Public art project – Circular

Published:  April 4, 2011
Public art project – Circular

Designer: Stephen Banham –
Artist: Christine Eid –

Situated in the new suburban development of Point Cook, near Port Phillip Bay on the south-west fringe of Melbourne, Circular is a recent collaborative public art project that brings together the radical typographic skills and working ethos of designer, Stephen Banham, and the deep commitment to social dialogue that artist Christine Eid has long explored in her evocative practice. While public art is often associated with grand statements and architectural flourishes, Circular is more evocative of an alternative strand of public art named and identified over 15 years ago.

In her contribution to Mapping the Terrain, a volume of writings about this ‘new genre public art’ in the 1990s, US curator and art historian, Lucy Lippard details a model for art that looks for cultural landscapes as well as physical ones:

“…asking simple questions about why we moved from one block or city or state or country to another, gained or lost jobs, married or didn’t marry whom we did […] Who lived there before? What changes have been made? […] When did your family move there? From where? Why? What Native peoples first inhabited it? Does your family have a history in the area, or in any area? […] Questions like these can set off a chain of personal and cultural reminiscences and ramifications…”

Importantly, Lippard’s formula for mapping the social spaces we inhabit urges us to not only consider the historical and cultural facts of our locations, but also grapple with their ramifications.

Since the identification and analysis of this other tendency in public practice by artists such as Suzanne Lacy and writers like Miwon Kwon, there has been a spirited debate about the possibilities and obligations of public art. Generally, public art in this country is now required to demonstrate some level of site specificity. In many cases this recognition of site is still more concerned with the physical, spatial characteristics of a location. On the other hand, simple historical mapping has delivered us many worthy timelines and photographic collages of historical imagery as artefacts of social history, but art (even art in the public interest) demands something more. Circular melds historical fact with speculative design to create quiet, place-seeking objects.

The work consists of eight cast iron discs, evocative of street access hole covers, set in pairs on opposite sides of the main street. Each piece reinterprets an aspect of the region’s character or history, bringing together imagery and text in intricate shallow relief designs. There is a didactic aspect to these works, but also something more elusive and gently subversive.

Approaching the town centre of the Point Cook development is slightly disorienting. You approach what appears to be a standard suburban shopping centre – the buildings trapped by major roads and a sea of car parking – but turning into the central commercial development, you discover that there is a high street thoroughfare. This single spine of Main Street has to carry a great deal of expectation. It suggests the potential for authentic street life in the dispersed sprawl of new suburbia.

Shopping centre arcades front much of the street with their brightly coloured, competing façades. It would be pointless to attempt a louder visual statement than they already make, and Circular is not in any sense suburban jewellery. While the individual panels are beautifully designed, the discs are far from showy. The cast iron is currently quite brightly reddish-yellow in colour, but as they develop their aged patina, the works will become even more modest in their voice. Instead of shouting, these works whisper about complicated layers of history.

The most striking aspect of this project is the comprehensive community consultation and historical research that forms the basis for its design. From establishing contact with representatives of the two Indigenous peoples connected to the site (work that should be fundamental to the establishment of any development) to discussions with the local schoolchildren seeking their views of the area, Banham and Eid have addressed the range of invisible stories crucial to the location.

Walking up Main Street, from the park and community centre, past the usual cafés, homewares and clothing stores, the works introduce us to a series of evocative ‘moments’ emblematic of Point Cook. Until the last decade, the area was largely rural. The central focus of activity was the RAAF Williams Base. As part of a ‘growth corridor’, however, the area has been the focus of dense housing development. This recent boom has created a predominantly young community of families. It is to this community of children that Circular is primarily whispering.

Many of the panels are designed with a child’s imagination in mind, and the project’s substantial website includes several activities specifically formulated for children. This emphasis on authentic play, cast in iron, set at ground level, while the ephemeral exuberance of commercial marketing swirls above, invites the community to think differently about its own future by connecting meaningfully and joyfully with its past. It is important that the works require the viewer to lower their gaze and to connect with the ground. The final panels in the series, ‘Grow a Garden’ and ‘Race to the Park’, specifically respond to the children’s desire for communality in the highly individualised and commercial spaces of the modern suburban development. Circular may help to remind them of that desire as they and the Point Cook area grow together.

From desktop magazine.

All images copyright Circular Project.

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