Public art – in any city – is a notoriously fraught business. No matter how hard you try to make everyone happy, every work will have its detractors. Some more than others, of course. Notable spats in Sydney’s public art history include the time residents threatened to dismantle Ken Unsworth’s ‘poo on sticks’ sculpture in Darlinghurst (it still stands); the time NSW Parliamentarian Helen Sham-Ho said Lin Li’s ‘Golden Water Mouth’ sculpture in Chinatown “looks like a penis”; and the time Oz editor Richard Neville ran a cover photo of himself and two others peeing into Tom Bass’s P&O Wall Fountain.
That said, who could possibly argue for a city without public art? It’s (mostly) good for the eyes, good for the soul, and improves even the most uninviting locations. It’s also good for business, which has been part of the drive in Sydney over the last decade to revitalise laneways and commercial precincts with commissions from contemporary artists, architects and designers. In 2007, the City of Sydney appointed their first Public Art Advisory Panel – a mix of artists, curators and architects that currently includes Carriageworks director Lisa Havilah and installation artist Janet Laurence. Now you know who to thank/complain to.
While there are some permanent, long-standing works, there are also pieces coming and going almost every month. Here are some of our favourites that you can seek out throughout the city.
Street artist Matt Adnate painted this portrait of Aboriginal rights activist and Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro in June 2016 as part of a commission by ANZ. Munro founded the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern in 2014, in protest against the commercial redevelopment of The Block, and was part of the group that eventually secured a deal for affordable housing for Indigenous families. As Munro says, “[The Block] is the first piece of land, in an urban context, that was returned to our people. That’s the very special nature of [it].”
The six-storey high portrait took five days to complete, with the artist working with spraycans on top of undercoats of house paint. If you look closely, you can see a mountain landscape painted in Munro’s eyes.
These bronze scallywags split opinion: some find them dead set creepy, others find them a playful addition to a zone of the CBD that’s all about banks, business suits and boutiques. Needless to say, we’re in the latter camp. That said, the scale of the figures – their features, age and size don’t quite tally – giving them an otherworldy quality. British born Sydney-based artist Caroline Rothwell originally produced ‘The Youngsters’ for a temporary public art project in the surrounding laneways, but the City of Sydney subsequently acquired them for permanent spots. Look inside the hoods and clothes – they’re coated with quartz and coal, a subtle comment on our mineral economy.
For the 2004 Biennale of Sydney, Arkansas-born Berlin-based artist Jimmie Durham created this installation from a 1999 Ford Festiva hatchback purchased in Homebush, and a two-tonne quartz boulder from a Central Coast quarry – painted with a face. Originally the car was parked on the Opera House forecourt, and onlookers watched as Durham painted a face on the stone, before it was dropped on the car from a crane above – crushing it. At the time, Durham told the Sydney Morning Herald, "This piece is concerned with monuments and monumentality, but also with nature; that implacable hard stuff.” In 2006, the piece was permanently installed in its current location in Walsh Bay – in the middle of a roundabout. On approach from either direction along Hickson Rd, you can notice roadworks signs by Australian artist Richard Tipping that read ‘ARTWORK AHEAD’.
Not all public art needs to be physically big to have a big impact. British superstar artist Tracey Emin's 'The Distance of your Heart' is made up of 67 tiny bronze birds, strategically perched on poles, above doorways and under benches along Bridge and Grosvenor Streets in the city centre. The birds only measure a few inches each – they're not based on any specific species, but they're about the size of a sparrow – and mightn't be immediately obvious. When Emin launched the artwork in March 2018, she said it should offer any visitor the chance to have their own moment of intimacy. She wants people to take photos of the birds – creatures of migration – and send them to loved ones, wherever they might be around the world.
Sydney-based artist Daniel Boyd interrogates Eurocentric historical narratives from an Indigenous point of view (he has a mixed heritage that includes the Kudjlat, Gangalu and Vanuatuan peoples). He's best known for pointillist arrangements of transparent dots (which he describes as lenses) that he overlays on painted scenes or landscapes (often taken from colonial era photographs). The space between the dots is then blacked out. ‘What Remains’, which he created for the Biennale of Sydney, seems a little different: the dots are reflective, like tiny mirrors against a black wall. In fact, it’s a new iteration of a work Boyd did for the MCA Foyer Wall Commission in 2014. At the Biennale media call, Boyd said he chose Redfern because of the history of the area. “I wanted to touch on that and help people try to understand and speak about their relationship with this area, this landscape.”
Wooden escalators had been moving commuters around Wynyard Station from 1932 until they were removed in 2017. Thankfully artist Chris Fox had a grand vision for retaining this integral part of Sydney's heritage: Interloop, a massive sculpture that hangs over the new metal escalators, twisting and melding together 50 metres of the original escalator tracks.
The practice of Sydney artist Jason Wing is influenced by his Chinese and Indigenous heritage. This artwork, commissioned by City of Sydney council as part of a revitalisation of three laneways in Chinatown, is no different: it incorporates Chinese and Aboriginal motifs, including “auspicious clouds” and spirit figures that represent ancestors. Wing designed the work to be a passage, between heaven and earth – so walk through the lane to get the full effect.
This installation by Sydney artist Mikala Dwyer reclaims space for women and queer people threatened by homophobic violence; specifically, it reclaims a site where an act of violence occurred 14 years earlier. Now a pink lamp lights the laneway (which runs alongside the Beresford Hotel) and a ribbon of text runs along the wall. Developed by poet and anthropology professor Michael Taussig in consultation with members of the local community, it reads: “This is a lane with a name and a lamp in memory of the woman who survived being beaten and raped here. She happened to be lesbian. When the sun sets this lamp keeps vigil along with you who read this in silent meditation.”
You might have driven or walked past this and assumed it was a news or financial tickertape – something to do with business. Perhaps this is part of the charm of the piece: staring into the middle distance as you wait on the corner crossing, the words scrolling down the 19-metre steel column take you by surprise; this is poetry, hiding in plain site in the CBD. American artist Jenny Holzer won a competition for a public artwork on the site, funded by the developer. The resulting work is rooted in the history of this land and its original owners: the scrolling text is comprised of around 300 pieces of text (including songs, poems, stories and autobiography) by about 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers – including Sally Morgan, Anita Heiss, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Ruby Langford Ginibi – some in English, others in original language.
Melbourne-based artist and Kamilaroi man Reko Rennie created this mural with eight young local Aboriginal people, as the result of a commission by the City of Sydney and curator Hetti Perkins. Like Rennie’s perhaps better known building mural in Taylor Square, ‘Always Was and Always Will Be’, this work is envisaged as a powerful statement about Aboriginal presence on – and original ownership of – the land. ‘Welcome to Redfern’ was the first commission in the ‘Eora Journey’ public art project in Redfern. The Victorian terrace he was tasked with transforming is the site for a forthcoming “living museum” of The Block. Rennie asked the teens what they wanted on the building, and they decided they wanted text, and a figure to represent the past. After much workshopping and searching the archives, they settled on an image of an Aboriginal man in a bark canoe in Botany Bay.
Who doesn't love the ‘dandelion’? It’s a simple idea beautifully realised, and an oasis of calm. Bob Woodward's modernist sculpture was installed to commemorate the Australian soldiers who fought in the Battle of El Alamein (in northern Egypt), a turning point in World War II – but has become a fully fledged part of the Cross life – and a popular meeting spot. Fans of mid-century Scando design might pick up on the influence: Woodward studied under Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto in the 1950s, and his design principles rubbed off.
The process for this artwork began a whopping ten years before it was installed in 2010. As part of a public art project called ‘Life Under the Freeway’, workshops were held with local community members to develop a brief – which was then opened for expressions of interest from artists. Local artist Warren Langley was chosen by members of the City’s Public Art Advisory Panel and the local community, based on an initial concept that referenced a successful community action in 1974 to preserve local housing in Fig Street (adjacent to the work), which was scheduled for demolition for the North-Western Expressway.