Art is all about what the viewer brings to it.
Some, such as Business Insider’s editor-in-chief, Paul Colgan, think Sydney artist Hany Armanious’s giant milk crate, which Sydney Council is spending $2.5 million to install in Belmore Park, near Central Station, is a waste of money.
He’s wrong. Let me explain why.
It’s easy to have a visceral reaction to art. Jeff Koons’ Puppy, a 13-metre-tall topiary sculpture, which came to Sydney in the mid-nineties and now resides outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, is both silly and lovely. It’s easy to like.
Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, a 20-year-old, one-off performance piece by the KLF, a British music duo best known for the pop hit ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’, draws a more ambivalent reaction, but I’d love to see Gina Rinehart restage it somewhere in the Pilbara one day as she recites her poetry.
Art has a long history of appropriating the everyday, from Duchamp’s century-old cheeky Dada moment, Fountain, a urinal he signed ‘R. Mutt’, to the equally simple and sublime Bull’s Head by Pablo Picasso – a bicycle seat and handlebars transformed.
American pop artist Andy Warhol hit on a nice little earner by looking for the inherent beauty in everyday consumer items, from Brillo boxes to tomato soup cans.
And then there are Trans-Tasman artists such as Rosalie Gasgoine, who took the detritus of modern life, from cut up road signs to household goods, electrical cables and old Schweppes boxes, and transformed them into rhythmic meditations on colour that evoke memories of previous existences.
For art, like life, is about memory. We look for resonances alongside understanding. The best artists take fragments of our lives and find new meanings to present, alongside the ones we bring too.
That’s why the milk crate matters.
Paul hates it. He argues that they’re soon to be obsolete and thus irrelevant to the next generation. I think he’s dreadfully wrong, given NSW residents drink 100 litres a year and the global industry is worth around $4 billion. They are an important snapshot of who we are and when. They symbolise of an era of mass transportation, refrigeration and the industrialisation of food. The Age of Plastic.
They’re more than just seats in hipster cafes. For people 50-plus, they’re a reminder of school, free milk and hot summer days when, by the time you got to it at recess, it was already half-way to becoming yoghurt.
And for nearly everyone, the milk crate represents the first time you moved out of the family home – an essential piece of furniture in that new, share house.
Even if they are about to become extinct, so are dinosaurs, yet China does a rip-roaring trade in animatronic pre-historic animals, just ask Clive Palmer.
But there’s another important resonance in Australia for the Big Milk Crate. It’s part of Australian fable – our affection for Big Things from the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, Ballina’s Big Prawn and Goulbourn’s Big Marino. Yes, there’s a cheesy kitsch to it, but that’s part of the wheeze.
You can add a dash of whimsy too – form and function finds a new function as a public space, complete with seating. The $2.5 million fibreglass work, 15m by 15m at its base and 13.7-metres high, is a place for people to gather.
And given the amount of time Sydney councillors spend bemoaning the lack of affordable housing in city, perhaps giant milk crates could be the solution.
For Hany Armanious, who moved to Australia from Eygpt as a child, it’s also an example of one of art’s timeless quests: the beauty in every day. The generic takes on spiritual significance in his mind.
By ramping up the size to 42:1 (is there a Monty Python joke in there?), he says the scale “assumes the authority and majestic beauty of a gothic cathedral or Greek temple”.
This is an idea he’s had for years – the chance to celebrate a “humble and ubiquitous” urban form. This is a sculpture of the average bloke, for the average bloke.
Thanks to Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, the 21st Century is the era when industrial design morphed into an objet d’art. Why can’t the beauty in a milk crate be revered the way an iPod is? The lattice work at its base has resonance with mashrabiya, the latticework windows of Arabic architecture. Artists offer new ways of seeing.
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick and futurist Arthur C Clarke explored the idea of meaning within an object with the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What does it mean? Nearly half a century, it’s still up to you to draw the conclusion.
From the same year, in Planet of the Apes, the killer scene where everything suddenly makes sense, is when George Taylor discovers one of the world’s most famous pieces of public art, the Statue of Liberty, half buried on a sandy beach.
Perhaps, 100-years from now, when the world is run by Google robots, the last surviving humans will stumble upon Hany Armanious’ Pavilion, buried under discarded smartphones and we’ll finally make sense of who we are.
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