Friday, 7 July 2006

Statuary Friday #27

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

#27 Angel

Birrarung Marr, City

Angel is only eighteen years old but those years have been well used: it would have to be one of the most recognisable and most widely enjoyed of Melbourne's outdoor sculptures. I think it is also one of the best - it's both accessible and startling, awe-inspiring and friendly, and it's very beautifully made. There is not much adventurous contemporary art which doesn't try to pick a fight with the viewer. I have always liked Angel and was very glad when it re-emerged recently, after long seclusion, at a new site on the north bank of the Yarra. It is made of painted ceramic tiles laid over a cement "skin" encasing a steel armature and it's more than ten metres high. Angel is the work of Melbourne sculptor, potter, and printmaker Deborah Halpern, who finished it (after four years' development and construction) in 1988 when she was twenty-nine.

Angel was a Bicentennial commission for the National Gallery of Victoria. In a terrific essay in the catalogue accompanying the Halpern retrospective now showing at the Ian Potter Centre, Geoffrey Edwards describes the process by which this sculpture was funded. The Bicentennial Authority, Edwards writes, sought proposals for large-scale public artworks, and the NGV submitted a shortlist which included Halpern and others:
In January 1986, the director of the Arts and Entertainment section of the Authority wrote back to the Gallery advising that the relevant assessment panel 'was sympathetic to your proposal that a ceramic sculpture by David Holpern (sic!) be commissioned.' The letter further recommended that 'the proposal be co-funded by the National office in tandem with the Victorian Bicentennial Council.' But in spite of the Authority's clear and commendable preference for a proposal involving a younger-generation artist working in an exuberant 'pictorial' idiom - unusual at that time in the public realm - the Victorian branch of the ABA formally declined to match the $25,000 grant made by the national office.

Adding to the difficulties, estimates for making, transporting and installing the finished work indicated that if the project were truly to be realised on the scale envisaged by the artist, the funding necessary would be several times more than allowed for by the grant money currently on offer from the ABA. So the artist and the Gallery made concerted and increasingly anxious efforts to raise additional funds from the philanthropic sector and from the Art Foundation of Victoria, a body affiliated with the Gallery itself. At the same time they approached suppliers and fabricators seeking in-kind donations of the materials and services required for the undertaking.

Between them Halpern and the NGV scraped together more than $80,000 from various sources, and Tile manufacturers Johnson and engineers J.K. Fasham kicked in for materials. The sculpture was built, with the help of numerous assistants, in Shed 14 at Victoria Dock, and hauled, god knows how, to St Kilda Road. (I have witnessed an upright piano being carried three storeys both up and down a set of narrow St Kilda stairs, and that provided ample horror for my needs.) Angel was installed arcing over the rippling waters of the south moat in front of Roy Grounds's high Modernist bluestone Gallery, and for the next fifteen years, there it stayed.

Halpern, speaking recently to The Australian, said that at the time she "wondered why she had been chosen to create an important public work for such a high-profile site. 'Perhaps it was because I was a woman, I don't know...' she says. 'But the more I thought about it, the more I believed it was actually because my work is colourful. And it's whimsical. My hunch was, the National Gallery wanted something playful and colourful, especially in front of that grey wall.'"

Angel on the cover of Art in Australia, 1988

As the Australian article linked to notes, Angel looked amazing in its intended location and a lot of local people, including the sculptor, were quite upset when Mario Bellini, the architect doing the gallery's makeover, said it had to go. It was dismantled and removed in early 2003 - photographs here - and there were rumours that it would be put up across the road next to the Floral Clock or among the cafes down at Docklands. Halpern wanted the sculpture to retain a connection with water and to stay close to the Gallery. Angel's new location has both those qualities and while the slightly muddy gravel-and-Yarra backdrop will never be as dramatic as austere monochrome stone and water, the effect is surprisingly good nevertheless.

One advantage of the new site is you can now walk right up to the sculpture, walk around it and see it from all sides. I hadn't fully grasped before how finely, almost Classically, poised and balanced the sculpture is. Angel reconciles just about any opposing pair of spatial conditions you care to mention: solid and strong yet graceful and flexed, asymetrical but balanced, simple basic shapes with subtly individual joinings and curves, reaching up and out, and lightly arching its heavy limbs and bones. Placed beside the door of the Gallery, one end asserted itself as more headlike than the other, but in this space the ambiguous, metamorphic quality gets fuller play.

The ruling paradoxes of the sculpture, though, come from the contrast between the large calm smooth body and the vigorous teeming of its crackled, glittering, stained and tattooed skin. Good bone structure and skilful painting. Heroic art and domestic craft. Volume and illusion. Presence and narrative. Space and time.

The golden crouching figure, like an illuminated heraldic cherubim folded and gestating in the belly of a whale, was front and centre in the previous incarnation.

Now the enwombed angel is still a focal point but the shining, colourful, dancing form enclosing it is has a richer, more abundant life and expression of its own.

This post is a present for David Tiley, another extraordinary Melbourne presence who recently came back, strong as ever, after spending some time away.


Rob said...

I wondered where it had got to. I remember sitting on a tram one afternoon as we trundled past (back when it was at the gallery) and listening to two teenage girls enthusiastically endorsing it.

One of them said, memorably, that it looked like you could cuddle it.

Tim said...

Good stuff. I wondered where that sculpture had gone.

kate said...

I miss it. I never get down to Birrarung Marr, thankyou. said...

thanks for linking to my site! i appreciate it. merrww

Pixie said...

oohh, that sure is one to be noticed. It's extraordinary, I hope it is lit at night. I've got some far more traditional Wellington works for you at the Pixiepost.

Anonymous said...

There I was thinking how beautifully you had caught one of my favourite Melbourne sculptures, and then I read the last line.

Thank you. That is special.

- david tiley

Another Outspoken Female said...

I miss Angel outside the NGV and feel she may have been demoted :)

(OK bad pun, but I do miss her presence on St Kilda Rd)

Lucy Tartan said...

FABULOUS pun. I share your feelings, but the new location isn't that bad. Perhaps a better space, if it couldn't have just been put back outside the gallery, would have been further down the river on the bluestone-paved banks between princes bridge and Spencer st. More like the original environment.

It would have been best not to move the sculpture at all, of course. As far as I can tell the gallery facade is not really more in line with the architect's original conception now, because it's always swathed in vast advertising banners.

Suse said...

I have missed Angel since she moved, but I do like the idea that you can now walk all around and glory in her beauty from all sides.

(I've always called her the Push Me Pull You.)

tigtog said...

I'm planning a trip to Melbourne maybe next year which is going to be entirely based on travelling along the route of your sculpture posts, LT.

I LUV CATS said...

I found the cutest photo on your site.

Mousicles said...

Thanks for telling us where it had got to. I did wonder. It's a shame it got moved but it's also cunning to be able to see it from more angles and up close.

I must make a point of visiting it next time I'm down there.

I never knew it was called Angel. We all just refered to it as the Pinata.