Sydney – sculptures around the city

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You don’t need to visit a museum or art gallery to see the best of Sydney’s sculpture. It’s on the street and it’s free

All the world may well be a stage according to Shakespeare, but in Sydney, all the city is a sculpture museum. The biggest and best known outdoor sculpture event is the annual Sculpture by the Sea. Staged along Sydney’s spectacular Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk during November, the free exhibition attracts more than 450,000 visitors and has exhibits by more than 100 artists from Australia and overseas. 

But there’s plenty of street sculpture to be found in and around Sydney’s streets, parks and gardens during the rest of the year.

Royal Botanic Gardens and the Domain

The Royal Botanic Gardens in the Domain have more than 35 fountains, sculptures and memorials. Wrapped around Farm Cove at the edge of Sydney Harbour, the Royal Botanic Gardens occupy one of Sydney’s most spectacular positions. Established in 1816, the land was, in colonial times, the Governor’s buffer of privacy between his residence and the penal colony. Roads and paths were constructed through the Domain by 1831 to allow public access and ever since, it’s been a place for the people.

There’s statues of some of our early governors and politicians, famous writers such as Henry Lawson and the three-metre-high bronze statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns and even one of Shakespeare as well as memorials to police officers who have lost their lives in the course of their duty.You can’t miss Brett Whiteley’s famous ‘redhead’ matches, one live and one burnt; the reclining bronze by English sculptor, Henry Moore, considered to be one of the greatest of all twentieth-century sculptors; and the soundscape installation by Nigel Helyer called Dual Nature, relating to the history of people and shipping in Woolloomooloo Bay with shell-like objects sitting on the seabed, held in place by crane sculptures mounted on the foreshore. The chambers create sounds from the ocean and mix with a solar-powered recording.

And of course, there’s Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a huge seat carved in an outcrop of solid stone at the northern most point of Mrs Macquarie’s Road in 1816, where the wife of Governor Macquarie liked to sit and watch the ships come in.

Also worth finding is Janet Laurence’s Veil of Trees, a meandering line of forest red gums with glass panels embedded with seeds, ash, honey, resin, and fragments of prose and poems by Australian writers, inspired by the landscape.

In and around the city centre

Janet Laurence, in collaboration with Fiona Foley, also created The Edge of Trees in the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, the first public artwork in Sydney to be a collaboration between a European and an Aboriginal Australian. It’s a forest of 29 iron and wood pillars and symbolises the meeting of cultures that occurred on this site two centuries ago. Wander around and through the ‘forest’ and you’ll hear fragments of early Eora language.

In Martin Place you’ll find Passage, a water sculpture by Anne Graham. It consists of three bronze balls, reflection pools and fountains and an eerie mist that rises every 10 minutes from pavement grilles creating an illusion of the space once occupied by past residents, and often disrupting traffic on Macquarie Street if the wind is blowing the wrong way.

At the top of hill outside the Sydney Hospital, also on Macquarie Street, sits one of the city’s favourite statues, Il Porcellino, a wild boar. People from all over the world have solemnly rubbed his nose, made a wish, dropped a coin in his basket and had a photograph taken standing near him.

The original Il Porcellino statue is estimated to be over 500 years old, and was unearthed in Rome after having stood for more than 100 years in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. The Sydney Hospital and Sydney Eye Hospital Il Porcellino, which is a copy of the original, was presented to the hospital in l968 by the Marchessa Clarissa Torrigiani in memory of her father and brother – Dr Thomas Fiaschi who died in 1928 and Dr Piero Fiaschi who died in 1948. Both had been renowned surgeons at the hospital.

In the foyer of Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place in Elizabeth Street you’ll find Tim Prentice’s wind-driven kinetic art piece Three Wheeler and Kan Yasuda’s massive marble boulder-like Touchstones.

One of the city’s more controversial sculptures is on the wall of the P&O Building in Hunter Street. Tom Bass’s fountain has been affectionately known as The Urinal ever since the satirists from the infamous 60s magazine Oz were photographed alongside the sculpture pretending to use it as a urinal. Bass has another sculpture at East Circular Quay which explores the role of industry and scientific research and the future of society, called Research 1959.

Sydney Olympic Park

Sydney Olympic Park is home to the largest collection of large-scale site-specific urban art in a single precinct in Australia, with more than 50 single pieces of public art providing a unique record of the cultural history of the Sydney Olympic Park.This includes works relating to the early industrial uses of the site, through to the Olympic Games and the current development of the park as the home to a new creative community.

Favourites include Robert Owen’s Discobulus, a seven-metre wide discus; The Sprinter, a 12-metre-high, 3.5-tonne, three-dimensional steel rendition of an elite athlete that once adorned the top of the AMP tower in the lead up to the Olympics and Games Memories, an installation of poles incorporating Olympic memorabilia, visual art, audio-video presentations and volunteer names from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

More information

  • Royal Botanic Gardens: download a map to the fountains, sculptures and memorials at Botanic Gardens Trust
  • Art, Place & Landscape Walk: Sydney Architecture Walks (SAW) run regular guided walks that take in some of Sydney’s best loved and most used public spaces.
  • Tom Bass Sculpture Walk: Tom Bass is considered to be Australia’s most successful sculptor and has created some of the best loved, most talked about and symbolic sculptures in Australia. Guide yourself around his Sydney sculptures with a map from the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School.
  • Sydney Olympic Park: Urban art at Olympic Park.
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