Melbourne's Public Art goes Temporary

The City of Melbourne has made some sweeping changes to its public art strategy that focus on the town hall as a place where public and government meet; an essentially civic space open to the scrutiny of its citizenry. Examples of such change are indicated by Fiona Foleys Lie of the Land installation, Town Hall Transformed by Melbourne artist Ian de Gruchy, a collaborative piece by construction / performance group Bambuco which created a stage for two performances by the Five Angry Men collective entitled Bells. Holt discusses.

In film noir parlance 'City Hall' has become synonymous with the hidden machinations of dubious political and power structures. It is an edifice that hides rather than portrays its public function. It does not take kindly to scrutiny. The local equivalent 'town hall' has likewise suffered from domestic film-makers in recent years. From Rats in the Ranks through Sea Change, Grassroots and most recently The Dish local government has been an easy target. The City of Melbourne, not without its public relations problems at the moment, has made some sweeping changes to its public art strategy that focus on the town hall as a place where public and government meet; an essentially civic space open to the scrutiny of its citizenry.

The first hint of a change in the wind came with the installation along the facade of the Melbourne Town Hall of Fiona Foley's, Lie of the Land,. A series of imposing tablets etched with text snippets that prompted its public audience to acknowledge the eurocentricity of traditional Australian histories. The temporary location of this work at such a 'charged' site as the Town Hall, provided contrast to the austerity and pomposity of the Victorian colonnade, flagged a movement away from permanent sculptural commissions to council sponsored temporary events.

Two recent examples have extended the City's commitment to using its civic spaces as locations for artworks that are transitory. As part of the council's millennium celebrations, an ambitious and impressive sound and projection event was produced by Melbourne artist Ian de Gruchy. Transformed extended the artist's use of static projections to transform architectural structures by using layered, still and moving images choreographed to create a complex series of playful tableaux across the Town Hall's Swanston Street facade.

In March this year the Town Hall again provided the site for a large temporary artwork. The collaborative construction/performance group Bambuco created a work using bamboo scaffolding that attached to and morphed out of the structure of the grand old building. This work, as part of the much derided but enduringly popular Moomba festival, clambered precariously up the clock tower and leaned over the pedestrians on this busy intersection.

The Bambuco construction became the stage for two performances of the movement/dance work Bells by Five Angry Men, a revival of a work previously performed in the 1997 Melbourne Festival. Both de Gruchy's projection and the Bambuco/Five Angry Men collaboration provided artworks that were both dynamic and popularly engaging. They imposed temporarily on the town hall landscape. For those who witnessed them, the absence created once the projects finished was notable – a measure of their ability to insinuate their way briefly into the city's self image.

The Swanston Street corridor onto which these Town Hall events faced had previously been the focus of significant spending by the City of Melbourne on public sculpture commissions. The move away from funding permanent artworks in favour of more transitory practices has been an important one for the city.

During the 90s the City had supported a number of independent projects focusing on programs of temporary exhibitions in key public locations (including Platform and Platform2, City Lights, Bus Stop Art, and City Art Public Space). Nevertheless, the focus of public art policy during the early years of the decade had remained on public sculpture. Using sizable chunks of its cultural budget to support large scale, one-off, temporary artworks was a relatively high risk policy direction. Indeed the jury may still be out, and the long term ability to develop appropriate works of high quality is a challenge that the Council will have to meet if they are to convince the many sceptics (public art being, as it is, a hotly contested area of cultural policy).

Initial outcomes however, vindicate the City's decision. Furthermore, as Jeffrey Taylor of the City's Cultural Development branch attests, the policy appears to match changes on the creative landscape with the City receiving a greatly increased number of requests, through funding programs, for precisely this type of ephemeral practice.

The Town Hall is not the only civic space available to the City. The new Museum development, as well as providing a permanent home for Foley's work, is the site for an installation collaboration by Aboriginal artist Glenn Romanis and Britisher Angus Watt. Lines of Place, a field of flags changing over time from depicting contemporary Melbourne to a depiction of the area in its pre-European state, reflects a tendency to fund works that develop active dialogue with the built environment in which they reside. These projects acknowledge the complexities of civic space and civic buildings. Locating temporary artworks alongside civic buildings, with their overlays of colonial history, political power structures and social control, is a strategy that flies in the face of a tradition of commemorative statuary.

The practicalities of the move to temporary public art should not be underestimated. Countering the logistical problems associated with these event-based artworks is the avoidance of collection management legacies. In Melbourne the artworks placed in Swanston Street as part of the pedestrianisation of the thoroughfare now find themselves in a very different street to that envisioned by urban planners a decade or so ago. The vehicle traffic is back, the pavements have narrowed, the experiment has floundered. Using artworks in an attempt to tame such a complex public space now seems hopelessly naive. Other local governments have found themselves dealing with similar issues in regard to 'artworks' created as street furniture (particularly during the 1980s when this was the public art policy norm). Fitting neither the strict protective controls of collection conservation policies nor the cyclical replacement regimes of public amenities, these objects have become a burden to their owners.

There will always be a place for permanent collections. But in looking beyond this trope of public art policy making, the City of Melbourne has created an exciting creative niche that should benefit the City directly while enriching the lives of its citizens. By linking temporary artworks to a framework of celebratory events the City has ensured that levels of participation, recognition and the sense of ownership associated with these works is high. Those who do not care for these artworks will not be condemned to share their urban space with them in perpetuity. Those who stumble upon them and are drawn into them will be grateful for a unique experience, freely given.