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Little Known Examples of Public Artwork in Sydney

by Silke Elzner

Not just love but also art is all around us. Sometimes big and striking, and sometimes subtle and hard to find. Yet all art begs to be explored. Not just by tourists but also by the people who share the space with the artist. For the passer-by it’s a matter of walking the streets of your city with an inquisitive eye, looking into laneways and around buildings. Of venturing away from the beaten path and exploring places where they have never been before.

Personally, I love public art. How boring, how dull would the world be if we didn’t commission artists to add some colour to the space? To tickle our minds, to make us wonder, make us laugh?

To many, Sydney appears a city without culture, much less sophisticated than, say, Melbourne. But is it really so? Let me show you my most favourite seven art installations around the city centre. I will not add photos to this post as I would like you to experience these wonderful installations yourself. And I ask you, how many do you know?

Youngster by Caroline Rothwell

A child stands on the corner of George and Barrack Streets, just a couple of steps away from the hustle and bustle of the Sydney finance centre. The boy’s hoodie is drawn deep into his face, only his mouth is visible in the deep shadows. He stands there in his corner, silently, a statue of a child that could be yours or mine.

A plaque next to it reveals a possible interpretation of this artwork. It says, “Their suffering is our shame.” Referring to the hundreds of refugee children that are being kept in detention for no other reason than having to flee their home country with their families, this powerful message is a subdued reminder of where the Australian society needs a mirror placed right in front of them.

As it turns out, the plaque was not commissioned and is not an official part of the artwork. Nevertheless, it’s a great way of adding politics into the space of art, of adding interpretation to an installation that invites discussion and an exchange of ideas.

Almost Once by Brett Whiteley

A reminder of life and death can be found right next to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

But because it is situated behind the gallery building and not next to it, it is almost invisible to the uninitiated. Almost like an artwork that begs to be found. This intriguing piece of art is the giant replica of two matchsticks, one intact and the other one burnt halfway down. They are standing side by side like twins, one alive and one spent. Clearly visible to the motorists on the Cahill Expressway, yet out of sight to anyone coming to the location to seek out art.

It is easy to interpret this artwork as an analogy of life, in particular when you learn that the artist died of a drug overdose only a year later. But it can mean so much more, and it is this simplicity that adds a certain charm to this artwork. An artwork by the way that perfectly mimics Australia’s desire to put up oversized monuments along the highways of country towns.

From a suitcase by Terrance Plowright

Australia – country of convicts and fortune-seekers. Many immigrants arrived through Sydney with Port Jackson being the first place in Australia they would set foot on.

This sculpture of a migrant family is located right where the Australian story began for many families arriving in Australia in the 1950’s and 1960’s, at Pyrmont Wharves 12 and 13. Today, the location is also home to Doltone House event venues, which were founded by the Sicilian family of Biaggio Signorelli. This beautifully composed ensemble represents the Signorelli family who arrived in this very spot and have helped shape Sydney and indeed Australia into what it is today.

A remarkable monument to the thousands of families who all share the same voyage of migration and hope.

Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill

A surprising find for many, even Sydneysiders. Turn into Angel Place off busy George Street, a quiet side road with no through traffic, and find yourself in a forest of suspended bird cages.

All of them empty, coming in different shapes and sizes, gently swaying in the light breeze. An interesting installation that is a perfect photo opportunity. However, it becomes even more intriguing when you take the time to stop and listen. You will notice the gentle tune of bird songs. Birds that have left the Sydney area many, many years ago, forced out by human settlement.

This installation brings their songs back into our modern, hectic, urban world. Adding some peacefulness and calamity to the city landscape, inviting you to pause and reflect. Their songs even change. Visit during the day to hear the daytime birds, return after dusk to listen to the nocturnal singers.

Insect with Lead by Richard Goodwin

I discovered this artwork on a guided walk through Glebe and Pyrmont (read all about here!). It’s a curious piece of art, looking misplaced and offering more questions than answers.

Basically, Insect with Lead is a glass case that holds an antique moped motorcycle. On its back is a lead sphere, a round ball that has no obvious connection to the motorcycle. Standing elated on a concrete pedestal, like a museum piece, it is strangely out of context in this historic working class suburb. Unexpected and completely open to interpretation.

Tank Stream Markers by Lynne Roberts-Goodwin

There’s a secret under the city. A river that flows underneath the pavement and the office towers that most people will not know about. Yet, the Tank Stream used to be one of the reasons why a colony was established in this spot in the first place, providing desperately needed drinking water to the first convict settlers.

These days, the Tank Stream is hidden from the public eye, and only discreetly placed reminders connect the underworld with the busy life of the city above. Among many other pointers, there is a set of markers in the pavement that most people will fail to notice in their hurry when walking by.

Installed in six separate sites throughout the CBD, these markers are subtle reminders of the river underneath. In the original design the markers were supposed to be illuminated with a blue light, but sadly this functionality is now longer working. You will find the markers in the cross roads that connect George and Pitt Streets, for example in Alfred Street and Hunter Street. Some of the markers have been placed inside buildings such as the Recital Hall and the GPO building in Martin Place.

In Between Two Worlds by Jason Wing

Located right in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown, this installation is spectacular by day, but it comes to its full glory at night. Little Hay Street is a tiny side street right opposite Paddy’s Market. An unassuming scrubby laneway which benefits greatly from this colourful and fantastical artwork.

The installation consists of deep blue clouds and 30 hanging silver figures, with stylised clouds painted not just along the walls on both sides but also on the pavement.

The Chinese word for clouds sounds just like the word for luck or fortune, so this art installation is a play of words as much as an invitation to explore the meaning of clouds and spirits in our cultures.