HOLLY KERR FORSYTH GOES TROPICAL
SOME LIKE IT HOT
Richard Goodwin, Mobius Sea (1986), on permanent display in the Domain, Sydney
IT’S both unmissable and neglected, this big white concrete object that stands to one side of the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney. Passers-by have to walk across an expanse of grass to discover its name, Mobius Sea, and its creator, Richard Goodwin.
What looks from a distance like the sodden lumps and rococo folds of a toilet roll that has fallen into the bath turn out on closer inspection to be human figures, writhing in a great mass around the sculpture’s surface. It’s as though they are trapped beneath a viscous surface from which they cannot break free. Like a fragment of a surrealist Trajan’s Column, the thing could be a monument to an obscure battle, but the title (which refers, presumably, to the twisted cylinder known as the Mobius strip) is hardly illuminating. Its pomposity is at odds with its rather tuckedaway position; but that, as it turns out, is explicable.
Mobius Sea was Goodwin’s first public sculpture. It was the winner of the Royal Blind Society Sculpture Award, and was paid for by James Hardie Industries and the Visual Arts Board. But it was not made for this spot in the Domain. It was made for a site on Macquarie Street outside the Sydney Conservatorium of Music; its shape and size deliberately echo the Conservatorium’s turrets, and its height was determined by the plinth of the nearby statue of Edward VII.
Mobius Sea remained on Macquarie Street for less than two years after it was unveiled by the NSW premier in May 1986. Following remarks by Leo Schofield in his column in The Sydney Morning Herald, describing the sculpture as ‘‘ an eyesore like a broken brontosaurus tooth’’ and calling for it to be moved, the Department of Public Works resolved to relocate Mobius Sea to an alternative site. This went against the artist’s wishes, as the sculpture — which he considered his best to date — had been made specifically for the site. Comparisons were made with the famous removal of Vault (the so-called ‘‘ Yellow Peril’’ sculpture) from Melbourne’s City Square in 1980.
Some confusion seems to have arisen from the extent to which the piece was intended specifically for the blind. Schofield had never seen any blind person touch it, he wrote, and if they did want to, they would have to risk life and limb, like everyone else crossing Macquarie Street, to get to it. The thing really ought to be put somewhere more accessible to the blind, and mercifully less visible to everyone else. This may have been little more than the light-hearted quip of a man paid to be amusing, but it was apparently a view with which then NSW public works minister Laurie Brereton agreed.
Goodwin objected; the piece was not meant specifically for the blind, but for everyone. Much of its surface was out of reach, in any case.
Goodwin was — and is — a more interesting architect and artist than Mobius Sea, in either place, immediately suggests. In the 1970s and 80s his work included performance, soft sculpture and film, as well as costumes for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. More recently, Goodwin has expanded into architecture, designing ‘‘ parasitic’’ additions to existing buildings. Mobius Sea, with its use of old clothes and sense of uncanny presence, surely makes more sense in the context of Goodwin’s career than it does as a standalone piece of public art that is both highly visible and strangely obscure. Refiguring Dystopia: The Art of Richard Goodwin 1991-2012, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, NSW, until January 26.