Friday, 27 January 2006

Statuary Friday #21

My ongoing blog project - documenting Melbourne's open-air public sculpture in words and pictures. Suggestions for future episodes are more than welcome.

#21 Children's Tree

Corner of Elizabeth and Collins Streets, City

Though I've lived in Melbourne for fifteen years, this lovely thing was not known to me until Mel suggested it for a spot of statue-blogging way back in April last year. I've had several goes at photographing it since then (including one nighttime effort) but only today were the results at last good enough to use, probably because it rained heavily before I arrived and the sculpture was consequently much cleaner than usual and the clouds kept off the harsh light that creates confusing shadows.

Tom Bass made this in 1963. Bass was born in 1916 and has had an illustrious and productive career making what he calls "totemic" sculpture for grand and esteemed Australian places - the University of Melbourne, St Mary's Cathedral in Hobart, the National Library of Australia - interestingly enough, institutions that combine pomp and overinflated display with legitimate cultural and spiritual significance. I haven't been able to find out who commissioned this sculpture, but I'd be very surprised to learn it was a corporate client, this is just too simple and relaxed - not a hint of striving or straining.

The sculpture is cast bronze mounted on a rather ugly low rough granite table. It represents a girl and a boy under a strange stumpy-limbed tree with an owl perched in its branches. The girl is taller than the boy; she holds a dolly to her side and lifts her other arm to touch a branch of the tree, body and palm facing outwards from the trunk. Behind her, the boy sits on the ground, peering round the tree trunk at a lizard coiled in a hollow between its roots. The bronze segment is only about 1.7m high - the children are smaller than life-size, as is the tree they are grouped around, but the animals (the owl especially) are much larger than life.

The tree (which has the strange quality of looking like a drawing, perhaps one by John Coburn, that's been modelled into three dimensions) and the animals are carved and patterned and textured, but the children are smooth. Their bodies are simplified and streamlined - they're halfway between modernist simplifications of the body like Henry Moore's and 1950s Little Golden Book children like illustrator Mary Blair's (perhaps not so much difference there anyhow.) At the same time the hands and feet and the girl's springy plaits are wonderfully natural and casual and alive-looking.

Much as I like this sculpture, I must note the rather extreme gendering going on in the tableau: the boy is playful and inquisitive and attuned to his surroundings, the girl is distant, both maternal and doll-like, in an archetypally feminine-enigma kind of way. They don't look as though they live in the same era - I think she looks much more ancient and archaic than he does, he's a very modern child - but then again, this could be seen as simply registering the typical developmental gulf between a twelve year old girl and her six year old brother.

The animals indicate that this tree is in a wild place, not a home place - not a backyard or a public park. I wonder if these are lost children? Most settler children roaming the Australian bush are lost ones, in myth at least. I can't help feeling that the ugly, careless placement of the sculpture (it doesn't line up evenly with the grid of paving stones underfoot) and its general grubbiness and neglect are signs that nobody's looking out for these kids.

Nobody but the owl, that is....the owl absolutely makes this sculpture for me. It's exquisite. But then what owl isn't?


JPW said...

That's right across from my work. I don't know anything about sculpture, but I know there's a guy sits beneath it and plays the bongo drums all day long. He must think it's a real tree and wants to get back to nature. I hate that bongo drum guy.

Justine said...

this sculpture thing is a great idea lucy.
I really like the children's tree.

i might post something about owls soon... thanks for the inspitation

BTW my word verification is "sejlheim" which sort of means 'sail home' in norwegian. so there you go!

Ampersand Duck said...

I can imagine that a persistent bongo would take some f the magic out of this sculpture, but only some. I like it, especially when you compare it to something from a Little Golden Book. It does evoke something of pre-Sesame-Street-Takeover children's illustration.

I think Baz likes this too. I won bazlotto whilst looking at your post!

Mel said...

Thankyou so much, Laura! This is well worth waiting since last April for. So well considered.

Anonymous said...

I've been past that a thousand times and only ever thought "lumpy thing" - for the tree mostly. So, thank you for opening my eyes to it.


Claire said...

I love this entry Laura - a favourite melbourne spot for me, and you have made me think about it some more.

elsewhere said...

i will come and pose as an icicle for you on my next Melburnian trip.

JahTeh said...

I have always loved this sculpture and so did the boys. The height of the block was just right for sitting and touching.
I've just been reading about the owl being a symbol for evil and doom and how it has been rehabilitated into good. Athena's symbol was an owl for wisdom so it's amazing how things come full circle.

Brownie said...

I wus gonna say wot Barista said, also that your appreciation of the sculpture certainly compensates for just having noticed it.
I love owls and four owl figurines are looking down on me now.
Thank you Justine - 1.those word verifications are ALL Norwegian to me! now it makes sense.2. I am impressed by your bilingualism too.

dogpossum said...

i like that sculpture a lot as well - i often think about it as i'm spinning round the corner up the lane, on my way to dancing. one day that sculpture will see me knocked off my bike, i'm sure.

worldpeace_and_aspeedboat said...

what a yummy sculpture. spooky, dreamy, remote and charming all at the same time.

Agent FareEvader said...

I'm really enjoying this statue series, and you should email when you're next in Docklands studying the art and 'ting so that we can go downstairs in my building and have a coffee with the stars.

That being said, the overacting punnery at this end was spurned into action when I misread the title of this post as "Statutory Friday".

Ye olde Punnery came up with a headline for when one of our fine city sculptures is defaced - "Statuary Rape!".

I'll get back in my box now. But feel free to use it.

R H said...

Hello Miss Sorrow at Sills Bend (where is that place?). RH here, your favourite commenter.
Well may I say this is an accurate depiction. Boys are more curious than girls. More active, mischevious, meddlesome.
And reckless.
They get themselves into lots of trouble.
Little girls are philosophers. Concerned, aloof, worried about dolly, and about being liked.
Hence the RH thesis: Nothing changes. Nothing changes at all.

(Sorry to all feminists)

Lucy Tartan said...

Well RH, if you ask me I'd say that the sculpture does suggest something like what you said, but at the same time, its style and appearance is very very 1960s. The point being that I think gender stereotypes come and go in and out of fashion and aren't based on anything particularly lasting or essential. Things like this sculpture actually help reinforce ideas about what boys and girls are or ought to be, by virtue of being on public display and of being quite nice to look at.

So I don't agree that this is an accurate depiction of eternal differences, but it's an accurate depiction of a familiar, influential, and rather dated stereotype.

All that said I also really like world peace's description of it, several comments back. There's not necessarily a clash between appreciating the merits of something and also recognising that it's a bit iffy.

R H said...

Well golly me but I thought art reflected things, not reinforced them. I thought it was a mirror.
Propaganda reinforces. My word yes. But dictators statues get pulled down eventually.
It's 1960's style, you say?
How do you know?
It could be 1950's. 1920's.
Or today.
So if it's a dated stereotype, what's going on now then?
Girls aren't cimbing on top of moving trains and getting killed.
Not that I've noticed, anyway.

R H said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wayne said...

This sculpture seems to mean a lot to many Melbournites (and probably tourists, I'm not sure, I haven't taken a poll - yet...). It's one of those quiet pieces of art that seems to have some sort of, look out, I'm going to say it, magical quality. I think it's impossible not to love it if you have any sensitivity. Beautiful pictures by the way. Thanks.

R H said...

I'm censoring myself from here on.
I've bought a book: 'Teach Yourself to Argue'.
I've been trying it out on myself.

No I haven't!
Yes I have!
Where's my bloody evidence for that!

Anyway, I've sent the authors an email, they don't know what they're bloody talking about!

(To tell you the truth, I really wish I could get away from all this)

Lucy Tartan said...

RH, would you please take it easy for a bit with the comments? I don't mind you putting in your two bobs' worth every now and then, especially when it's something related to the post topic, but you're almost at the point of writing more on this blog than I do.

While we're on the subject, I also wish you would not lash out at other people who drop in here. I can't see that kind of thing in any light that makes it appear worthwhile. Taking down the last comment you made is a good move in that direction.

R H said...

You want to argue about it?

Then go ahead!- be controversial!

Because I've ALWAYS written more on this bloody blog than you!
You don't do your job, that's all.
Pussy footing around taking a few photos of scrap metal isn't running a blog! Where's the recipes? Where's the dying relatives? Where's the bloody car that won't start and the Pope that won't give your cat an abortion! !

Wake up. Don't be such a professor. Because I'll tell you, people have only just so much patience. They'll tolerate a lot. Yes. Because you're only a girl. But that excuse is not eternal.
Only unskilled labour is eternal.

Work that out!


R H said...


And that's it, I'm off!

See how you like that!

And I never offended that garrulous old bag. She's got a screw loose anyway!


cfsmtb said...

*steps over prostate writhing figure*

A suggestion for further statuary reviews: the bike loops and dog anchors on High Street Northcote.

R H said...

I'll tell you honestly Miss Tartan I wasn't going to comment on this post at all. And then I thought well maybe just a little one.
But then you had the posh manners to answer what I said. And in a tone of CONTRADICTORY PROVOCATION!

So what am I supposed to do?

Good manners are the downfall of you professor people. My dirty low crowd were brought up to be rude, that's all.

(Dancing partner for old ladies)

R H said...

I'm off to Savers now. If I see something nice among the ladies dresses I'll get it for you.
I don't know your size, but anyone with your sort of energy would have to be a ten.


David said...

I mentioned this sculpture on my blog a few weeks ago (with a terrible picture taken with my mobile, nothing like the beautiful shots here) and like many Melbournians I am very fond of it. Bass published a fascinating memoir about ten years ago which I have somewhere but can't find, but I'd recommend it. I seem to recall the sculpture refers to some children's story, but what? My other favourites of his works are in Civic, Canberra and the so-called 'Mr. Pig Face' on Wilson Hall, University of Melbourne which I know was the subject of much controversy when it was first unveiled in the 1950s. As indeed was much of his work apparently.

I am not sure why you'd think this would not be a corporate commission; it was the dawn of that time (60s) when companies were starting to pay lip service to the idea of open public space as a sop to people scared of modernism; you can imagine how an architect's impression could expand this space deceptively for maximum appeal, and include a very friendly piece of public art. Which, as I say, has been very successful in itself.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yes, I remember you posted about it, David. I'll look in the library for Bass's memoir next time I'm there.

I don't know, now, why I thought this one probably wasn't a corporate commission. Perhaps because it's kind of small and un-imposing (opposite of the Wilson Hall one) and about children, as opposed to something like the dreadful Pathfinder in Alexandra Gardens which belongs to Rio Tinto and is all about Being The Best That You Can Be. But you're right there are good reasons why a smart company might choose to associate themselves with something like this.

I have a flyer you drew on the wall in my office at uni. I walked past it in the Union building a few days ago, recognised it fromm your blog, and would have left it there, but some person had stuck thumbtacks through the eyes of the cat reading the story which annoyed me, so I took it away. I like it a lot, especially the cats in the shape of letters.

David said...

Thank you for the kind words. The book is Tom Bass: Totem Maker by Tom Bass and Harris Smart, published 1996.

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Anonymous said...

Beautiful blog. I love these treasures amongst Melbourne streets too. If suggestions are truly welcome, I'd put my hand up for another of Tom Bass' works, 'Genii' in Queen Victoria gardens. It's a work that evokes joy in a way that twee dogs and goggle-eyed businessmen can never achieve. Keep it up, m'am! said...

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