydney studying marble carving. She thought that Sydney was becoming more like Melbourne with the street art in the laneways along with small coffeeshops and bars.

There are a lot more public sculptures in Sydney these days. There is a similar historical trajectory as I trace in my book. And I have done the research on some of the sculptors like Akio Makigawa already. The street sculptor, Will Coles lives and works in Sydney; I could add interview with him instead of the one with Junky Projects.

Pipe dreams aside I have no immediate plans to write the companion book to my Sculptures of Melbourne because I don’t live in Sydney. About half of what I have earned from writing the book has come from walking tours and talks. Anyway the City of Sydney has a good website about its public art with walking tours.

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Recent Public Sculptures in Melbourne

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Alex Goad, Tethya, 2015

Alex Goad’s biomorphic Tethya on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda is a recent public sculpture. Since my history of Melbourne’s public sculpture was published last year there are a few new public sculptures around the city. Not that Sculptures of Melbourne was intended as an index of all the sculptures in greater Melbourne, that would be insane as I included street art sculptures.

Two ballet dancers, Les Belle Hélène by David Maughan, were installed on the lawn at the Arts Centre. And John Olsen’s Frog was installed in a pond in Queen Victoria Gardens. As if either location needed any more sculptures.

Further out of town and in a better, some might even say “site specific” location, John Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow was installed in Sunshine marking a return to his home suburb for Kelly. Brimbank Council really milked the cow with associated events: the 1000 cow project, an art prize, a John Kelly exhibition and an education program at the Brimbank Civic Centre.

Most of the recent public sculpture has been temporary sculptures or pieces put up by street artists. Local street artist, Kranky and other were reviving Presgrave Place. Ironically there were several street sculpture homes this year including several by MOW from the USA. MOW was in Melbourne sticking up a few tiny doors and windows.

The campaign this year to save Chris Booth’s Strata had a happy ending with MONA agreeing to take the sculpture and pay for it to be reassembled. Melbourne’s loss will be Hobart’s gain.

There was no campaign to save Peter Corlett’s sculptures of John Farnham, Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna Everage and Graham Kennedy in the Docklands. There were many reasons for this chiefly because they had very little artistic quality, few people in Melbourne want to remember that these entertainers came from Melbourne and no-one ever saw them in the Docklands.


Re-Vault

Four people wearing yellow chemical coveralls are slowly moving in the City Square in Melbourne. It is Re-vault a performance about Vault, Ron Robertson-Swan’s ill fated sculpture that once stood in the City Square, hence all the yellow. It is one of EPA’s performances, part of Melbourne 47 “senses of the city” paid for though Melbourne’s Arts Grant Program and Monash University.

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Two of the performers are manipulating planes of steel grids for concrete reinforcing. These modernist grids refer to the angles of the steel planes of Vault. The other two people are tied together with yellow and black barrier tape. They act as pedestrian control and a human safety barrier creating a space between the shallow pools and the Christmas kitsch that is under construction in most of the square.

Jonathan Sinatra’s performance piece comes 35 years after Vault’s removal. The Christmas construction means that the performance could not be anywhere near the original location of Vault, in the northwestern part of the square. Not that it mattered as very few people passing by would have any idea of Robertson-Swann’s sculpture that now located in the forecourt of ACCA.

Although the limited audience of passing school groups, tourists and locals had no idea of the original sculpture the performance did. Aside from the obvious yellow there were a couple of other references. Vault was intended as a grand interlocking sculpture and Re-vault’s body-sculpture also acts as an interlocking sculpture, although less grand.

I take a seat at the Caboose Canteen order a pulled pork slider and a cider and watch the performance unfold. It is a beautiful day, the first day in Melbourne over 30 degrees since March. It was the perfect seat until the performers move one bridge up. It reminds me that these band of shallow water and the very shallow water pouring down the surface of the John Mockridge Fountain are the vestigial remains of the all important ‘water feature’ found in the original architectural brief for the square. In the original city square water the smell of chlorine filled the air as water poured over an enormous multi-stepped fountain. There was so much chlorine in the air that it pitted the bronze sculpture of Burke and Wills. Fortunately water is being used more wisely now.

Re: Vault my review of Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city (Indra Publishing, 2004)


Emily Floyd’s Signature Work

The big black bunny is clearly a toy; it’s blocky features and simplified form is a result of it being a toy and not modern art. I had only seen in Emily Floyd Signature Work (Rabbit) in a photograph that mislead me about its size. As always with these things I was expecting something larger but Melbourne’s Docklands with it’s multi-story buildings is so large that the rabbit would have to be huge to compete.

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Emily Floyd, Signature Work, 2004

When I first saw Floyd’s work years ago in Anna Schwartz Gallery I didn’t like it. I haven’t liked her subsequent exhibition either including; The Dawn, a solo survey exhibition at the NGV in 2014. All the bright colours and toy like forms seem prosaic when you realise the dull question that they are based on: if art is about communication can we learn from it?

Her public sculpture made me reconsider work. Her Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) on EastLink or her Signature Piece (Rabbit) in Docklands work appear to be fun contemporary public sculptures. They work in that they are effective at creating recognisable landmarks for the otherwise anonymous locations.

Her gallery work is different; you aren’t going past it in a car. It is somehow different even when she is using the same toy rabbit form. I keep hoping for fun, irony, or play in them but there is never enough to balance out the serious pedagogical inspiration of her work. The art-speak about her work reduces the fun even more. Phrases like: “text-based sculptures and pedagogically-inspired works which combine formal concerns with an interest in the legacies of modernism.” Is there that much depth to Floyd’s work? Possibly there is but it does suck all the fun out of it. The deeper that Floyd attempts to make her art, the shallower it seems to me.

In her 2015 exhibition Field Libraries, the pedagogical inspiration of her work is clear, as she turned her brightly coloured play blocks into book shelves. The painted aluminium shelves were stacked with booklets printed, “fair use” from the internet. A series of uniques state screen prints illustrating books, representing the idea of Floyd’s ongoing library. Subjects in the library include ‘Zombie Marxism’ and ‘Feminist Autonomism.’

Emily Floyd’s sculptures might look like toys but this is serious art. It is a bit too serious, too prosaic in its pedantic intent. Floyd is not playing with these big toys, she is using them to demonstrate ideas. The more you look at her art the less fun you have.

Does everything have to be an educational experience? What have you learnt from this?

Emily Floyd, Public Art Strategy, 2006 (19 EastLink)

Emily Floyd, Public Art Project (Bird and Worm) 2006, photograph courtesy of EastLink


Victorian Architectural Ornamentation

I have been looking at all the ornamentation on Victorian buildings. The keystones with heads, the corbels scroll brackets, the flower shaped patraes and the plethora of other embellishments, like over decorated wedding cakes, on nineteenth century buildings. Now in the twenty-first century they are in varying states of repair, some crumbling away.

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I am amazed that I haven’t heard about some concrete pineapple or other orb becoming dislodged and crashing onto a roof. Do have a metal armature supporting them? There is so much about these ornaments that I don’t know.

Given that I see these ornaments every day I am struggling to even to learn the vocabulary to describe them. They are so alien after the modernist world. Where John Ruskin might have endorsed ornamentation, the architect Alfred Loos declared decoration a crime.

Who made these things?

Some of these architectural ornaments were made by Colin Young Wardrop, who also taught modelling and woodcarving at Geelong College, and William C. Scurry. Both men were on the council of the Yarra Sculptors’ Society.

Ken Scarlett’s Australian Sculptors has details on William C. Scurry.

“Messrs Wardrop and Scurry, Sculptors, Modellers, and Fibrous Plaster Manufacturers, 48 and 69 Arden Street, North Melbourne. This business was established in 1892, and since that date has made rapid strides in advancement. Messrs. Wardrop and Scurry have been large contractors for the principal decorative work in the city and suburbs, the principal buildings entrusted to their care being the Princess Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Opera House, Federal Coffee Palace, the Queen’s Walk, and numerous other places of interest in Melbourne.”

“The firm also executed the group of Justice and the other ornament for the Bendigo Law Courts, also the group of figures for the Bendigo Art Gallery. They were the first to introduce fibrous plaster for decorative purposes in Victoria, and in this class of work they certainly excel, as may be seen from the interior decoration of the Princess Theatre and Opera House” (p. 585)

It is uncertain when William Scurry’s father arrived in Melbourne but what is know is that in 1856 Scurry’s uncle, James Scurry was working with Charles Summers and John Simpson MacKennal. James Scurry was producing decorations for the interior of Parliament House on Spring Street including the two figures, Mercy and Justice, on the north side of the Legislative Council Chamber. Charles Summers went to create the Burke and Will Monument. John Simpson MacKennal was the father of Sir Bertram Mackennal, who became Australia’s first international superstar artist.

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Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne


Sculpture @ Showgrounds

Melbourne’s Showgrounds are an odd place to dump unwanted marble sculptures from the nineteenth century but it happened and they are still sitting there.

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Outside the RASV (Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria) offices at Melbourne Showgrounds is Young Bull and Herdsman, the work of English sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm (1834-1890). The white marble sculpture of a young man leading a small bull by the bronze ring its nose is an appropriate theme for the Melbourne Showgrounds. The carved marble smocking on the herdsman is a fantastic display of technique.

It came to Melbourne for the Centennial Exhibition in 1888-89 and was acquired by the Melbourne Art Gallery and Museum before being gifted to the RASV. It was purchased by the Trustees of State Library at the Centennial Exhibition along with St. George and the Dragon outside the State Library of Victoria.

It makes me wonder how many sculptures did Sir Joseph Boehm send to Melbourne for the Centennial Exhibition? I should also note that  Boehm’s St. George and Dragon was an influence on a very young, Peter Corlett who went on to be one of Melbourne’s most prolific figurative sculptor. Corlett remembers thinking that someone made the sculpture for the first time.

The two sculptures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Charles Summers are slightly less appropriate for the showground’s gardens; Victoria might have been amused. There were originally a set of four sculptures of the royal family, I don’t know where the other two sculptures of her children have gone. The sculptures of the royal family were commissioned by the Trustees of State Library from Charles Summers in 1876. Summers having finished his Burke and Wills Monument, decided that he was Melbourne’s answer to Michelangelo and moved, just like Michelangelo did, to Rome.

It is interesting to note that late nineteenth century sculptures, unlike most other antiques, are actually declining in value.

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The one sculpture that appears to have been intended to have been installed at the Showgrounds is a life size equestrian statue The Australian Stockman. It is by Tasmanian based sculptor, Stephen Walker who has numerous public sculptures around Hobart. The bronze plaque says that it is “in memory of David Knox 4 Dec 1916 – 8 April 1995” not that any of the people at the show would know anything about Captain David Knox.

I am surprised that there are any sculptures at the Melbourne Showgrounds.


Some Union Art Connections

Under the portico of Trades Hall is bronze base-relief of John Dias by William Leslie Bowles. I am more familiar with the sculptor for his several public sculptures around Melbourne, including the equestrian statue of General Monash  than the subject. The glass or ceramic eyes are a strange addition to the otherwise unremarkable portrait plaque.

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William Leslie Bowles, John Dias Memorial at Trades Hall

The effusive praise of the inscription on the plaque is unilluminating and almost vacuous: “John Dias – Born May 11 1861 – Died August 13 1924 – A man whose every endeavour was in the cause of the worker and to uplift humanity – a token of respect from those who knew him.” Yes, I can tell he is a man from his moustache and the fact that he has a memorial on the front of Trades Hall would strongly indicate the rest. The shield and motto Credo Sed Caveo (believe, but take heed) reveal that he was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.

Further along the block is Steps Gallery is a large, square, well-lit, white walled room on the ground floor of 62 Lygon Street in Carlton South. Established in 1992 one side of the gallery opens onto Artee Cafe, with its glass roof. Unusually for a Melbourne gallery it is owned by the Meat Industry Employees’ Superannuation Fund. It is not a bad investment, the gallery is a rental exhibition space, two artists had rented it for an exhibition when I was there.

You wouldn’t immediately associate the meat worker’s union with artist ceramics but in the foyer of 62 Lygon Street is the Melbourne Meat Workers Union Ceramics Collection. Three large cabinets house a spectacular collection of around 30 high quality artist ceramics. They were collected by Wally Curran, the union secretary between 1983-1997.

There are many connections between Melbourne’s unions and art as this brief exploration has shown but many are also a bit ernest, worthy and boring, like these examples.


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