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07 Sep 2017

History Image


The dazzling yellow, abstract, geometric sculpture called “Vault” sits peacefully on the gravel forecourt of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), at the corner of Dodds and Grant streets in Southbank.

The minimalist sculpture, made from yellow polygonal sheets of prefabricated steel, is today respected by those who pass through the Arts Precinct, but it is easy to forget that this stunning work has had a troubled and turbulent past.

It was commissioned by the Melbourne City Council in 1978 following a public competition for a public sculpture in the newly built Melbourne City Square. The sculptor was Ron Robertson-Swann, c 1941, who had worked as an assistant for the sculptor Henry Moore. His work won a number of prizes and some of his works are held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

Vault was his first major public art work. But nothing could prepare him for the public reaction to this stunning piece of work. During its installation in the grey concrete of Melbourne’s city square, it attracted criticism from councillors and the conservative media, led by The Sun.

It became known by the derogatory nickname of the “Yellow Peril”, a term used in those days to describe the perceived threats from Australia’s northern neighbours in Asia. It became the focus for an intense public art debate, similar to that in Sydney during the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

It seemed that everyone had an opinion, many displaying appalling ignorance, whilst many in the art world vigorously defended it as a startling and outstanding work. The outcry eventually resulted in the sculpture being dismantled and moved to a location at Batman Park.

But it wasn’t easy to dismantle, as Swann had cleverly disguised the bolts that held it together and was in no mood to assist the council. Eventually the council prevailed (at great cost) and it was moved to its new location in a muddy industrial wasteland called Batman Park, on the banks of the Yarra.

It sat in pieces, covered in mud, for some time, before reconstruction. However its isolated location meant that it was a target for graffiti artists, vandals and the homeless. It wasn’t a happy stay.

With the creation of the Arts Precinct, it was again moved in 2002, this time to its current location at ACCA, where it stands as a focal point in the vibrant area of Southbank.

As for Swann, he is still winning awards for his work – particularly sweet after his treatment by Melbourne Council nearly 40 years ago.

In 2008 he was awarded an OAM for service to the arts as a sculptor, teacher, mentor and advocate for sculpture, and to art education in Australia and he is happy that his confronting and intriguing creation is now a Melbourne landmark – and still brilliantly yellow!

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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