Street party bound to go off

Canberra Times, July 5, 2013
Ian Warden - Columnist for the Canberra Times


Sea Quest Scupture

SEA QUEST: Stephen Harrison's sculpture of a World War II mine, which frightened Bermagui locals. Photo: Supplied

Robyn Archer, the Creative Director of the Canberra Centenary (She Who Must Be Obeyed), wants us all to have street parties this year. But we'll all struggle to stage one as novel as the sculpture-enriched one sculptor Stephen Harrison is preparing (''I've got the perfect street for it,'' he enthuses) for his Downer street in mid-November.

More of bewitching Downer in November a few painstakingly sculpted paragraphs hence, but first, we remind readers of how some of the public art in Canberra inspires a kind of aesthetic horror in some bosoms (usually, in our experience, the bosoms of philistines).

But when Harrison posed one of his works on a Bermagui beach it horrified some locals. It may even have left some who saw it what the tabloids call ''ashen-faced''. Police and coastguards were notified.

Bird perched on Sculpture

The bird from his grandpa's tale perched on the mine. Photo: Supplied

The horrified recognised it as [it was just a replica but they weren't to know that] one of those sinister-looking floating, contact mines, meant to blow to smithereens any vessel that touched their sensitive spines. In World War II the fiendish Germans floated mines like these in Australia's and the world's waters. They washed up on beaches, making this sculpture's presence on the beach during Bermagui's famous Sculpture on the Edge (edge of the sea, edge of the cliff) festival especially dramatic for those who thought it was the real thing. The local press feasted on the stir it caused.

Living at Bermagui and seeing the sculpture this usually art-aware columnist would have been one of the ashen-faced first to call the police. As a boy living on the North Sea coast in postwar England these startling-looking brutes still bobbed up. Some (once defused) were posed on seaside towns' promenades. Sometimes they were adapted with a slot to make them massive iron money boxes (with polished brass spines) for donations to good causes.

Harrison's hair-raising sea mine will be on display (perhaps, he laughs, even up a tree) in his front garden in a whole-of-the-street (of only half-a-dozen homes) sculpture exhibition/two-day street party in Downer in November.

He says he was at Bermagui's Sculpture On The Edge when, his imagination unleashed by stimulating and arty company and by ''a few beers'', he dreamed up a vision of sculpture on the edge (where front gardens meet the kerb) of his stubby little street. He went door knocking and found everyone, in a street of homes with enormous old-fashioned frontages, easily enthused. The unusual street show Sculpture in the Street will last from the evening of Friday, November 15, until late afternoon of the following Sunday and if you have a work you'd like to offer for this extravaganza and in pursuit of the prize for the People's Choice Award (already $500 has been rustled up and there's more rustling going on) you should email

Harrison's floating mine Seabreeze will be part of his Downer display (he says he's likely to put it up a tree just as a change from displaying it on the ground, while some ghostly-white, life-size human figures will probably be posed on his roof) and there's quite a story behind his creation of it.

''During WWII my grandfather was a naval sea diver in Britain and part of his work was the finding of these mines, towing them to somewhere isolated and then blowing them up. He used to tell me the story of how with one mine, they found it and tethered it up at night and the following day by the morning light and as they were standing around having a smoke, getting ready to blow it up, they saw a tiny bird come and perch on one of its spikes!'' There was some consternation among the courageous chaps but, of course, the mines were not so sensitive that an alighting wren could detonate them. And so Harrison's grandfather survived to tell his grandson the story.

Today Harrison remembers that his late grandfather used to say, ''Never let the fact get in the way of a good story'' (here this columnist and Harrison, who has worked in newspapers, had a good chortle about that sentiment being my profession's sacred motto) and so, perhaps, the arrival of the dainty little visitor from nature upon the nasty man-made brute of a weapon, never really happened.

But Harrison, laughing, prefers to believe that the story is true and so when you look very closely at the mine up its Downer tree you'll see that this forbidding sculpture was made with the bird of the story perched where Harrison's grandfather said it did perch.

We wondered if, in this notoriously bureaucratic town with its sometimes fun-smothering tendencies, he'd struggled to get official permission for November's event? But he rejoices that, no, officialdom has been very obliging, perhaps because in this Centenary year ''it could be considered a street party'' at a time when every street of the city is being urged to have its own jamboree.

He's especially looking forward to it attracting people ''who'd never go into an art gallery'' but who will love the ambience of a stroll through an informal exhibition arranged in the perfect street for it.