It started with a simple idea: surround the lake with sculptures, pique the curiosity of passers-by and earn a PhD in the process.
But Neil Hobbs’ Contour 556, which runs from 9 to 31 October, has mushroomed into a full-blown, large-scale public event, infiltrating the city with art.
This year’s event will encompass not just the contour line of the lake itself but also Aspen Island and Bowen Place, the Kingston Arts Precinct, City Hill and Springbank Island, and the National Museum. There will be artworks at the ANU, in Petrie Plaza, Marcus Clarke St and even King O’Malley’s.
Hobbs, a well-established landscape architect, is also a passionate art collector. He and his wife Karina have jammed their own house and garden to the gunnels with art, supporting emerging Canberra artists wherever possible.
Running a public art festival has given them the license to move that passion into the public realm and to commission installation works on a far grander scale than their suburban garden could accommodate.
“It seemed like an easy idea at the time!” says Hobbs of the first Contour 556 event in 2016. “And it was up to a point. We knew lots of artists and as landscape architects we knew how to get things approved.”
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Australia Council funding doubled the festival size and in 2018, 60 artists presented artworks and performances in a free public art event over three weeks. A capacity-building grant from Arts ACT enabled Contour 556 to establish a board.
The beauty of this year’s event is that it’s a lot easier to practise social distancing while walking around the lake with a couple of friends and the dog than sipping champagne in a gallery space.
“We want people to look at their spaces and the city of Canberra in a different way, not the same old same old,” Hobbs says. “We wanted to make them see the nooks and crannies that are overlooked, and give people a reason to explore them, a way to see something different about the city.”
Included in this year’s event are Localjinni’s illuminated walking tours through the lake and city laneways using archival film and sound from the ANU, and “activated” art performances including Ham Darroch’s Slow Walk for Canberra, pulling a piano from the ANU art school to Civic Square, and from the Carillon to East Basin.
Fiona Hooton will build a straw bale ziggurat referencing the Griffins’ original 1911 plan for the Capitol building, to be sited on the city’s highest hill, Kurrajong (where Parliament House is today).
There will be art in the digital realm too: Civilian Applications are making a work that scans from your phone, reflecting the size and scale of the proposed Adani Coal mine in Queensland.
And then there’s 91-year-old Goulburn artist Jack Featherstone’s Gumleaf Regatta (2020), a dream-like interpretation of Lake Burley Griffin, representing various layers of society, including Indigenous culture, pioneer history and politics.
Neil Hobbs says he’s been inspired by the likes of philanthropist John Kaldor, who spent decades collecting and commissioning public art projects, and by the great European public art events like Documenta in Kassel and the Munster sculpture festival.
“If Contour could achieve a tiny part of that with international and local artists it would be wonderful and I think Canberra is ready for this,” he says.
The public nature of the artworks means that many people who would never set foot in a contemporary gallery will see and interact with them.
“I think the art provokes reactions that people weren’t expecting. You can ignore it and steel yourself to say ‘I must not like the art’. But when people see something different, it changes how you feel about art and the objects,” Neil says.
That created some interesting moments at the last Contour 556 when, for example, an installation of gloves floating just below the surface of the lake prompted a phone call to police about a possible dead body in the water.
But it goes to show that art can change the way you experience very familiar surroundings, and that’s a great outcome for Hobbs and his festival crew.
“You get bored doing your regular stuff,” he says. “We’re trying to show people that the spaces in Canberra can be unexpected. It won’t be threatening – but it will provoke new ideas.”
Contour 556 runs from 9 to 31 October 2020. For more information on sites and the artists, visit Contour 556.