1. Ron Robertson-Swann Vault 1980

Ron Robertson-Swann Vault, steel, paint, 1980. 615 x 1184 x 1003cm. Commissioned by the City of Melbourne, City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection. Photographer unknown.

Key Themes: Public Opinion & Controversy

Inquiry Questions:

  1. What can you see? Does this artwork remind you of anything else in the world?
  2. What are some words you can use to describe how your perception of Vault changes as you move your body around it?
  3. Vault is abstract, hard-edged and brightly coloured. How might these structural qualities influence how the public find meaning to help them relate to the artwork?
  4. Vault was originally situated in the Melbourne City Square in 1981, but was relocated shortly after due to council and public backlash. Is public opinion important in relation to what artworks are placed in public space? Who should decide and why?

Vault 1980 is a large-scale sculpture (five metres high!) fabricated from welded steel and painted a bright, warm yellow. Because it is abstract, hard-edged and comprised of angular forms Vault can be categorised as a work of geometric abstraction. The sculpture was originally commissioned as part of the redesign of Melbourne’s City Square on Swanston Street in 1978, however it was in-situ less than a year before being removed due to negative reaction from the public and Melbourne City Council. The sculpture sat in a storage for several years before moving to Birrarung Marr, and finally to its current location outside ACCA in 2002.

Vault was widely satirised in the media, earning derogatory nicknames  ‘The Thing’, ‘Steel Henge’ and ‘The Yellow Peril’. As David Hurlston, then NGV Curator of Australian Art, remarked:

People didn’t just dislike Vault, they became passionate in their dislike. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on it.”

The artist has said: “I designed Vault for the City Square, trying to offset some of the greyness and straight lines that exist there”. This means that Vault was a site-specific artwork. The greyness that Robertson-Swann describes refers to basalt (blue stone), the material from which much of Melbourne is built, which is cool-grey charcoal in tone. Because Vault was intended to be responsive to its location – through colour – moving the sculpture to a new, differently coloured location significantly distorted the artist’s original intention.

Despite all the negativity directed at his artwork, Robertson-Swann remains good-humoured and philosophical about the public response, having said:

It’s there (public artwork) and free for everyone to see (…) if they want. If they’d prefer to go to the footy, absolutely fine, good on ’em.”


If something new comes into the world it takes awhile for taste and sensibility to adjust.

Vault in its original location in the Melbourne City Square, circa 1980. Source: www.urban.com.au. Photographer unknown.

Notes: ‘The Yellow Peril’, the most prominent nickname given to Vault, is a racist term originally applied to Chinese and other Asian immigrants to Europe and Australia in the late nineteenth century. It was a derogatory expression of xenophobic fear of immigrants as a threatening ‘peril’ that would somehow ‘take over’ Australia and the West.

Key vocabulary:

Geometric Abstraction

This is a type of art that uses geometric shape and form to generate abstract compositions. Usually, these artworks are non-representational (not aiming to represent forms from nature of the real world).


This is a specialist term used when writing about art to denote that an artwork is, or was, in its correct or original position.


Fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners, or of anything that is strange or foreign.

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