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Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture 2011
An expanse of sweeping metallic facades and converging public concourses, Federation Square is a bustling hub of cultural, tourist and business activities—an ideal arena for contemporary artists to interrogate the potential of sculpture within the urban environment. The six finalists of the third instalment of the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture—Isaac Greener and Lucas Maddock, Bianca Hester, Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, Clive Murray-White, Tom Nicholson and Stuart Ringholt—took on this challenge in the first half of November 2011. Dispersed throughout the architecturally diverse topography of the site and presented for just two weeks, the works were under constant threat of being overwhelmed by the swell of daily activities taking place in this popular and transitory civic space. This was a major strength of the exhibition. Rather than adhering to conventional notions of public sculpture, the kind embodied by the Russian collective AES+F’s spectacularly monumental and highly polished works Angels-Demons. Parade, which were installed throughout the city as part of the Melbourne Festival earlier in the year, the prize offered a more experimental and provisional vision of sculpture within the public realm.
A large contingent of works were structured around the temporal parameters of the exhibition and were highly dependent on the active participation of the general public. Bianca Hester’s A world, fully accessible by no living being (2011) (winner of the prize) invited people to take part in a number of events, in locations across the city, throughout the duration of the exhibition. Hester constructed a rudimentary cinder-block wall at Federation Square as an anchorage point for the work from which broadsheets were distributed detailing a schedule of daily actions and performances. These assorted events included a hoop performance on a rooftop carpark, regular walks to collect sticks throughout the CBD and the improvisational display of a cast copy of the Henbury iron meteorite against a wall at an historically charged site in inner city Collins Street. In the tradition of the Situationist International’s dérive, these actions aimed to awaken our vision and understanding of the built, social and historical contours of the urban environment.
Tom Nicholson’s Unfinished monument to Batman’s Treaty (2011) aped the tactics of marketing campaigns that regularly operate in Federation Square, with A4 sheets distributed by a team of volunteers to passersby. Designed as a plaque to memorialise Melbourne’s first chimney built for John Batman by William Buckley in 1835, the public was invited to attach these sheets to a chimney in their own living rooms to form part of an ongoing, dispersed monument. The lightness of Nicholson’s sculptural gesture belies the weighty local history that it evokes. The episode’s protagonists hold idiosyncratic status in Australia’s colonial history: Buckley spent thirty years living with a local Aboriginal community whilst Batman claimed to have signed a Treaty with the Wurundjeri people that spurned the establishment of Melbourne. The motif of the chimney thus becomes an architectural symbol of European settlement of the region and its legacy of unresolved relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Stuart Ringholt’s Do you want to talk about sculpture? (2011) did away with any concrete material form altogether. Each day of the exhibition, the artist presented a different domestic object, such as a candle or mirror ball, as a trigger for conversations with passersby about the nature of the medium, which were recorded for posterity. Taking advantage of the diverse range of people who traverse the precinct, Ringholt courted the opinions of those outside the narrow confine of the ‘art world’. The work was predicated on the trust and generosity of all participants and ultimately worked to challenge the notion of art as something for the cultural elite, instead positing it as the bastion of all.
Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s We, The Masters (2011) provoked more involuntary responses from members of the public. The surreptitious audioscape was pieced together from hundreds of recordings of people talking to their animals. Emerging out of the bubbling noise of the local surrounds in sharp, authoritative or affectionate tones, passersby were caught off guard by the humorous or disconcerting commands. Fragments of vinyl bunting stamped with text-based symbols were suspended across nearby trees, demarcating the soundscape’s terrain. The banners echoed the scripts of surrounding billboards and public signage, but their connection to the soundscape felt somewhat arbitrary.
Works by Clive Murray-White and artistic duo Isaac Greener and Lucas Maddock took on more weighty material forms. Murray-White’s Sara Delaney – a head of her time (2010) utilised one of the oldest forms of the medium, marble. Making good use of its innate qualities, the classically carved face was framed by a more textural quaff of luscious hair. Sara’s disembodied head defied gravity as it sat atop a discrete steel frame so that her unflinching gaze could be met directly by passing admirers. Isaac Greener and Lucas Maddock’s Apostle No.2 (2011) (winner of both the Professional Development and Civic Choice Awards) was far more concerned with the iconic possibilities of their medium. The large scale, semi-translucent resin sculpture simulated the forty-five metre high limestone pinnacle that constituted one of the Twelve Apostles—that iconic Victorian tourist site—until it collapsed into the Southern Ocean in 2005. Playing on Australian’s love of ‘BIG’ tourist icons, the pair revelled in the artificial and kitschy qualities of the genre. Positioned on a plateau overlooking Melbourne’s visitor information centre, the work made a cheeky nod to the fabrication and mythmaking at the heart of the tourist economy.
Despite it being one of Australia’s most lucrative sculpture accolades, the finalists of the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture resisted the impulse to create grandiose works which imposed themselves upon the public space. Instead they staged works that responded to the various social, economic and historical dimensions of the site in a manner which displayed trust in the public’s ability and willingness to embrace speculative forms of public art.