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Let’s talk about the sculpture on Eastern Avenue

On the sculpture we love to hate.

Spine 2 by Dale Harding.

Last week,  I stood in front of the sandstone monolith sculpture that has sat on Eastern Avenue since 2018, asking passers-by for their thoughts on it. Jayde was “not mad” it was there, Nathaniel said it was “beautiful” and Franco said it was “vaguely phallic.” But for Tatenda, Erika and Connor the answer was simply “I don’t know.” 

For many students, including myself, the sculpture was a confusing site to behold when it first appeared on campus in December 2018. Indeed, for weeks, the accompanying Eastern Avenue installation, a piece inspired by ochre art on the exterior wall of the Carslaw Building, was mistaken by many for incomplete wall remodelling. 

Though the University claims that the response from the student community has been “overwhelmingly positive” in a popular USyd Rants post on the work, students’ responses were largely negative. “This ‘sculpture’ is a complete waste of time and money as usual” one comment complains. “I thought they were missing a piece of sandstone and didn’t know what to do with it, and just dumped it there…” another reads.

After hearing their first impressions, I told the onlookers that the work, Spine 2 (2018) was by Dale Harding, a Bidjara, Garingal and Ghungalu artist. In an article published by the University of Sydney, Harding says the work “seeks to make connections between the University campus and the sandstone that joins cultures and communities up and down the east of the continent.”

Most interviewees critiqued the work as not particularly appealing, but that upon learning about the work, acknowledged that the intended meaning was important.

Hearing this, it seems to fail what some argue to be the core criteria of successful public art, namely, as art historian Cher Krause Knight argues, that its “messages are comprehensible to generalised audiences.” Outside of the realm of the gallery and stripped of explanation and context, most audiences are left unequipped to understand the meaning of the artwork. On this view, the University’s decision to initially display the work with minimal explanation and consultation with the university community is questionable. The piece was displayed for a year before placards explaining the works were included were displayed alongside them.

Importantly, as I research Harding’s works for this piece, the more I find them compelling. The juxtaposition of this sandstone with the surrounding buildings, symbols of elite Australian education, makes the familiar space of the university strange and different. It helps us interrogate what kind of space a university, particularly one built on colonised land. 

Moreover, the piece intervenes in the built environment of Eastern Avenue. Not all notice it, but the native plants surround the work are an element of it. The native plants are still young, some of them barely reach my kneecaps. We can speculate, however, that in the future the plants will grow higher. I can imagine them covering a good portion of the sculpture—or maybe even overgrowing and overwhelming the sculpture and becoming the sculpture itself.

“A key part of Dale’s work is its integration with the landscape,” says a recent article published by the University.  “The native planting component is a collaboration between Dale and the University’s Grounds team.”

The artwork, therefore, is in a continual process of growing, struggling, and becoming. It is not a “museum artefact” like those living cultural objects which were plundered from Indigenous worlds and then preserved and frozen behind pristine imperial walls where they are reduced to objects of study and display. Those living cultural objects became frozen and dead when they were preserved in imperial institutions and deprived from practices of care and use by their original owners. Spine 2, however, is not preserved, it is a living object affected by the weather and time, but during its life it can be cared for by the artist’s own terms. For me, its potentiality to be cared for and to grow beyond what it is now makes it poetic and beautiful.

For many students, Spine 2 is just another sandstone block. At best, unremarkable, and at worst an unsightly and confusing intrusion on their campus. But for students curious enough to prod further, Harding’s work will make them see their campus in a new light, drawing connections between this learning institution and the culture of the Indigenous lands it’s built on. In either case, it’s a ground for debate, discussion and exploration. Love it or hate it, Harding’s art provokes the viewer. And for that, I think, it must be applauded.