Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A walk on the short-sighted side
Cardigans and coffee tables have halted a visionary public art project, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
In the summer of 1992 Australia’s Queen kindly made herself available to unwrap the last public opus of the old city regime, in which design including public art was still the exclusive preserve of the municipal engineer and other cardigans.
It was a fitting valedictory gesture on ERII’s part, not least because she had dressed for the occasion with an absence of style and wit entirely suited to the sculpture in question. To this day, Ingrid Orfalis’s To Set to Sail rocks, in all its gaucherie, at the entrance to Sydney Square.
But valediction, it seems, was premature. Now, less than 10 years on, diehard cardigan loyalists may have cause for celebration. The city’s half-finished sculpture walk has been left at the orphanage door in favour of corporate art and institutional expansionism. The cardies, apparently, are back.
The Sydney Sculpture Walk started life in 1996 as an offshoot of the Open Museum, an idea lifted from French theorist and politician Andre Malraux (1901-1976) who, after a first life as adventurer and resistance leader, became known as the most intelligent writer of his generation. Malraux spent his life agitating for the recognition of cultural artefacts from all civilisations until, lionised by Gallic youth, he became Minister for Culture. Only in France.
In Sydney, after a brief entanglement that followed the Lord Mayor’s Barcelona and Atlanta Damascuses of 1996, politics and public art have returned to their habitual corners, glowering bruisedly from the ropes. Not that art depends on municipal support far from it. In Sydney, though, genuine public art opportunities read patrons are veritable hen’s teeth. There’s the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority’s much-hyped Promenart program, which is intended to festoon the foreshores and so far has one in the bag (Jennifer Turpin’s lovely Tied to Tide in Pyrmont), another in its mid-distance sights. There’s Homebush, which is history. And that’s about it.
The sculpture walk was designed as a collection of 20 works to enrich the city and exhibit our intelligent diversity for the Olympics. The brief nominated 23 possible locations mainly in the Botanic Gardens and Domain, but also in the city’s hard parts and invited site-specific concepts which responded to place but drew also on the artist’s body of work. The completed walk, linked as beads on a necklace, would bring a new cognitive map.
About a dozen artists were selected by shortlist, the rest by invitation. Despite the fact that all had established reputations, the process required each to produce a concept gratis and detailed design drawings for a meagre $2,000. The entire process was adeptly and energetically curated by Sally Couacaud, formerly of The Gunnery/Art Space, with construction costs then negotiated downwards to fit the $4 million budget. One million a year for four years, from the council’s $100-odd annual million, not a lot for an achievement that has already proved internationally memorable. Even at half the price.
But it was not to be. As Gene Sherman, of Paddington’s Sherman Galleries, points out, sculpture has never quite taken in Sydney. Art is a luxury. Public art is an exercise in cultivation, confidence and spiritual generosity, none of them standard issue in olde (or indeed new) Sydney. Plus, most Sydney building postdates the demise of architectural sculpture at the hands of modern minimalism.
But whereas American cities, for instance, have nurtured a strong public-art tradition, Sydney remains bereft, with the exception of the sculpture walk.
Ten works exist. Not all are masterworks. They range from the funny to the esoteric, from the thoughtful to the unabashedly beautiful. Some sit in hard city streets and plazas, greenscape and water. Some fall short of their ambitions; others succeed gloriously. All bring insight and meaning to their sites, deepening the experience of place.
Anne Graham’s Passage sits at one end of the unfinished necklace, at the top of Martin Place. Using stainless steel mesh and inlaid black granite to mark the walls of two Georgian dwellings that once inhabited the site, Graham ghosts-in the house’s third dimension in opaque white steam. Three outsize bronze washbowls, shrouded in steam and water, recall gaunt Georgian washrooms on a cold morning, bringing shades, too, of Zen spirituality and monochrome New York grit.
Graham, a performance artist by background who ran art-film soup kitchens under the Woolloomooloo viaduct years before Tropfest or Goat Island were thought of, is interested in the life of the city as a body. Passage emits strong suggestions of deep cloacal workings, both visceral and ghostly. The sheer tectonic beauty of the thing, dramatising the three states of matter in a manner at once romantic and immensely dignified, is singularly appropriate to the Macquarie end of our main ceremonial plaza.
The Macquarie spirit of public magnanimity lives on in several of the sculpture walk’s best works. On the knoll behind Mrs Macquaries Chair, Janet Laurence and Jisuk Han have created Veil of Trees, an enchanted memorial in steel, eucalypt and standing slabs of glass to the red gums of pre-white times.
Veil of Trees uses the play of light in glass, shadows of leaf and grass, the gorgeous blood-velvet of rust and scatters of seeds to explore the relationship between the circularity of ashes-to-ashes bushfire time and the processional timelines of white occupation.
Kimio Tsuchiya’s Memory is Creation Without End, at the harbour end of Macquarie Street, is the only built work by an international artist. A spiral of half-buried sandstone remnants of forgotten Sydney buildings discovered in council coffers, it shares Laurence and Han’s interest in the shape of time. Regrettably, Tsuchiya’s spiral is legible only in plan: from the ground the scattering has the random quality of an earthquake aftermath. The sheer quality of the deeply modelled stone, however, its bold manipulation of sunlight even as it is swallowed by the ground from which it came, is enough to attract herds of wandering human lunch-eaters.
West of Mrs Macquaries Chair sits Fiona Hall’s Folly for Mrs Macquarie. It incorporates a range of abstracted historic references, from the scaled-up Gothic barbed wire of the cage, to the tiny marsupial skeletons flattened into the ceiling plane.
Humour enters the picture with Nigel Helyer’s Dual Nature, a collocation of part-submerged shell forms on the edge of Woolloomooloo Bay. Helyer’s interest in willing sound from form is long-standing, as in his mysterious and lovable Elizabeth Bay House works from the early 1990s. Here the mystic molluscs half sea creature, half bomb vocalise their concerns, whispering stories of place and life in a volume dependent on the intensity of the sun. Listening for the seashells’ wisdom persuades visitors into attitudes of endearment, as they move tentatively around the rusted hulks, seeking the source.
The Archaeology of Bathing, by Robyn Backen, also decorating the edge of Woolloomooloo Bay, might be mistaken for ordinary harbour furniture. A mnemonic to the centuries of public bathing on this edge of the bay, it sketches in rescue-yellow piles, buoys and floating jetties, the paraphernalia of the archetypal public bath. Especially in counterpoint to the great grey shadow of the naval dockyards opposite, the sunny delicacy of this work is appealing, if slightly underdramatised.
Literalism is vindicated, though, in Bronwyn Oliver’s upscale seeds, Palm and Magnolia, which sit at the feet of their parent trees in the gardens at Farm Cove. Both are built from patinaed copper wire, like thousands of four-inch nails woven into translucent fabric then folded and moulded into these extraordinary giant fruit. Of all the works, these are probably the least laden with postmodern referential narrative, relying instead on a combination of patent fecundity and old-fashioned visual appeal. Beauty, even.
Each work has suvived an approval process involving dozens of committees, stakeholders and consent authorities that could take more than a year. Couacaud herelf, as curator, took two self-funded world trips to procure, persuade and cajole the artists in question.
Despite this kind of dedication, a number of fine works didn’t get up. Some, like the renowned consumer-trash-voodoo sculptor Romuald Hazoume, from Benin, were approved by the committee but knocked off by the council. Others, like Maureen Burn’s paired folded-marble chairs reclining like abstracted Moore royals, were knocked off even earlier.
Now, Couacaud has been unceremoniously sacked and the completion of the sculpture walk including designed, approved and ready-to-go works by Hilary Mais, Mike Parr, Ken Unsworth and Susan Norrie shelved. “The thing that really saddens me,” says Gene Sherman, “is the loss of Hilary Mais’s gates.” Extending her long-time interest in grids, transformations and passage, Mais’s bronze gates would have marked the hinge-point between the Gardens and the Domain.
And, insult to injury, a proposal by the revered New York conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth has also been rejected. Kosuth, one of Leo Castelli’s stable, proposed to inspirit the godless square in front of St Mary’s Cathedral with what Anne Graham describes as a “wonderful, wonderful piece especially designed for the site”.
Securing Kosuth’s interest at all, let alone for two grand, was a feather in Couacaud’s already-feathered cap and a tribute to her rare determination. For Sydney to lose one artist would be unfortunate; to dump not only Kosuth but the whole damn lot looks uncannily like carelessness (pace Oscar). Especially in favour of a large white elephant, sorry, coffee table.
As Anne Graham, who brings her fine arts students to study the sculpture walk, laments, “The sculpture walk is memorable and will be written about around the world. But it’ll be written about incomplete. It’s the next generation that is missing out.”
Like all political decisions, it’s a question of comparative value. Priorities … $100 million for a monumental new building that few will visit or $2 million for 10 original works? Sometimes people get their priorities all arse over cardie.
THREE ILLUS: Anne Graham’s Passage …
The city’s half-finished sculpture walk has been left at the orphanage door; Veil of Trees by Janet Laurence and Jisuk Han; Palm by Bronwyn Oliver.
Map: Sydney sculpture walk.