An Inauspicious Occasion

In May 2005 Brisbane lost a landmark. Wendy Mills water sculpture On this auspicious occasion, commissioned in November 1998 as part of a major refurbishment of Brisbanes Queen Street Mall and a broader attempt to achieve a more culturally sophisticated city, came down in the dead of the night.

In May this year Brisbane lost a landmark. Of course we have some history of that kind of thing happening here. Last century the unceremonious demolition of much-loved buildings contributed to Brisbane's reputation for being rather a redneck town, but the city has since been striving to achieve a more culturally sophisticated image. Unfortunately, however, the wreckers have recently taken to public art. After years of complicated and expensive problems, the water sculpture On this auspicious occasion by Wendy Mills is no more. Like the old Bellevue Hotel, it came down in the dead of night.

It was commissioned in November 1998, together with works by several other artists as part of a major refurbishment of Brisbane's Queen Street Mall. In 2000, a year after the sculpture was completed and installed, Michele Helmrich wrote a piece about the technical and logistical challenges in producing glass-topped tables with table cloths of cascading water (Artlink Vol.20 no.4). Helmrich described the public's enthusiastic response to the finished result, but also made it clear that the project had been gruelling and frustrating for the artist.

Mills is now philosophical about her sculpture's brief life, and more relieved than bitter at its removal. She is satisfied that all parties have acted in good faith. The work was ambitious, the Brisbane City Council and the original design team were enthusiastic and committed, but the site and the design implementation were flawed. For nearly six years the artist has been obliged to contend with ongoing technical difficulties such as cracks in the glass, inadequate general maintenance, unreliable tradesmen, impatient Lord Mayors, and one of the subcontractors threatening legal action. But even though the sculpture hasn't survived, she has.

The work is now known all over the world because it earned the principal imprimatur of successful public art – it was frequently chosen as the background for tourist snapshots. Sometimes the best public art is temporary. The incongruous appearance of this watery ghost of an abandoned banquet in the heart of the city was an event rather than a monument. It will live on in the photographs of people who liked it and affectionately nicknamed it the Water tables, and in the memories of raucous youths who were drenched from sitting on the stainless steel chairs or lying under the tables on hot Brisbane days. Ironically it has been included in a national tourist guide as one of the things to see in Brisbane.

The cost of this delightful temporary work, however, has been high in terms of taxpayers' money, the quality of the artist's life and the city's confidence to undertake ambitious public art installations. The original expense of the work was related to the difficulty of the site (directly above a bus tunnel, with little room underground for the water-holding tank and pumps). The ongoing expenses above standard maintenance were in repairs, although in comparison with the City Council's expenditure on other cultural events and acquisitions the cost was not great. Much of the necessary glass replacement was paid by insurance. The decision to remove the work was triggered by the escalating costs from multiple problems, ironically at a time when the most obvious problem of the cracking glass had been solved.
The artist also regards the commissioning procedure as flawed. As with many commissions where a work of art is to be integrated with architecture, she was not included at the early design stage of the overall project. Her final work had to be conceived and resolved within a short period. The process did not accommodate additional time and money for artistic variations, and yet funds were always found to tackle the technical variations demanded by the seemingly endless succession of problems created by existing infrastructure and the discovery of unexpected pipes and other utility conduits under the Mall. Much of the problem-solving had to be done on the run while the work was being constructed.

At meetings to resolve later problems Mills, as an artist, found herself being overlooked by the men responsible for engineering and construction. They often ignored her advice and experience regarding the properties of materials, likely problems and possible solutions, so more time and money were required while they made their own investigations and reached exactly the same conclusions that she had reached already. They eventually started listening when a man, designer Keith Ward, represented Mills in these meetings and undertook management of a new program to remake the tabletops.

The slumped glass tabletops were 25mm thick, which is thicker than the gauge usually subjected to this treatment. They were difficult to produce and several had to be replaced because of cracking caused by a build up of internal stresses as well as the inability of the glass to disperse uneven temperature quickly. Slumped glass requires approximately three months to recover fully from the process, although it is normal practice to install it during this somewhat vulnerable stage. On 20 January 2000, less than three months after the glass tabletops were installed, Brisbane had its hottest day on record. The water had been turned off the previous day and four panels cracked in the heat. The glass was perforated with slots for the water supply, and the cracks were connected to these slots. It was eventually discovered that this problem could be avoided if the tabletops were made in smaller sections and the water piped in at the seams between the panels so that no perforations of the glass were required. Vandalism, reported by the media to be the reason for the removal of the work, never occurred (a significant vote of public confidence).

Because of the cracking problems the council repeatedly suggested the glass be replaced either fully or partially with steel but the artist refused to agree to this, and thus effectively signed the project's death warrant. Transparency was the essential quality of the sculpture, and it would also have been a negation of the work if she had agreed to try metal instead, because the result would have been a different sculpture, not the one she wanted and had fought very hard to get. The council's suggestion of relocating the work indoors was also rejected by the artist.

In the 1950 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Annie Get Your Gun the character Chief Sitting Bull, when refusing to put money into Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, explains that three rules govern his life: 'no red meat, no get feet wet, no put money in show business'. The injunction 'never commission public art involving glass or water' could be added to the fundamental principles of survival in the field of cultural patronage. At about the time that On this auspicious occasion was commissioned the Brisbane City Council's policies on public art were inclining toward the idea of Brisbane as a city of fountains. This idea has now been abandoned, partly because the refreshing luxury of splashing water sits uncomfortably with the growing need to deal responsibly with drought, but also because the technical problems associated with large fountains are almost infinite. It also seems likely that the Council will in future be reluctant to commission a public art piece that requires the extensive use of an unfamiliar material like glass.

Innovation can be a very expensive business. On a far bigger scale, Melbourne's Federation Square, which opened in October 2002, also led to delays in construction and a massive budget blowout (from an original estimate of $128 million to an eventual $394 million). It has, however, finally given the city the focal point it previously lacked, and given Australia one of its few examples of genuinely adventurous urban design. The project required the architects, engineers and builders to solve problems they had never faced before, which is how new things get done.

With public sculpture, there are several ways to avoid the kind of harrowing process to which Wendy Mills, various subcontractors and the Brisbane City Council have been subjected for the past six years. One is to commission only public art made with tried and true techniques – monumental bronzes and welded steel sculptures – thereby eliminating both risk and innovation. Alternatively the municipal authorities could simply acknowledge that some things are worth the risks. Public art is rarely adopted as quickly and enthusiastically as this work, and that alone should have justified persevering until the material problems were resolved.

The Brisbane City Council genuinely wanted to find a way to save the Queen Street Mall water sculpture because it was so popular, and would otherwise have removed it much earlier. The Council is reconciled to the fact that public art is expensive, but On this auspicious occasion cost more than was considered acceptable, and more than was necessary. Art in public places needs to be funded in a way that respects the value of what artists contribute to the city, and this doesn't automatically equate to the need for more funding, it means a change in the way the funds are spent. Good art is generally not whipped up in a couple of weeks. The thinking and planning done by artists takes time, and clients have to accept the fact that an artist's time costs money, but less money than the time spent by engineering and construction teams solving problems that should never have arisen. An adequate preliminary research and development phase is seldom made available to artists working on public projects. They are often obliged to commence a proposed work without the benefit of time and money to fully evolve the concept and perfect innovative use of materials and techniques. Consequently problems can arise in construction, and hostilities develop between the artist and the client.

Ambitious and adventurous public art will continue to be disadvantaged until there is more time and money available at the first stage of the commissioning process. Concept development is the most crucial stage because ultimately the idea is what is really on display, and determines whether the work is a success or a failure.

After all the planning, testing and prototyping for strength and safety, the concerns about vandalism and potential danger to the public, in the end it was the heat of the sun that defeated the sculpture. Mills acknowledges the faults in the work, but believes they could eventually have been rectified. Technical solutions can be found for technical problems presented by an idea, but only if the idea is sufficiently valued to guarantee that it will be fully realised. It seems that artists' ideas are not yet valued that highly. If they were, one of the best pieces of public art ever seen in Brisbane would have been saved.
The artist should have the final say regarding On this auspicious occasion:

The work was the realisation of a dream to construct a work of light and water in a public place that brought pleasure, had irony and could suggest multiple interpretations to a broad range of people. Its success was that we, the combined team of my designers and contractors and the Council's City Design team, achieved this. The failure may appear to be the technical problems that were causing the occasional closure of the work and creating additional costs, but the real failure was in the lack of passionate leadership. The vision was realised but it was technically flawed. Several different people took on the role of trying to solve the problems but the processes were either mismanaged or were unavoidably drawn out. In the end the work has disappeared because no one spoke forcefully enough for the value of this work to the city.