Stop making sense (redux)

Remembering Flugelmans Dobell Memorial

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. Arguably created by public works architect supremo James Barnett’s GPO building, Martin place was once the hub of the Sydney CBD. The banks were there, the politicians were there and for a time so was  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 anything, unless that anything 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,  Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor wasn’t exactly thrilled about it either. 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 city but inferred a life underneath. Pertinent when considering beneath your feet was Sydney’s underground railway.  A mirror of life that didn’t only suggest the obvious but rather how Sydney life was put together in a mixture of commuters, beggars and thieves. Not a a bad tribute to Lloyd Rees when you think about it. 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. By 2000 the Bert Flugelman sculpture was moved on. For a while it lay proudly in a council maintenance yard covered by a tarpaulin. It now sits on a traffic island in the shadows of a nearby street. No longer reflecting upon life, it observes it from metres away.

Upon hearing about Bert Flugelman’s death a few years ago, I revisited his work. Icon of the 70’s?  Perhaps not. “Silver shish kebab” it’s not that either. The Lloyd Rees memorial is something more resonant. It is the ultimate art folly. The fractured fading mirror that we can’t bear to look at anymore, but can’t get rid of.  Take a look again, it is worth the price.

*Since posting this article I have also become aware that Bert also did the NSW Coat of Arms sculptures, in the old NSW State Office Block,Sydney. Built in the 1960’s demolished in the 1990’s. I wonder where they are today, probably lost….. Typical when it comes to Bert’s art.

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