Or covering, moving, and removing
Artworks in urban public space inevitably become actors in all kinds of sanctioned and unsanctioned activities and interventions (think of photography, sitting, urinating, taking shelter, graffiti, political protest, yarn bombing, skateboarding, cycling, parkour…). Some of these activities receive more attention than others across various media, such as the popular press and/or academic publishing.
IMAGES: Charles Summers (1865), Burke and Wills Monument, Swanston Street, Melbourne. Photography: David Richards, 10 June 2013.
The act of temporarily covering Melbourne’s Burke and Wills Monument with crayoned messages and gaffer-taped posters (already removed in the images above), does seem to puncture the often-cited ‘invisibility’ of nineteenth century statuary. It potentially draws a different range of public comment than the same acts applied to walls and footpaths; momentarily drawing the historical object from its invisibility cloak into more obviously contemporary urban politics and debate. (Where, no doubt, it had always belonged, had we only been paying attention.)
The commemorative function of such monuments seems interlinked with common assumptions about stability or fixity; assumptions belied by the evident mobility of public sculptures – these are objects (like the Burke and Wills Monument) regularly moved around the city according to the exigencies of road and building construction, politics and taste.
Sculptures from the late twentieth century are just as amenable to relocation as conventional monuments (irrespective of any artists’ claims about the integral relationship between artwork and site ) viz. Ron Robertson-Swann’s peripatetic sculpture Vault (1978) in Melbourne’s CBD; Owen Broughton’s Steel Sculpture (1976) in Adelaide (removed from Rundle Mall in 1988 only to reappear twenty years later in Liberman Close/Ebenezer Place); or the impending displacement of Bert Flugelman’s Twin Spheres (1977) a few metres along the Rundle Mall.
…I confess to a mental image of these objects, with each act of transport, flickering in and out of perceptual space from some other, hyper space of overlapping field relations!
Perhaps Adrian Doyle was thinking something similar with his recent Empty Nursery Blue project, presented by Doyle’s Art in conjunction with RMIT’s Urban Laboratory, and the City of Melbourne. With a wry nod to the practices of both contemporary art and City Council anti-graffiti squads, Doyle spent Sunday 26 August spraying over the accessible surfaces of Melbourne’s Rutledge Lane with a custom mix of blue paint, effacing all traces of the street art for which the Lane is famous, and making strangely visible the (re-imagined) lane itself.
The project generated an immediate flurry of online reporting of images and text (including a time lapse animation of the transformation), with comments ranging from outrage at the arrant colonisation of a physical space assumed to be shared by a community of street artists, to appreciative accounts of experiencing the radically transformed environment, and sheer joy at the horde of street artists prompted to throw themselves almost immediately into re-claiming the empty canvas of the street. [See for example: ABC News, Sydney Morning Herald, Arts Hub, The Age (26/8/13), The Age (31/8/13), Herald Sun, Artfido Blog, Invurt, Black Mark, among many more. A statement from Doyle can be found here.]
A less sophisticated approach to the act of “painting over”, or at least one that seems to have provoked no obvious (online) trace of dialogue, is demonstrated with another example.
IMAGES: entrance to the Bell Street Mall, West HeidelberG, MELBOURNE. PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID RICHARDS, 8 JUNE 2013.
At the entrance to the Bell Street Mall in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg West stands a family of three sculptural figures, probably made of cast metal and lately re-imagined through the simple application of paint as colourful and perhaps playful landmarks for the shopping centre. Set amidst nearby neighbourhood renewal schemes of State and local government, the mall itself is the focus of a yet-to-be-implemented Urban Development Framework and Master Plan. The mall is currently awaiting its own transformation while continuing to provide a range of goods and services to local residents, including an important meeting space for a lively Somali community.
The Housing Commission of Victoria designed the Mall in 1954-56, at the same time as the nearby Olympic Village, as a shopping centre for its Heidelberg estate. Regarded today as Victoria’s first “American style, drive-in shopping centre” [Heritage Victoria (2008) Survey of Post-War Built Heritage in Victoria: Stage One, prepared by Heritage Alliance, North Melbourne, p 229], it was envisaged at the time as a shopping centre that would explicitly “accommodate today’s traffic” by incorporating a central, open-air mall restricted to foot traffic, with surrounding areas set aside for off-street car parking. When it was opened in 1956, the Argus newspaper lauded the shopping centre’s “simple lines”, the shop “fronts designed and fitted by Silverwood and Beck”, as an example of “how plain, utilitarian planning can be attractive“.
I’ve found no documentation (yet) of the Mall’s sculptural entrance figures (other than the image shown below, taken prior to their latest coat of paint), but I’m inclined to think they arrived in 1956 together with post-war modern, cost effective and functional shopping centre design. [***NB See comments/replies below – sculpture has been attributed to Tuncay Tanyer, commissioned in 1997 by the City of Heidelberg as part of the Bell St Mall Entrance Design Strategy.]
If there was ever a plaque or sign in the Mall indicating the artist or manufacturer of these figures, it has long disappeared (removed perhaps as a gesture to Australian artists’ moral rights legislation?).
In any case, the covering of these figures with new paint at some date clearly indicates their re-purposing – away from likely assumptions about the cultural sophistication that artwork would lend a suburban shopping centre in the 1950s (at the peak of national and international scrutiny brought by the Olympic Games) and towards more immediate concerns about the centre’s changing local uses and users.
It marks the effective decommissioning of the original artworks, not by physically removing them but by transforming them instead into new objects (that in this case are themselves probably only marking time before a new vision is overlaid). I’m speculating of course, in the absence of data. However, this family of objects seem equally absent from the documented plans for the mall. (…Please do get in touch if you can add to or correct any information about the history of these sculptures!)
The decommissioning of public artworks is not uncommon, although more usually conceived as physical dismantling or removal, after some lengthy period of tenure in a fixed location. An example of decommissioning now playing out in Melbourne demonstrates an unusually rapid turnover between artwork installation and removal for an artwork not conceived as temporary or ephemeral, one occasioned by a public backlash against the work and the commissioning agent (the City of Darebin).
[For comment and images, see: Crikey (The Urbanist 15/8/13), Crikey (The Urbanist, 20/8/13), The Age (20/8/13), The Herald Sun (20/8/13), Herald Sun Leader (14/8/13), Herald Sun Leader (15/8/13), Victoria Walks (Facebook), Mysterious Metal Pyramids of High St Northcote (Facebook), Esther Anatolitis (Twitter), Black Mark, etc ]
In brief, the Darebin City Council purchased an art installation for a section of High Street, Northcote, as part of a wider streetscape beautification scheme, along with new street furniture and landscaping, and in conjunction with tram works along route 86. The artwork, designed and manufactured by Syrinx Environmental, consisted of a strip of patterned galvanised steel, folded into raised, angular shapes and laid out along the road’s new, raised median strip.
While counter-narratives appeared, along with evidence of a lack of local consultation by the Council in selecting and installing the work, a discourse of safety prevailed in published comment on the piece, entrenching the work as spiky, pointed and dangerous to the life and limb of cyclists and pedestrians. Just over one week after it was installed, Council voted to remove the work altogether.
(I can’t help but wonder if complaints about that work might have been as much about the increasing range of barriers appearing in Melbourne streets to impede pedestrians and cyclists from moving freely across the road except at controlled points, as with the new, raised platform and fenced tram stops across Melbourne.)