Saturday, October 24, 2009

Melbourne: Street Art Capital

I've developed some postcards, in that unauthorised-use-of-images style you may be familiar with, as a response to my Melbourne Studio class. I find it amusing how Melbourne has dubbed itself "Street Art Capital". It seems so un-Australian. Maybe that's what makes it so 'Melbourne'?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Little Stuff/Big Stuff

My desire to develop and construct Public Art, and to take up the Master of Art In Public Space Program, stems from my experience with the slurry of bad public art in Melbourne since it's explosion locally in the 1980's. I trace it back to the 1987 commission by the National Gallery Of Victoria in collaboration with The Australian Bicentennial Authority of Deborah Halpern's Angel (1988). I'll get back to that later.

My own experience of Melbourne's love/hate affair with public art began with one of my earliest childhood memories: the news coverage given to the relocation of Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault (1980) to Batman Park in 1981. It seems to me as though this critical moment in the history of Public Art in Australia was at a time when Melbourne's people discovered how much power their opinion could wield in the choice of what was plonked in the middle of their town. While the press media already had a fair idea of their influence over such decisions, not even they could have known how 'public opinion' would mutate into 'public choice' through the use of their medium.

I can't distinguish my nostalgic view of the work from a critical one. I like Vault, but whether that's due to it's history rather that it's form, I'm not sure. It's very “of it's time”, which is to say that it was quite avant-garde for Melbourne at the time of it's unveiling. Would I like it if I were a conscientious art-appreciating citizen back in 1980? Who knows, I probably would have applauded it for its (and the Melbourne City Council's) audacity. For me, it's the history of the work as the “Yellow Peril”, and it's numerous relocations that have become the work.

In 2003 I was asked to develop a work for a group exhibition out at the new community in Caroline Springs, West of Melbourne. The brief was to respond to the site and the suburban experience as a whole. I chose to re-imagine Robertson-Swann's work as a portable shelter for the homeless. I constructed the work from the yellow hoarding that had protected the National Gallery of Victoria's St. Kilda Road site during the refurbishment, some blankets from an abandoned homeless site and a removalists blanket which had been previously used for the transportation and conservation of large-scale sculptures.

Bananaz (2003) referenced the changing locations of Vault, which had recently found it's new home outside the newly constructed ACCA in Southbank, while also tipping it's hat to other works which had been crudely relocated without any real consideration for their history or site specificity. I sought to create a truly portable work that also functioned as a public tool, much in the same way Vault had been used at various times as a skateboard ramp, car park and homeless shelter. In a sense, it also mirrored Sean Godsell's recent Park Bench House (2002) project where he sought to combat similar issues.

The issue with most Public Art in Melbourne is that it doesn't engage with the public in a way I know that today's public art can and should. We seem to be stuck within the tropes of yesterday where a 'safe' sculptural work is commissioned then slapped into the middle of an environment, which belies the area, and most probably the initial intent of the work, yet appeases the commissioning body.

Originally commissioned in 1987 as an Australian Bicentennial Authority project for the south moat of the NGV's St. Kilda Road site, Deborah Halpern's Angel has now been re-installed at Birrarung Marr, “...A spectacular new site for what is one of Melbourne's most loved works of public art”. I beg to differ, and so do most of Melbourne's art-loving community I'd say. Otherwise, why would it be tucked away from the city in a far-from-”spectacular” site on the banks of the Yarra? Probably due to the work having more in common with Birrarung Marr's 'ArtPlay' than with the iconography that went along with having pride of place outside of our state's premier art institution.

Pamela Irving's rabid Larry Latrobe (1992) has to be right up there with Halpern's post-feminist anathema as a work that we are assured the public adore, yet it is only given that honour by default - being one of only a few recognisably Capital-P public works that appeared in the early 1990's. Positioned on the corner of Collins and Swanston Streets in Melbourne's CBD, Irving's ornamental interpretation of a panting dog so captured the imagination of Melbourne that it was promptly stolen in August, 1995. Blamed as a possible University stunt, the work was sawn off at the legs and assumed to be melted down, never to be seen again. It is hard to distinguish whether its 'most-loved' status was the reason behind its recasting and return in September 1996 or simply a push from Melbourne City Council through the local press. I may be starting to sound a little repetitive in my cynicism towards local commissioning bodies, but can you blame me?

The work that I find most offensive both visually and culturally is Bruce Armstrong's Eagle (2002), situated on Wurundjeri Way in the Docklands precinct. Apart from the work being clearly oversized and garish, it's contentiousness is summed up for me in a tourist's description published on their website in response to the work and Armstrong's description on the didactic panel:

“I have worked in Melbourne for several months, and every day I arrive in the city at Southern Cross Station, and there was one thing I always noticed; the big ass bird statue nearby. So one day I decided to look at this thing. Yep, yep, it was definitely a bird, as was plain, so whatever, cool its a bird. THEN I noticed a board for it, giving you an explanation of this bird, and that's when this rooster became a cock.
'I was completely delighted to discover later that the wedge-tailed eagle is an extremely important totem for all the Aboriginal people of Victoria...' Is it just me or was that the most vague statement you have ever heard?”

I see it as a punch in the face to the Melbourne's Wurundjeri people that Armstrong was 'completely delighted' to find that the work had spiritual significance as Bunjil, the spirit creator of the Kulin Nations. Well, if the representatives for the Docklands were serious about a work “commissioned to commemorate the naming of Wurundjeri way”, then why weren't Wurundjeri people invited to create or propose a work? And why is the artist implying that this indigenous icon is simply an addendum to his blatant Whitey extravagance? Quotes online consistently refer to it as the “largest sculpture erected in the Southern hemisphere”. Surely this was a consideration in the construction of the work as a tourist destination and icon of Melbourne Public Art.

Eagle has also been recreated on a smaller scale in the main thoroughfare of Wells Street in Frankston, and again, a more recently commissioned version outside the refurbished Grand Hyatt Hotel on Russell Street in the Melbourne CBD. Although I feel the concept works better at smaller scales, the works also commodify the idea for each city or business that commissions the work. This is clearly present in the manner the Eagles have been placed outside the Grand Hyatt to dominate, and guard the lavish entrance. While I'm all for artists reaping the financial benefits of creating iconic work, I reckon Armstrong could have either been more persuasive in choosing to develop a more subtle work during the tendering process or simply passed on the opportunity to someone else.

My first inquiry into common objects writ large was with Court, an outdoor sculpture produced for the McClelland Survey and Sculpture Prize in 2005. Its creation was upon a suggestion from a friend that I should use one of my scale milk crates constructed from recycled cardboard as a reference for a larger work. It would act as a playground for children, reminiscent of 'monkey bars'. As I began pre-production, I was reminded of Claes Oldenburg's work which I re-acquainted myself with through research for this essay. Commissioned in 1986, Binoculars (1991) was devised by Oldenburg with partner Coosje van Bruggen in conjunction with Frank Gehry's Chiat/Day Building in Venice, California – U.S.A. Gehry wanted a sculptural form to link up his boat-like and tree-like buildings that were proposed. The work developed into an ideal entrance for the building while also functioning as two meeting rooms. With this in mind, I see it as integral to my work that they function as experiential forms that encourage interaction.

My key interest in rendering common objects at a grand scale is to demonstrate how well-designed objects reference common understanding of the spaces we inhabit, at any scale. While I've always been heavily influenced by Bauhaus philosophy and form, both Bananaz and Court were works developed as places of refuge, yet intentionally both anti-spaces, “grand but useless architecture shelter” as described by Robert Lindsay (2005).

The most successful and enduring of Melbourne's Public Art Commissions has to be Simon Perry's Public Purse (1994), unveiled alongside a selection of other less recognisable works by otherwise accomplished artists such as Robert Jacks and Akio Makigawa. The Purse presents a critique on the act of commissioning Public Art itself while concurrently commenting on the Retail-Hell Hub it sits smack bang in the middle of. Consumers clamour for space on Purse as a resting place from the relentless onslaught of bargains alongside tourists keen to have their photos taken with its alien form. While documenting the work for my presentation, I literally had to get in line to take a snap.

I believe Perry repeated the dose with an equally compelling entry into The Melbourne Prize for Urban Art. Public Address (2005), like it's predecessor, referenced Public Art through Public Art which saw an oversized Public Address Megaphone resting peacefully on Federation Square's stone forecourt, snoring. What a poetic, subtle commentary on the majority of Public Art across Melbourne's CBD and Docklands!

Along with Perry's Purse, Petrus Spronk's Architectural Fragment (1992) has to be one Melbourne's few examples of public art that is both universally loved and critically sound. The grand bluestone corner of a sunken library extrudes from the pavement in front of the State Library on Swanston Street in a bold manner, which welcomes skateboarders to tackle its sheer face. This in itself is an anomaly, particularly for a work constructed in the early-90's when councils were at pains to deter skaters from utilising their designs to negotiate the city's terrain.

The content of work such as Spronk's are of interest to me in developing public art as forms that attempt to integrate themselves into space as if they'd been there for years. These concepts lend themselves to the key concern of ensuring the work is site-specific and responding to it's direct surrounds. I find it hard to dislike public art that responds to its surrounds, no matter what the form, style or era.

My attempt at executing such a work came with a second entry into McClelland Sculpture Survey & Sculpture Prize. El NiƱo Colada (2007) took the domestic Art Deco orange juicer and enlarged it to represent an ornate water fountain as found in the grounds of expansive properties in Post-Gold Rush Victoria. I sought to have the work appear as an uncovered piece of historical architecture or conversely a decommissioned fountain initiated during our current water restrictions. Edward Colless tended to agree with my own thoughts when he said he felt it wasn't as successful: “desolately drought-stricken fountain in the shape of a kitchen juicer, are amusing pop travesties, though their kitsch appeal is all too familiar and outworn”. I'm fairly pragmatic and see it as a stepping stone to future work.

I'm keen to develop more 2-dimensional Public Art along the lines of the 'Geometric Abstract Mosaic' (1955) which is situated on the side of the Mussen, McKay and Potter Designed Building at 1 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne CBD. Since the completion of this work, public mosaics have mostly been the domain of 1950's-inspired architectural developments and artists such as Mirka Mora or Deborah Halpern. I'd like to think that more prominent contemporary mosaics could be incorporated and contribute to the development of Melbourne's Public Art landscape.