Encountering East Coast Encounter

Even within the first couple of minutes of meeting, the misunderstandings happened.

Dean Kelly, in East Coast Encounter – a film by Jeff McMullen.


The sea carries this ship here, why??

From Badtjala Song; translated by Gemma Cronin, 2013.


What if there was a different encounter between British settlers and Aboriginal people?

What if this encounter – the arrival of James Cook and his crew on Australian shores in 1770 – was characterised by respect, tolerance, the welcoming and embrace of indigenous diversity?

What if this changes who we are today? What would it all look like, feel like – our streets, our buildings, our terrain, our sounds?

What if we could look back at our history and be proud of it?

There are many ‘what ifs’ at the exhibition East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter. Developed by the University of the Sunshine Coast, and currently on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (before travelling to regional centres throughout Australia), East Coast Encounter presents works which re-imagine the moment of first contact between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. A variety of artistic media – including painting, sculpture, music and lyrics, photography, video, and three dimensional works – are used to challenge entrenched narratives, propose alternative viewpoints, and elevate voices which have been historically suppressed.

Entrance to the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Entering the museum, ready to battle the school holiday crowds. I think …

I visited East Coast Encounter on a weekday during school holidays. Parents and children were making a bee-line for the blockbuster whale exhibition, using East Coast Encounter – positioned in a long corridor along the perimeter of the museum – as a thoroughfare. The mundane realities of parenting interrupted my historical re-imagining. Some children asked questions (what’s that boat painting, mum?), forcing exhausted parents to engage with the exhibition by putting on an ad-hoc history lesson. Some children decided that the exhibition’s sculptures were (strange, yet compelling) toys to play with, much to the chagrin of their parents. And a mother, losing track of her two children, felt compelled to shout their names across the exhibition space in a high-pitched voice. Not to worry – I like my exhibitions to feel alive, even if my eardrums take a battering.

But every exhibition encounter will be different.

Here are five reasons why you should encounter East Coast Encounter.*

1. Michael Cook’s prints

Undiscovered #4 (2010), Undiscovered #7 (2010), and Broken Dreams #3 (2010) re-imagine the colonial encounter through role reversal. You see an Aboriginal man on the shore dressed in Captain’s garb, his tall ship looming on the horizon. You see an Aboriginal man – sans colonial attire, except for a British flag raised over his shoulder – walking with a crocodile across the waves. You see an Aboriginal woman wearing an ornate black dress with white floral neckline, a white pearl necklace, and a black glove; her gloved hand points to a rainbow lorikeet and a tall ship in the distance.

Is it all a game of dress-ups, an opportunity to play with identity’s transformative possibilities? Or does Michael Cook’s re-imagining have political implications? Clothing and trappings symbolised clear authority structures in 1770, but this role reversal returns authority to the dispossessed, showing the world from their perspective. What if this happened, not that?

2. Reg Mombassa’s drawings

Artist and musician Reg Mombassa is well-known for his colourful, cartoon-like drawings which interpret the Australian landscape, politics and popular culture. In Close Encounters of the First Kind (2013), a huge, imposing eye (not unlike the one he designed for the Sydney Harbour Bridge on NYE 2013) floats high above a cove where Aboriginal people stand and watch, spears in hand. But it’s not just an eye – it has appendages: an urban clutter of telegraph poles, power-lines, houses, factories, the arches of the Sydney Opera House. And, skulls.

The alien spaceship of ‘civilisation’ takes over your life. And it watches your every move.

3. Judy Watson’s paintings

Civilisation as alien and oppressing, or civilisation as systematic and reforming? In tibberwuccum (2005) and beerburrum (2005), Judy Watson creates concentric lines and shapes in shades of ochre and pink. Topographic charts spring to mind. But the blotches could also represent blood stains. Or the indigenous connection to country, through the symbolism of desert colours and track markings. There is no definitive answer – assigning a fixed meaning to these works would be like colonisation all over again.

Let’s ask Watson. (In response to beerburrum.)

I have deliberately combined two perspectives within the work, the device of Eurocentric cartography and Aboriginal colours of ochre that echo the stain of the volcanic earth, spiralling out from the centre to the edges.

4. Adam Hill’s photographs


A barbeque in a suburban park.

An Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, beside a monument. In the distance: a bridge, factories, ships.

In Adam Hill’s photographs, locations which commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet are re-framed into sites of loss, negotiation and reclamation. Titles and imagery work together to connote new perspectives. You interpret the refinery sign in a new way when given the title of the work: Refining Culture (2013). The park barbie, an Aussie icon, is reinterpreted through the title Barbiquaria (2013), referencing the 1986 satirical film BabaKiueria (Barbeque Area) in which uniformed Aboriginal people invade a beach of barbeque-loving white Australians. And the Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, photographed at Kamay/Botany Bay in Sydney, reclaims the commemorative site by highlighting historical displacement and cultural exclusion. This work also reinterprets anthemic nationalism, through the satiric misspelling in its title: We’ve boundless pains to share (2013).

5. Arone Meeks’s paintings

In Australian indigenous culture, the more you talk or paint about your story or country, the stronger this connection becomes.

Arone Meeks

In First Voyage to Possession Islan** (2012), Arone Meeks reveals the strength of connection between indigenous people and the land through a symbolic, multifaceted reclamation of the natural landscape of Possession Island (part of the Torres Strait Islands).

A life force animates the painting. Dancing bodies merge with nature, flowing with the wind and sea. A large canoe extends across the painting, above a blue, swirling sea inhabited by red jellyfish. Community, the Dreamtime, and local nuances are celebrated. And celebration is a powerful tool of repossession – just as Cook’s prints repossess through role reversal, Mombassa’s drawings repossess through imagining the indigenous response to first contact, Watson’s paintings repossess through the juxtaposition of topographic worldviews, and Hill’s photographs repossess through scrutinising modern-day commemorative sites of contact.

What if we could repossess the past, tell a different story to the one they wanted?


East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, from 9 May to 24 August 2014. Click here for regional tour dates. 

* Choosing only five works was difficult, as the extent of significant works in the exhibition far exceeds the brevity of a blog post. You will have your own favourites.

** Meeks uses local spelling.


Snapshot of emerging art: Induce Myth photomedia exhibition at Gauge Gallery

Miniature city of staples.
Man walks down stairs in the dark, looking over his shoulder.
Horizontal coloured lines.
John Lennon’s face.

What do these images have in common?

They create questions, narratives, thoughts.
They blur boundaries of reality and representation.
They were all recently on display at Induce Myth, a photomedia exhibition at Gauge Gallery in Glebe, Sydney.

Eager to see my friend’s art for the first time, I attended Induce Myth on opening night (6th May 2014). Amelia Tracey, Honours student at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), created the exhibition with fellow artists Dylan Esguerra and John Fox.

I walked around the exhibition space, examining works while sipping from a glass of white wine (as is de rigueur at exhibition openings).
Esguerra’s staple cityscapes made me think of the fragility of the urban environment, post-9/11. An office tower is no longer a promise of security, and a city skyline can fracture in an instant.
Light and shadow are at play in Fox’s photographs, each framing a different person walking down stairs at night. What will happen next? The unknown is a threat to predictable daily ritual; the ordinary may rupture at any moment.

Tracey’s work is more abstract. Except for nods to 1960s music (Lennon’s face in There Lived a Man Who Sailed to Sea, and the title itself referencing the Beatles’ song ‘Yellow Submarine’), coloured lines and shapes could mean anything. This is the point. The central message of Induce Myth is “Using these images, let your own story emerge”. The works of all three artists encourage visitors to create their own narratives.

Here is Tracey’s narrative, in response to her work.

My work is not photography, and yet it thrives on the photographic. It does not involve painting, and yet it is aesthetically painterly. It sits in a kind of ‘in-between’ space or medium. Further, my work is always born in the digital, raising themes concerning social networking.


Amelia Tracey's works on display at Induce Myth. Foreground: There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea. Background: 27.

Artist Amelia Tracey’s works on display at Induce Myth. In foreground: There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea. In background: 27.

Her work There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea consists of two images: Lennon’s face in bright blue, orange and yellow hues, and an arrangement of coloured rectangles. In the exhibition the images were placed on a pedestal, facing opposite directions. Lennon’s face, according to Tracey, is a “digital painting” using colours extracted from the cover of the album Yellow Submarine. The rectangles appear to be randomly assigned, but are actually a “visual musical score” of the song ‘Yellow Submarine’. The score was created in Adobe Photoshop with mathematical accuracy, using the scale 1 crochet : 1000 pixels.

Tracey also uses digital colour extraction in 27, but for a different purpose. A series of five images were displayed side-by-side on the gallery wall, each representing a member of the tragic ‘27 club’ (a group of celebrity musicians who all died at age 27). Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse are depicted as rows of horizontal lines, with each musician assigned a unique colour scheme.

Tracey explains her method. 

They were created by sourcing the 27 most Googled images of each musician, and colour sampling the central pixel from each photo. The sample would then determine the colour of each stripe, and the finished work acts as a kind of non-figurative, non-traditional portrait.

27 was created using a strict formula, which Tracey applied at one moment in Internet history. Re-applying the formula at a later date would yield a different set of 27 ‘most Googled’ images, which means the colours extracted would result in a completely new work.

I interpret Tracey’s art as a re-configuration of portraiture in the social media landscape, where identity is always changing, participation is vital, and the personal – including the private lives of celebrities – can be accessed with the click of a button.

But that’s only my interpretation. What’s yours?

My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part Two)

You learnt in Part One that pestering visitors, intrusive staff members, and high prices are three of my exhibition pet peeves.
But these are trifling matters.
What really makes my blood boil in an exhibition?

My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves

5. Other people

4. Overzealous staff

3. Elitism and price warfare

2. Label fail

The label is incorrect. The label has a spelling mistake. The label is too wordy, overly opinionated, patronising, or just really boring to read.

There are many things that can go wrong when creating an exhibition label. The label producer may not be aware of these problems, or may only become aware after the label has been printed and fixed to a wall. Any publisher, writer, illustrator, or student printing a lengthy assignment knows all too well the gut-wrenching feeling when one tiny error necessitates an entire reprint.

Should a factual error or spelling mistake be left as is, even though it may reflect badly on the exhibiting institution? Or should the label be reprinted? Another option is to add an amendment or note explaining the mishap. This could either be seen as honest and forthright, or unprofessional and a bit convoluted. (For more on this and other label dilemmas, I recommend Eugene Dillenburg’s illustrated discussion on ‘interesting labels’.)

No-one likes to be lectured at through an exhibition label, or told what to think and feel in response to a work. Visitors prefer to reach their own conclusions, especially in an art exhibition where works should be open to individual interpretation. This is why many art galleries adopt a minimalist approach to labels, providing only a basic citation.

Inability to sustain the visitor’s interest = label fail. I’m willing to take the time to read a well-written, informative label in a history exhibition. But if the label starts banging on about the minutiae of a World War I battle, interspersed with dates, descriptions of terrain and military jargon, I will bypass the label completely.

An effective label is relevant, concise, and provides an insightful background or footnote to the work.

A very effective label has a narrative quality. Because nobody will walk away from a good story.

(An invaluable resource for anyone who writes exhibition labels is Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide.)


Drum roll

My number one exhibition pet peeve of all time is …

1. The shop

Ah, the obligatory exhibition shop. Strategically placed at the end of the exhibition, or in close proximity to the exit door, the retail outlet banks on visitor exhaustion through the promise of instant gratification. After all the elusive ideas and abstract stimuli, finally: a tangible souvenir, compensating for a helpless void in which nothing concrete has been attained and there is no physical proof that the experience actually happened.

Non-vital objects accumulated from exhibition shops.

Non-vital objects that I’ve purchased from exhibition shops.

Exhibition consumables may or may not be directly linked to the exhibition.
For example, in a temporary outlet at the end of an Impressionist painting exhibition, you see a Monet postcard. All well and good.
But then the shop throws you a curve-ball. Also on sale: a DIY Andy Warhol pop art kit, a set of juggling balls, a harmonica on a key-chain, and a tube of eucalyptus-scented moisturiser.
Nobody needs these things. But you buy them to fill the void, convincing yourself that it’d be awesome to learn screen print portraiture, join the circus, become a travelling musician, and smell like a koala’s lunch.

But there is no real harm in taking home an exhibition memento (it is really only a pet peeve for my wallet). The objects may look like mere shelf-fodder, but memory and association imbue them with personal meaning. Exhibitions I’ve been to still linger, long after their closing date.

What are your exhibition pet peeves?

Exhibition Recognition: Acknowledging Heritage Volunteers

I’m taking a short break from my ongoing rant on exhibition pet peeves to pay tribute to small town heritage heroes. Completely aware that they won’t be paid a cent for the work they do (or a shilling, which they’d probably prefer), they get out of bed to do it anyway. Because they love doing it. Because not doing it means that local heritage will be left to the discretion of developmental interests, which will not always preserve, recognise or record historical significance.

Today, small town heritage heroes were given the recognition they deserve at the 2014 NSW Government Heritage Volunteer Awards. I attended the ceremony because an organisation I have recently started volunteering with, the Hills District Historical Society, received an award acknowledging their voluntary contribution to local heritage conservation.

An example of the Hills District Historical Society’s recent work is a temporary exhibition created for the Castle Hill Show, entitled Back to School. Enveloped within craft displays, cake stalls and equestrian performances, a tin shed was transformed into an old classroom to showcase the history of education in the Hills District. Historical objects on display included class photographs, maps, blackboards, exercise books, uniforms, furniture, and other school memorabilia.

Back To School Exhibition at the Castle Hill Show, 2014

Back To School Exhibition at the Castle Hill Show, 2014

Participation in Back to School was highly encouraged. A quiz was established, in which visitors were presented with old maps of the Hills District and had to guess what was located there now. Children were also well catered for; they could experience what it was like to be at school in a bygone era, by sitting at an old wooden desk and drawing on blackboards with chalk. One child was a little confused though, not knowing what a blackboard was. When I told him, he proudly exclaimed “well, my school has SMART Boards!

Back To School Display

This exhibition is just one manifestation of the tireless effort of Hills District Historical Society volunteers over a long period of time. They also manage an entire museum, as well as regular public events and programs, without any help from paid staff (no biggie, though). Today’s recognition by the NSW Government, of them and other small town heritage heroes from across the state, is timely, hard-earned and well-deserved.

My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part One)

I have a bone to pick with you, exhibition. Yes I’m talking to you: dark lighting, white paint, sculpture on pedestal, flash of tourist’s camera, pretentious tour guide, old bones, new media, crying baby, form a queue please, and “It costs $25 to get in?”

I love you, but you are by no means perfect. You should be ashamed of yourself.

These are the top five things I hate about you.

5. Other people

Hell is other exhibition visitors.

It would be great to have an exhibition to myself for once; to flit from object to object without risk of an elbow to the face, or having my vision obscured because the tallest man in Australia has also decided to visit the Biennale today.

There are four sub-types of annoying exhibition visitor.

The Elbow Fiend

A serial exhibition pest. The Elbow Fiend’s constant elbow-raising shows a minimal awareness of bodily proximity and lack of respect for interpersonal boundaries. 

The Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’

Always has an opinion deemed worthy enough to force upon other gallery participants. Highly aware of the small room’s capacity for aural reverberation and uses it to their advantage. 

The Delinquent Child

I’m all for children interacting with exhibitions, and would be the first to argue the importance of cultural institutions for child development. But an exhibition experience can be completely ruined by The Delinquent Child, especially one that insists on pirouetting over security barriers while screaming (though check first as the screams may actually be part of a contemporary art installation, which therefore makes them acceptable).

The Frontal Impediment

The equivalent of being cut off while driving, or climbing a mountain only to have your view obscured by fog. The Frontal Impediment is a visitor who swoops, out of nowhere, into that tiny space between you and the exhibit.

Next time, come prepared for these sub-types: earplugs, hula hoop around your waist to define your boundaries, protective elbow pads for retaliation against The Elbow Fiend. You may think you look ridiculous, but in the art world you will appear hip and avant-garde.

4. Overzealous staff

To guarantee an enjoyable exhibition experience, overzealous staff members must be eradicated.

Not all staff members though. Museum workers and volunteers are often angels who enrich the visitor experience, whether it is through education, guiding, curation, or pointing out when you’re walking the wrong way. When I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an extremely helpful staff member advised me that I wasn’t supposed to walk through a century-old revolving door in the middle of the museum: “It’s an exhibit dear, not an exit”.

An overzealous staff member will always pounce if you

  • bump the security rope, or marginally overstep the line;
  • wear your backpack on your back;
  • accidently use your camera flash;
  • have a sneaky sip of water to prevent dehydration;
  • exist.
Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit.

Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit while wearing a backpack ON MY BACK. How rebellious.

If an overzealous staff member has a point to make, they will make it. Like a draconian school principal hell-bent on pedagogic domination, they will find a grievance and object to it. My boyfriend made the mistake of visiting an exhibition while wearing a 1970s camera around his neck. He had no intention of taking photographs inside the gallery, but each time he touched the camera ever so slightly, a security guard jumped in and reprimanded him.

3. Elitism and price warfare

Art, heritage and cultural engagement should be open and accessible to all. So why pay $25AUD and up to visit an exhibition? If I wanted entertainment combined with a Delinquent Child ruining my day I’d go to the cinema instead, which has also seen price rises, but not as high as some exhibitions I’ve been to. Events, talks and symposiums add additional costs, at times making them accessible only to elites. Increasingly, visitors are asked to book tickets to blockbuster exhibitions through ticketing agencies, which charge inflated fees on top of the exhibition price.

But many organisations have addressed this issue. Some museums and galleries maintain a free entry policy, digital initiatives and travelling exhibitions increase accessibility without additional cost to the visitor, and child, student and pensioner discounts are commonplace.


Stay tuned for my top 2 exhibition pet peeves …

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have an opinion on exhibition pricing? What are your exhibition pet peeves? Have any museum or gallery experiences particularly enraged you?

Maybe you have come across one of the four sub-types. Or are you one of them? If you’re a Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’, now is the chance to defend yourself while sharing your loud, opinionated expertise!

Participate (if you want to): Yoko Ono at the MCA

Don’t forget to take a piece of the sky home with you.

Said a co-worker who had already visited the Yoko Ono exhibition. Initially, this confused me. My next thought was, “Aww Yoko, you so cute”. The exhibition would be idealistic and a little twee, I assumed, rather than hard-hitting, shocking or emotionally arresting. There would probably be a few John Lennon references thrown in, given how intertwined the two celebrities are in public consciousness. One could also bank on a whole lot of proclamations of world peace printed on white gallery walls in Helvetica Bold, and an excruciating soundtrack of Ono’s animal noises and primal screams (symbolising something pertinent of course, but please, spare me).

Entrance to Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia.

Entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia.

War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, was nothing like what I expected. Lennon is ubiquitous, as presumed. But he emerges as an important signifier in Ono’s art, instrumental in exploring how history and memory can inform future decision-making. The exhibition was both welcoming and startling: drawing me in with its promise of democratic participation, while exposing me to weighty political concepts through sensory access to tangible material. Lennon once described Ono as “the world’s most famous unknown artist”; this exhibition strives to make the unknown artist known to a wider public, by providing access to an oeuvre which spans five decades.

A brief CV: commencing her practice in the early 1960s, Ono was an early proponent of conceptual art, which favoured idea over form. She was innovative in her use of non-traditional artistic materials, such as using her own body as an exhibit or placing recycled domestic objects on pedestals. She invites visitors to participate in her works in order to create their own meaning, challenging the historic power divide between the artist as authoritative and the audience as passive observers.

Yoko Ono media collage on one of the gallery walls.

Yoko Ono media collage on one of the gallery walls.

At a recent talk at the Sydney Opera House, Ono recalled her first-ever encounter with Lennon. He attended one of her early gallery openings, bit into an apple she had exhibited on a pedestal, and ran away. After Ono’s instinctual response wore off (“Wait, what are you doing, that’s my exhibit!”), she was impressed by the way he put his unique stamp on the object, altering it through participation and injecting it with personal narrative. For Ono, this small-scale input made within an exhibition is symbolic of, and equivalent to, the power and influence that individuals can have on a larger scale in creating global change.

It’ll change in time. So why not make a change before that, a positive change, instead of waiting for it to just change, as it might deterioriate. But if you keep putting some creative ideas in it, it might just change in a very interesting way. (1)

The first work I noticed upon entering the exhibition was Cut Piece. Two videos are projected on to gallery walls (one filmed in 1963, the other in 2003) showing a performance piece in which exhibition visitors, armed with scissors, are given free rein to cut away sections of Ono’s clothing. The videos are uncomfortable to watch, but powerful in initiating dialogue on issues of gender, power, the body and ageing. Ono is stoic and silent in both performances, merely batting her eyelids as more and more sections of her clothing are removed.

A work which appears later in the exhibition – Touch Me III (2008) – is equally as uncomfortable, perpetuating discourse on contemporary gender-power relations. A small sign on the work instructed me to dip my fingers in water, and touch a silicone representation of individual female body parts (such as a mouth, torso and feet) contained in wooden boxes. It was a strange tactile sensation, soft and rubbery, and the material bounced back without leaving an imprint. However, this was not the case when the first incarnation of Touch Me was shown in New York, the gallery attendant informed me. Toes were gouged off, body parts were mangled, and the silicone was filled with finger-sized craters. But Ono decided not to remove the work from display, deciding that it revealed more about power relations, violence and the human psyche than she originally thought it would. Art, holding a mirror to society.

Play It By Trust (1996/2013) is as participatory as you can get. The work consists of a set of white tables and stools, with a chess board and pieces on each table. I sat down with a friend and started to play a game of chess. However, both of us forgot how to play chess, so instead we moved random pieces across the squares and made them talk to each other. But we soon realised that our lack of ability was irrelevant, because the chess pieces were all white.

Playing 'Play It By Trust'

Play It By Trust

Is that my king or yours?
Which pawns are my pawns?
Yoko, you so sneaky.
Ono hopes that the work “leads to a shared understanding of mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition”(2).

There are 25 works on display, encompassing sculpture, performance art, film, installation, and yes, ‘pieces of sky’. Helmets – Pieces of Sky (2001/2013) is made up of military helmets hanging from the ceiling, with each helmet holding small blue puzzle pieces. The idea is for every visitor to take a piece of the sky home with them, and then one day in the future come together to create the sky by piecing the puzzle together.

Helmets: Pieces of Sky

Helmets – Pieces of Sky

The capacity of art to unite and reform can also be seen in My Mommy Is Beautiful (2004/2013). Using the note cards and pens provided, visitors are encouraged to write a personal message to their mother and tape it on to the gallery wall. The result is a colourful wall filled with miscellaneous expressions of maternal love. Some notes are hilarious, such as a list of ‘Top 5 Dream Mums’ which includes Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, Ono herself, and a slightly more peculiar choice: Labor MP Tania Plibersek. Many notes express gratitude and appreciation (“You are truly the best”, “It’s nice to finally get to know you”, “I want to be you”) while others are more apologetic (“I’m sorry for ages 13-21”).

My Mommy Is Beautiful

My Mommy Is Beautiful

I decided to contribute to the work by posting a message. However, this sentimental, personal moment was interrupted when a gallery attendant advised me to put my backpack on the front of my body instead of on the back. He was polite enough and just following gallery procedures, which is understandable. But something tells me that Yoko wouldn’t have minded too much if I unintentionally bumped a few chess pieces off a table or caused a note to drop from the wall. Accidental participation is still participation, right?

My contribution to 'My Mommy Is Beautiful'

My contribution to ‘My Mommy Is Beautiful’

(1) Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, ‘Yoko Ono discusses the importance of participation in her practice’ (audio).
(2) Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, War Is Over (if you want it): Yoko Ono exhibition booklet, 2013.

You’ve got snail

First, we had the rubber duckie. Remember?

During this year’s January holidays, as Sydney sweltered at unthinkable temperatures, Darling Harbour became a temporary bathtub for a massive yellow PVC duck.

You wondered why it was there.

Must be some weird contemporary art thing.
What is it supposed to signify?
Maybe it’s encouraging me to embrace my inner child?
How is it NOT melting?

Confusion soon turned to widespread apprehension. Instead of terrorists or ‘boat people’, Australians now fear being swarmed to death by cuddly plastic creatures. Recent history constitutes an invasion of sorts: rubber duckie, giant floral puppy, Madame Tussaud sculptures of One Direction. And most recently, snails.


Snail at the entrance to the Queen Victoria Building, surely very pleased to be enclosed in its very own flower garden.

For this year’s Sydney Art & About Festival, from the 20th September to the 20th October, a collection of large, brightly-coloured snails descended upon the city. True to their nature, these snails formed a trail, encompassing key landmarks and iconic public spaces. The trail began at Customs House in Circular Quay, zig-zagged across the CBD through Martin Place, Hyde Park, the QVB and World Square, and ended at Sydney Park in suburban St Peters. (My guess is that the snails were trying to flee the urban hustle-and-bustle, ultimately finding refuge in a more natural habitat.)

Snail as security guard? Customs House, Circular Quay

Snail as security guard? Customs House, Circular Quay.

Visitors and passers-by interacted with the installation in a variety of autonomous and flexible ways. CBD office workers who usually ate their lunch alone in Hyde Park now found that they had a massive mollusc for company. Drunk revellers emerging from The Star on a Saturday night could have remarked that they were “seeing snails”, yet no-one would have questioned their sense of judgement. However, a more intentional visit was also possible by downloading a map of ‘Key Snailovation Locations’ from the Art & About website. This meant that visitors could select individual snails to visit, follow the entire trail, or integrate snail-sightings with other festival events and exhibitions.

Snail at the southern-end of Hyde Park, Sydney

Snail at the southern-end of Hyde Park, providing lunch hour entertainment.

At the southern end of Hyde Park, I noticed a young boy running around a yellow snail while his mother tried to plan their visit.
Wait up, Henry! I need to check the map on my phone so we can find the next snail. What colour is it gonna be?
Children love treasure hunts, animals and bright colours. So a city-wide adventure to search for snails in striking hues ticks all the boxes. Also, the spring school holidays coincided with Art & About, so it was commonplace to see a small child perched high on a snail’s neck, riding it like a winning racehorse. One girl even did the moves to ‘Gangnam-Style’ up there, somehow managing to retain her balance.

But what does it all mean?

The installation was created by Cracking Art Group, a European art collective who are renowned for placing oversized animals in urban spaces (such as yellow penguins in Prague and pink rabbits in Paris). ‘Cracking’ is a reference to the breaking down of recyclable materials to create plastic, symbolising the group’s commitment to environmental sustainability and action on a global scale. As conveyed on their website, they view their practice as “a strong social and environmental commitment combined with a revolutionary, innovative use of plastic materials that evoke a strict relationship between the natural and artificial”.

Snail at Pitt St Mall, probably taking all the attention away from some exasperated busker.

Snail at Pitt St Mall, probably taking all the attention away from some exasperated busker.

With this artistic rationale in mind, the Sydney snails can be interpreted as a plea to think twice about our environmental footprint. If a group of artists can remodel a pile of old waste into vibrant animal sculptures, just imagine the recycling potential of that piece of timber lying in your garage, or the new life you can give to that old shirt with a needle and thread.

Or maybe the snails are a reminder that we all need to slow down once in a while. Or maybe they’re inspiring us to be more playful and subversive.

I like to think that the snails and the rubber duck are sitting together right now in a damp, dark storage facility, comparing notes on how fun it was to confuse the hell out of everyone.