I am not an art critic. I am not an art academic. I have not, cannot and will never wear a black beret in public. I am just a passer-by.
From my childhood in the early 1980’s to my young adulthood in the early 1990’s, I passed by Bert Flugelman’s Dobell memorial sculpture in Martin place, Sydney. Martin place was once the hub of the Sydney CBD. There was even the urban myth that the construction of the underground railway station at Martin place masked an even more elaborate array of tunnels connecting business with government departments. The banks were there, the politicians were there and for a time so was Bert Flugelman’s sculpture.
Formerly a thorough fare for cars, buses and ANZAC day marches the area was redeveloped into a three sectioned mall during the 1970’s. Like fondue parties, malls were very popular back then. So too was public sculpture, the more abstract the better. For Bert Flugelman, it must have seemed like a match made in heaven. Winning the contract to devise a sculpture for the Dobell Memorial in Martin place in 1979, Flugelman’s work immediately drew controversy. For many Sydneysiders the work involved a fair amount of head scratching. It is a structure, made of metal cubes rising several metres tall. You cannot squint your eyes and hope to recognise something, unless that something is an elongated reflection of you and your bicycle in the polished metal. But like the Harbour Bridge, and Opera House before it, what the public don’t understand immediately they simply rename. The “Silver Shish Kebab” was born.
Slightly less accommodating were those “in the know”. Lloyd Rees critiqued its choice of location as cluttering up the mall space, an ongoing theme echoed later by Sydney Mayor Frank Sartor. But Martin place was the very spot where this work needed to be. It slowed life down. Like a crest of an iceberg its multiple levels of polished metal cubes reflected not only the visible aspects of city life, but in the context of Martin place’s underground asked you to look under the surface and question how everything was put together. This self-reflexivity represents the good part of the 1970’s, the spiritual quest part so often blurred by legends of hedonism, Barry Manilow and fondue parties. From the 1980’s onward the world got a lot faster, Martin place changed too. The banks merged and the politicians moved away. Clothing stores and coffee shops moved in.
There wasn’t time in the city for people to reflect on anything anymore, we had to move forward with the Olympics and the Bert Flugelman sculpture was moved on. It now sits on a traffic island in the shadows of a nearby street. Not a good end to a story. Upon hearing about Bert Flugelman’s death earlier this year I revisited his work. Icon of the 70’s? Perhaps not. Take a look again, it made sense then, it makes more sense now.