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Tag Archives: memorial statues

Statues Wars 2017

The statue wars of 2017 sprang to prominence in the USA although the debate had been going for some time. Around the world people have been asking what to do with these monuments to evil men, from Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to General Robert E. Lee in America to John Batman in Melbourne. The debate about these statues has often been furious, ill-informed and poorly reasoned; so more of a war than a debate. However, if I have learnt one thing from it is that the greatest educative value that a statue can have is when it is being torn down.

Stanley Hammond, John  Batman Memorial, 1978 (3)

Stanley Hammond, John Batman Memorial, 1978

I doubt that statues on pedestals are the right thing to erect but then people have been making that observation for over a century. Back then the craze was for putting up these same statues and it was called ‘statuemania’ because it was obvious that the many statues being erected were insane, not just because of the quantity but given the direction of civil society, reason and art. The only purpose in putting something on a pedestal is to worship it. The great man theory of history is not taken seriously by historians any more but some conservative groups still think that a statue will do something worthwhile.

Many people in the debate were confusing, deliberately or idiotically, the monuments with the history that they were commemorating. If tearing down statues is some kind of ‘Stalinist revisionism’ (as a reason-retarded Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed) attempting to rewrite history then what were the US troops doing with that statue to Saddam Hussain in Bagdad? In Melbourne this year the controversial statue of John Batman was taken down by a property developer to redevelop the site; I doubt that motives were revisionist or that the statue will ever be permanently installed anywhere.

Do the sculptors who made these care about the fate of their statues? Not beyond the final payment; if I have learnt one thing about the kind of people who make these statues is that they are professionals.

Should these statues be preserved for the sake of their artistry? Ha ha… you were making a joke?

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Moving on the next question is: what to do with these empty plinths that the statues leave behind? Consider London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square or, for a local example, Plinth Projects in Edinburgh Gardens.

Outside the St Kilda Town Hall there is this ‘monument’. Just as you thought it must be meaningful with the man, the airplane and the classical temple turns into crazy snake fun. Made of cast bronze, the sculpture and its large plinth is ironic in its content, materials and form. Local artist Richard Stringer’s Monument for a public building, 1994, turn the form of the monument into self-referential postmodernism.

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building,

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building, 1994, St Kilda Town Hall

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We don’t need another memorial

I understand the feeling of shock and trauma about the people who died in Bourke Street but please, think carefully before erecting a permanent memorial. Don’t do the first thing that you think of doing because you are grieving but reflect on the outcome before you decide anything. Repeating secondary trauma may be good for media ratings but it doesn’t actually help anyone.

Melbourne already has a permanent memorial to victims of crime next to Parliament House. Creating duplicate memorials doesn’t improve the quality of the memorial, it weakens it by making it mean less. If there is another memorial to victims of a particular crime, and that is exactly what the people who died in Bourke Street were, that means that the memorial to victims of crime next to Parliament is only a memorial to some of the victims of crime, or that some victims of crime have multiple memorials and others only have one.

Memorials manipulate the historical discourse towards an emotional response and away from a rational discussion, making them essentially a reactionary. There is not going to be a memorial to the victims of inadequate mental health funding in the state because that is not how the government wants to remember the event.

The British Princes are going to put up a memorial statute to their mother, Princess Diana, who already has a memorial fountain and a memorial children’s playground in London. In less than a century the statue will be as meaningless as the Albert Memorial. “That’s the princess who died in the car crash” people will say and their children will ask: “What went wrong with the car’s computer?”

Melbourne has three memorials to the Boer War and one to General Gordon and although I credit my readers with knowing history, I doubt that many care about these events today.

If you want to know how badly a permanent memorial can fail, visit a cemetery and look at the crumbling, neglected memorials that have been erected there.

Finally, “permanent” memorials create problems in the future, for unlike other public art, there is resistance to them being moved because they are meant to be permanent. So they become a burden for future generations of city planners.

Please, Melbourne City Council think before you agree to another memorial.


Heroes of Every Nation

Melbourne has never been a united city; it has always been divided between the European and the Aboriginal (not to forget the Chinese, the Afghans and Indians). Melbourne is still divided along lines of ethnicity, politics, class and religion. And sometimes the social divisions are translated into metal and stone with memorial statues to heroes.

Melbourne has statues to heroes of every nation: Robert Burns for the Scots, Daniel O’Connell for the Irish, General Gordon for the English, Dante Alighieri for the Italians, King Leonidas for the Spartans in Brunswick and General Sun Yat Sen in Chinatown. The existence and location of the statues demonstrates and reflects the political power of that particular community.

Daniel O' Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, Thomas Brock

Daniel O’ Connell, 1891, by Thomas Brock A.R.A. is located on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Thomas Brock (the A.R.A. on the plaque indicates the Brock was still an association member of the Royal Academy, he became a full member later that year) was an English sculptor who sculpted the British Royalty making him an odd choice to sculpture the Irish nationalist hero.

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Melbourne 

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, G.A. Lawson in Montreal

The Robert Burns Memorial, 1904, by G.A. Lawson is located in the Treasury Gardens. There are many other copies of this memorial in Dublin, Melbourne, Montreal, Winnipeg, Halifax and elsewhere, including Burns home town of Ayr. The sculptor G. A. Lawson (1832-1904) was born in Edinburgh most noted for the statue of Wellington on top of Wellington’s Column. The Melbourne’s memorial was commissioned by the Caledonian Society, presumably the united societies, as there were no fewer than fourteen Caledonian Societies in Victoria at the time.

The General Gordon Memorial, 1887 by William Hamo Thorneycroft is located in the eponymously named Gordon Reserve near Parliament. William Hamo Thorneycroft (9 March 1850–18 December 1925) was a British sculptor and like G.A. Lawson a member of the New Sculpture movement in the 19th Century. The statue in Melbourne is the same as the one in London except that the granite plinth is significantly higher and includes four bas relief panels depicting historical periods of General Gordon’s life: China 1863-4; Gravesend 1865-71; Sudan 1874-80; Khartoum 1885.

The marble bust of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri came into the possession of the City of Melbourne as a gift from the Dante Alighieri Society for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Originally it stood in Treasury Gardens with a bust of the radio pioneer Marconi but both were removed in 1968 due to vandalism. In the 1990s both busts were briefly displayed in Argyle Square before Dante was again defaced. Both busts are now at the Museo Italiano in Carlton.

Now all Melbourne needs (if it needs any of these statues) is statues of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and who else?


Bird Roost Heroes

Capt. Matthew Flinders (1923) by Charles Web Gilbert with seagull

It is an old chestnut but it suits a nautical man like Captain Matthew Flinders to have a statue that serves as a roost for seagulls. The bronze statue with its large granite plinth standing shows Flinders standing on the prow of a boat being dragged ashore by two sailors. The statue of Captain Mathew Flinders (1923) by Charles Web Gilbert stands beside the cathedral on Swanston St. in Melbourne. It would have been expected when the statue was erected that it would be joined by other statues of heroes but it looks like the tradition of creating bird roosts is fading away.

In the past it was easy – erect a stature of whoever is the current the culture hero. So the Scots would erect a statue of Robbie Burns, no questions asked, it was that easy. Now, it is not so easy. Who are the great and the good in the 21st century? The collective consciousness of the 21st Century is so mixed up with multiple identities, multiple worlds of merit (politics, war, peace, revolution, science, arts, sports) that are in dispute with each over the virtue of their merits, that any choice of a person as worthy of statue seems absurd.

Statue of Dali in Singapore

I remember looking at in amusement the collection of statues outside Parkview Square, an art deco revival apartment block in Singapore. It was a strange mad collection that only the most superficial understanding of history could put together. There was Dali along with Mozart, Picasso, Lincoln, Churchill and many others. There are some odd collections of statues of the great and the good around the world. When George Frêche, the president of the Languedoc Roussillon region of France decided to erect statues in Montpellier of the greatest men and women of the 20th Century he choose the following figures Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, Jean Jaurés, Mahatma Gandhi, Gold Meir, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nelson Mandela, Mao Zedong. (Alexander Chancellor reports in The Gaurdian Weekly 3/9/10 and Ed Ward writes about it in his blog entry “Days of Lard and Lenin”.)

What is the public expected to do with these statues? Worship their idols? There is, I’m told, a statue of Queen Victoria in India that has become a fertility shrine. Now in Melbourne only sports heroes and a few state Premiers are memorialised with bronze statues displayed in public places. These contemporary statues are all by Peter Corlett or Louis Laumen. I would like to see is a Peter Corlett statue of Nicky Winmar responding to racist taunts at the end of the St. Kilda vs Collingwood match in 1989. Here Corlett’s figurative sculpture could be used to create a passionate memorial of a rebuttal to racism that Melbourne needs to commemorate. Who do you think should have a public statue made of them or should we abandon the tradition?


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