The arse-end of public art

The freeways of Melbourne first appeared in the late 1960s. We knew they were coming when the same heavy machinery that had razed inner-suburban communities to make way for high-rise public housing developments cleared the pathway for their arrival. The residents of old Melbourne generally loathed the freeways, in part because their multi-laned blacktops ended so abruptly at the intersections of inner city streets, creating infamous gridlocks that filled the air with carbon monoxide.

The freeways never quite lived up to the utopian rhetoric preceding them – an inevitable and repeatable narrative of modernist planning and architecture. The grey and featureless strip landscapes were also boring to travel on, unless you were an 18-year-old, pissed, high, or both, and cruising the outer-suburban reaches in the early hours of the morning like a refugee from a Bruce Springsteen song. (“Racing In The Street” comes immediately to mind).

By the early 1990s, the value of freeways was debated in Victoria, although not seriously enough. While some argued for an improvement in public transport systems and less reliance on the motor car, the state government decided to not only widen and retro-fit existing freeways, it built new ones, which now both ring and slice through Melbourne’s suburbs. Many of the new roads are not technically freeways either, as they were built by and are controlled by private corporations, and subsequently demand a toll from motorists. Put simply, to ride the freeway you must pay.

The Transurban Corporation is a major stakeholder in Melbourne’s new freeways. It is responsible for City Link, sections of which used to be the old Tullamarine Freeway before undergoing a major renovation and extension. City Link became the city’s first privatised and tolled road. Transurban is not only interested in cars and bitumen. It loves art and has big bits of public art along its roadways. They include sculpture, decorative noise barriers, soundscapes, and jazzy bridges, commissioned to alleviate the monotony of freeway driving.

One of the most visible and contentious freeway art commissions is “Melbourne Gateway”, installed at the city end of City Link for Transurban by the occasional architects to the state – Denton, Corker, Marshall (DCM). I confess that a small part of me loves Melbourne Gateway. I live near it. I pass by it often, and just like my view of the Eiffel Tower when in Paris (once, for four days) I catch teasing glimpses of the Gateway from various vantage points in my home suburb of Brunswick.

While I am sure there are many stories of Melbourne Gateway, I want to introduce three of them. One is utopian, another an urban myth, while the third is a subterranean marvel.

Utopia

DCM describe the elements that complete the Gateway as “a raked yellow beam, cantilevered 90m above the roadway; a series of 39 raked and aligned red 30m tall sticks; a sinuous orange sound wall; and an elevated ellipsoidal sound tube approximately 300m long.” Yes, it is big. And it is hard to miss. (While it cannot be seen from outer space, it looks impressive on Google Earth). While most Melbournians know the Gateway, by sight if not by name, they engage with it at a distance. But to fully appreciate it you must get up close and personal.

The sculpture welcomes visitors to the city, as well as those returning home from a day at the office, and its most regular users, truckies and taxi drivers. As commuters pass under the yellow beam, about to be sucked into the vortex that is the Sound Tube they are sometimes heard to mutter “but what does it all mean?”

A visit to the DCM website provides one answer. The composition, we are informed, “makes for a memorable entry into the city, designed to be read at the speed of a moving car ... the red sticks form a wall through which the road passes, gradually opening up to a preamble screen of sculptural elements … the yellow beam acts as a symbolic archway – the urban equivalent of the universal boom gate in the up position, the result a powerful and dynamic gesture that opens up the city to visitors.”

Perhaps it does. I don’t expect that people need to get it (like that) to enjoy it. After all, it is art, and it is not only for the informed. More importantly, there are other ways of seeing the Gateway, of enjoying it, condemning it, or coming to know it intimately.

Urban myth

Another story of the Gateway, not verified by either the architects or Transurban, but widely circulated in Chinese whispers around Melbourne, is that Gateway was built as a joke on the then Liberal Party Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who is fondly remembered for shutting down old stuff (in particular, state schools) and building big new stuff. The Melbourne Exhibition Centre and the Melbourne Museum are just two examples of his grandness.

Imagine driving through the Sound Tube, at speed, of course. The tall red sticks lie ahead of you, one grouping to the left, the other to the right. As you drive closer the sticks appear to open up before you, unzipping the northern suburbs, beginning with sunny Brunswick. Suddenly, out of the open zipper appears a 90-metre-long yellow beam, semi-erect and momentarily startling drivers and small children alike.

The joke goes that as the beam hangs at around 45 degrees, it is not fully erect. Hence, the Premier could not get it up? This is not a reading of the Gateway that really stands up (sorry). I have stood at the base of the beam, down around the scrotum, I suppose you would call it, and it does look imposing, Viagra-like even. I actually don’t care much for either reading because I rarely pass through the ellipsoidaliac. I’m not up there, above ground, gatewaying. I’m down here, below ground – and toll free.

With the creek

Moonee Ponds Creek begins on the northern plains at the edge of Melbourne. It passes through the land of several clan groups of the Kulin Nation. Before and after the arrival of Europeans it was used for fishing and gathering water. It was relied upon by Aboriginal people making their way to and from the bay at the mouth of the creek for meetings and to the north for the mining of tools at several major quarries.

As the Kulin people were increasingly forced from their country by “settlement”, land along the creek was occupied by Europeans and used for both dwellings and the growth of industries. The creek, as with many waterways around the Port Phillip district, quickly became polluted by raw sewerage and rubbish. Eventually most of the creek was concreted over and fenced off to the public. People wanting to access it repeatedly pulled down sections of the fence or cut holes in the wire to gain entry. Eventually, local government and the then Metropolitan Board of Works relented and the fences were taken down.

Despite its degradation, I love the creek. It is a place of constant and dynamic change. While parts of the creek are near dry for most of the year, after a particularly heavy rain it can flood, sometimes quite dangerously. Several years ago a teenage boy playing at the creek was washed away in a flood. The creek sits in a deep valley and contains many shadowed spaces; the underside of the bridges that cross it, and a labyrinth of drains, delivering the water and rubbish from the streets above. It is a haven for those who enjoy the few places around our cities that remain deregulated and are yet to be CCTVeed.

Cyclists, walkers, dogs, skaters, sniffers and artists all use the creek. The homeless, who sometimes construct makeshift camps under bridges, are particularly vulnerable, to both strangers and the suddenly rising waters. For the artists, work at the creek can be a constant battle. A new work taking days to complete can be buried under Transurban’s favoured hue, battleship grey, within a matter of minutes. I have taken photographs along the creek for many years. I have written about it and have published several poems about it. Inevitably, when I take my camera out I find my way to the Gateway, and to its base.

One set of the big red sticks was built on an artificial pond near the city end of the creek, just before it doglegs and heads for the bay. The idea behind the large oval-shaped pond is that the base of the sticks rests in the pond. Their beauty is supposed to be reflected in the surface of the water, both during daylight and at night, with each stick having a large spotlight standing sentry beside it. But despite all the planning and engineering it has not quite worked out that way. With years of drought interrupted by the occasional deluge, combined with the idiosyncratic nature of water flows, the postcard image of the pond is rarely achieved, whereas the accident that resulted truly represents the city and all it holds. And it is art.

After a heavy rain the rubbish from the streets of the suburbs high above the creek washes down the gutters and drains. Bottles, cardboard, cigarette butts, used condoms, smudged underwear, even the occasional dead animal all find their way, firstly to the creek, and eventually to the pond. It takes the water some time to subside. Before it does the pond, warmed by the sun, emits a putrid smell, a cocktailed scent of the city’s shit. The water gradually drains and the pond reveals the carcass of the city to its inhabitants (or what I once termed, more poetically, I hope – “the midden of civilisation”). Front-end loaders are then brought in to truck the rubbish away. We then wait for the next big rain when the rhythmic process begins again. (Which occurred as I was writing this, with the city hit by a massive storm).

When I am at the creek my favourite activity is to stand in the dry pond, where the muddy base of columns of the giant red zipper reveal it to be a postmodern ruin. From where I am standing the Gateway looks both fucked and beautiful. It is all the more alluring for this. The gateway to the city is not up there, but here with the rubbish, the refuse and wreckage of a city hell-bent on façades and slogans. (Yeah, I know, what city doesn’t suffer the same vanity and insecurities?) Down here I could be in a Ballard novel, or a badly soiled Jeffrey Smart painting. Above me the cars and trucks scream by on speed, the tips of the red sticks reach for the sky and the yellow beam is either getting ready for some serious action, or cannot quite perform for the passing traffic, depending on your view of past state Premiers, I guess. I don’t know how the drivers are reading the art today, if at all, but down here in the bowels of the city it all makes sense.

Tony Birch writes essays, stories and poems. His two books are Shadowboxing (Scribe, 2006) and Father’s Day (Hunter Publishers, 2009). He teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

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