Friday, 3 June 2005

Statuary Friday #11

Ok, here's my project: or perhaps it's a meme: though I doubt anything qualifies as a meme if only one person is onto it. Well, anyway, every Friday I do a different piece of sculpture selected from the vast numbers littered around lovely Melbourne. My only criteria are: it must be outdoors, it must be more or less permanent, and it must be in a publically accessible location. (Suggestions, especially for sculpture in the 'burbs, are very welcome.)

#11 Babushka Dolls

Atherton Gardens Housing Estate, Brunswick St, Fitzroy

These three painted concrete figures are modelled on the familiar nested Matryoshka or Babushka dolls. They stand in the grounds of Atherton Gardens, a postwar-era Housing Commission high-rise public housing estate in Fitzroy, and they are the product of a collaboration between estate residents, Work for the Dole scheme participants, and artist Bronwen Gray. They were installed in 2002.

The dolls themselves are nice, unassuming things. The only difference between the three is scale: the smallest is about 70cm high, and the biggest perhaps 1.2m at most. Each doll has a face on each side, and the face is simple and schematic, like the rest of the painted decoration, done in bright, clear colours with unaffected, functional brushwork. Those bright patches of colour certainly stand out from the dismal grounds of the estate. The dolls are embedded in a very low platform of cement studded with smooth white stones.

I assume the dolls are meant to represent family, the maternal, the domestic, homeliness, and folk culture, and the centrality of all these things to the traditions emigrants bring with them to their new countries. The majority of the residents at Atherton gardens are of Vietnamese and Chinese backgrounds, and in that light the choice of these figures strikes me as just a little strange: strange but interesting. I wonder if they aren't a little bit phony, perhaps: they are just so thoroughly ethnic and old-world, yet it's an unmistakably European, White ethnicity - the dolls are short, round, pale skinned, pink cheeked and blonde-haired - and so they represent a totally unthreatening image of multicultural identity. Whether the people who live at Atherton Gardens view their lives in those sorts of terms, I don't know, but somehow I would find it hard to credit.

It's interesting, too, that the largest doll is signed by the artist in charge of the project but there is no other on site information about who made the sculptures, or when, or anything like that - nearly every other public sculpture around Melbourne is accompanied by some sort of plaque.

Well, as I said already, they do brighten the place up if nothing else. And if the absence of grafitti is anything to go by, the locals don't bear them any great dislike.


R H said...

This is intriguing, and bizarre. It seems out of place, but at the same time very appropriate. Could it be a homage? A monument to the anglo saxon residents who once inhabited this building and its surrounds?

Golly, I'm sounding like an art critic. All I need now is a confident look, and a sports coat three sizes too big for me.

Scrivener said...

Ok, I've made a really botched attempt to participate in your statuary meme. One problem was that by the time I got myself going on it last night it was late and I got interrupted about a thousand times, and then just wrote something blearily at almost 2:00. I'm sorry for the really paltry attempt. I had expected to do your meme little justice, but then that post is really just sad.

On the other hand, there is something vaguely similar between my turtle statuary and these little babushka dolls.

Phantom Scribbler said...

We had a set of the dolls when I was a child -- a present from a Russian emigre patient of my dad. But I don't remember the dolls having such perky faces. The heart-shaped mouth? Oy.

Si said...

I think this might be the Browen Gray who did the sculpture?

R H said...

I'm sure you're right.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yep, that is definitely the same person.