Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
A closer look at the role of our public sculpture
Reviewed by ELIZABETH FARRELLY
PUBLIC SCULPTURE IN AUSTRALIA By Michael Hedger Craftsman, 132pp, $80 ISBN 976 8097 79 3
THE local bronze soldier stares fixedly past the dog piddling at – well, on – his feet; upon completion of which act, dog and owner saunter off without a backward glance, matching nonchalance with nonchalance. Considering how little attention we pay our public art in Australia, it is surprising just how much there is of it.
Michael Hedger’s new book, Public Sculpture in Australia, is an anthology of works in public, or quasi-public, places – gardens, galleries, corporate foyers and facades – with separate chapters, too, on fountains, war memorials, and works immortalising monarchs, peers, prime ministers and the like.
This in itself is useful, even interesting. We really do have a lot of the stuff, although the quality is strictly mixed, and Hedger’s commentary is informative and, to some extent, evaluative. He is very taken, for instance, by Richard Goodwin’s Gore Hill Freeway decorations, which he describes as a “breakthrough” and features on the cover; but is mercifully prepared also to deplore the deplorable. The deplorable. in Hedger’s estimation, includes for instance Macquarie Street’s Morshead Memorial fountain, a “conglomeration … with water”, and the 1963 Mayor’s Fountain in Hobart which Hedge describes as an “enormous dish on legs … a monstrosity”.
As former art critic of the Newcastle Herald, Hedger is entitled, too, to emphasise personal favourites – such as Sergio Redegalli’s serried glass Cascade (1988), Adelaide – and capable of explaining these such choices in a way which affords some insight.
What Hedger doesn’t do, however, is address the question which has got to be central to any conception of public art in a latter-day democracy, namely, what is it, and what is it for? In a society, and an era, when meaning itself has become so personalised and personal taste so elevated, what can public art possibly mean? What role can it play?
Time was when the local council or flower guild could confidently enbronze a war or a monarch without fear of controversy. These days it is much less straightforward. Yes, we still have wars, and yes, we still commemorate some of them, with occasional superlative success, such as the Vietnam memorials in Washington DC, and, as designed by Ken Unsworth and Peter Tonkin, in Canberra.
Even so, you can’t just glorify wars any more and be sure of a warm public response. Indeed, the success of these two Vietnam memorials depends on their ambiguity – dignified, but mournful; lamenting the war as much as glorifying it, and never a hint of the rah-rah-rahs. It’s a tricky business. Eggshell stuff.
And it’s not only war. Monarchy too, once a subject as safe as still life, is now a minefield, as Canberra’s recent lakeside kerfuffle amply demonstrated. Or take another example, some minority ethnic community, itself impeccably PC, donating a life-size bronze, in dubious taste, of some dodgy homeland dictator to stand in a public Sydney street. What does the local council do?
Modernism spelt serious illness for public sculpture, not only because of a popular failure to grasp the ineffabilities of the abstract – as lampooned by the famous 1960s photo of Oz editors “urinating” in Tom Bass’s P&O building fountain in Chifley Square. Public sculpture was afflicted more enduringly, by the fact that modernism, in all its guises, was always going to atomise public meaning and public values.
For all that, of course, there are new works that are intelligent and engaging, and well-loved by critics and hoi polloi alike. Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley’s bewitching The Edge of Trees (which Hedger prosaically renames Edge of the Forest) at the Museum of Sydney, is one, as is Trevor Weekes’s wonderful Macquarie – which Hedger does not mention, and is amazingly the city’s only public tribute to our great champion of public building – in Governor Macquarie Tower. These are site-specific works sufficiently powerful to reshape the place in which they stand and, in so doing, enrich one’s grasp of the whole.
Such strength, however, is rare. Take fountains, for instance. In a dry country, and one with so many mayors per head, you might expect a tradition of fabulous fountain design. Some leap to mind, such as the Darling Park works by Bob Woodward and others, and the Archibald in Hyde Park, which does such exuberant things with water. But where are the queues of public commissions for Jennifer Turpin, for instance, who produced that unforgettably watery chest of drawers at the new Westmead Children’s Hospital?
Such speculations may be beyond the scope of Hedger’s book, which makes a workmanlike fist of anthologising (although his categories and criteria beg explication). But the central questions about public art in our society, and whether we have a more substantial role for it than some sort of corporate lace, deserve and demand attention.