Silk purses


I couldn’t make it to the launch of Trevor Dickinson’s Merewether tunnel mural, but I did see the NBN news clip. In it, Trevor said, “It’s really good to be able to alter an environment by doing a painting”.

merewether tunnel opening

I think his tunnel is one of the rare examples of public art actually doing that. This week I was reminded of how public art is so often dragooned in when poorly conceived developments go badly wrong.

In the winter of 1985 I was wending my way up the Queensland coast. I remember being struck by the appearance of every town: their main streets had been closed off, covered in red pavers and made into pedestrian malls. I imagine that there was some good theorising behind this, a reclaim the streets concept to get folk walking to high street retailers. As is so often the case, the reality failed to match the optimism of the architects’ drawings. Other forces were at work.

I made my way inland, to Alice Springs. Imagine my pleasure when I came across Todd Street, a bustling focus of the town. And imagine my horror when I turned off that very same Todd Street and into a side road to be confronted by … 64 pallets of red pavers.

The Alice is one of dozens of towns that has since partially reopened its mall to traffic, but by the time this happened the world had moved on. The northern end of Todd Mall is not unlike Newcastle West. So “something” had to be done. A bubbler and a seat referencing postwar Scandinavian furniture was an obvious start …


… followed by seats that perhaps reference the McDonnell Ranges …


… and some exotically decorated street lights …


It’s churlish to criticise the seats, the bubbler, the street light. Each of these pieces of functional public art was thoughtfully designed and well produced, unlike the environment in which it sat.

These nicely rusted shade structures, for example. They look great … but … but … what do they do? They’ve been plonked in a transit zone where no one (and I checked) even pauses, let alone stops, to idle beneath their cleverly angled wings. Perhaps this is because they, sadly, are themselves in complete shade for most of the day, dwarfed by the hideous shopping centre that they’re somehow supposed to be enhancing. It’s beyond mad.


Ah, but that shopping centre. Oh yes. It is truly one of the ugliest and most dysfunctional buildings I’ve ever been in, anywhere. Inside, it’s an easy-clean, tiled nightmare. Most shops are empty, the only life being around the cluster of chicken outlets that make up the “food court”. It’s like being in a gigantic men’s toilet that serves fried chicken.


What on earth to do? Why don’t people want to shop here? I know! Let’s get some local artists to paint a mural!


This is a double (even triple) whammy. Not only does the mall actually look worse, but the mural is diminished too. But to get the full effect of this atrocity one needs to stand back and … um … just kind of look around the pillar, the one that has the directions to the toilets on it. At least that way you can get both the fibreglass emu and the fibreglass roo and the … er … pioneer (?) seat in frame. (But don’t actually sit on the seat. Or pat the roo. Or look at the mural. We have tape and bollards to stop that kind of malarkey.)


Newcastle architectural watchdog Swamp Life has commented on the crimes of our town. I think that there’s the opportunity for a sub-branch of Swamp Life-style criticism: that for public art disasters executed in an attempt to redeem an architectural disgrace.

Over to you, Swamp Life!