MONUMENTAL CONTROVERSY: What's next for the disco dong?
MONUMENTAL CONTROVERSY: What's next for the disco dong? Marc Stapelberg

DISCO DONG: What happened, and where to next?

NOW the Byron Disco Dong has been gonged, the $55,000 question is: Has the whole sorry debacle killed off the idea of big public art for the Byron Shire?

Will Byron Shire Council, and by extension we as ratepayers, ever again scrape up the courage to play host to big, capital 'A' art of which we can be proud?

Is it back to spray can graffiti works of disparate quality and panel van art adorning every wall and public space?

Will we have to live with the idea that rusticated works of wood or metal based on a surf theme seem to be the only acceptable forms of public art?

Are our roundabouts and public spaces doomed to be faux Stonehenges choked by giant oblongs of rock dumped there courtesy of the latest highway upgrade and topped off with a token planting of Pandanus trees?

Is that it?

The story so far

First, a few broad brush strokes to fill in the back story.

We paid 55 grand for the Lighthouse sculpture, an incredibly cheap price for a piece of art that big. According to figures released in council last week the artist got about 3 grand in wages, not much at all.

The artist Corey Thomas is a friend of our mayor's but Cr Richardson played no part in the decision making processes and absented himself from the chamber for this week's de-commissioning vote.

The original commissioning and construction process was rushed to fit in with the completion schedule of the roundabout and due to inexperience with the process of commissioning large outdoor sculpture, the project was mismanaged (to put it kindly) by all parties with no dedicated project management suitable for this kind of project.

Materials and design changes were made and then insufficient time was allowed for installation. As installation did proceed many passing motorists decided to hurl abuse at the artist, who finally left the site, after being ordered to leave by the RMS, with the work incomplete.

Almost immediately key board warriors took it upon themselves to start online petitions to get rid of the sculpture. Already dubbed the "Disco Dong", its fame and infamy spread around the planet and the social media pile on picked up momentum.

Finally, structural defects were identified, people began climbing on the structure and no-one in council had the stomach to spend any more money either finishing the work or maintaining it. The community wanted it gone.

At this juncture, it must be understood that no potholes were left unfilled due to the disco dong incident. The money came from a dedicated pot of money for public art. So those who believe a community's self worth should be measured by the intactness of its bituminous surfaces should just calm the fuck down.

That some locals thought they had the right to shout abuse at the artist, as he worked is disgusting and we should all be ashamed of ourselves. As Councillor Jan Hackett said in the chamber last Thursday, "We threw the artist under a bus...we owe the artist an apology."

Still others took it upon themselves to pursue the artist through his website to the point where he had to shut it down and at the same meeting Chair of the Council's Public Art Panel Cr Sara Ndiaye shared just a couple of the hateful messages directed at the artist.

Why have art at all

The kind of treatment meted out to the Lighthouse sculpture is broadly reflective of the way art is regarded in Australia. Art and artistic endeavour is viewed with suspicion here in our wide, brown, sport-obsessed land and is treated as an elaborate scam. (Think of the ever popular "my five year old coulda done that").

If the work is not a direct and literal representation of its subject or does not fall within strictly proscribed "Better Homes and Gardens" type pastel decorator parameters, the work is deemed to be a hoax designed to make fools of us all.

And God forbid if the artist wants to be paid fairly for the work, all kinds of shit breaks loose then.

There is no time here to explain fully why art and artists are vital to the healthy functioning of any society suffice to say that art is the history of everything and its the way we explain ourselves to ourselves. Without art we are left with cricket scores and real estate prices to make sense of our existence.

Where to now

In the end, we were delivered of an object that was unsuccessful as a work of art and nothing like what we believed we were getting. Still it functioned like any piece of art does, with everyone reacting to it one way or another, some injudiciously. We in the media jumped on the band wagon with none of us coming up smelling of roses.

The resounding irony is that even though we in Byron Shire are extremely good at congratulating ourselves on being a creative well-spring, chockers with artists and self described creative entrepreneurs, we carried on like a bunch of pork chops when we got landed with a sculpture that 65% of people did not like (If the Northern Star online poll is be believed).

Councillor Alan Hunter was mostly silent throughout last Thursday's discussion around decommissioning but hit the nail on the head when he said words to the effect of, "I don't understand much of this discussion but I do know that the whole thing is a mess... and I don't reckon any artist will come near us again with a ten foot pole after this carry on."

Perhaps the new sculpture at the corner of Bayshore Drive and Ewingsdale Road can be just that, a ten foot pole.

The good news is that a new work has been commissioned for Railway Park and the process appears to be on track, just don't expect everybody to like it...or to stop banging on about spending the money on potholes.

But if we do commission more big public art we should remain ambitious, and please no standing stones, no rainbow dolphin bullshit, no rusticated surf cliche tackiness or tree planting cop outs.

The solution may be a properly organised sculpture competition with decent prize money.

One or two of Byron's internationally recognised local artists might even break cover, put down their ten foot poles, and submit a design.

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