Crown St Mall public art: people saying ‘that’s crap’ is no marker of success

IS THAT THE BEST WE CAN DO? You drop 400 grand, and what go you get? You get a piece of sad art I'd rather forget.
IS THAT THE BEST WE CAN DO? You drop 400 grand, and what go you get? You get a piece of sad art I'd rather forget.

What is it about trees in the mall that make them Wollongong’s Achilles heel?

A cabbage tree palm, found somewhere, has been strapped high up a pole. Other lean sideways. Elsewhere, some large sandstone blocks have been roughly lined up. This is a public art work called Illawarra Placed Landscape (not a typo) which, they say, might be around in the Crown St Mall for a while.

The public has not showered it in love. A Mercury online poll showed 86 per cent of some 1700 votes disliked the work. 

Council bods say it’s good people are talking about it. The Lord Mayor says a diverse reaction is good. Sure. But if making people talk and react is all we aspire to, we might as well give the money to some drunks to streak down the mall during the Friday markets.

What matters more is, do we like it? Does it make life better?

Artist Mike Hewson says he is “privileged” to have created a reaction. I imagine it’s easier to brush off a bad reaction once you’ve trousered $430,000 of public money for the work (of course, engineering cost plenty of this).

Don’t blame Hewson for this debacle. He’s realised a challenging vision and it’s good to see artists making a living.

But. Have you seen it

Art can be controversial, shocking even. That’s part of art’s power, its role. But don’t confuse shock at the content, or shock at the point being made, with surprise at how bad something might be.

Just because people react strongly against it, doesn’t make it a success on some kind of ‘hey, at least that’s a reaction’ grounds.

This work’s problem is not that it’s shocking – it’s that it’s so underwhelming. My reaction is “so what?”

It lacks impact, doesn’t change the feeling of the area, and doesn’t seem to have anything to say. And perhaps worst, it doesn't look very good. It’s a waste.

One argument goes “at least it brings some life to the grey mall space”. The artist said it would “break up the regularity of the poles and trees”.

But why, oh why did the mall need tree sculptures placed in its landscape to make it look good, when it’s just been given a multi-multi-million dollar revitalisation? 

I love public art and I’m happy to have my rates spent on it. I don’t expect everything will be to my precise taste. In fact, I don’t have a precise taste. But for nearly half a million clams, we have to do better than this. 

Is it too much to hope for, that the city centre’s central artwork be something uplifting? And no – lifting up a cabbage palm isn’t what I mean. 

Granted, art may be just a matter of opinion. In my opinion, this is junk – at best a half-funny joke, on us.