Public sculpture: the good, the bad - and the downright ugly
A favourite ... Raynor Hoff's work Sacrifice, on the ANZAC War Memorial. Photo: Edwina Pickles
SHOULD public sculpture be a monument to patriotism, to good artistic taste, or humbly aim to keep the public happy? The famed Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who is visiting Sydney 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'', says Kapoor, whose exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art opens on December 20.
''If you're going to make a public object you need to engage public space,'' Kapoor says. ''It cannot just be an emblem on the lawn. It cannot be just a fat turd on the lawn.''
Bronze dog sculpture "Larry La Trobe" by Pamela Irving, Melbourne City Square. Photo: John Woudstra
But veteran Sydney 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.''
Robertson-Swann insists Melbourne has more good outdoor sculpture, which he defines primarily as having artistic merit as well as inviting public interaction, than Sydney does: ''Sydney looks like it's so uptight, so terrified to make a taste mistake.''
He nominates the late Rayner Hoff's work on the Anzac War Memorial in Hyde Park, completed in 1934 - the figures on the exterior, the group in the interior, and the bronze reliefs - as Sydney's most moving example of publicly visible sculpture. ''Sculpture in Sydney seems to have gone into the doldrums after that.''
Robertson-Swann said Kapoor and other sculptors are too critical of ''plonk'' art - sculpture dropped into a landscape that's not integrated with the environment - but ''that's an exaggerated thing of one group of artists challenging another''.
Nonetheless Bert Flugelman's Pyramid Tower - ''the silver shish kebab'' - gained a ''presence that still looks good'' when it was moved from Martin Place to the street behind Australia Square.
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.''
Ken Unsworth's infamous Stones Against the Sky at Kings Cross - colloquially known as ''poo on sticks'' - is ''the only one that really justifies its nickname'', Robertson-Swann says.
''Ken's done some very good sculptures but that one is absolutely appalling. I don't know why he doesn't get it taken down, because it's badly made, badly thought out and badly executed.''
Robertson-Swann said the best examples of recent sculpture were those donated to the public by private foundations - Transfield Holdings around Walsh Bay and the Balnaves Foundation around the Botanic Gardens - and the worst, such as the Sydney Sculpture Walk erected for the Sydney Olympics from the Domain around Mrs Macquarie's Chair, by governments and committees: ''If it's in the hands of arts bureaucrats, it's dead.''