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Tag Archives: Perth

Most controversial public sculptures in Australia

Readers in Melbourne might think that this will be about the flat yellow steel planes of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka the Yellow Peril) but it is not. Although the controversy lasted a year, mostly letters to the paper and angry city council meetings. A few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on Vault read my post: And it was all yellow.

Other readers might think that the controversy was the statue wars of 2017 when statues of Captain Cook and Governor Macquarie were vandalised with paint. “No pride in Genocide.” Again a few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on this read my post: Statue Wars 2017.

There are two sculptures that were so controversial that the sculptures were actually decapitated.

Robert Hitchcock Yagan 1984 (photo by Nachoman)

The Yagan statue by Robert Hitchcock is located on Heirisson Island in the Swan River in Perth. It was decapitated and the head stolen in 1997 by an anonymous vandal who identified themselves as a ‘British patriot’.

The decapitation occurred the same week that Yagan’s actual head was returned. Yagan was murdered in 1833, shot a point-blank range by an eighteen year old Englishman William Keates was speared to death in revenge. Yagan’s head was taken as a trophy to England; if this had been done today it would be a war crime. After passing through multiple British hands Yagan’s head was eventually buried in an unmarked grave along with the body of another Indigenous Australian, some dried viscera and a Peruvian mummy in a corner of Everton Cemetery in Liverpool.

The statue was restored with a new head only to be decapitated again in 2002 leading to a second restoration and another slightly different head. The pattern of racist attacks only stopped when the area was fenced off. There were no witnesses to either of these crimes although WA Police Headquarters has views across the Swan River to the statues site.

Greg Taylor, Liz and Phil Down by the Lake, 1995 (image gregtaylor-sculpture.com)

However, even the Yagan statue is not the most controversial public sculpture in Australia which has to be Greg Taylor’s Liz and Phil Down by the  Lake 1995. Made of cement fondue coated with iron oxide to give them a rested appearance. It was part of a temporary exhibition for the National Sculpture festival organised by the Australian National University in Canberra.

Seated on a park bench by Lake Burley Griffin were two naked figures. The wrinkly old naked Liz and Phil looked, the very opposite of regal, frail and human; only the crown on Liz’s head reminded the viewer who was being depicted. The fact that Lese-majeste is not in Australian law but that didn’t stop Returned Service League chief Bruce Ruxton calling for Taylor’s execution.

Then the head of Liz was stolen on the night of 13 April. The police log stated boldly: ”The Queen has lost her head and doesn’t know where to find it.” After the beheading a former Sydney policeman decided to dress the sculpture in bedsheets printed with the Australian flag. The following night the Duke’s head was removed along with further vandalism that severed legs from both figures and caved in Phil’s chest. The entire sculpture was was removed on 16 April, two days later.

Taylor told the Canberra Times: “It’s a pretty sad day for freedom of speech and freedom of expression when you can’t even put a piece of art up without its opponents being able to control themselves.”

In a secondary controversy the Australian Federal Police on May 14 issued a denial that the Queens head had been found in home of a right wing militia member who had infiltrated the computer and communications sections of the Defence Department and possessed an arsenal of weapons.

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Perth’s Fake Pollock Exhibition

Considering that there was an entire fake Kusama and Murakami exhibitions in China earlier this year; remember there was a fake Jackson Pollock exhibition that toured Australian in 1978. 

Bohdan Ledwij from Alfred Cove in Perth claimed to be an entrepreneur and art dealer who had amassed a collection of Pollock paintings alleged insured for $4.1 million.  Lewdij presented an exhibition called Paintings by Jackson Pollock in Perth. The exhibition was opened by Elwyn Lynn, the then Curator of the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sydney University. Many other people were taken in by the exhibition including Andrew Saw, The Australian art critic in Perth, who reviewed it for the paper.

It is hard to comprehend that people were taken in by the exhibition, but remember, the people of Perth were amongst the last Europeans to encounter modern art and that the first exhibition of actual modern art in Perth had only been a few years earlier. The name of the American painting Jackson Pollock, if not his paintings, were familiar because of the massive publicity in 1973 when the Australian National Gallery purchase of Blue Poles (Jackson Pollock’s Number 11, 1952).

However, the exhibition didn’t just fool the hicks of Western Australia.  Lewdij then offered Ken Reinhard, principal of Alexander Mackie College of Arts, a teacher training college in Sydney to transport the exhibition to Sydney. Ken Reinhard later told reporters: “I have to admit I wouldn’t have known an original Pollock from a bull’s foot in 1978 but to get a chance to put on a free exhibition of Pollocks seemed too good to pass up.” 

It was only when the Sydney exhibition about to open that Sydney critics express doubts about the authenticity of the decoratively paint dripped canvases. Terry Ingram the arts correspondent for The Australian Financial Review was one who doubted “surely are not those of the great Jackson Pollock, we have come to know, the untidy, neurotic genius who lived in a pigsty and painted Blue Poles.” 

New York Experts were contacted; an incredulous Clement Greenberg and Lee Krasner were shown photographs of the fake Pollocks. The Sydney exhibition cancelled and Bohdan Ledwij claiming that they were going to the US for authentication. It is hard to know what was going on, was it a practical joke or a scam. Unlike the fake exhibitions in China there was no attempt to scam the public or venues and the exhibition appears but it would have been an expensive joke considering the transport, venues and materials.

P.S. The following year, on Wednesday 3 May, 1979 Bohdan Ledwij was sentenced to six years jail, with a minimum of fours years before parole. He had been found guilty of seven charges of stealing $436,156 from Bunbury radiologist Dr. Peter Frederick Pratten. Ledwij was pretending to be buying paintings for Dr Pratten  instead Ledwij was using the money himself. 


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