Friday 17 June 2005

Statuary Friday #13

My Statuary Friday project is a running blog-commentary on various pieces of open-air public sculpture around Melbourne. We're up to week 13 today, & to mark the occasion, I've compiled a special edition retracing the ripping yarn around Melbourne's unluckiest piece of public art. (warning: the post is EXTREMELY image-heavy & may take quite a while to load.)

#13: Vault

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art forecourt, corner of Grant & Dodds Sts, Southbank

This week, I'm just laying the evidence in front of you in the hope that you'll pitch in with your own opinion. Nothing would be a better tribute to this icon, IMO, than for us to have a good old-fashioned set-to in its honour. Hope you enjoy. The present-day photos are mine but everything else obviously comes from elsewhere. Roll your mouse over the other images to see their sources.

Vault: An Illustrated (Potted) Chronicle


Melbourne City Council commissions architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall to do over the City Square. Their plans allow for a large and imposing sculptural element. A small number of experienced modern sculptors are invited to compete for the sculpture commission.


May Distinguished Sydney sculptor Ron Robertson-Swann wins the competition to provide a sculptural focal point for the square.
December Council approve Robertson-Swann's proposal and almost instantly begin to freak out about it.


The sculpture is slowly built, while various Union and Town Hall bickerings evolve into full-scale public shitfights. Keith Dunstan (in The Bulletin) is the first to apply the resonantly racist / xenophobic nickname "The Yellow Peril" to the sculpture, which officially remains nameless.


May The sculpture is installed, to loud and long jeers and catcalls from various elements, and Her Maj opens the new City Square.

June Egged on by the press, elements within Council begin agitating for the sculpture to be relocated.

July The decision to take it down / hide it somewhere is formally made. The Council is well and truly divided over the issue.

August "Save Our Sculpture" rally at City Square.

September Sculpture officially named Vault.
December State Government sacks Melbourne City Council, partly because of Vault-related cockups.


July In darkness and secrecy,Vault is dismantled and taken away. The BLF (Builders Labourers Federation) impose work bans on City Square projects, so a nice big hole is left behind in the pavement.
August - October Vault set up at Batman Park, a shitty little patch of ground between a flyway and the train line.


March BLF workbans cease.
October Batman Park officially "opened."


Vault stays put for 16 years: for the most part the sculpture is neglected and ignored by the city, but it pops out of the closet every now and then to rattle its chains and stretch its weary bones.


Mainstream taste having more or less caught up with where Robertson-Swann was at in 1976, the MCC decides to move Vault to Southbank.

Twenty years after it was pulled down, Vault is ceremonially re-launched, in its present location outside ACCA.


Geoffrey J. Wallis's amazing and meticulous book Peril in the Square (Indra, 2004) is indispensable. Several of the images I've used came from its pages. The State Library maintains a useful clippings and ephemera file on Ron Robertson-Swann. Other newspaper clippings shown here I located with the help of reference desk staff at the Borchardt library, La Trobe University.

Rosemary Manning's marvellous website, here, is full of sharp and provocative insight into the saga, and into the sculpture itself as well.
A link to the NGA's catalogue entry for one of Robertson-Swann's maquettes.
The Age have collected a number of interesting articles on the sagaand made them available online here, but I think you might need to register to view them. Sorry bout that. (Why do they do it? So stupid.)

main page


Ampersand Duck said...

Ye gods woman, where do you find the time? This is fantastic stuff. I have been putting off coming to Melbourne for ages, much to the chagrin of my M friends, but I'm going to collate a dossier on all these aculpture and do a tour when I do get there. You are an absolute ripper.

I look forward to a bit of debate... as someone totally uninformed about this piece, I think it looks better now with a bit of space around it than in its first incarnation. But that's just from looking at the photos. It would make a nice cubby! I'm not a huge fan of steel public sculpture. Michael le Grand's another sculptor of this ilk; he tries to make his deliberately sexy, with raunchy titles and shiny glossy colours. When it all boils down, they're just big bits of steel, and I think it's a boy-thing.

I love the cartoon debate, which is probably the most effective way to reach the Australian public. Thanks for a wonderful read.

Ampersand Duck said...

My office is very cold, and my fingers have a bad relationship with my keyboard when they're stiff.

lucy tartan said...

Thanks ducks. I've been collecting bits & pieces for this one for quite a while, how nerdy is that? It was the scanning in that took longer than I thought it would.

Want to have a drink when you're in Melbourne?

Ampersand Duck said...

Yes! But don't hold your breath. We've been saying 'we must go' for ages now, with no foreseeable result. I think it's the horrible highway driving that holds us back. The road to Sydney is so much smoother (and punctuated by kwality sculture), But thanks ever so much for the ask. You're first stop on the tour.

R.H. said...

I've always liked the Vault.
It's handy if you get caught in the rain too.

Anonymous said...

If the duck flies south, I hope you let me know.

The Peril is ugly. It is least ugly outside ACCA, but then that is a place in which an exhaust stack for a tunnel is mistaken for a sculpture.

Thank you for revealing a bit of the politics around the thing. I particularly relate to the fact that people objected to the colour, since Melbourne is such an aggressively grey town they even lie and call that nasty soulsucking grey pumice BLUEstone.

ACCA itself is just wonderful, and in some ways consummates the aesthetic that the peril tried for. I like it even more now that I work almost next door. But the sand garden outside is a sad joke.

- barista

lucy tartan said...

Good remarks David.

Looking back, it's clearer now that the drama was more to do with council infighting than aesthetics. It was badly managed, too. Robertson-Swann probably should not have been allowed to announce to the Sun that his sculpture was "unquestionably elitist", if he didn't want people pissing on it, that is. And it was crazy bad PR-wise to leave it unnamed when the gutter press had already started to call it The Yellow Peril.

Melbourne is yellower now than it used to be. The tram barriers have been yellow as far back as I remember, but we have the yellow taxis now, thanks Jeffie.

R.H. said...

About ten years ago (as Yarraville became yuppieville) I noticed the old bluestone pitchers beside the railway station being dug up. I took my ute there and knocked off about twenty of them. They're all in my backyard now; an historic walk to the clothesline.

I like it.