Art in Public Spaces
This is a 2003 essay exploring public art, particularly that of Newcastle, NSW, and written for the Curtin University unit, Visual Culture 24. It reflects the trend in the earliest years of the new millennium for rediscovery of the built environment, and reinterpretation of monuments and buildings within a cultural-tourism paradigm. 2011 reveals many of these examples have since been obliterated in the city’s new corporate identity, which is why I decided to upload these images especially. Newcastle’s paralysis over the future of the Post Office has since been overtaken by the issues of the rail-link into town, and the current Figtree Fiasco.
Public Art: Newcastle, N.S.W., August 2003
Placing art into public spaces is a contentious issue in modern Australian society, subjected to increasing community-based involvement, diversity and expectations of ‘appropriate’ art, and bedeviled by the dichotomy of elitist liberal-humanist philosophy or Marxist realism and functionality. Most recently, concern for cultural insensitivity effectively censors artistic expression and appreciation. Tensions with civil authorities or businesses seeking commercial advantage, perceived antagonism between local historical veracity and the sanitized Disneyesque tourist-friendly image, and ultimately economic forces, are brought to bear on the commission, choice, execution, reception and longevity of ‘public’ art.
Public space is important to the individual’s mental well-being. Michael Oswald and John Moore, from Newcastle University’s Faculty of Architecture, discuss the symbiosis of private authentication and public idiosyncrasy in their essay ‘Urban Fragments: A Historical and Geographical Perspective’ (1997). Extrapolating from philosopher Walter Benjamin’s paralleling of individual fearfulness with the rise of the great cities, and Baudelaire’s claim that individuality only exists in the ’uncanny’ (those spaces ignored by the “ordering impulses of historians, planners and cartographers”), they quote architectural historian Anthony Vidler’s theory of the dehumanizing homelessness in sharp shadow and “bland windswept plazas [that] strip the street of specifity” (1997, p 4). Constructing a framework of individual references around key spatial icons such as buildings, monuments and public spaces, simplifies for its inhabitants the world’s most complex system – the city. Introducing art – in a post-modernist sense of a promiscuous mêlée of architecture, sculpture, decoration, graffiti and mural – forces personal re-orientation and re-adjustment.
The post-modern artist, educated in liberal-humanist philosophy, is apt to believe this is a good thing. In 1980, Robertson-Swann presented an angular assemblage of yellow painted steel panels – Vault– to Melbourne’s colonial heartland of Swanston Street. Despite public apoplexy forcing its removal a year later, he remains philosophical:
… if [public art] is good, it enriches … you need to step outside your own prejudices and tastes and comfort zones and everything else, in order to ‘get it’. And … that is one of the most civilizing of all processes… Vault was a public issue and I think Melbourne is more sophisticated as a result. (The Age, 03/10/2002)
Vault, aspiring to a sophisticated metropolitan elitism, demanded too great a leap from the masses, and is now more happily and homogeneously installed at the new Australian Center of Contemporary Art at South-bank.
The imprint of spatial icons on community consciousness was impressed upon the Newcastle City Council following the 1989 earthquake, after a catastrophic loss of landmarks and monuments that had once identified the city. The traditionally reciprocating Labor-Business alliance presumed carte-blanche to expunge the city’s miasmas and repackage it for development and tourism. Within 12 days, however, swarming local action groups had convinced them otherwise (Wells, 1997, p 183). Already demolished buildings were commemorated by local artists on their surrounding hoardings, and the emphasis turned toward retrieving or recreating the cityscape and skyline.
The seemingly incongruous Hamilton Municipal Building (fig 1) in Beaumont Street is an example of retaining a familiar silhouette due to public demand. The original 1919 building lost in the earthquake had a distinctive clock tower – a highly visible point of reference that was however, contrary to modern pedestrian requirements (Oswald & Moore, 1997, p 58). The 1991 replacement – a post-modern interpretation of the original, incorporates a plaza and open ground floor café better suited to the bohemian aspirations of the multicultural nidus of Newcastle. To the uninitiated it is vaguely unsettling, somewhat Disneyesque (an unrealistic real fake) recalling a Bavarian cuckoo in a nest of art deco and federation styles.
Further along Beaumont St – the area of most devastation in 1989 – are mosaic planter boxes
(fig 2), part of the revitalization project. No official plaques concerning the earthquake exist, however, these mosaics and tiled paving recall both the fracturing and reconstruction of the area and its inhabitant’s lives. Mimicking the diversity and complexity of this always bustling center, and colorfully complementing the meticulously restored federation pub, the planter boxes are interesting not only because they prompt thoughts of growth and renewal, but because they were created by redundant BHP workers being retrained by TAFE.
Newcastle adheres to Marxist traditions of art – functional, realistic and relevant – remaining a socialist stronghold forged by a very masculine industrial history of penal settlement, coal mine, dockyard and (now defunct) BHP steelworks. Economically it has never quite got off its knees. Only one statue exists of an individual; a late nineteenth century depiction of the city’s planner, Henry Dangar. Newcastle city’s most prized representations are Henry Gallop’s 1938 pair of Industry and Pleasure(fig 3) – an analogy of Newcastle’s working class existence painted in the Stalinist imperative of heroic realism.
In 1996 a public donation of $64,000 prevented their proposed sale, and these very large pictures now grace the inner sanctums of the exquisitely art deco Civic Theatre as public art with restricted viewing opportunities.
Generally, pre-earthquake art in Newcastle has been expressed as architecture. ‘Greater’ Newcastle was created, rather than developing from a single settlement, in 1938 by an enforced federation of numerous, competing mining townships (Maitland, 1997, p 73). If the architecture of church (Gothic) and government (Classical) buildings were pre-determined by the Colonial Architect’s Office, it was in the municipal chambers and projects of these settlements that individuality excelled (Maitland, 1997, pp 75 – 77). The School of the Arts, Tighe’s Hill (figs 4 & 5) and The Longworth Institute (fig 6) are examples of vivacious eloquence in unexpected settings, still proclaiming forgotten dreams of lost peoples. The Tighe’s Hill building of 1900 is in startling juxtaposition with disintegrating wooden hovels at the foot of the BHP leviathan. Dancing, vigorous and variegated detailing enhances the classical mold, appropriately suggesting the role of the arts to enhance civilisation. One can only marvel at the impact such a building had on the identity of an isolated mining community; an expression of permanency in an empty place, a symbol of competitive success, a reward for hard labor and a concrete expression of a better future.
Apolitical abstractions are increasingly the memorials and celebrations of individual or company beneficence, presupposing the faceless immortality of international corporations as the major sponsors of public ‘high’ or metropolitan art since Australian Art was essentially industrialized in 1994 (T Smith, 2001, p 75). Suggestions of power, permanency, vision and potential are easily imposed on objects or images without previous associations, although unfortunately, this trait also provides scope for alternative interpretations. In 1969, the AMP Society commissioned Awakenings by Clement Meadmore; a large steel sculpture resting in the eponymous square in Melbourne. As its name suggests Awakenings twists and stretches in the manner of a somnolent giant about to rise and conquer in a message reassuring to AMP investors. Meadmore left it unpainted, preferring a natural rusting of its corten steel medium, and possibly implying its ‘gritty’, plebeian heart that values truth, economy and openness (Williams, 1990, p 168). In the light of their spectacular fall from grace in recent years, however, the rusting and exposed monument invites reinterpretation as ‘rude awakenings’ reflecting the company’s unpreparedness as it curls in upon itself!
BHP presented the Newcastle city council with a 1.5 m bronze CORM by Marilyn McGrath (fig 7) to commemorate the 50thanniversary of City Hall in 1979. It stands in civic Plaza as a symbiosis of nature and industry, and a reference to a utilitarian precursor to an ultimate ‘flowering’ of the city. BHP has presented several monuments to promote its ‘good citizenship’.
Originally, when the Borehold coal seam petered out in the 1900’s, Newcastle entertained a future as Sydney’s Brighton – a seaside resort. The acquisition by BHP around 1914 of the botanical gardens for heavy industry was not universally applauded: to mollify the populace it built the sea bath’s portico and façade (fig 8). This is a symbol of Newcastle, aesthetically functional, universally relevant, and makes a feature of a natural landscape.
After the 1989 earthquake, the public art movement in Newcastle became community therapy. Murals of past events sprang up on convenient walls, although by 2003 very few of these remain – lost to the weather or overtaken by the new expedience of the more financially agreeable public art of heritage tourism. It was on one expedition to find the 1990 mural commemorating the 1932 eviction riots in Tighe’s Hill that revealed the grandiloquent Tighe’s Hill Art School featured in this essay. The shadow imprint (fig 9) of a breathtaking dive into space in Scott Street exists only for the initiated, as a wickedly humorous idiosyncrasy and a private acknowledgement of local ownership.
Another mural, by Brigitte Hansen (fig 10 – 11) survives in a dim underpass to Newcastle Beach from the housing commission and cheap ‘digs’ of the declining East End.
Commissioned by the city council sunset Art committee in 1990, its situation in a less than salubrious spot offers little incentive to linger, a testimony to past aspirations for the ‘civilizing effect’ of art for the socially disadvantaged. The Time Tunnel Mural depicts historical usage of the beach, from aboriginal campfires, fishermen, surf lifesavers, the ubiquitous coal ship, and children and adults at play. After at least two restorations it has been abandoned to its fate before salt spray, corroding cement and unauthorized muralists and graffitists.
The only true expression of uncensored public art is to be found in graffiti. Donald Richardson dismisses the pretensions of graffiti to art, accusing it of being derivative, of conception in afterthought (1995, pp 104-5). It represents, to cultured pretension, anarchy. For its proponents, however, it is the ultimate democracy, an early warning system of political and social disenchantment expressed by a part of the main reacting to universal condition. Or it can be a validation of personal existence (www.graffiti.org/axel/axel) . At best it cheers a thoughtless wall (figs 9, 12), or confirms identity in a post-industrial landscape (fig 13).
Responsibility for and ownership of public art proved an issue in Sydney in 2002. A mural painted twenty years ago above Pitt Street on the walls of the Uniting church’s Pilgrim House, Peace, Justice, Unity (fig 14), was covered over by renovations in 2001. The Public Art Squad, comprised of the original artists including David Humphries, lobbied for and received state and government funding to recreate an “outstanding example of the mural art of the period” (Nicholls, 2003). Their argument for reinstatement recalled the mural’s depiction of “enduring human values …and in the light of the war in Iraq its message is still pertinent”, and the issue of artist’s rights:
You can’t just go and paint people’s murals out … some murals have a use by date. But that one, we felt, didn’t. (Humphries, in Nicholls, 2003)
Large scale murals such as Peace, Justice, Unity began appearing in the late 1970s, generally expressing a political statement in an independent, public space free of institutional power (B. Smith, 1991, pp 482-484). The contemporary style of Humphries’ mural – simplified form, limited colors, and obvious symbolism – combines to form a powerful visual message. It creates a feature of an otherwise blank wall, orientates the viewer to ‘Pitt St, Sydney’, advertises local values of positive cultural tolerance, and reminisces benignly of the 1970’s ‘flower power’ era of innocence.
Public art is increasingly the servant of tourism. Presenting culture as an exclusive theme of how this place sees itself or would like to be seen, responds to tourism demand for a more than passive experience of ‘the bush’, the Opera House, or Uluru (T. Smith, 2001, p 97). Modern itineraries require sophisticated cultural and multicultural experiences, with lifestyle and local produce sampling in a congenial atmosphere. The inevitable result is civil authority imposing a “harmonious cityscape regardless of vitality” (Hanley, 1997, p 31). Melbourne entertains Vault and Awakenings as expression of its sophistication. Its embrace of the “crazy paving shards” of Federation Square is attuned to commercial culture ever more spectacularised and relying increasingly on visual image to communicate (T. Smith, p 77). Melbourne is gambling on the iconic Federation Square to broadcast its sophistication internationally via “a visual impact equal to the Eiffel tower, Sienna’s main square, or the Sydney Opera House” (SMH 18/10/2002). Dissension is repulsed via allegations of bucolic ignorance. Like the Gothic cathedral craze of eleventh and twelfth century Europe, public art has been enlisted as propaganda in city rivalries:
[Federation Square] will provide some valuable lessons for Sydney on how to create a city-based cultural precinct … Unlike the Opera House, Federation Square is more elusive, demanding contemplation, interpretation, investigation … (SMH, 18/10/2002)
Federation Square is essentially one man’s vision of Melbourne: “Jeff Kennett wanted a building on the site and then decided what to put on it” (SMH 18/10/2002). Although monetary constraints ‘thwarted’ its architects, public outcry forced much of the original plan to be altered to prevent obstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral. Public disapprobation, however, generally proves a lesser aggravation to creators of public art installations than interference to ‘artistic freedom’ from councils, corporations and community groups. The inherent idealism of the artist as an exceptional genius has become outmoded. Where once
Great works of art created in the past were by individuals who were cultivated, who exercised their taste and judgment and conviction. And had a vision. (Robertson-Swann, 2002, p2). The modern public perception places the artist “akin to a marginalized, reified itinerant” (B. Smith, 2003, p 4).
In the socialist stronghold of Greater Newcastle, functional public art projects are timidly proffering space for elitist ‘decoration’, in expectation of better city marketability. In 1988, the bicentenary project created a public domain from reclaimed riverfront and industrial wasteland (fig 15).
Three previous attempts to anchor a city heart with the aid of spatial icons have failed – the East End was the pre-federation center of monumental (banks and post office) buildings (figs 16, 17), by 1926 the West End Civic Square (government offices) was promoted as the ‘meeting place’ with creation of a park and memorial, and in 1979 the Hunter Street Mall was closed to traffic to create a shopping precinct. Despite creeping gentrification, the city center continues in decline, with the use and upkeep of past landmarks demanding the city’s resources and stirring public disagreement. The newly created space of the Foreshore, however, being free of past association, is amenable to experimentation: the challenge of art in this public space is to adequately express the myriad of emerging stories underpinning the city (fig 18).
All public art has the ability, through varied interpretations, context and cultural sensitivities to offend. The swastika was a holy badge before being usurped by the Third Reich. The Southern Cross flag flown at the Eureka Stockade lost its national credibility through association with the Builder and Laborer’s Federation. The untutored repetition of some graffiti can offend the eye – or add interest to a monotonous cityscape.
In the wake of indigenous militancy concerning unauthorized use or viewing of sensitive images, the Federal Government has banned photography in areas of its national parks, Recently the Museum of Contemporary Art withdrew an exhibition to placate elders of the Ulura-Kata Tjuta National Park, who objected to its viewing by the ‘uninitiated’ (ABC 11/08/2003). Accusations of “exploitation”, “disrespect”, and “breaching intellectual and cultural property rights” were leveled by ATSIC at art Student Prince Harry after his series of aboriginal-style works were exhibited earlier this year (Newcastle Herald, 22/08/2003). The Aboriginal community does, however, appear divided over this issue, appreciating the interest and exposure of their art.
[Description Summary: Two panels, one upright, one supine. Upright contains fish and shell imagery between two wooden uprights capped with steel. Supine panel contains ‘fossilized’ tool artifacts discovered at the site. Embedded is the tip of a 3m steel arrow, and a third ironbark post is repeatedly carved with the downward arrow motif. Across the lower panel runs a trail of paw prints, with a single imprint of a human foot.]
Rediscovery reconciles many of the issues concerning public art in public places. Firstly, it is outdoors and available 24 hours and there are no admission fees. Its practical mediums require minimal maintenance. Its abstract symbolism immediately recalls both local and Australian culture – convict clothing and building materials, fossilizations from pre-history and ancient / modern man settlement. The arrow also recalls ‘traditional’ European archeology, and the ‘Dig’ tree.
A local historian, Dr John Turner, devoted his life to this ‘missing piece’ of Newcastle history; out walking one morning, his King Charles Spaniel dug up conclusive evidence – since ceremoniously re-interred – of the site of Coal River’s (Newcastle’s) first settlement (hence paws and human footprint). The center arrow, visible from a distance, indicates the site and artifact, and the ‘birth ‘ of the city. Elaboration accompanies every viewing, with a story to enchant and diverge from ‘dirty, industrial city’.
People relate to their spaces physically and emotionally. Originally public art anchored a settlement, expressing permanency, cultural values and economic success, or focused emotion in the form of memorials. Modern forms of elitist expression especially invite aggressive public response as disruption of spatial orientation by experimental oddities requires active adaptation. Possessiveness of a public space can precipitate tensions regarding its use or presentation, more so if the purpose or interpretation of art installations negates or contradicts local image or sensitivity or the burden of its upkeep imposes fiscal restraint. The final challenge to public art is to give substance to the past, the present and the future community.
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