New public art in the median on High St, Northcote: beauty or barrier, danger or delight? (photo: Victoria Walks)

Victoria Walks asks if this art work in inner suburban Westgarth is a danger or a delight. Many commenters say it’s dangerous for road users. Some think it also limits pedestrians’ ability to cross the road and there are others who variously describe it as “boring”, “ugly” and “uninspired”.

As this older image on Google Maps shows, both the median and the artwork are relatively new. What’s not clear from the exhibit is that the installation continues down the median into the shopping centre. There’s no mention of it on the web site of the City of Darebin, but I expect it’s part of the municipality’s vigorous public art program.

There are some positive comments on Victoria Walks too – one commenter thinks it’s “beautiful” and another describes it as “interesting and intriguing”. A few think fear of the pointy bits is a typical nanny state over-reaction.

It all highlights the perennial problem with public art. It’s in a place owned by the community; it’ll be seen by the community whether they like it or not; and yet the choice of work and location is necessarily made by a committee.

I think the critics are right to question some of the practical aspects of the work. Whatever its artistic merits, context matters. It’s never a good idea to have pointed objects on any road and it’s just plain silly if the points have no functional purpose.

Also, the retail centre in the distance is already split by a new tram super stop; putting in another barrier to crossing from one side to another is a questionable decision, even if it’s mostly psychological. (1)

Art is subjective of course, but this work doesn’t do much for me. It doesn’t offer me any intellectual stimulation or insight; it doesn’t move me or stimulate my emotions; it’s visually mundane; and there’s no exciting idea or humour to it like this one offers.

I’ll acknowledge it was certainly a surprise to see it in the middle of the road, but that novelty only lasted for the first viewing. Perhaps it requires contemplation to discover its secrets; if so, siting it in the middle of a road might not be ideal. Perhaps it makes some local reference (a cut snake?); if so, the significance shouldn’t be obscure.

Then again, I expect there’re some who think it’s fantastic. Perhaps some residents don’t care what the specific art work is; the value for them is the message it sends about the aspirations of the neighbourhood.

I think the whole issue of public art raises some challenging questions about how public space is managed. There are the standard ones like how many residents want it, who are they, and how much would they be prepared to pay if they had to pay for it explicitly. There’re some less obvious questions too:

  • Do streetscapes need public art? Is there some aesthetic deficiency it corrects? If not, does it enhance the streetscape?
  • Is the visual impact of public art on streetscapes any different in principle from that made by new buildings?
  • Is public art any different in principle from landscaping? Is the justification for one much the same as the other?
  • Should public art be treated as a streetscape design element, or is it a specific activity i.e. a particular land use intended, for example, to generate activity?
  • On the other hand, is the primary intention of public art to provide a forum for artists to display their work? If so, why?

In this particular case, I wonder if the work might be intended to signal that this area aspires to be an Art Precinct (see this report). If so, it would provide a clear rationale for it. It would also confirm the area’s gentrification – the transition from an “art production” (studio) precinct to an “art consumption” (gallery) precinct.


(1) I don’t know what the rationale for building the median is. Is it intended as a pedestrian refuge, to prevent head-ons, or is it there primarily to support the art? I doubt there was ever a median here before so I wonder if the heritage implications were taken into account.