Friday, 7 October 2005

Statuary Friday #15

Yep, more public art. I thought about getting a new meme, but, naaah. The good statuary around here hasn't run out yet.

Picking up from where I left off: which was with a bold resolution to stick for a little while to proper statues, which as I said back then are harder to write about than polygonal slabs of yellow-painted steel or friendly model doggies.

#15 Burke and Wills Monument

Corner of Swanston Walk and Collins Streets, City

Burke and Wills. Burke and Wills. Wills and Burke? Man, where to begin. I am a bit afraid, to tell you the truth. Well, I'm just going to talk about the monument itself and not try to retell the story of Burke and Wills - it's too big and interesting and important a story to squash into a blog post. If you've never heard of these people, as I assume will be true for many Northern Hemisphereans, they were two leaders of an expedition which left Melbourne in the late spring of 1860, with 24 camels and 28 wagons carrying enough food to last two years, in a bid to be the first Europeans to cross length of the Australian continent and explore the 'unknown' interior.

Not only did the (much diminished) exploring party fail to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria (although they came very close) but most of the explorers died of exhaustion and starvation. (A full account.) The explorers' remains were recovered by a second party and brought back to Melbourne to immense public mourning. The story is an immeasurably important part of post-1788 Australian history, ultimately because it's a narrative of the massive failure and defeat of European civilisation, at the hands of the Australian landscape, and at the urging of some dark unnamed thing in the Romantic European collective unconscious that wishes only to shed the inessential and burdensome and insulating sheath of history and society and culture - symbolised, above all, by flesh and food - achieve mystical, ascetic, transcendent union with Nature, and die. Obviously nobody would argue that this starving of the soul is what the poor explorers intended to achieve, only that their horrific and piteous story epitomises this cultural death wish very powerfully and that is why their story has reverberated with us for such a long time.

So how much if any of this mystique still emanates from the actual statue? Like any piece of the public furniture, the Burke and Wills monument is something we don't really look at or think about very much anymore. It's just....there. I have heard more than one person casually joke about how the explorers are gazing longingly at Hungry Jack's on the other side of Swanston Walk; which is pretty interesting since it's actually not at all accurate, they're facing toward the southern end of the street - if they could be said to be looking at a food shop it would have to be Darrell Lea.

But explorers would not eat prissy little candy canes and peanut brittle when they could tear into a hamburger, would they? The name Hungry Jack's obviously suggests a joke in that it registers the explorers were undone by lack of food, so starvation is still the first thing the statue makes us think of.

But...they don't look all starved.

Or do they? The pose (Burke standing, Wills seated) suggests a sort of thousand-yard stare - Wills has some kind of notebook or chart on his lap, and Burke a scroll or something in his right hand - but they're definitely looking away from these writings, and at some unguessable but clearly very absorbing sight (or site). Wills especially is twisting round very inquisitively - to represent a sort of intellectual hunger, perhaps? To euphemise the horror of physical hunger by wrapping it up inside a 'thirst for knowledge' type of image?

Then there is the way they are dressed. Compared to the formal and elaborate costume sported by Redmond Barry in a statue from roughly the same era, Burke and Wills are practically naked. From ground level, it's pretty hard to tell whether the sculptor has actually given them open-necked shirts or whether this is a sort of technical trick of the drapery - the latter's more probable. But, visually, it looks like Burke in particular has his chest bared almost to the waist. The clothes are totally simple and body-revealing. Maybe when everyone on Melbourne streets looked like this, to dress a statue group in clingy, unbuttoned shirts (and no hats) signalled in a roundabout way a sort of refining and stripping back of the body.

The monument (which I should say was made by Charles Summer, put up in 1865, and was the first large-scale bronze cast in this country) is more than just the figures, of course. In fact they are a bit hard to scrutinise because they're so elevated. Around the bottom part of the pediment (granite, ugly, grimy) are four bronze bas-reliefs, and a bronze frieze, which you can see in my second picture, depicting interweaving plant forms. Apparently the plant is supposed to be nardoo, an indigenous wetlands plant from which, as that page points out, "Nutritious food can be made...if it is prepared correctly." The expedition learned from local people that nardoo was edible, but missed out on the part about removing the husks which somehow block the body from absorbing the nutrients in the seeds. So yeah. They had a food to keep them feeling full, but not to actually sustain life, and the frieze on the memorial commemorates that horrid little irony.

The reliefs around the pediment are hard to see in these photos, but they are just as much a part of the total effect of monument as the figures on the pediment - more so in some ways.

Front: The Expedition excitingly and heroically sets off for the interior. There is much shouting of "huzzah!" and throwing of hats into the air.

Right side - indigenous Australians attempt to assist the Europeans (to his credit, Summer has caught something of the explorers' inability to fully understand their dependence for survival on the help of the local people)

Back: the infamous Dig Tree, where things really went wrong...

Left side - the discovery of Burke's remains. While the statues up top capture a moment (an idealised one), the pictures down below at street level tell a story, and don't gloss over the defeat or the tragedy. That double perspective - the timeless immortal hero and the pitiful historic failure - is a favourite with Australians. We are all losers at heart....


Jon said...

You're quite right about the rather earnest (and now ironic) attempt at heroism which tends to be inherent in Victorian Neo-classicism, but apart from that I've always felt that - other than the statues at the war memorial - Burke and Wills is one of the most ridiculously homo-erotic statues in Melbourne. Those loose clothes...the way Wills is apparently gazing at Burke's groin...

Lucy Tartan said...

I should have said something about the strangeness of Burke's groin.

I was indeed thinking about some of the statues up at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Gallipoli related stuff in particular, while I wrote this post. Exactly in connection with the way this memorial is about Heroism and at the same time it's about Failure. There's a direct association between Burke and Wills and Gallipoli. Or so it seems to me.

And now I look again at the swivelled hips and physical contact, I'm seeing homoeroticism as well. (It was a very controversial statue when it was first unveiled.) But I don't think it deflates the nobleness of the figures. It's not a lustful eroticism, more like a deep, complete intimacy that encompasses the whole body including the sexual dimension. Completely appropriate to a statue about some men who went through extreme bodily hardship and died together. Again that implies nothing about how the actual explorers felt about one another, it's entirely about the image.

There's some lovely football related statues around the place that are far campier than this one!

R H said...

This bloody thing is always on the move! Shifted from one end of town to the other. It pops up everywhere. You turn a corner and there it is - shifted again!
This pair have covered more distance as a statue than when they were alive. It's like Harold Holt and his Memorial Swimming Pool. Harry keeps drowning, Burke and Wills travel.

R H said...

That haunted-looking white-haired bloke in the bottom photo is one of Miss 'cook-it-yerself!' Brownie's six ex-husbands. He's off to get himself some takeaway.
He never returned.

elaine said...

Did you know that the base with the four reliefs was removed (because it was too big to fit at the statues last location) and lost? By chance it was recovered down near Kensington around the time of Bourke and Wills last move.

Ben.H said...

I always wondered why they were gazing away from where they were supposed to be going. But then, my ideas of what public art should be were formed at an early age by Light's Vision in Adelaide.

I didn't know B&W had been moved around a bit. Col. Light also got moved once or twice, so his current prospect is slightly fortuitous.