What do you get when a Brit-Oz mining company seeking a contemporary, publicly palatable brand (misguidedly) commissions a huge, naked, bronze Greek athlete in mid-hammer-throw for their foyer? A ‘generous’ donation to the City of Melbourne, of course!
You can see The Pathfinder (aka The Hammer Thrower by John Robinson, 1974) across the road from the NGV, marooned on a small island surrounded by a moat – presumably to deter pranksters from stealing the umpteenth replacement of his hammer. It was once even wittily replaced by a shiny spinning globe by secret artist CDH, though hastily removed once the press, championing the addition, were distracted elsewhere.
I was introduced to The Pathfinder by Mark S. Holsworth on a sculpture walk during the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend. Melbourne art critic and writer Mark (aka Black Mark, because if cities had colours Melbourne’s would be black, you know) is the author of Sculptures of Melbourne. He led us up the Melbourne timeline from settlement to the present day, by way of Queen Victoria Gardens and the ‘arts precinct’ on the southbank of the Yarra.
Whilst I can’t fault the skill behind the sculptures I saw, I also can’t pretend I liked many of them. I love modernist and contemporary works, and we only saw two. What I did appreciate though was the story Mark crafted around each one: how it was funded, why it was chosen, and what it reveals about the psyche of Melbourne over time. Ultimately, it seems the tastes of big Melbourne personalities, the public, public servants and curators will never align – even within their respective tribes.
My least favourite piece was John Olsen’s frog jumping out of a pond, which Mark said has appeared only recently. In his words:
When a major artist like [Olsen] wants to make a sculpture there are people who can help him produce a saleable work that would look attractive in a millionaire’s garden.
Millionaire’s tastes don’t always match those of curators and art critics (and I err towards the latter, not just because I’m broke after 12 years of living it up in London). Olsen’s more typical artistic style has come to the wider public’s attention much more effectively in the uber-cool, eponymously named Art Series Hotel, The Olsen, on Chapel Street in South Yarra. The man is a legend – he has an OBE and an AO, and a big show coming up at the NGV next month, John Olsen: The You Beaut Country.
Melbourne has so many public sculptures I’d say it’s a defining feature of the city, though one overshadowed by its popular street art. So many of these sculptures make you shake your head in disappointment, though. Why are there so many around, of such questionable artistic merit? According to a developer I once knew, every new development in the CBD now has to allocate funds for public art nearby. Hence, an assortment of badly judged pieces pop up in front of soul-less apartment blocks.
Money from developers would be better off going into a public pot to be used for an exhibition like Sculpture in the City, which I worked on for two years at the City of London Corporation (the oldest and wealthiest ‘council’ in London containing such icons as Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the Gherkin and the Barbican). Curated by Stella Ioannou of Lacuna Projects and managed by the Department of the Built Environment, each year the exhibition showcases a selection of fantastic modern and contemporary art in unexpected locations. Its success rests on juggling the reputation of the City, the intent of the artists, the meaning of their sculptures and the desires of the business premises against which the works are juxtaposed (and these are some of the world’s most powerful banks and tricky negotiators!); all while saying something meaningful to the public about art, love, life and power in the erratic, uncertain 2010s.
My favourite piece on this Melbourne Sculpture Tour was Ron Robertson-Swann’s stunning yellow Vault, which reminds me of Richard Serra’s Fulcrum out the back of Liverpool Street station in London (except this one is held together by bolts and is much more yellow).
Finally, this quirky Dalí-Miró hybrid, which was commissioned as a children’s play sculpture, also jumped out at me. It’s called The Genie (Tom Bass, 1973). Considering curators spend much of their time wincing at children jumping on public art, I’m pretty sure this little fella, with his cheeky smile and perky ears, is having a laugh at us!