Sydney public art in architecture: a do-it-yourself tour

Sitting on the stoop of a colonial building on Sydney’s Bridge Street, a man enjoying the sun looks up. He hadn’t realised that one of British artist Tracey Emin’s handmade bronze birds she calls “angels of this earth” was looking down on him.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” he said. If he’d looked in the other direction, he would’ve found another of Emin’s loneliness-busting birds that perch in secret locations across Sydney’s Bridge Street and Grosvenor Street.

Emin’s work, The Distance of Your Heart, is one of dozens of major new permanent works installed in the city – often as part of major building projects – in the past decade.

Public art curator Barbara Flynn looks down on one of more than 60 handcrafted bronze birds made by artist Tracey Emin. The work starts at Macquarie Place Park in the city.

Public art curator Barbara Flynn looks down on one of more than 60 handcrafted bronze birds made by artist Tracey Emin. The work starts at Macquarie Place Park in the city.Credit:Janie Barrett

All up, the city has more than 250 public artworks, including fountains and sculptures, plus dozens of temporary works.

Despite various bird hunts, nobody has found all of Emin’s 68 handmade and life-size birds that she cast in bronze. The location of each is a secret, a surprising gift to anyone who finds one on an awning or street light.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore says public art adds depth and texture to the city, engaging and stimulating the public, sometimes challenging preconceptions.

The public wanted more art in the city, but it hadn’t always been easy, said Moore, alluding to the controversy over public artworks like Cloud Arch at Town Hall that was benched indefinitely.

An artist’s impression of the Cloud Arch sculpture.

An artist’s impression of the Cloud Arch sculpture.Credit:City of Sydney

“For a long time whenever we announced public art projects a conga line of shock jocks and tabloid commentators would decry the investment as a misuse of public money,” said Moore.

Barbara Flynn, the curatorial adviser to the City of Sydney from 2013 to 2020, wrote individual letters to 800 leading Australian and international artists, including Emin, asking them to be part of the transformation of Sydney ahead of the implementation of light rail in George Street.

So many responded that it crashed the council’s portal.

Flynn says Moore’s 18-year tenure has resulted in a legacy of permanent public art unique to Sydney. That’s partly due to council’s requirement that developers deliver public artworks as a condition of consent on projects greater than $10 million.

Described by insiders as the go-to person for art on a grand scale, Flynn has also worked with architects, developers and builders behind some of Sydney’s biggest projects, including Barangaroo Delivery Authority and Lendlease, and AMP Capital on Quay Quarter’s redevelopment.

Flynn often gives private and public tours of Sydney’s best public art, including with Museums of History NSW (formerly Sydney Living Museum).

“None of these completed works are superficial, none of them is decorative,” she says of the artworks that are accessible to the public day and night. “These are real works of art, inserted into the city with great effort.”

Here’s Flynn’s guide for a do-it-yourself tour with the stories behind some of Sydney’s newest public art.


I Stay (Ngaya ngalawa) by Jenny Holzer

8 Chifley Square (Mirvac/Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)

Tourists often mistake Holzer’s giant work on a 19-metre four-side column on the side of 8 Chifley Square as a news ticker.

Like news, it streams night and day. But it features extracts of songs, poems and writing by dozens of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. These include Bennelong’s 1796 letter to Governor Phillips to works by Indigenous playwright Jack Davis and author Tara June Winch.

Holzer said, “The first-person voice in much of the writing makes the artwork alive and immediate, accessible to many”.

Barbara Flynn with Jenny Holzer’s giant work, which is on a 19-metre four-side column and features extracts of songs, poems and writing by dozens of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.

Barbara Flynn with Jenny Holzer’s giant work, which is on a 19-metre four-side column and features extracts of songs, poems and writing by dozens of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.Credit:Janie Barrett

The writing by Indigenous authors illustrated that what happened to individuals and groups, happened to society. The themes, such as love and survival, were universal.

Flynn says, “[Public art] actually can change your life. And I think that’s really fascinating.”

As a teenager in Buffalo, New York, Flynn recalled being moved by the 12-metre-high sculpture by American artist Mark di Suvero called, Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore).

“It was a big and red, and standing in front of a classical building. It was such a disconnect. It was so clearly work done by an artist by who was alive.”

Holzer may be an American conceptual artist, but I Stay could only be in Sydney. “These are Aboriginal essays, authors, poets,” says Flynn. “You can’t take the work and separate it from its site without it completely losing its meaning.”

Developing artworks like Holzer’s can cost millions and take three to eight years from the artist being selected to the work being installed. They also involve detailed maintenance plans.

Inevitably, each project will hit a major stumbling block, said Flynn.

Holzer’s stalled for six months when the developers asked her to remove expletives contained in the texts she wanted to include.

“The issue was taking those texts, and putting them on a 19-metre-high column where each letter would have been 2.5 metres high and about 1.7 metres wide,” said Flynn. “That is about a 10-metre high ‘f–k’,” she said.

Holzer compromised: She agreed to skirt the offending passages. In exchange, the developers allowed her to dedicate the entire work to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors.

“That is when it became art,” said Flynn. “When she was allowed to focus on the work as she wanted to do. That was an amazing thing to see.”

Distance of Your Heart by Tracey Emin

Macquarie Place Park, Bridge Street

British artist Emin’s work about migration, loneliness, love and longing starts with a single bird sitting on the rim of a bird bath she made for Macquarie Place Park.

It is steps away from Sydney’s oldest surviving monument, Francis Greenway’s 1818 Obelisk of Distances.

One of the birds that make up Tracey Emin’s ‘Distance of Your Heart’.

One of the birds that make up Tracey Emin’s ‘Distance of Your Heart’.Credit:Janie Barrett

Emin said: “Just as the obelisk measured the distances of colonial roads and landmarks, my artwork will measure the distance of my heart.”

Flynn said that when members of the public see the birds, it changes their perception of the city. “Art doesn’t have to be monumental,” said Flynn, while sitting on a bench with one of the bronze birds near her feet.

Birds loom large, too, for the lord mayor. One of Moore’s favourite art works in the city was Forgotten Songs by artist Michael Thomas Hill, featuring 186 birdcages suspended above Angel Place that play the forgotten songs of those birds that once lived around the Tank Stream. Originally temporary, the work is now permanent, hanging in the lanes near the City Recital Hall.

Forgotten songs, Angel Place. Originally installed as a temporary public art project in 2009, it was commissioned as a permanent artwork from the artist Michael Thomas Hill It is one of Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s favourite works in the city.

Forgotten songs, Angel Place. Originally installed as a temporary public art project in 2009, it was commissioned as a permanent artwork from the artist Michael Thomas Hill It is one of Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s favourite works in the city. Credit:Marco Del Grande

Yirranma Place Gates, by Badger Bates

262 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst

Barkandji man William Brian “Badger” Bates is better known for his works on lino hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW and other collections around Australia.

He’d never tried blacksmithing before making the new gates for the Yirranma Place, a former Church of Christ, Scientist – now the headquarters of the Ramsay Foundation.

Public arts consultant Barbara Flynn with the work by artist Badger Bates, at Yirranma Place, in Darlinghurst.

Public arts consultant Barbara Flynn with the work by artist Badger Bates, at Yirranma Place, in Darlinghurst.Credit:Janie Barrett

Flynn likes to encourage artists who usually work in one medium to try another because the result can be unexpected, exciting and new for the public and the artist.

Bates worked with industrial blacksmith Matt Mewborn at Eveleigh Railway Yards to turn his art into steelwork.

Three large gates, each three metres high, tell the story of the Seven Sisters and the rainbow serpent. He has also covered the ceiling inside with a mural showing an Indigenous constellation, the Emu.

Roof for stray thoughts by Olafur Eliasson

Quay Quarter Tower (AMP Capital/3XN/BVN)

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One of the city’s newest permanent artworks, Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s massive yellow sculpture is located in the public plaza of the new award-winning AMP Capital building by Danish architects 3XN with Sydney-based BVN.

Eliasson says its underlying structure is composed of arcs that reflect the scale of the architecture and of the human body – the largest arc could encircle the full height of the tower; the smallest, the height of a visitor.

Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s massive yellow sculpture at the AMP Capital building.

Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s massive yellow sculpture at the AMP Capital building.Credit:Adam Mork

Remembering Arabanoo by Jonathan Jones

Quay Lanes Sydney (AMP Capital/SJB, SilvesterFuller, Bright Design, Carter Williamson)

The Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathon Jones’ five-part work was installed at Quay Quarter Lanes where the first Government House once stood.

Arabanoo succumbed to smallpox as a result of first contact with European settlers and, when he died, he was buried on the site.

Jones said that in a “misguided and arguably cruel practice, Arabanoo was captured and cajoled to speak Eora language words as a means for the early settlers of Sydney Cove to learn about Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal ways.”

‘Remembering Arabanoo’, by Jonathan Jones, in Quay Lanes.

‘Remembering Arabanoo’, by Jonathan Jones, in Quay Lanes.Credit:Janie Barrett

Flynn said she is always impressed by the generosity of artists who often deliver more than they promised. Instead of delivering one work, Jones delivered five.

These include gwara (flags) with Eora words that Arabanoo taught early settlers; betunjigo (oysters), made from bronze and embedded in the high tide point of an old building on site; and bengadee (ornament), a British handcuff with feathers representing his imprisonment. For the fourth, magora (fish) lined in bronze were placed in bluestone pavers to represent the fish that once swam there and sustained the local Indigenous population.

As for the fifth, look up for the lights …

Sparkling Pond, Bold-Coloured Groove & Tender Fire (Please walk in and let the colours caress you) by Pipilotti Rist

Park Lane, Central Park residential development, Chippendale

Located in the undercroft space of the Park Lane building, Rist’s work switches on at sunset and plays until 11pm. During the day, coloured panels nearby add interest.

Pipilotti Rist’s “Sparkling Pond, Bold-Coloured Groove & Tender Fire (Please walk in and let the colours caress you) (2018)“.

Pipilotti Rist’s “Sparkling Pond, Bold-Coloured Groove & Tender Fire (Please walk in and let the colours caress you) (2018)“.Credit:Mark Pokorny

Rist said she wanted to use the space to bring people together. “Under the lights people can meet, dance and speak.”

One of Flynn’s best memories was watching a group of young people dancing like children in “utter delight” under the lights of the installation.

Other works recommended by Flynn include…

Tadashi Kawamata’s “Big Nest in Sydney”.

Tadashi Kawamata’s “Big Nest in Sydney”.Credit:Mark Pokorny

  • Big Nest in Sydney by Tadashi Kawamata, facade of The Mark (27-storey residential tower at the south-eastern corner of Central Park, facing the intersection of Carlton Street, Kensington Street and Outram Street)
  • The Noblest by Agatha Gothe-Snape, Greenland Centre (Greenland Australia/BVN)
  • Day In Day Out by James Angus, One Bligh Street (DEXUS Property Group, DEXUS Wholesale Property and Cbus Property Group/Ingenhoven and Architectus)

    https://www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/a-bird-hunt-and-top-spots-for-sydney-s-public-art-in-architecture-20221229-p5c99p.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Sydney public art in architecture: a do-it-yourself tour

    Jaclyn Diaz

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