6. Deborah Halpern Angel 1988

Deborah Halpern Angel, ceramic, steel, concrete, 924.5 x 992.5 x 351.5cm, Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in collaboration with The Australian Bicentennial Authority and with the assistance of the following sponsors: The Commonwealth Industrial Gases Limited, Fellow, and The Sidney Myer Fund, Governor, through The Art Foundation of Victoria, the Crafts Board and Visual Arts / Craft Board of the Australian Council, the Melbourne Moomba Festival Ltd, Australian Building Adhesives Pty Ltd, Big S Scaffolding, Blythe Colours (Australia) Pty Ltd, D. G. Whelan Hi-Lift Rentals, the Ferro Corporation, (Australia) Pty Ltd, Johnson Tiles Pty Ltd, R. Downes and L. Grace, the Readymix Group, Tubemakers of Australia Ltd and Wormald Fire Systems, 1988. Photographer unknown. © National Gallery of Victoria.

Key Themes: Changing Tastes; Public Art as City Branding

Inquiry Questions:

  1. Move all around and under Angel. Look carefully, how many different characters can you find on its surface?
  2. What materials and techniques do you think have been used to create Angel. To help interpret the sculpture, look but also use your hands to feel the surface of the sculpture.
  3. For seventeen years Angel was situated at the entrance of the National Gallery of Victoria International (NGVI) on St Kilda Road. How do you think seeing Angel at the entrance of the NGVI would have influenced visitors’ expectations of the of art inside?
  4. With a critical mindset, judge which reasons you think were behind the decision to remove Angel from the front of the NGV to Birrarung Marr. Consider what the sculpture might communicate about the gallery, and why that could be positive or negative.

Deborah Halpern was commissioned to create Angel to celebrate colonial Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, which marked two-hundred years since the beginning of colonisation/invasion in 1788. Angel was installed in 1989 in the moat in front of the National Gallery of Victoria International (NGVI), where it stayed until 1996, when it was relocated Birrarung Marr, as part of the renovation of the NGVI by Italian architect Mario Bellini.

Artworks like Angel tend to feel permanent because they are so heavy and massively large. However, when fashions change certain styles of art can appear out of sync with contemporary ideas and trends, and this cultural force can result in major adjustments. Angel is typical of Halpern’s artistic style, which is exuberantly colourful, cartoonish and often communicates a sense of joy. This style is strongly associated with Australian visual culture of the period spanning the early 1980s to mid 1990s including fashion (Jenny Kee), art (Ken Done) and architecture (Peter Corrigan).

In this instance, it was not the public who wanted Angel moved, but the authorities in charge of the NGVI. One major reason that cities and national galleries can be concerned with the image that they project into the world is tourism. If a cultural institution (like the NGVI) appears to be out of step with the latest in contemporary art, design and fashion, it can appear a less desirable tourist destination. We do not know for sure, but it is reasonable to guess that the desire to appear up-to-date was the motivation for both the NGVI renovation and the relocation of Angel.

The image-aware emphasis on regular change and rejuvenation of public artworks has both critics and champions. Critics argue that the upshot of changing to suit fashion and innovation is that public artworks are not allowed the opportunity to become historical and relevant across generations of citizens. Conversely, champions are optimistic that change can be positive for public artworks. Melbourne art critic Mark Holsworth reflected on both positions when he mused:

Have they (Deborah Halpern’s public artworks) now fallen from favour as tastes change? Or do their new locations give them new life?

Note: Halpern has another sculpture Ophelia 1992 located on Southbank. Ophelia was chosen as the ‘Face of Melbourne’ by Tourism Victoria in 1996. This meant that for a time Halpern’s artwork was literally Melbourne’s visual identity both nationally and internationally.

Deborah Halpern Ophelia, ceramic, steel, concrete, 1992. Commissioned by Dexus. Photographer unknown. Source: deborahhalpern.com
A Tourism Victoria hot air balloon featuring Deborah Halpern’s sculpture Ophelia 1992 adapted into a graphic design. Photographer unknown. Source: deborahhalpern.com

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