2 February 2020

Public art makes a huge splash lakeside

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Barak Zelig gives viewers the keys to Canberra by the lakeside. Photos: Sean Davey

If you’re one of the thousands of Canberrans who like running, strolling or cycling around the lake, you’ve probably scratched your head recently and wondered “What on earth is that?”. We’re in the midst of Contour 556, the public art biennial conceived and run by local landscape architects Neil Hobbs and Karina Harris.

What started as Neil’s PhD thesis project two years ago has morphed into an event bigger than Ben-Hur that places sculptures, sound and light works right around the lake level for which it’s named, challenging and delighting passersby and confusing wildlife.

“There’s been fantastic feedback from people who’ve seen it”, Hobbs says. “I had a phone call from a 70-year woman who rang me to say that she loved what we were doing with Canberra and how it changes the city. Balance that with an echidna that had to be rescued by WIRES from near a sound installation, and a triple O call because someone thought there was a body in the Lake.”

“Thankfully the triple O operator knew there was actually a piece of art on the site and was able to reassure the caller. We did have to send out an ACT whole-of-government message to staff to say there are artworks around for three weeks. But you do go to bed at night wondering what might possibly go wrong in the morning!”

Marianne Courtenay and Bev Hogg’s work, Food for Thought 2018 uses plastic waste over a recycled wire armature and plastic string.

Hobbs says that because the site for Contour 556 is so well used by many locals, the effect is a bit like blocking an ant line in the bush. “I’m disrupting people’s perceptions and memories of what their regular path is. I want to interrupt that solitude of people listening to their headphones, not really thinking about their surroundings.”

Many of the artworks specifically reference parts of Canberra’s history and environment. Braidwood-based sculptor Ian Marr, for example, has a row of plaques at the National Library including references to the trenches dug in the Jerrabombera Wetlands for Duntroon troops to practise trench fighting during the First World War.

Other work references the indigenous cave paintings that are now flooded beneath the lake and Neil Hobbs says that the history of the lake, the damming of the Molonglo is an essential part of this. “We want to get people to engage with our history and to know that interesting things have always happened here.”

NZ artist Jae Kang’s work Whimori 2018 uses irrigation pipe and tube and invites canine as well as human art lovers to get involved.

The response from the public has been good, although Hobbs acknowledges that some pieces will puzzle people without a further explanation. “The Alex Seaton artwork just below Commonwealth Basin looks like road barriers, but they’re covered in vinyl that looks like Australian marble – marble from Yass, some that look like the marble at Parliament House. It’s about 5 metres high and it always has a cluster of people touching it. It’s using the materials in the way people don’t expect.”

He says both the NCA and the ACT government have been surprisingly accommodating about “crazy artists ideas” in general. “People say you can’t do things in Canberra but you can do quite a lot if you think about it, manage the risks, and the logistics. The NCA and Territory government have said go for it.”

Walking groups are using the site as a destination and Contour 556 has downloadable maps available at contour556.com.au, along with plenty of information about the accompanying festival programme, the artists and their works, and a people’s choice vote.

Asked why anyone with a busy professional practice would organise something on this scale, Neil’s reply is simple. “It’s Karina’s and my passion, really. We do it in our house and garden, and the Lake is a bigger stage to play on. And if people really don’t like it, it will be gone in three weeks!”

Contour 556 runs until October 28.

Have you seen the works? What did you enjoy?

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