The Art of place

Anyone flying in to Melbourne knows the orange-red raking sticks and elliptical tunnel structure of Denton Corker Marshall’s (DCM) City Link Gateway. Car ads have been filmed there. Marketing for the design-conscious state of Victoria can’t resist featuring it. It’s one of the few memorable experiences you’re offered when cabbing it in from Tullamarine. But what’s its purpose? Is it art for arts sake? Does it mark an historic threshold of the city? Writing in Architecture Australia in 2002, Anthony Styant Browne considers it an entry that “is pure cinema. Fragments seen from the surrounding streets mark the place as special”.

Of course, it’s a Gateway to Melbourne. A sign that you’re leaving the formless monotony of a Freeway for the promise of Melbourne’s famously urbane centre. Where once a city announced itself with a dry stone wall, the flag of its sister city, and a record of the last time it was a ‘Tidy Town’, Melbourne exceeds expectation with no fewer that thirty-nine, 30m high raking sticks, an inclined sound wall, and a 300m long “sound tube”. It’s audacious. It’s theatre. It’s branding. It’s art. A very public art. And an art that’s perfectly in sync with the city it welcomes you to.

Contrast the popular embrace of this outlandish installation with one of the seminal mutinies in the history of public art in the same city just a few decades ago. Long after Adelaide blasted onto the national scene with Otto Hajek’s wild “City Sign” sculpture (known now as the Festival Plaza), Melbourne rejected Ron Robertson-Swann’s 1980 sculpture for Melbourne City Square titled Vault by its creator. Described as an angular assemblage of yellow-painted steel panels, the work prompted a public outcry; labeling it the ‘Yellow Peril’. It was removed a year later.

Hajek's City Sign

In a curious resonance between the City Link Gateway project, and the Vault experience years earlier, DCM is a common thread; being the architects responsible for commissioning Robertson-Swann. So it wasn’t surprising to hear John Denton admit at an address at the University of Adelaide in August that the pervading use of yellow in DCM’s work is in no small way a continuing protest at the way authorities caved to public and media umbrage at ‘Vault’. That one of Australia’s leading – now global – design practices carries this open wound confirms the enduring place for public art as a polemic tool of the artist.

There is a proud heritage of public art challenging and confronting its community. Pierre Vivant’s Traffic Light Tree (1998) in London’s emerging financial district of Canary Wharf at first confused motorists with its vast canopy of, well, traffic lights on a roundabout. Initial outrage turned to love when, in 2005 it was voted one of the favourite roundabouts in Britain. More famously, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York (1989) was the subject of public petition, court action and midnight removal.

Public art should provoke, challenge and engage. It should stimulate a creative response and represent something deep and substantial about a place, a people or a period. Often initial reaction is followed by acceptance, and then by endearment.

Adelaide has its own ‘gateway’ marker that speaks to a unique quality of our city on a plain; a site of Kaurna heritage and – in its parklands – connected to its place. The exquisitely soft ‘welcome to country’ offered by Aleks Danko and Jude Walton’s “Lie of the Land” (2004) greets visitors arriving from the airport in the western parklands in a quiet, murmured welcome. The twenty five stone ‘wurlies’ that span Sir Donald Bradman Drive recall an encampment of an earlier time; delicately poised within the limits of what the Adelaide Plains could provide. Living sustainably within the constraints of climate, water and food. Themes that resonate across time.

Communities succeed when there is a collective sense of self; galvanised by a broadly agreed sense of identity. But in the absence of an ongoing conversation about who we are, and what values we share, what better medium is there to represent this ‘sense of self’, and open new insights into future possibilities in the public realm than public art?

Successful public art can be hard to define. Truly collaborative interaction between artist and architect, engineer, scientist or developer can result in work that engages, envelopes and enthralls. Early and ongoing collaboration can embed the artists’ craft into the project. This avoids the 19th century tendency to ‘plonk’ things. Even worse, to do so on plinths. Take any monarch. Any bronze for that matter. This is a time honored practice of venerating a figure; elevating above the individual and ennobling the revered. But it does tend to mandate a certain distance between art & viewer. The viewer becomes a spectator. But not participant. An important contrast is found in Tonkin Zulaikha Greer’s (TZG) National Memorial to the Australian Vietnam Forces on Anzac Parade in Canberra. TZG are among a growing cohort of architects that work commonly with artists. In this case, Sydney sculptor Ken Unsworth AM.

The Memorial creates an enclosure between three, 9m high twisted concrete walls. Three, because it avoids the ‘oppositional’ symmetry of two, and the traditional ‘balance’ of four. Three also as it’s the minimum needed to create space. On the walls, imagery and words are etched. Within this space, a giant ring of honed granite is suspended. Initial sketches showed boulders hanging; suggestive of the oppressive heat, stress and psychological torment of the conflict. Taken together, the Memorial conveys to todays visitor a sense of the ‘threat’ of war and provides a ‘sacred’ place that is at once art, architecture, experience. It is an act of public art.

Enabling the opportunity for this type of genuine collaboration requires the artist to be inured early in to the process of architecture, engineering, and construction. It makes intuitive sense. But it’s critical to understand why. The place for art in projects is often defined as something to achieve if all else ‘goes well’. If time and cost permit. But this approach ensures that any art is an after thought; applied not infused. Bolt-on, not built-in. We need to consider the opportunity cost, and the opportunity lost.

Is there any stronger argument for establishing a more consistent approach to funding public art in civic projects?

The most common approach to funding public art is via a ‘percent for art’ program; where, say, 1% of the total construction budget might be allocated to public art. In lieu of this, art takes its chances along with the rest in the inevitable cost-cutting ‘value management’ that occurs long after its been discovered that the brief was never tested against the nominated budget. And that’s if its on the table at all.

Adelaide City Council’s Five Year Public Art Plan (2008-2013) makes a formal commitment; recognising that “to deliver a successful public art program, with quality artworks which contribute to the creation of attractive places with a sense of identity and community ownership, an ongoing Council funding commitment is required”.

Council’s Public Art Policy commits an equivalent of around 1% of its total annual Capital Renewal and Strategic Enhancement budget to a fund that allocates funds to specific projects.

As if it’s necessary to state; a city’s art, craft and design does have an economic utility. While governments struggle to develop measures for evaluating the precious creative industries sector (take the Centre for International Economics report in June 2009 for Enterprise Connect and the CIIC), an active and provocative program of public art is not a bad ‘rule of thumb’ for a confident, vibrant and economically competitive city economy. It is evidence of a creative class that is experimental and exploratory, innovating and self-expressive.

It’s no secret that Singapore – well regarded for its economic performance for decades – had historically lacked that ‘creative’ element. But it surprised many when, in 2003 it was an Economic strategies sub committee that recommended a massive shift in support for the Creative Industries as a way to lift economic output. Seven years later, and ‘Design Singapore’ is not only a new multi-disciplinary agency within the Ministry for Information, Communication and the Arts, but also a byword for Singapore itself.

The opportunity for a ‘reboot’ of public art, craft and design in Adelaide over the coming years needs to be grasped. It’s our legacy moment. The industrial age left a heroic portfolio of markers to its time in quality street level detailing of 20th century buildings (think of the gilt figures representing ‘prosperity’ or ‘abundance’ around the base of New Yorks Rockerfeller Building).

In a post-industrial age, the opportunity for public art to map todays transition to an era of energy-critical technology and ecology-critical sustainability can be imagined in an art that both commemorates the dimming age of energy abundance, and celebrates the rise of the environment. How might this be evidenced? Imagine re-conceiving the outdated local substation; with its ceramic transitors and cumbersome circuit switchers and regulators. If we can’t afford to underground a substation – like that on Hindley Street – could an ambitious public art project transform this relic? Consider Sydney’s Casuala Power station; repurposed as a cultural centre with a giant glass work by Janet Laurence (depicting, allegedly, a detail of the nose of christ). Could we shroud this site and illuminate a troubled part of the city using solar or reclaimed power (recovered by more sophisticated control systems that can load share more effectively)?

On Environment, how can the city’s relationship to the Torrens, the parklands and its indigenous heritage be celebrated more through public art? Already, installations dot the shoreline; concentrating – appropriately – around the Riverbank precinct. But could an even more ambitious program of public art invigorate the Torrens from its source, to the sea? Imagine an 85km thread of cycle, cafe and public art that extends from the Hills to West Lakes? Anchored by a Torrens-side sculpture walk extending from Hackney Rd to Bowden? Partnering with local councils along its course, and leveraging the capital investment in Riverbank, the Adelaide Oval, a new Hospital and SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), it’s feasible with a little co-ordination.

Imagine the sound waves that would echo from a commitment of, say, 0.5% of the $11bn investment in infrastructure over the coming years. Imagine the boost to the art, craft and design community, the corps of small foundries, fabricators and material suppliers that service this. And the signal it would send to the local communities whose stories would be told through a program of public art that could leave a new legacy from this generation. The first since Don Dunstan to renew the state’s once proud heritage in progressive art, culture and community.


Otto Hajek – City Sign

Hajek’s 1974 audacious magnum opus burst on to the national scene just months after Sydney’s comparatively demure – but more controversial – Opera House opened. By comparison, Hajek’s Plaza (a piece entitled ‘City Sign’ by the artist) seemed to encapsulate the state’s golden era; confident, forward looking and a centre for public policy reform.

In a sign of its cultural significance, Australia Post chose to represent South Australia in its 150th year with stamps showing Captain Hindmarsh’s ship, the “Buffalo”, and Otto Hajek’s “City Sign”.

However, significant modifications to the work, and years of only the most modest maintenance point unavoidably to the need to retire Hajek’s exceptional contribution to South Australian civic culture; replaced with another equally ambitious work of public art that represents a new form of civic space in the 21st century.

courtesy of HASSELL (1974)


CACSA CONTEMPORARY: THE NEW NEW is a multi-sited survey of nearly 50 South Australian artists taking place across the Adelaide CBD, presenting the latest local contemporary visual art in a uniquely conceived project by the Contemporary Art Centre of SA.

The CACSA gallery exhibition will open to the public from 30 October to 21 November 2010. Other exhibition sites are SASA Gallery, UniSA; FELT Space ARI; Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide—with the main site of up to 30 artists being the empty commercial space The Gallerie on North Terrace, opposite the State Library.

Public Art Projects currently rolling out across the city are KAB-101’s IN TRANSIT, an Entertainment Centre-to-Glenelg tram covered in an especially commissioned design, Mark Kimber’s Blyth Street Lightboxes off Hindley St in Adelaide’s West End and Nici Cumpston’s Citi-Cross LED TV Rundle Mall will be on show from now until the end of November.

Upcoming Public Art Projects include Craige Andrae’s sculpture Pink Dog on Union Street in Adelaide’s East End; Hossein Valamanesh on the Rundle Street Lantern, as well as James Dodd in Whitmore & Victoria Square, and Andy Best in Victoria Square.


Land Art Generator

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) is an international call for ideas that encourages artists, architects, scientists, landscape architects, and engineers to collectively imagine the future of clean energy. Land art is described by the organizers as an art movement in which landscape and the work of art are inextricably linked. Works of land art are sometimes created with only the natural materials of the surroundings. In this case, the LAGI has asked interdisciplinary artist teams to use technology as the medium for art in a way that is sympathetic to and inspired by the natural surroundings.

The call was launched in January 2010. The winning design will be announced at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi January 17, 2011.

Republished from a 2010 article for Adelaide Review 


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