October 31, 2013
ACT EDITOR FOR THE CANBERRA TIMES.
Vandalised public art in Canberra
Canberra, sometimes it really feels like you can’t have nice things. To think that those cute little blokes climbing the staircase in the city need to be protected by CCTV and flood lighting lest they be ripped away as a souvenir of a Civic piss-up.
The sculpture On the Staircase has just been restored after repeated serious vandal attacks, and to have had to get the artist, Keld Moseholm, back for Tuesday’s unveiling should be a moment that makes Canberrans cringe.
”It’s been very frustrating for me to see what happened,” a restrained Moseholm said on Tuesday. He could have been forgiven for adding, ”What is wrong with you people!”
Also in the city, the ACT Veterans’ Memorial near Civic Square has in the past had to have the large glass ball at its centre replaced with one of granite after being smashed. That’s a veterans’ memorial.
The consequence of these attacks is that anything that is installed has to be virtually indestructible and come with a whopping price tag. That feeds into the criticism of the art program and is a big factor in why so many people say, ”Enough with all this public art.”
When you see how much damage a drunk can cause to a heavy-duty installation, it’s little wonder spontaneous, cheap, or what they call ”ephemeral” public art just doesn’t survive.
Off the top of my head I can reel off a few examples.
Most memorable were the vicious attacks, including decapitation, on Down by the Lake with Liz and Phil, the nude statue of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip installed in 1995. That vandalism may have been political. Perhaps republicans attacking an easy image of the Queen, or monarchists trying to preserve her dignity.
There has been no such motive for the smashing up and theft of the large models from outside the dinosaur museum, or even more depressing, the bashing to bits of a whimsical herd of fibreglass zebras set up at Lake George in 2010.
Director of artsACT David Whitney says vandal-proofing public art ranked alongside public safety issues in the commissioning of new works.
”Some of the works we commission we know have a half life of 10,000 years. They won’t disappear through natural attrition.”
That we need our sculptures made tough as steel and bolted down must inhibit the artistic freedom of people like Moseholm. They have to work like Ikea designers, except instead of having to restrain their design by making it fit into a cardboard box, they have to consider what a drunken grub might do stumbling down from the nightclubs to the casino at 3am.
Still Mr Whitney thinks vandalism in the city is on the way down. And he believed some of the latest installations there, such as The Other Side of Midnight (a doll in a pink dress with carousel dogs on either side) achieved a lighter, fun feel while being sturdy enough to last.
”We see kids climbing all over it, which is what the artist wanted. And it’s escaped any form of vandalism or damage. All we’ve had to do is clean off scuff marks from the kids’ shoes.”
I think Canberra needs more public art, but not necessarily the expensive, and therefore divisive, works commissioned through government processes.
Having come from this city of roundabouts, when I went on a driving holiday in France recently I was struck by how villages and towns adorned their roundabouts with flower beds and sculptures.
Some of these scenes looked even less robust than our ill-fated zebras (now at a safer home at Pegasus Riding School), made of materials like hay bales or timber.
My first thought was that if a suburban community group in Canberra set something like this up, it wouldn’t survive the weekend. My second thought was that if the vandals hadn’t got to them, setting a hay bale witch alight like an inner north hedge, the ACT government would, efficiently removing them because they hadn’t been ”approved”.
I still fear for the first fate, but Mr Whitney assured me fear of government fun police is not justified, pointing out how he and others in the government loved seeing things like a Super Mario figure tacked onto a pipe in Belconnen a couple of years back.
He encouraged the likes of yarn bombers (guerilla knitters who decorate public places in coloured wool) or amateur sculptors, so long as they didn’t do things like obstruct roads or paths.
”We’d like people to talk to us or parks people in TAMS, but if ephemeral work appears, we don’t ring up a squad to go around and demolish it,” Mr Whitney said.
With that in mind, Canberra, what do you say to more public art and especially street art, especially the fun and the unexpected?
What do you say to taking some of those dull, grass-covered roundabouts and giving them over to something arty, pretty or even just silly?
And if we did see some of this spring up, can we resist bashing it to bits?
The Canberra Times