Icon, eyesore, or something else entirely?

Art+

Public art, loved and hated in equal measure. Canberra-based journalist Sally Pryor examines public sculpture in the nation’s capital. What is its function? One person’s icon may be another’s eyesore. Aesthetics vary, but does public art actually serve another, more important, purpose?

Icon, eyesore, or something else entirely?
by Sally Pryor

Perched like a totem on a main thoroughfare in northern Canberra is an eight-metre-high fibreglass sculpture of an owl. The $400,000 artwork, by Melbourne sculptor Bruce Armstrong, was intended as a benign, welcoming presence. The artist chose the owl as a subject because it was traditionally linked to wisdom, and was a cheeky wink to the city’s raison d’être – a “parliament of owls” and so on.

The unveiling of Owl in 2011 was a bittersweet event – one of the last significant acts of a man almost defeated. Jon Stanhope, the territory’s outgoing Chief Minister, was presenting one of the last works commissioned under the ACT government’s controversial percentage-for-art scheme that he had instigated.

And while the sculpture itself was, on the face of it, uncontroversial, it turned out to be every bit as confounding as the scheme under which it had come into being. Because Owl, from almost every angle but the front, looks like a penis.

Bruce Armstrong, Owl, 2011, composite, steel, hardwood, paint, corner Belconnen & Benjamin Way.

So much for public art being a way to bring communities together. A recent online poll by the University of Canberra (ahead of an UnCover panel event, Public art and design: Icon or Eyesore?, which I moderated) found an almost even split between lovers and haters of the Belconnen Owl: 51 per cent voted for “icon,” the rest for “eyesore.”

Some hate the size, the expense, the potential for phallic-related mockery. Others love – or at least appreciate – the physical signifier telling them that they’re nearly home, or en route to the shopping mall. For many, it doesn’t look like a penis at all. It’s just the Belconnen Owl. This split, this flashpoint for such intense disagreement, seems to align with general opinions about the city’s more than 100 public artworks.

In fact, make that public artworks in general.

For this is hardly unique to Canberra; cities throughout the world have long weathered the mini-storms that erupt as artworks are erected in public spaces. In Australia, it’s practically a national pastime. As cities modernise and morph with the changing tides of urban design and social policy, it’s the artworks, the vital seasoning to a well-developed city, that often cop flack by default.

It’s a shame, because a city without public art wouldn’t be much of a place to live at all.

But Bruce Armstrong still remembers installing his owl on Belconnen’s main thoroughfare, and people shouting from cars that the money would be better spent on schools. “That was depressing,” he told The Canberra Times. “I felt that these people felt that I was taking something away from them.”

And that narrative has persisted; Stanhope’s highly criticised percentage-for-arts scheme, under which one per cent of the city’s capital works program each year was devoted to public art, lasted just two years, from 2007-2009. During this time, amid constant criticism, Stanhope oversaw the commissioning of more than 40 works that are now dotted around the city.

In contrast, the ACT Government has commissioned very few public artworks since Stanhope left office in 2011. No one will ever admit it, but this reticence could well come down to one work in particular. Indeed, it would be impossible to discuss public art in Canberra without mentioning Patricia Piccinin’s Skywhale. The hot-air balloon was commissioned by the ACT Government to mark Canberra’s centenary in 2013.

Patricia Piccinini, Skywhale, 2013. Photo: Martin Ollman.

It’s an understatement to describe the reception to the majestic, airborne beast as mixed. Everything about it was deemed objectionable by many – its size, its cost, its ephemeral nature. And with 10 pendulous breasts to boot, all the metaphors for a remote public-servant-filled administrative capital were ripe for the picking.

Skywhale was temporary, but the public artworks that do remain in Canberra, are in turn, whimsical and impenetrable, beautiful and brutal, thought-provoking and, in some instances, frankly soul-deadening. And they all stand as signifiers of time and place, blending, bleeding and rusting into the landscape.

But what makes them successful? Is it enough to simply be a talking point?

Armstrong thinks so, although, alerted to the genitalia references just days after the sculpture was unveiled, he told a reporter at the time that the resemblance was entirely accidental. “It wasn’t anything I intended to do, it is just how it came out,” he said. “I suppose it’s fair to say anything longer than it is wide could be a phallic symbol. As long as people feel okay when they look at it, then I can’t be happier.”

For industrial designer Dan Armstrong (no relation to the sculptor), the director and founder of consulting firm Formswell Design, there should be as few rules as possible when it comes to public art. “I think if it looks amazing or evokes an emotion or enhances a public area in any way then it’s doing something right,” he says.

In this sense the Belconnen Owl ticks every box (although Dan Armstrong professes amazement at the online poll result; he had assumed everyone would hate Owl as much as he did). But it turns out that for many, the fact that it exists, as part of the landscape, is enough to generate affection.

And this is one of the most important functions of public art; to help its inhabitants form associations with the place. For local architect Erin Hinton, a city like Canberra relies on public art because its aesthetics are made up mainly of layered memories. “Canberra has no unique feel, just receding remnants of other places and times,” she says. This is just as important as any kind of defined aesthetic, as memories and individual experiences make up the fabric of a city as much as built structures and urban planning.

So if a city is made up of memories, should public art say something about its surroundings? What can Richard Goodwin’s Rhizome, a 17-metre-high tangle of steel beams (often described as the “pile of sticks”) say about the workaday surrounds of the Gungahlin Drive Extension? And equally, what does Matthew Harding’s whimsical stainless steel cushion, reclining jauntily on its own granite plinth, tell us about the centre of Canberra’s CBD?

Richard Goodwin, Rhizome, 2007, Gungahlin Drive Extension Public Art Program.

Shaune Lakin, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), thinks it doesn’t much matter if people like public artworks or not, but whether they can engage with them. An avowed admirer of Skywhale, and indifferent to the Belco Owl, he also works with one of the country’s premier public art collections.

But Lakin works in an environment where art is carefully cordoned off from the public; for the most part people can look, but not touch. It’s this that distinguishes public art from the works we might experience in an art gallery. “It’s certainly valued differently in an emotional sense,” he says. “People can develop very strong attachments to public artworks that they regularly experience – they become part of their psychological and emotional experience of a place.”

But Lakin thinks there’s something to be said for works simply inserting themselves into public life, in every sense of the word. “Part of me likes the idea of artwork just appearing in a public space, and people then having to develop their own position on it or relationship to it,” he says. “Why should we have to love or like or even understand everything we encounter? Maybe the world would be a less hostile place for many people if the experience of difference was built into our daily life.”

Sally Pryor