Arts & Entertainment

Naked City: Public art – who needs it?

If public reaction means anything it hasn’t been a good week for Clover Moore and her announcement that the City will splurge around $9 million on a series of grandiose art installations across the CBD. Already the $3.5 million cloud arch destined for the George Street mall has been labelled “the tapeworm” and a giant milk crate earmarked for Belmore Park is now attracting claims of artistic appropriation from another sculptor.          

The latter is obviously just another manifestation of the Australian obsession with gigantism, in this case thinly disguised as a work of iconic art. Goulburn has The Big Merino, Coffs Harbour The Big Banana and Sydney, wait for it – The Big Crate. Surely if we really wanted to go ‘big’ we could have conjured up something more distinctively Australian than a by-product of the Dairy Farmers co-operative. Why not The Big Ibis, The Big Monorail Car, The Big MDMA pill, or even a massive statue of the late Pro Hart engineered to fire paint bombs all over the park, much to the delight of kiddies and tourists alike.

Of course it’s all about our desire to stake our claim as an international city and festoon the joint with the kind of oversized monumentalism that will bring “oohs” and “aahs” from all over the globe. The centrepiece of all this cultural chest thumping will be the projected $180 million civic square, fronting the Sydney Town Hall and segueing into the George Street mall. The beloved Woollies corner, the real hub of our current metropolis, will be demolished to make way for the kind of Stalinist brutalism that once defined all public spaces in Eastern Europe.

Okay, that might be overstating the tragedy but these ambitious civic upgrades always look great on paper. The reality is that they never really live up to the artist’s impression and inevitably become a kind of concrete wasteland, especially after dark, when discarded milk crates (there we go again!) blow through like tumbleweeds in the American mid-west.

There’s also the question of priorities and whether the City should be spending millions on cosmetic upgrades and overpriced baubles when the homeless still sleep rough. If you want to see milk crates in a public space, albeit of the normal size, go down to Walla Mulla Park in Woolloomooloo, where men and women sleep regularly under the railway bridge and store their meagre possessions in a discarded crate.

On another note it seems local artists have been very much overlooked when it comes to commissioning items like the tapeworm and the crate. Admittedly international tendors were called in to create these contraptions but where are the Aussies? Even Britain’s controversial Tracey Emin (remember her grotty condom-laced $2 million unmade bed) has been invited to join the party with a series of 60 bronze bird sculptures.

It’s cultural imperialism on a grand scale with Sydney ratepayers footing the bill. For God’s sake please don’t tell the Lord Mayor that the city of Esperance in WA has a life-size stone replica of Stonehenge and even worse, it’s up for sale! Given the popularity of the jumping castle version at this year’s Sydney Festival, we might one day see druids gathering to celebrate the winter solstice in Sydney’s ‘retro’ civic square, dotted with hundreds of poxy unmade beds, a grotesque graffiti daubed tapeworm monster, and a fifty metre high statue of Kim Jong Un.

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