Debate, ridicule and claims of unoriginality overshadow Sydney public art

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Three permanent works due to be installed will cost the city AUS$8m

Sydney locals have been exercising their traditionally vociferous engagement with public art, likening Ishigami’s Cloud Arch to dental floss or a condom

Designs for three permanent public works of art due to be installed in central Sydney have sparked debate about their artistic merit, been ridiculed on social media and forced selectors to publicly back one of the artists over claims his work is not original.

The works, chosen by the City of Sydney public art advisory panel, and announced on 29 July by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, are by the British artist Tracey Emin, the Japanese architect and artist Junya Ishigami and the Egyptian-born Hany Armanious, who represented Australia at the 2011 Venice Biennale. The three projects will cost the City of Sydney around AUS$8m ($7.5m) in total and will “cement Sydney’s reputation as a capital of culture and creativity”, Moore says.

Within hours of Moore’s announcement, Sydney was exercising its traditionally vociferous engagement with public art, likening Ishigami’s AUS$3.5m ($3.3m) Cloud Arch to dental floss or a condom. The 50-metre tall ribbon of undulating steel will straddle George Street, with a new light rail line passing between its legs.

Armanious’s work, Pavilion, is a gargantuan version of a milk crate, an object that is ubiquitous in Sydney and is used variously as trendy cafe seating, for helping riders mount their horses and, very occasionally, for transporting cartons of milk. Pavilion will be placed in Belmore Park, next to Central Station, and will cost AUS$2.5m ($2.3m).

While some greeted Armanious’s design as a triumph of wit and originality, Melbourne artist Jarrad Kennedy posted a picture on Facebook of a work he created for the 2005 McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award. Kennedy’s work, called Court, was a giant milk crate. The City of Sydney public art advisory panel leapt to Armanious’s defence, saying it was entirely possible for two artists to conceive the same idea.

By comparison, the AUS$2.1m ($2m) work by the often controversial Tracey Emin seemed tame. The Distance of Your Heart will consist of 60 bronze birds perched on awnings and poles along several streets leading from Macquarie Place to the approaches to the Harbour Bridge. As part of the same work, of a plinth will be installed in Macquarie Place, engraved with the words: “With your thoughts in my mind, the distance of your heart”.

Emin cried when she heard her design had been selected, according to Barbara Flynn, the curatorial adviser to the City of Sydney. “Emin’s art is all about emotion,” Flynn says.

The three winning designs were selected from 700 international submissions. Flynn says there will be opportunities for the public to comment on the designs as they progress through the development application and heritage clearance stages. But the City of Sydney has made it clear the three projects have been given the green light, and only minor adjustments will be made. The works are expected to be installed in 2017.

The highs and lows of public art in Sydney

From the “urinal” to “poo on sticks”, Sydney has traditionally treated its public art with irreverence.

Today it is acknowledged as a modernist masterstroke, but Tom Bass’s 1963 P&O Wall Fountain is still known as “the urinal”. The copper fountain, which stands against the wall of the P&O building in Hunter Street, was lampooned by the editors of the satirical OZ Magazine, who posed as though relieving their bladders into the sculpture. When a photograph of their stunt appeared on the OZ front page in 1964, the editors were charged with obscenity and encouraging public urination. The fountain remains in situ to this day.

Ken Unsworth is a giant in Australian art. But his Kings Cross sculpture,Stones Against the Sky, is known by locals as “poo on sticks”. Even Unsworth dislikes the work, which was commissioned to stand outside a trendy apartment block, but was never completed to his satisfaction. The work consists of large, dung ball-like shapes stuck to the tops of tall poles.

A perennial favourite with Sydneysiders is Brett Whiteley’s 1968 free-standing sculpture, Almost once. Located in The Domain, the work is two giant-sized matches. One remains unburned, its red tip intact, while the other is charred and crippled.

One of Sydney’s best-loved pieces of public art is suspended above Angel Place in the central business district. Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill consists of empty birdcages hung high above the pavement. The work is accompanied by a soundtrack of the songs of 50 birds that would have inhabited central Sydney in pre-colonial times. Barbara Flynn, the curatorial adviser to the City of Sydney, says that Forgotten Songs was conceived as a temporary work in 2009, but proved so popular with the public that the city decided to make it a permanent fixture.

One of Sydney’s best-loved pieces of public art is suspended above Angel Place in the central business district. Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill consists of empty birdcages hung high above the pavement

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