Bronze dog sculpture "Larry La Trobe" by Pamela Irving, Melbourne City Square. Photo: John Woudstra
PUBLIC sculpture: should it be a monument to patriotism, to good artistic taste, or humbly aim to keep the public happy? British-born Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, who is visiting Australia soon, says he ''hates'' public sculpture.
Works by British sculptor Henry Moore, for example, while ''very, very good'', have come ''to be almost the turd on the lawn outside your iconic public building'', Kapoor says.
''If you're going to make a public object you need to engage public space.
''It cannot just be an emblem on the lawn. It cannot be just a fat turd on the lawn.''
But veteran sculptor Ron Robertson-Swann, whose own abstract minimalist sculpture Vault was attacked as the ''yellow peril'' when placed in Melbourne's City Square in 1980 and hastily moved the following year, laughs at what he calls Kapoor's ''mea culpa''.
Robertson-Swann, now the head of sculpture at Sydney's National Art School, points to Kapoor's helter-skelter sculpture Orbit for the London Olympics opening ceremony, ''that red steel thing with flourishes and an elevator and a restaurant inside it - that was appalling'', he said.
''I would have thought that qualified as an enormous turd on the lawn.''
Despite his experience with Vault, which pitted conservative detractors against progressive art supporters, Robertson-Swann insists Melbourne has more good outdoor sculpture than Sydney.
For example, Denton Corker Marshall's yellow and red-stick sculpture Melbourne Gateway, which greets visitors at the city end of the freeway from Melbourne airport, was ''rather obviously influenced by Vault'' but ''gives Melbourne a sense of being prosperous and confident'', he said.
''Sydney looks like it's so uptight, so terrified to make a taste mistake.''
But Robertson-Swann dislikes the term ''public'' art: ''All art is public unless the artists say it's private, then it's their secret. The expectations when people keep saying 'public art' is that it is meant to do something for the public. The only thing that justifies a work of art in my view is if it is any good or not.''
Yet Melbourne art critic and blogger Mark Holsworth, pointing to the larger-than-life Shane Warne statue at the MCG, said Melbourne was still replete with memorials intended to inspire patriotism, ''but still nobody's really sure what to be patriotic about''.
It's a question of balancing public popularity with artistic taste in sculpture, says Holsworth.
Great Petition, by Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee, commemorating the suffragette petition for the vote, while ''beautiful'' and in a ''great location'' on the small Burston Reserve near Parliament, will ''never be popular'', although some members of the public like to be photographed alongside it.
But Bruce Armstrong's Eagle, on a median strip on Wurundjeri Way, is less successful ''because you can't get close to it … Melbourne moves some of its sculptures around but that makes it very hard for contemporary sculptors with site-specific ideas''.
One ''really successful'' outdoor sculpture is Simon Perry's The Public Purse in the Bourke Street Mall: ''It works as a seat and as a meeting place and children love it because they can climb on it. If you know art history, it's got that Claes Oldenburg influence. Perry's sculptures are not great works of art, but they're successful public sculptures.''
Holsworth is less enamoured with Pam Irving's ''sentimental'' dog sculpture, Larry La Trobe, in the City Square, or the Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle on Swanston Street Walk, by sculptors Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn.
''I'm not so keen on these quirky idiosyncratic sculptures - they're all right, and can be very popular but they don't say anything much.''
Meanwhile, some 30 years on from the furore of Vault, now at Melbourne's Southbank, Robertson-Swann said the sculpture ''changed everything'' and made ''the people of Melbourne work out what they wanted their city to be''.
He added: ''I even think Vault had a major influence on the difference in the architecture between Melbourne and Sydney - but try saying that to architects and they choke, and their lips turn to a HB pencil.''