DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Streets ahead
Judith Elen discovers a wealth of civic art in Canberra’s parks and squares
F I were asked to describe the national capital in a single word, my choice would be discreet’’. Canberra has a discreet absence of startling neons, too-tall buildings, excitement in the streets and, instead, savours the quiet pleasures of a vast tranquil lake, open parklands, spacious streets, moderate traffic and room to move. And the always-distant architectural skyline is the symbol of a city that has made public art a signature.
Canberra, city of art, has not really been a secret since the earliest blockbuster days of the National Gallery of Australia, with exhibitions drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum, the Courtauld Collection and others. Recent developments here have reminded us of that status.
The December opening of the new National Portrait Gallery building is a capital coup. Once squeezed into Old Parliament House, this unique collection of fabulous Australian faces can now stretch luxuriously and flex its muscle in a new gallery filled with suffused light and the discreet resonance of gleaming timber and metal. And, like other monumental works of art here, set on a rise surrounded by open space, it quietly inscribes itself on the skyline.
Two weeks after the National Portrait Gallery opened its doors, the National Gallery of Australia, just over the hill, launched the country’s first exhibition of paintings, sculptures, drawings and photography by key French impressionist Edgar Degas. Shortly before the opening, the painter Margaret Olley added icing to the luscious cake when she made a gift to the gallery of a Degas drawing from her collection.
These prominent art events are certain to draw visitors from across the country but will they know what most locals do: that the city is studded with public art, works nestled amid greenery or decorating buildings, walkways and squares, discreetly waiting to be noticed? In the streets around the city, there’s a plump silvery metal pillow and statuesque, red Shinto-like structures (Phil Spelman’s Choice of Passage ). There’s a 1915, heritagelisted merry-go-round and a perpetually moving metallic wind sculpture.
There are fountains, mosaics and street furniture and even a pair of whimsical, cast-aluminium sheep that exist cheek by jowl with such names and monuments as Auguste Rodin’s maquette for the Burghers of Calais outside the NGA, Henry Moore’s fluidly reclining figure in the grounds of the National Library and the soaring eagle of the Australian American Memorial.
Civic Square, tucked between Vernon Circle and London Circuit, at the heart of City, site of the Canberra Theatre Centre and the ACT Legislative Building, was the focus of the National Capital Development Commission’s earliest steps, in the 1960s, to enrich the public spaces of the capital. The first commission was Tom Bass’s winged female figure, Ethos , in 1961. Like a monumental copper column, her robe embossed with shapes of eucalyptus leaves and tongues of flame and emblems of the Canberra community, Ethos holds above her head the disc of the sun, ringed with curling rays. The copper, now greenish and stone-like, has a modernist, Scandinavian look that speaks of Canberra, of the era, of no-fuss strength and austere beauty, silhouetted against a wide sky.
Since those early days, Civic Square’s public art has recorded the shifting spirits of the times. On the wall of the Legislative Assembly building’s public foyer, a fusedglass work by Klaus Moje, who came from Eastern Europe to teach at the Canberra School of Art’s Glass Workshop at the Australian National University, is vibrant in reds and oranges, yellow strips and dark slender shadows.
Another copper work, FractalWeave , from 2006, is by David Jensz, who teaches sculpture at the Australian National University’s School of Art. Fractals are repeating patterns, generated out of chaos, but, like conversations, they weave society together.
Civic Square stands on the original grasslands of the Ngunnawal people, who traditionally managed the land with fire, and so Fireline , a 1997 installation of glass pavement tiles and fibre optics by Nola Farman, recreates the flicker of flames travelling along the northern side of the square. And in the square’s first 21st-century work, Neil Roberts’s House Proud brings the Canberra Playhouse to life, wrapping the upper edge of the circular building with luminous blue and white neon words: huff house’’, puff house’’, blow your house down’’.
At the intersection of Petrie Plaza and City Walk, the footpath work, Civic Memory Quilt , stitched together with aluminium cores, plaques and sand-blasted paving, sounds just a little too discreet, but Canberra surprises again. This paved quilt’’ lies over the busking site of onetime Canberra students, the Doug Anthony All Stars, and there is the plaque. Small medallions are impressed with historic buttons, buckles, scissors, antique cutlery, grasses and bogong moths, objects and words preserving oral histories and vanished memories of place.
At Petrie Plaza, Dean Bowen’s 2008 work, The Big
Innocent bystander: TheBigLittleMan by Dean Bowen is a much-loved landmark in Canberra’s Petrie Plaza
Playmates: Ainslie’sSheep in City Walk
In a spin: The 1915 merry-go-round in Civic Little Man, is a lovable, round-faced, cut-out figure of darkly rustic bronze, standing at child height, in an outback hat. He leads the eye to the Civic merry-goround, transported here from Melbourne’s St Kilda Esplanade. Created by the designer of Australia’s first
The ACT Public Arts Program website outlines walks and gives details of artworks. A Civic public art walking tour brochure will be reprinted later in the year. More: www.arts.act.gov.au; www.visitcanberra.com.au.
Degas: Master of French Art is at the National Gallery of Australia until March 22. A children’s room has ballet dress-ups and other activities. Buy tickets online to avoid queues. More: www.nga.gov.au.