A few weeks ago, a new volume depicting the history of Melbourne art was released into the publics eye – this was not the usual art tome, but one that covered a subject that had not been covered in print for almost thirty years – public sculpture in Melbourne.
Alongside the old weathered items from days gone by, the Melbourne public sculpture “collection” has grown over the years, as well as having modernised and followed the trends of other public art. Not only have newer sculptures in contemporary style emerged, this gallery of inanimate beauty has also spread out to encompass a variety of different “street art” forms of public sculpture.
The books author, Mark Holsworth, has been a good friend for many years. We first met way back when I was helping out with running the Sweet Streets street art festival, but I had been following his blog “Melbourne Art Critic” for a much longer time than that. In fact, it was his blog, and the way that he wrote it, that was one of the many reasons that spurred me on to create Invurt.
As one of Australias few (if, only), art critics who has also delved into the waters of street art and graffiti over the years, his journey as a writer has not always been smooth, with the misunderstanding amongst such a community as to the critics part in it all – and, immeasurably, the local Melbourne scene, (though not always evident to some to whom he turns his critical eye towards), is lucky to have him. We get the chance to hear the words of a man for whom art is a passion, but who also has a deeply critical and analytical mind that he is able to apply to such a many and varied artistic culture. Whether he is speaking of art or the varied cultural facets of the urban metropolis we live and create within, Marks often direct, flat and obtrusive words often cut right to the core of a matter. Personally, I have always found his opinions on point, even if I have not always entirely agreed them them, and I value his wisdom and input on all things artistic, so it was with a lot of joy late last year that I heard he had embarked on this endevour to write his first book on a subject that he held so dear.
I must admit, this interview is tardy on my behalf, it was conducted prior to the books release, but ensuring factors including my recent move to Singapore delayed it somewhat. It is an absolutely fascinating read, and a wonderful insight into our very own Melbourne Art Critic, as well as his remarkable book, Sculptures Of Melbourne.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you yourself gained such a keen interest in art in the public space?
Starting a blog turned out to be one of my biggest positive life changing experiences, probably more life changing than writing my Master’s thesis on Duchamp’s readymades and less self indulgent than trying to be another artist. I’d been trying to be some kind of an artist all my life from playwright, to playing in bands, to painting.
When I started a blog I knew that I didn’t just want to write about art in galleries because not all art is in art galleries. Graffiti, street art and public sculpture were the most obvious examples. Writing the blog made me more interested in street art and public art because it gave me a reason to look and learn and the more I learnt, saw and thought the more interested I became. I walked around exploring the city. I became so interested in street art that I volunteered for the Stencil Festival and Sweet Streets for three years.
As a critic and a writer, what do you believe are the most difficult parts of what you do, and write about?
Getting my thoughts into words is hard. Deciding what to spend time going to see and researching, all the options, is sometimes harder. What if I miss out on something really good? Actually, the hardest is writing about the average and most art is average, the two and three star review (not that I give stars), to say both yes and no with the right balance between them.
What are some of the biggest misassumptions that people have about your writing, when you are writing critical articles. Do people often see them as just “taking the piss” or attacking, or do they generally understand the direction of what you’re doing – indeed, the whole critical evaluation of it all?
There are people who think that my writing is an attack on them, or an artist that they admire and I find that much stranger than an artist taking it personally.
The word ‘critic’ is often misunderstood but the biggest misassumption from everyone, artists to the public, is that I’m part of the publicity department. I know that in a way that I am, that for an artist or gallery any media mention is publicity, but that isn’t what I want my main purpose to be. Publicity doesn’t really embrace alternative views, they want you to be ‘on message’. I want to help people to think more about the art they are seeing by providing my thoughts, the details that I observe and what I’ve been able to find out.
This is your first book – how did it all come about and what spurred you on in undertaking such a project?
Mercenary reasons, I really wanted to write a book. There were too many books on street art on the market and there hadn’t been a book on Melbourne’s sculptures since the early 1980s. I could still combine my interest in street art because of street art sculptors. I had already done a lot of the research for my blog, so strategically it was a good idea. It then took two years to get a plan for the book and a first chapter together to show a publisher.
What have been some of the most challenging aspect of putting it all together?
Getting the photographs for the book. I had no idea what I was doing there and no experience. Ugh, the horror, I don’t really want to think about it even now. It took another six months just to get the photographs together. Somehow it all worked out and there are some beautiful photographs in the book by a whole range of photographers.
Often, some of the older sculptures of Melbourne are often seen, but the awareness that they are “there” doesn’t always register, they are such a integrated part of the public landscape that many are just “there” – why should people pay more attention to the sculptures around the city?
I don’t know if they should but maybe it would be a good thing if people paid more attention to what is around them, rather than celebrities and other commercial fantasies.
I know its a hard question – but in your mind, what are some of the most important sculptures that we have in our public spaces? What are the most overlooked, and which ones really scream I *am* Melbourne? Can you give us a good run down on some of the cities most interesting pieces?
A very hard question, it ties into the big question of what sculpture to put on the front cover of the book. That was resolved when I saw Matto Lucas’s photo of one of the buttress groups on the Shrine of Remembrance with Melbourne skyline in the background. It is a difficult question because what is important and good in public art keeps on changing from the old fashioned idea of making a place ‘civilised’ by putting a statue on a plinth, to the modern idea of being first and now, when it might be what makes you want to take a photo. Also the idea of what is Melbourne keeps on changing, the city is growing and what ever Melbourne is, it is also an identity that many different groups of people want to make their own.
The most overlooked is a much easier question, they are mostly in Footscray. I’d never been to Footscray before I started this book. In the middle of the Footscray shopping centre there is Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom (also known as Welcome Bowl), a group of rocks misted with water vapour, a reference to Aboriginal smoking ceremonies. The mist is also a lot of fun for children and dogs. There is also a Bruce Armstrong sculpture in a quiet suburban street in Footscray and a sculpture by a sculpture by a notable, American minimalist.
I’ve been working on a blog post: “The ten best public sculptures in Melbourne that you have probably never seen.” So here are the top 3:
Springthorpe Memorial. If you have never been to the cemetery in Kew then you will not have seen this over the top, late-Victorian masterpiece of sentimentality created by an all star team for a woman who died in childbirth.
Will Coles, various objects around the city.
Reg Parker, Untitled, Preston Public Library. Forget all the hype around Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault, this is actually the first abstract public sculpture still on public display and still in its original location.
What is the most interesting back story to a sculpture you came across in the course of writing your book? Every piece of art has a story, but what have been some of the stranger ones you’ve encountered?
The William Stanford fountain at the entrance to Parliament Station that was carved by William Stanford when he was a prisoner in Pentridge Prison. Stanford was in prison sentenced to 22 years for highway robbery and horse stealing. He was an apprentice stonemason who had come to the gold fields but had no luck. In prison he continued to be a serious problem until one day during a search of his cell, warders turned up a small knife and a beautifully carved bone figure of a woman. The prison governor then encouraged him to carve and Stanford was no longer a discipline problem.
The fountain is carved out of hard local granite as the prison wasn’t going to go to the expense of getting him stone to carve and it cost Stanford his life from inhaling the fine dust particles from the stone. He got an early release due to ill health, married twice and had a couple of children before dying ten years later.
Melbourne has over the past decade or so undergone a huge renaissance in public art, specifically street art, what do you think have been some of the biggest changes in public awareness towards the art, and what so you think Melbourne is doing right – and wrong, in terms of public art?
There are so many new sculptures in Melbourne and most of them are street art, but it has actually taken multiple generations to get to this point. It has taken generations to change people’s minds about what art can be, today’s diversity of types of sculpture. It is hard to imagine that Melbourne was obsessed with Vault (Yellow Peril) for over a year in 1980 when people are so accepting of the work of Will Coles, Nick Ilton and Mal Function now. However, most of the people who were objecting to Vault were 48+ years in 1980, so there can’t be many of them still alive now. It has also taken generations of city planning to understand how to commission and locate public art, I was amazed that such a long term plan could work but if it didn’t then post-industrial Melbourne might now be like Detroit.
I think that understanding that public art didn’t have to be permanent is the best thing that both artists, including street artists, and local councils have done. It has meant that there are more sculptures and more different types of sculpture partially because the cost of making a temporary sculpture is so much less than one of bronze and stone. At the extreme end Junky Projects only costs new nails and occasionally some spray paint.
Now that the book is done, what do you have planned next? what other things do you wish to write about, and what more can we expect from you in the future?
I’ve got a lot of work to do next promoting, as well as, continuing writing my blog. Asking what I’m going to write next, is one of the hardest questions.
I’d like to write about art collections of the wealthy and indulgent. Cheers.
You can head over and read Marks blog at Melbourne Art critic, as well as pick up his book, Sculptures Of Melbourne at Booktopia, or at Readings, NGV or one of the other various retail outlets across Melbourne