Social issues

Cactuses & Culture

– by David Churack

If you live in or regularly travel through Perth city, you’ve probably seen the giant green ‘cactus’ artwork in Forrest Place, and been pretty perplexed as to how this approximation of a foreign plant has anything to do with Perth’s cultural or artistic identity.

Well, as it turns out, that reaction is basically the point.

This cactus is a result of the city’s new focus on the use of public art to both improve the aesthetic ‘feel’ of Perth, as well as to act as representational of the surrounding community culture.

Completed in 2010, the cactus remains the largest art commission within Western Australia. Artist, James Angus, was born in Perth in 1970, and has received praise in regard to the unique and engaging nature of his sculptures. The piece, the actual name of which is ‘Grow Your Own’, is intended to present the idea of both a living organism and a connection of Perth to regional areas of WA.

Grow Your Own is far from the only striking example of the city’s commitment to public art, however. Those familiar with Perth will no doubt also be familiar with the billowing white ‘cloak’ on St. George’s Cathedral (inspired by the mythical slaying of the dragon Ascalon by St. George in medieval romance) as well as the six metre tall ‘Piazza sculpture’ on a roundabout in nearby Northbridge. These striking images have not only becoming striking aesthetic signifiers; they are also important cultural talking points.

That last idea is best exemplified in the puzzlement and debate the giant cactus sculpture has engendered since its appearance in 2010. Controversy has mainly stemmed from the $1 million dollars of government funds that has been put into its construction, as well as the seeming lack of relevance it has to both Perth city and Australian culture.

However, as Paola Anselmi (former City of Perth arts and cultural development coordinator) states ”The public has been critical, supportive, baffled and embattled, and that is exactly what public art in a city should do – engender a response, instil in the public the right to express themselves, and the right to experience the breadth of artistic possibilities”.

She goes on to reflect that the public art displays signify a break within WA culture of relying on traditional modes of cultural representation (such as harkening back to the settlement or the wildlife) and expressing an exciting willingness to artistically experiment and explore new cultural identifiers for Perth city.

Therefore, however you feel about the Cactus specifically or the public art of Perth city, the fact that these works are acting to create a more modern identity for the city, as well as being representational of greater artistic and cultural experimentation, means that at the very least you have to admire what it represents.

So the next time you walk past that green mess of a sculpture, take the time to think about what it may mean for the future of both art as well as wider Australian culture.

Photo credit: Anthonyhcole

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