Parkville in Good Form3 April 2019
Do you ever feel like you’re being watched when you’re at uni?
Well I hate to tell you—Parkville students—but you are.
They’re figures you barely notice. Figures silently lurking at every corner of campus. Shaming you as you traipse your way to tutorials. Judging you for lounging about South Lawn sipping on painfully-sugary bubble tea. Frowning at you as you plug your ears with Air Pods and succumb to the hypnotic power of glowing screens.
Many of them have stood proud for decades. Lots of them have migrated here by some miraculous twist of fate. Some of them are a bit weird-looking… some are just damn good-looking. All of them work harder than most of us at improving the appearance of our university.
“But they’re just sculptures!” I hear you exclaim, “They’re just there for decoration! They’re not even alive!”
But how do you know they’re not alive… if you blink, how do you know they haven’t moved? Well, animate or inanimate, it’s about time we take a look into exactly what these mysterious sculptures represent and how they’ve come to grace our grounds.
The gods are in our midst.
Symbolising protection and shelter, the goddess Charity and her two paupers are physically intimidating, but well-intentioned. The immense bronze sculpture (‘Charity being kind to the poor’ c. 1893) has resided on the lush greenery at the bottom of South Lawn since 1981. But her holiness was actually originally cast at the Imperial Art Foundry of Vienna, and then situated on the Equitable Life Assurance Society Limited headquarters building in Melbourne’s CBD, before the building’s demolition in the late-1950s.
Her neighbours take the form of two labouring giants, straining beneath the immense weight of South Lawn car park. The ‘Atlantes’ (c. 1880)—inspired by Atlas who held up the world in Greek mythology—found their home on the gothic arches in 1972, having previously featured on the entrance to the Colonial Bank of Australasia in the CBD (which too was demolished). Yet these are not the only major figures to have ever presided over the car park’s gothic aesthetic. The space has featured in many film and television productions such as Mad Max and Network Ten’s Masterchef.
And finally, even though he is smaller than his counterparts, the majestic ‘Poseidon’ (c. 1950) has arguably the most fascinating origins. Our sculpture— situated in the courtyard of the Elisabeth Murdoch building since 1994—is a replica of an original statue dating back to around 460BC and attributed to the Ancient Greek sculptor, Onatas of Aegina. His statue— named ‘Zeus of Artemision’—was mysteriously lost at sea and recovered by fisherman off of Cape Artemision in 1928. It now resides in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. However, the original sculpture has been wrongly assumed as representing the god Zeus, when it actually depicts Poseidon preparing to throw a thunder bolt, an item which was missing from the original and hence our casting. Only two castings were made of the statue, ours, a gift from the Greek Orthodox Community to commemorate the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, and another, which currently resides in New York’s United Nations building.
Then there’s some pieces which thrive on their strong intentions.
Above the main entrance to Wilson Hall stands Socrates, reflecting the light of truth onto humanity with a mirror, and holding in his other hand the poison which ensures his death. A follower reaches for the mirror, suggesting that the Ancient Greek scholar’s lesson will prosper, whilst another tries to prevent him from taking the poison. The scene on the copper panel (1954-1959) is sculptor Tom Bass’s interpretation of the event of the ‘Trial of Socrates’ in 399BC where the scholar was condemned to execution for challenging the status quo and encouraging his students to think differently. While this picture may be grim, it suggests a lot about how strongly we should value our moral attitudes.
Embellished on the west façade of this building are more of Bass’s works—comprising four pressed cement sculptures (c. 1957) serving to remind us symbolically of a university’s key principles.
‘Observation’ illustrates a sea crew sailing into unexplored waters, suggesting intellectual inquiry and discovery.
‘Contemplation’ depicts one scholar prodding the sun whilst others put their heads together to ruminate on the matter.
‘Teaching and learning’ shows an instructor and students engaging in activities.
And lastly, ‘The talents of knowledge’ depicts a Christlike figure either bestowing or receiving talents and a student figure bent over, hiding his own talent. This last panel suggests that students should not shroud their gifts but rather be thankful to God for blessing them with such skills.
On the other side of campus is a piece which puzzles and intrigues every student. Protruding from the external facade of the Ian Potter Museum of Art is ‘Cultural Rubble’ (1993), an assemblage of sculptural casts of notable works from the Louvre Museum in Paris. Sculptor Christine O’Loughlin made copies of such pieces as the ‘Venus de Milo’, the ‘Discus Thrower’, the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’, Corinthian columns and Greek pots, and arranged them into a collage of Classical era excellence. Yet, its prominent positioning on the building emits quite a powerful message about the necessity to break out of the ideology of European art’s dominancy in Australian culture, and instead encourages us to appreciate the collection of distinctly Australian work within the museum.
There’re also two works by the famous Germanborn Australian sculptor Inge King which dominate the grounds of Parkville. There’s the centrepiece of Union Lawn, ‘Sun ribbon’ (1980-82), which invites the eyes of the masses passing through the busy road and provides a great place for students to rest. And in Wilson Avenue— east of the John Medley building—there’s ‘Upward surge’ (1974-75), commissioned to represent the rise in great developments being made in the teaching of children. According to the artist, it resembles “flight with wings soaring upwards”, thus articulating these aspirations. It was installed in its current location in 2001.
And ultimately, a major work remains almost always unobserved, despite its popular location and humble undertones. Japanese-born sculptor Akio Makigawa’s ‘Spirit Wall’ (1999-2001) wraps around the exterior wall of the Sydney Myer Asia Centre. The work, high above the bustling corner of Swanston St and Monash Rd, features nature imagery which is contrastingly rather tranquil: seed pods symbolising birth and growth, water representing life, five houses signifying five continents, and an annulus (ring) refering to the Eastern symbol of heaven.
Those pesky magpies and 9am tutorials aren’t the only creatures waiting to pounce…
Fittingly located on the facade of the Zoology building, the copper medallion ‘Zoology relief’ (1962) features a number of animals—insects, mammals, reptiles— encircling a nerve cell. Sculptor Andor Meszaros gained a reputation as a renowned medallion sculptor in Australia, and also famously worked on a commemorative medal for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
And, at last, let’s not forget the guardians of the university-galaxy. Bruce Armstrong’s partially-formed creatures—ominously named ‘So it’s come to this’ and ‘She would like to be left with it’ (1986)—have lounged in Deakin Court since their installation in 1986, initially guarding the entrance to the University of Melbourne Museum of Art—the antecedent to the Ian Potter Museum of Art. These abstract sculptures, made of redgum, fall into a canon of Armstrong’s mainly primitive-inspired works—which also includes the immense eaglehawk sculpture ‘Bunjil’ (2002) that towers 25 metres-tall over Docklands, and a pair of untitled beasts (Guardians 1987) which once featured in front of the National Gallery of Victory but now lie in the sculpture garden behind the museum.
There are many more shapes and figures to be found scattered around campus: like the strange interwoven panels on Union House (‘Ornamental balustrade’) symbolising, quite fittingly, unity, and Eastern Resource Centre Plaza’s abstract steel forms (‘Untitled 7/73’) which balance each other out and have no useless parts.
So, although they may seem a bit sinister in their unmoving, standoffish kind of way—the campus sculptures have an integral part to play in the aesthetic and cultural life of the university. They’re also here to protect us, apparently. Unless you believe in the whole Medusa thing…