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Gang-gang. A 'What's That Thing?' award for the worst public art

Who is the famous Australian in our picture setting off in a rowing boat across the yabbie-infested waters of Commonwealth Park's Nerang Pool? What are the strange, inflated, floating, plastic objects that he is rowing out to?

Habitual readers will know that ArchivesACT has just discovered and that this column has been rabbiting on about and displaying some evocative pictures of sculptor Bert Flugelman's​ subterranean artwork Earth Work. Our pictures showed the work, consisting of six polished tetrahedrons, being buried in Commonwealth Park in 1975 as part of a festival of arts and sciences. Earth Work is still there, much admired by earthworms but beneath unsuspecting human park-goers' hooves, to this very day.

Now, having sent some readers gambolling down Memory Boulevard with this, we learn that in April 1998 Canberra hosted a National Sculpture Forum. As part of it the distinguished sculptor Bert Flugelman (1923-2013), then 75, created his wittily-entitled work Six Tetrahedrons Revisited. In our picture the mature-age oarsman is setting off to inspect his floating version of the work buried 23 years previously in a spot not far away.

And while we are gambolling among sculptures we note with delight that UK weekly The Spectator has begun to award a kind of annual naming-and-shaming gong for Britain's worst piece of public art installed in the previous year.

The inaugural winner, for 2015, of the What's That Thing? award, has just been announced. Stephen Bayley, who seems to be the sole judge, (and a colourfully opinionated one) names Dashi Namdakov's​ She Guardian as "a worthy first winner of our new annual award".

Readers who care to can go online to look for pictures of the entire monstrosity (it is huge) on London's Park Lane. Meanwhile we think our picture of the unusual detail of the face of She Guardian captures the work's horror. 


Bayley scathes that She Guardian somehow combines "Fungus the Bogeyman and Dungeons & Dragons".

Bayley explains that with the award "The aim is not to thwart creativity, nor to mock enlightened patronage. Nor is it intended to inhibit, through anticipatory fear of shame, any future initiative that contributes anything beautiful or thoughtful to public life. Instead ... What's That Thing? simply wants to be resolute and conscientious in the distinction of quality from mediocrity. Modern public art can be magnificent ..."

We welcome the What's That Thing? award and commend it to Canberrans because, in matters of Canberrans and public art the debates we have are badly in need of some Spectator-style sophistication. Criticism of public art in Canberra is almost always about nothing but its cost. Canberra's superabundant anal-retentive bean counters are the empty vessels that make the most noise on this subject and it is high time that we began to discuss whether works of public art in Canberra are good art or bad art, irrespective of how many shekels they have cost.

The Spectator announces, with its declaration of She Guardian as the 2015 "winner" that nominations are now open for the worst piece of [British] public art of 2016. Perhaps Australia, perhaps just Canberra, needs a What's That Thing? award.

Stephen Bayley can be deliciously unkind and says that for the 2015 prize "ranking the candidates was as difficult as determining the precedence between lice and fleas". I almost never plagiarise but will keep that lovely notion up my sleeve for future use, perhaps during my coverage of this year's ACT Legislative Assembly elections.

And, as today's column turns out to be a kind of sculpture garden, we explain today's picture of a sculpted, iron, windswept-looking, female figure. It is Penny Hardy's unforgettable sculpture You Blew Me Away.

More and more people are claiming to have been "blown away" by a thrilling experience. One of last week's celebrity blown awayers in the news was Sussan Ley the Minister for Sport and Recreation. She told an ABC radio reporter that she, the minister, had been "blown away by the quality of Australian sportswomen".

This column loves the plasticity, the playdoughery of our language (of which the word just invented here, playdoughery, is a good example) but find ourselves struggling with the new use of "blown away". Perhaps it comes from having lived in an especially windswept place (on England's gale-bludgeoned North Norfolk coast) where there often seemed to be a danger of literally being blown away by the gale, of being blown inland across Britain by the North wind.

Being blown away seems a very violent notion (it conjures up pictures of a clump of tumbleweed sent skittling across a desert or of a roof being plucked off a house in a typhoon and sent frisbeeing across a landscape) to be used to express experiences that delight.

Hardy's sculpture You Blew Me Away (wouldn't you kill to have it in the clifftop garden of your place at the coast or on the windswept balcony of your apartment?) shows someone not really, truly blown away at all. She is holding her ground. The sculpture says that wonderful experiences (and especially being in love) bring winds of change that don't so much blow us away as leave us emotionally dishevelled.