In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.
But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis â€“ swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerismâ€™s cast-offs.
Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)
Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.
Graffitied service cover, Surry Hills, Sydney, April 2010
I sometimes like to think of the pavement as a roof â€“ the roof of the busy underground world that supports our day-to-day living. And if the pavement is a roof, then manholes (correct term:Â maintenance holes) are skylights, and service covers are the shutters on those skylights. I wrote earlier about how I tried to peer down a chink in one of these â€˜shuttersâ€™ to see the Paris sewer system below. How gauche can a tourist get?
Geoff Manaugh makes a good suggestion on his BLDGBLG site: how about installing â€˜upside-down periscopesâ€™? In vertically dense cities, he proposes, these would allow everyone to peer down into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers, buried rivers and streams. They would be a kind of archaeological â€˜truth windowâ€™.
Starting point - Smith Street, Surry Hills
In the ten years since I became obsessed with pavement inscriptions Iâ€™ve taken hundreds of photographs. With so many to choose from itâ€™s not too hard to find examples to illustrate any point I might want to make when I write about the pavement as a medium for expression.
But what if I took a walk on an arbitrary route from an arbitrary starting point and photographed every picture, sign and scribble on the pavement along the way? Would that series of unselected inscriptions unfold as a coherent story?
I tried this as an experiment for the Open Fields forum at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). I started in Surry Hills at a street with a very common name, Smith Street, and took a zig-zag route in a direction away from the centre of the city. I got as far as Waterloo, only about 2 km as the ibis flies, but I had taken more than 3 hours and photographed around 150 pavement inscriptions.
End point - Danks Street, Waterloo
I made a slide show of these Unselected readings in the order in which I found them. But hereâ€™s a confession: although I stuck to my arbitrary rules for the day pretty well, I did stop photographing every manhole cover and every wet cement inscription, because there were so many of them.
What did I find out from this experiment? Well, perhaps I will talk about that in future blog entries.
Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Survey marks on the paving are like an irruption from beneath, disfiguring the surface with a disturbing reminder of what is going on below. The cityâ€™s skin blemishes are spreading.
Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
I figured this sign was not meant for me. Some private joke or invitation, but still I was intrigued. Sat 1st? Yes, I got that – the previous Saturday was August 1st. Queen Street? King Street? Crown Street? No streets of that name anywhere near this spot, the corner of Ross and Hereford Streets, Forest Lodge (Glebe). And as for the upbeat insect? Â No idea.
A month later I found an answer of sorts in Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, some three or four kilometres away. A notice chalked in the same hand for Surry Hills Markets, always held in Crown Street on the first Saturday of the month. So the notice in Glebe was meant for me â€¦ and everyone else. But I still donâ€™t get the ant.
Every so often a large romantic message turns up on the pavement â€“ sometimes on a country road, sometimes on a city street â€“ turning private feelings into blaring headlines. Obviously premeditated and deliberately located so they will be seen by the object of affection (or disappointment), these messages canâ€™t be compared with the miniature declarations of love made by wet cement opportunists. I believe they are generally written by males. Am I right?
Shane loves Bonnie was written in Wilson Street, Newtown, in 2008. I photographed Please come home I love you in Surry Hills in 2005 when it had been there for a long time.
Iâ€™ve written about public-personal notices in an article in the journal antiTHESIS.
Hicks, M. Hard feelings.Â antiTHESISÂ 19 Exhibitionism:Â 229-233.