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.
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.)
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.
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”.
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.