Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
SYDNEY’S LOST ART
Miriam Cosic and E.M. Farrelly for WORK ON THE STREETS
Sculpture as public art has been dying in Sydney, but MIRIAM COSIC reports on moves to resuscitate it in time for the Olympics.
ALTHOUGH sculpture has been the poor relation of painting for most of this century, its stocks are rapidly rising again in the rest of the world. Led by urban design’s post-modernist renaissance, a thorough reappraisal of 3D art objects is taking place – everywhere, it seems, but Sydney.
Perhaps it’s because the city is blessed with such overpowering natural beauty that we don’t need to rely so heavily on the man-made.
“In NSW we have lagged behind the rest of Australia, and it’s quite hard to understand why – except that there has been no government policy to support art in public spaces,” says Tamara Winikoff, the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts.
“Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria … all are allocating a percentage of development budget to art. Now Queensland is surging ahead, embracing the idea.”
And this is despite the fact that NSW politicians, planners and pontificators in general are fixated on the countdown to the Olympics 2000. “Cameras will be sweeping across Sydney and what are they going to see?” asks Winikoff. “If you go to central Melbourne these days, you almost cannot walk down a street without coming into contact with some art. In Sydney you hardly see any.
“This is a very important moment for Sydney to make a commitment. It is the window through which the world will look at Australia and it would be such a lost opportunity, such a denigration of Australia’s creative abilities, if policies were not put in place before then.”
Dale Jones-Evans, an architect and the editor of Polis, a new Sydney-based journal on urban design, says legislation at State level is crucial. “The development of public art has come about through a lot of goodwill, but there is a quantum leap between having the will and having the money,” he says. “Some local governments have adopted it as policy, but there has been no overall legislative plan.”
Winikoff reiterates that this is a strategic moment. “In his pre-election policy, (Premier) Carr made a commitment to involving artists in design and in making works for all new State Government buildings. If he does make a commitment to it, it could make a substantial change here that’s desperately overdue.”
A spokesman for Mr Carr said this week that the NSW Government would appoint a full-time visual art and crafts manager to handle the task within the fortnight.
Despite criticism of the lack of contemporary art going up in Sydney’s public spaces, the city does have well-loved older pieces. The Archibald Memorial Fountain, built in Hyde Park North in 1932, is one. A gift from J.F. Archibald, the founder of The Bulletin, it commemorates the association between France and Australia in World War I.
In Pyrmont, the World War I memorial to Pyrmont-Ultimo servicemen, created by Gilbert Doble in 1921, has special meaning for the local community.
The Sydney City Council has a colourful brochure, called “Sydney Open Museum”, which maps out a walking tour of the 48 pieces that lie on its land.
Sculpture installed in public spaces does seem to evoke one of two extreme reactions. It is either practically invisible, the fate of many historical monuments – though when anyone tries to move one, fans come out from every corner in defence. Or it provokes outrage and scorn in equal measure.
Energetic sculptural stoushes are popular in Australia. Ron Robertson Swann’s Vault, the brightly painted steel abstract created in the early ’80s for Melbourne’s new city square, was publicly excoriated, dubbed “The Yellow Peril”, and swiftly banished to a tranquil place by the river by the very aldermen
it was commissioned for. Greg Taylor’s Down By The Lake With Liz and Phil was literally hacked to death in Canberra in April after outraging monarchist sensibilities.
In Sydney, Bert Flugelman’s William Dobell Memorial in Martin Place, nicknamed “The Shishkebab”, has been controversial since it was erected in 1979 and lives under constant threat of removal. Last year, the Sydney City Council approved a management plan for upgrading Martin Place, which included the relocation of the sculpture to the Macquarie Street end.
But according to the council’s city projects director, Greg Deas, there are no plans to touch it till at least the middle of next year. Tendering for the first stage is under way, and the replacement of street furniture and renovation of the Lloyd Rees Fountain will be under way by the end of the year. In the interim, the Flugelman will remain undisturbed. Most recently, sculptor Lin Li’s design for The Pillar – dubbed the Big Dick – to be erected over the Warringah Expressway, raised protests which included the possibility that it would offend rape victims. (Australians do love nicknaming sculptures they do not like – Brett Whiteley’s fresh and spent matchsticks in the Domain have been dubbed “Redhead Blackhead”.)
Everyone has an opinion about sculpture. In the 19th century, public sculpture represented our colonial reality with commemorative monuments placed in parks and plazas – realistic representations of Queen Victoria, our founding fathers and great generals in the service of Empire. Works were commissioned by wealthy individuals or by societies wanting to celebrate a person or event, and then a site was found to take it.
By the middle of this century, figurative sculpture had been overtaken by modernism and large abstract sculptural shapes were thought appropriate to counterbalance the plain lines of glass and steel skyscrapers. Pieces placed in foyers and forecourts after buildings were completed, as a sort of decorative or worthy add-on.
Today’s multi-disciplinary approach has revolutionised the commissioning of art for public spaces, integrating pieces into the overall design and involving the artist from the very beginning.
The result, says Sally Couacaud, the visual arts officer at Sydney City Council, is artwork that has “some relevance and meaning within its site”.
“There are always inherent meanings in a place, some of which can be quite obvious and apparent and some of which are not,” she says. “Artwork has a tremendous potential to draw forth those meanings in a more potent way than architecture itself does.”
Edge of the Trees, created by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley for the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, and Robert Woodward’s water sculpture at Darling Harbour are examples of this integrated approach.
City councils are making the running in NSW. Sally Couacaud has spent three years compiling historical and conservation surveys of council-owned monuments around Sydney. She has written a public art policy which outlines guidelines for commissioning new works or accepting proposals.
Examples of projects in progress at the moment include the redevelopment of Chifley Square, where artists Simeon Nelson and Robert Woodward have been involved from day one, and the creation of Fig Lane Park in Pyrmont, a community-sensitive project, where Lucy Bleach is designing a sculpture.
South Sydney City Council has its own policy document, Art and Public Places, and cities in Sydney’s west, such as Parramatta and Liverpool, are leading the way in integrated arts policy, responsive to their multicultural community needs and conscious of their potential as new suburbs to implement good urban design from the start.
In Randwick, Sydney’s oldest municipality, a pilot project is under way for a national survey of sculpture called “Sculpture, Monuments and Outdoor Cultural Material (SMOCM)”. Jointly managed by the Art Gallery of NSW, Randwick Council and the YMCA, the project was inaugurated by a ceremonial unwrapping of the Captain Cook statue on the corner of Belmore Road and Avoca Street yesterday.
When Winikoff developed the Australian Council’s CEED program for commissioning public art, in a previous professional incarnation, she stressed the importance of community consultation. The program allocated more than $2.5 million of development money before its operations were suspended while the Australia Council restructures.
Worthy as the notion of community involvement is, however, it is a vexed question itself. “Focusing on an intense community involvement is part of a political agenda,” says Jones-Evans, “and, to some extent, can discount the professional approach – it can dilute the pure, or potent art form.”
Says Ron Robertson-Swan, creator of the controversial Vault: “Too many public authorities or corporations which may purchase these things are too interested in public opinion. Everyone has the right to have an opinion, but opinions are only interesting when they are informed.
“And the element of political correctness – whether 50 per cent of the sculpture is made by women … there’s a whole list – that’s largely reducing art to functioning as some sort of social therapy. And the trouble with that, as our experience shows, is in the end it tends to produce poor art.”
Jones-Evans pushes debate about the intrinsic value of art even further. “Maybe it’s a kind of funny old notion that we revisit the Sphinx, or Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria,” he says.
“The art forms which have taken its place in the 20th century are advertising, TV and industrial design, and we may have to say that people from the fine arts are not the only players in the process now.
“If art has been stripped off the face of buildings by modernism, we saw it reintroduced by advertising. Tokyo would have to be the most visually illustrative environment in the world, by default, because of all its neon advertising.”
WORK ON THE STREETS
The Herald’s architecture critic, E.M. Farrelly, nominates the best and worst of Sydney’s public art.
Archibald Memorial Fountain, Hyde Park
War Memorial, Hyde Park
Il Porcellino, Sydney Hospital
Cleopatra’s Needle, Hyde Park
Obelisk of Distances, Macquarie Place
Queen Victoria, QVB Plaza
John Dunmore Lang, Wynyard Park
The Beacon, Robert Klippel, First Fleet Park
To Sail, To Stop, Town Hall
Bonds of Friendship, Customs House Square
Plaza Iberoamericano, Chambers Street
Three Illus: Edge of the Trees , left, stands in front of the Museum of Sydney.
William Dobell Memorial rises from Martin Place and Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Bourke, below, guards the Mitchell Library.
Photograph by Sahlan Hayes