Ju­dith Elen dis­cov­ers a wealth of civic art in Can­berra’s parks and squares

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.vis­it­can­


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:

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