The artist sketch of the proposed lighthouse sculpture in Byron Bay contrasted with what was installed. (ABC North Coast )
A councillor who approved a controversial public sculpture erected last month in Byron Bay says it is a “disaster” and should be removed.
Byron Shire Councillor Jan Hackett is a member of the Public Art Panel that approved the $55,000 sculpture to be the centrepiece of a new roundabout on the main road leading into the popular tourist destination.
The 12-metre-high sculpture, by Melbourne artist Corey Thomas, is supposed to represent Byron’s iconic lighthouse and is made up thousands of aluminium birds.
The piece has been widely criticised on social media with locals nicknaming it the “disco dong” and the “seaside shaft” in reference to its conical shape, with others claiming the money should have been spent on repairing the shire’s pot-holed streets.
A petition calling for its removal has received more than 2,000 signatures.
Cr Hackett believes the artist’s original sketch submitted to council differs substantially from the final sculpture installed.
“We didn’t get what we ordered,” she said.
“I had a vision from the concept drawings and discussions with the artist of what we could expect and what I’ve seen is nothing like those concept drawings.
“From most angles you can’t tell what it’s supposed to be.”
Corey Thomas’s sculpture has not been met with overwhelming praise by local residents. (ABC North Coast: Gemma Sapwell)
Cr Hackett conceded the council should have been more thorough during the design process and said the panel was now updating its guidelines to ensure this did not happen again.
“We should have ensured that after we accepted the commission that we then partnered with the artist as he produced design documentation, any concept changes, final drawings, prototypes, engineering specifications, before it was signed off,” she said.
“But that period didn’t happen — we had the beginning and then no communication between the panel and the artist until the work was on its way up.
“His portfolio is very, very strong, his public art is a very high standard so I think this has been a very difficult experience for him.”
Cr Hackett also said the artwork’s small budget and tight deadline made it a particularly difficult project.
“It’s a piddling amount of money, it’s insulting really to expect something on a grand scale for that amount of money,” she said.
Criticism leaves artists ‘demoralised’
Byron’s lighthouse sculpture joins a long list of public artworks that have attracted controversy and public derision.
Last month the City of Sydney put on hold its plans to install the Cloud Arch sculpture, with the $11.3 million steel ribbon artwork earlier being referred to by one councillor as “a big tapeworm”.
In Canberra, the $300,000 Rhizome sculpture installed in the city’s north in 2007 made headlines after locals referred to it as the “blown up bus shelter”.
And in Sydney, Ken Unsworth’s Stones Against the Sky in Kings Cross is better known to many Sydneysiders as “poo on sticks”.
Community attitudes have been known to soften towards controversial sculptures, with some artworks that were initially derided eventually being celebrated.
Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault divided Melbourne when it was installed in 1980, becoming colloquially known as the “yellow peril” and “Steelhenge” and was hastily moved from its original location at City Square.
However, in 2016 it featured as a key work in a National Gallery of Victoria Australia and has served as the inspiration for a number of other public artworks.
Sculptor Karena McLeod said public outcry over a commissioned piece could be devastating for the artist involved.
She and her husband Aden faced scathing criticism over their sculpture Spirit of the Sea, erected in Devonport in 2009.
The attacks became so personal that the McLeods decided to leave Tasmania and now live in Queensland.
Spirit of the Sea was so badly received its creator left the state. (ABC News: Michael Brooks)
“My husband has barely sculpted since we left because of the public opinion and what they did down there, it was heartbreaking,” Ms McLeod said.
She said she felt empathy for the man behind Byron’s artwork and had some advice for him.
“The one thing about artists is they’re sensitive and I really hope it doesn’t impact his future ability to sculpt because it has with Aden,” she said.
“It’s left devastating effects, I’ve never felt so demoralised.
“Don’t take it to heart, keep on producing.
“You know Michelangelo’s David, when it was first done they booed it off the street, they were throwing rocks at it when they were moving down the street.
“There’s a lot of history of public art not being appreciated.”
Behaviour of some locals ‘deplorable’ says Mayor
In Byron, Cr Hackett said it was her belief the sculpture should be removed.
“I can’t see how he can salvage it and the way it is, it’s just not going to work and I don’t think we should live with it, I think we should cut our losses,” she said.
Byron Shire’s Mayor Simon Richardson disagrees about removing the sculpture and has slammed passing motorists who verbally abused Thomas while he was installing his artwork.
“The treatment of Corey was nothing short of disgraceful and a community embarrassment to all of us; it’s nothing short of deplorable,” he said.
“That’s his work place [and] no-one deserves, 50 to 100 times a day, someone using vile language attacking them and their integrity.
“It doesn’t matter what workplace you’re in, bullying is bullying.”
Corey Thomas has declined a request for an interview, saying he may talk at a later date.
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