Geoffrey Hulme and Mudflat Arts

Lota Environmental Sculpture Project, Brisbane

The discourses of art criticism can be problematic when discussing the complexities of public art practice, particularly when this practice is located within a community arts context. With the focus of community arts projects frequently directed toward the collaborative process, the perceived aesthetic merit of the public art product often is critically viewed in terms of a compromise, or not critically reviewed at all. However, when the challenges of public art projects are successfully met, the outcomes can be doubly rewarding, culminating in the cultural enrichment and empowerment of the community in which it was created, and in the production of a public work of art which retains an aesthetic integrity and which, at a glance, encapsulates the spirit of its environs.

The potential for public art not just to adhere to a cultural agenda but also to fulfil a sociopolitical function can be evidenced in undertakings such as the Lata Environmental Sculpture Project, in which community interaction through collaborative art activities worked concomitantly with advocacy for local environmental issues.

Initiated by Mudflat Arts Incorporated, a multiarts organisation based on Brisbane's bayside, the Lata Environmental Sculpture Project was conceived at the vanguard of public discourse on the future of the Lata foreshore and river mouth habitats. Mudflat Arts was established in 1988 and, during its brief history, has been proactive in addressing community and environmental issues through its links with the Bayside Action Group (which has successfully opposed undesirable industrial development in the area) and the Bayside Environmental Network, and through its arts programme which has included an environment performance project, Clear as Mud, mural projects, and continuous participation in local events. Mudflat Arts operates in the suburbs of Wynnum, Manly, and Lata which, although part of the Brisbane greater region, have developed a strong sense of regional community.

The aim of the Sculpture Project to encourage the community to take control in the creation of its cultural environment was integral to the consultation and design process, which incorporated the establishment of an environmental profile of the area, the facilitation of community workshops, ecological site walks, and dissemination of project information through the local media and through displays at civic centres. The outcome of this process was the formulation of a detailed project brief and, following problems encountered in the initial design stages, the contracting of artist and local resident, Geoffrey Hulme, to produce a sculptural maquette which was subsequently presented for public scrutiny.

The resultant sculpture, Moondance II, stands like a totemic custodian of the foreshore environment at Fig Tree Point, focusing awareness on the natural attributes of its vicinity and also enhancing the recreational dimension of the surrounding parkland. Hardwood pylons support carved organic forms at their apex-undulating curves, glimpses of wings, sunrays, and clouds meld in pastel hues against an aquatic backdrop. At the base of the sculpture, tilted planes of pine serve as a pathway over large quarry stones, which deny complacent passage, while smaller pylons pitch at precarious angles between the sections of the walk way. Through an entry-way, also adorned with carved and painted hardwood forms, one encounters the elevated platforms of the skewed pathway, while, beyond, isolated totems pick their way to the mangroves, providing a vista from shore to sea accentuated by quarry rocks tumbling across the mud flats.

Although Hulme's design has successfully accommodated the criteria determined by the community brief in terms of its harmony with the locale; its practical, participatory aspect; and its sensitivity to intrusion upon the natural features and ocean view, public art by its nature remains open to responses of public dissension. Here, notions of an imposed value judgement upon the resultant work of art come into play, and public art works have at times experienced negative and even hostile reactions from community constituents, ranging from defacement by graffiti to more destructive acts of violence. The accomplishment of public art projects can thus be measured in terms of whether the disparate and often competing elements of community perception can be assuaged on common ground. If public discourse in the local media can be used as a gauge of the impact of the Lata Environmental Sculpture Project, Moondance II has, from a positive viewpoint, elicited a lively sense of ownership, albeit in the form of mixed public reaction.