Melbourne’s Strange and Amazing Public Art
Melbourne is an artistic city. One of the ways we show this is by erecting a lot of strange, and sometimes amazing, public art. Here, are some of the best.
A HISTORY APPARATUS: VESSEL CRAFT and BEACON
Corner Russell and Bourke Streets
In 1993, the Australian Metal Workers Union came up with a bold concept; they would employ an artist in residence, and commission a work from them that would strengthen the ties between their industry and the wider community. Local sculptor Chris Reynolds was the artist, 'A History Apparatus: Vessel, Craft and Beacon' was the work.
Sitting on a wide median strip on Russell Street, opposite Hungry Jacks, 'History Apparatus' is a steam punk inspired sculpture with three distinct sections. The ‘Vessel’, the square bulbous section to the left, represents the past, and the circular funnel-like apparatus at the other end is the ‘Beacon’, representing the future. The idea is that the past is staid, while the future is bright and exciting. And connecting these? Craft, represented by the track; and so it is our leading craftspeople, including the good folk in the Metal Working industry, who will lead us into a new age.
This work, undoubtedly one of the city’s most unusual, was unveiled in 1995.
Yarra Waterfront, Birrarung Marr
Deborah Halpern is a Melbourne artist known for her colourful compositions. Working in different mediums – including sculpture, ceramics and textiles – and borrowing from Picasso and the Surrealist school, Halpern uses lively colours and patterns to create playful works of art.
Her two most well known pieces are long standing public art icons.
‘Angel’ was commissioned by the NGV in 1988, as part of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. Rendered in concrete, steel and glazed tiles, the 9 metre long sculpture depicts what appears to be a three legged creature, covered in idiosyncratic, cartoony designs. Halpern intended the piece as a celebration of Australian culture in the 1980’s; vibrant, fun, and including including obvious reference points like designer Jenny Kee, and artist Ken Done.
Angel was originally installed in the moat at the front of the NGV, where it remained until 1996. In that year, as part of the gallery’s renovations, it was moved to its current location on the banks of the Yarra.
Yarra Waterfront, Southbank
Halpern’s other famous piece of public art is also on the Yarra riverside, this time on the opposite side to ‘Angel’, in Southbank.
Ophelia is one of the principal characters in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, and one of the most famous characters in English literature; in love with Hamlet, unable to reconcile his strange behaviour, and stricken by the murder of her father, Ophelia kills herself at the climax of the play.
Halpern’s statue presents the character's story through the artist’s unique lense; a cactus like creature whose bright colours and patterns are in contrast with its melancholy expression. The artist sees Ophelia as Angel’s ‘cousin’; where the former represents joy, the latter represents sadness, and so bookends the Yarra with two extremes of human emotion.
As well as a prominent local artist, Halpern is a vigorous charity fundraiser. In 1990 she raised $100 000 for ‘The Hunger Project’, feeding people in developing countries, and contributes a portion of her sales to various charities including Guide Dogs for the Blind, Greenpeace and Amnesty.
Yarra Waterfront, Southbank
Also on Southbank, this time in the shadow of the Princess Bridge, is the red oxidised steel ‘Dervish’ by Clement Meadmore. Born in Melbourne in 1929, Meadmore studied aeronautical engineering and industrial design at Melbourne University. Later he would design furniture, before branching out into sculpture.
His academic background provided the shape for his artistic expression; Meadmore has always worked with different kinds of metal, producing large scale works using industrial equipment.
A ‘Dervish’ is a member of the Sufi religious order, a branch of Islam, who has taken a vow of poverty. They are best known for performing a ritual dance called the ‘sema’, wearing a dress-like costume and distinctive hat, that involves vigorous whirling and spinning, and which is designed to induce a state of euphoria. Meadmore has attempted to depict this experience with his abstract sculpture, simultaneously subverting the metal it is made of; an inert, solid substance, that he has given a sense of chaotic movement.
In his later career, Meadmore moved to New York and found great success in America. His sculptures are held in prominent galleries around the world, and ‘Dervish’ has been valued at more than $1 million.
Corner Swanston and La Trobe Streets
Emerging from the pavement like a bluestone orc is ‘Architectural Fragment’, Dutch born artist Petrus Spronk’s tribute to the State Library.
Commissioned by the Melbourne City Council in 1992, as part of a program of public art for Swanston Street, Spronk took his inspiration from the Greek island of Samos. Holidaying on Samos in the 1980s, Spronk was struck by the number of fragments of ancient ruins simply lying on the ground, ‘like a free sculpture park’.
To recreate this aesthetic in Melbourne, Spronk chose bluestone; a hardy, durable material that had been used in a number of prominent city buildings, but was an unusual choice for an artwork. It is adorned with a quote from the poem ‘Ozzymandius’, by Percy Blythe Shelley:
‘Look on my work you mighty, and despair.’
The sculpture can either be interpreted as a rumination on a society emerging, or collapsing, depending on your view. Does the quote indicate the pride that comes before a fall? Or is it simply a boast from the artist that their work, and our city, is undeniably great?
THREE BUSINESSMEN WHO BOUGHT THEIR OWN LUNCH: BATMAN, SWANSTON and HODDLE
Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn
Record holder for the longest public art title in Melbourne is this trio of bronze sculptures near the Bourke Street Mall, a product of the same art program that produced ‘Architectural Fragment’.
This ambitious, and undeniably strange, work tries to accomplish several things simultaneously.
In the first instance it is a bit of satire, poking fun at the old white men who founded our city; reimagining them as goofy weirdos, rather than venerated characters in a history book. But the artists have gone further than just mess with their image.
By dressing Batman, Swanston and Hoddle in modern clothes, they have now made them sortof time travellers, encountering the city they founded in a new and confusing era. Are they happy with what they set in motion? Their expressions say; maybe. Which is a provocative theme, as we pat ourselves on the back for being crowned the world’s most liveable city once again.
Whatever the thematic considerations, 'Three Businessman' is one of the city’s most popular artworks; check out the tourists you can see every day, getting their picture taken as they shake their hands, or give them a hug.
Susan Hewitt and Peneolope Lee
Burston Reserve, Macarthur Street
Victoria was a sluggard when it came to enfranchising women; we were the last state in Australia to grant women the right to vote (1908), and the last to allow them to stand for Parliament (1923).
And both of these reforms only came about due to an enormous effort by the local suffragette movement.
In 1891, Victorian Suffragettes launched a petition demanding equal voting rights to those of men. Roaming the streets, knocking on doors and speaking to anyone who would listen, they eventually collected 30 000 signatures, occupying a scroll that measured a staggering 260 metres in length. Supported by Premier James Munro, the petition was tabled in Parliament and a ‘Woman’s Franchise Bill’ was passed by the lower house… and then rejected by the upper house. The first of 19 subsequent bills to be defeated.
Nevertheless, change was coming.
Commissioned in 2008, to mark the centenary of woman achieving voting rights, ‘Great Petition’ commemorates the monster scroll of 1891.
THE PUBLIC PURSE
Bourke Street Mall
Located outside the old Post Office, at the west end of the mall, Simon Perry’s ‘Public Purse’ seems like a fun bit of public art tom foolery. Travel to pedestrian malls, and you will often see quirky public art (check out the pigs in Rundle Street Mall in Adelaide).
But the origin of the piece can actually be found in a more practical consideration; in 1994, Melbourne City Council called for submissions for innovative designs for public seating. Perry’s winning effort highlighted the basic connection between the object, a purse, and the high density commercial shopping area it was to live in. It's also, you know, fun.
The Public Purse was originally considered for mass production, to replace some of the city’s more conventional benches. Sadly, the idea was subsequently scrapped. But the one Public Purse that was made has proved a popular addition to the mall; whether they know it was meant to be a bench originally, or not, there are always people sitting on it.
LARRY LA TROBE
Melbourne Town Hall
Also popular is ‘Larry La Trobe’, the perky bronze dog that first appeared on Swanston Street in 1992.
Based on artist Pamela Irving’s own dog, and named after it, Larry is not meant to depict any particular breed. Rather, he is meant to be a sort of ‘everydog’, and so illustrate Australia’s love affair with the canine.
Larry’s slightly unkempt appearance, and cocky tilt of the head, gives the statue an undeniable personality, that immediately endeared it to the public. Larry was so popular, in fact, that in 1995 he was stolen. Despite a public appeal, and the offer of a reward, the original Larry has not been seen since.
The metal works where he was created still had the cast, however, and the following year a replacement statue was struck. This time, he was secured with 30 inch long bolts. Originally located in City Square, due to the construction works for the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, Larry now has a new home in front of the Town Hall. I walk past him every day. And always give him a pat, for luck.
Also on my way to work I pass ‘Vault’, an epic, five metre tall yellow construction that looks like an unfolded paper cube. And if Larry La Trobe represents the top of the scale in public art popularity in Melbourne, ‘Vault’ occupies the other end; it is so unpopular, it has had to be moved, twice.
It was originally installed in City Square in 1980. City Square was Melbourne’s attempt to rectify what many had long seen as a problem with the city’s design; the lack of a central public space. But rather than a park, or a simple open area, Melbourne City Council opted for a bluestone rectangle complete with shops and restaurants.
When it was originally launched, City Square was viewed as windswept and dull. To liven it up, the Council commissioned the work from Robertson-Swann, who used bright yellow to contrast the dark, bluestone surroundings.
The piece is from the school of art that encourages interaction; it’s sortof a real vault, that you can go inside, but still see out of. Symbolically, this questions the reason for having any vault; this one is not actually secure, you would not keep anything precious here, so how secure are any of them? Is security, just an illusion?
In any case, ‘Vault’ proved just as unpopular as the Square it stood in.
'People didn’t just dislike Vault, they became passionate in their dislike. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on it.'
- David Hurlston, NGV Curator
Dubbed ‘The Thing’ by the local press, there was so much negative feedback about the sculpture that it was removed after 8 months, and relocated to Birrarung Marr. But it didn’t fare any better there, as a string of complaints caused it to be placed in storage.
In 2002 it was finally given another chance, and now sits outside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, on sleepy Grant Street. When I walk past, there are normally little kids climbing all over it, having a blast.
There are worse fates.