eyeline magazine #71, 2010
Delicate Balance, 2009
Ballast Point Park, Sydney, Balmain
By Tom Melick
Robyn Backen’s Delicate Balance, a hollow concrete shaft that sits like a perched cannon off the edge of the newly developed Ballast Point Park in Sydney’s Balmain, offers its user (and I should emphasise that it should be used) a sensory and bodily experience. Not quite architecture and not just public art, Backen has provided a space that, against the sea of disappointment usually surrounding any public addition, is both agreeable to its surroundings whilst maintaining an interpretive relationship to its environment. Indeed Delicate Balance might remind us that just as the term ‘sculpture’ was obscured for Rosland Krauss due to the experiments of the 60s and 70s (which was expressed in her now used and abused 1979 article ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’), ‘architecture’ and ‘public art’, as designating categories, must come face to face with their own mutations, extensions, malleability and marriage.
Delicate Balance leans towards thinking in architectural terms under the agenda of public art. Here observation corroborates with participation as you can enter the angled structure (through a slim opening somewhat reminiscent of a sci-fi film). Once inside, you are faced with small windows that offer snapshots of the harbour, and it is because of their size that these scenic apertures encourage concentration rather than relaxation. To look up is not to meet a roof but to confront the sky, while to look down is to notice that the work has been installed on a precipice – as you peer through a grate water is revealed, lapping against the rock below. These openings connect you with the surrounding environment through different viewpoints and sensory exposures. It is, if we can poach from the American architect Thom Mayne, a kind of ‘connected isolation’.
With room for one, or at most two, Backen’s chamber affords us a private place to consider uncommon public space – space that is not completely determined by agenda, or clearly defined by expected behaviour. This is the exciting potential that public art must be ready to absorb and recognise. Ambiguity should not be devalued, since it is the unknown where interest and engagement unfold. When the user unintentionally circumnavigates the artist or architect’s intention, the structure is imbued with a life that is far richer and more stimulating then merely accepting its intended use and acting accordingly. As the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor might suggest, ‘traces of human life’ on an edifice are not only inevitable, they are fundamental to the overall nature of the work itself. With this in mind we may have to wait to see what traces accumulate on Backen’s nascent work, or what roles it may be made to perform.
Yet does Delicate Balance completely escape (public) art for (public) art’s sake? As an object perhaps not, but as an object in use, it does allow for a slightly strange encounter. There is no doubt that it is minimal, yet it seems Backen understands the fine line between restraining design so that we can find ourselves in the experience and, well, simply boring us through so-called ‘sophisticated restraint’. Therefore, while form does follow function, the function here remains open rather than closed, irregular rather than familiar. Delicate Balance is representative of architecture/public art that is postured between usefulness and uselessness. This is an appropriate contradiction. For all the plans and measures that go into an urban park’s design, it will always be defined by surprising congeries, divergent energies, drinking teenagers, flouting animals and necessary uselessness. And for those with romantic persuasions, at night Backen’s particular kind of minimalism gives way to filmic fantasies, as the curious structure is lit by a distant park light (and takes on shadows you might find in the scrutinized distance of a Michelangelo Antonioni film).
Interestingly, Backen’s use of concrete – that glorious medium of modernism – also suggests a forgotten or incomplete monument, or possibly a redundant defence measure. The structure recalls the warning devices built by the British along the south and northeast coast of England during the 1930s. In the days before radar, these ‘sound mirrors’ (also known as ‘listening ears’) were designed to capture and transmit the noise of approaching enemy engines. They would eventually prove unreliable since they failed to differentiate between the local traffic and an invading bomber. This incidental connection to British history finds relevancy in that not only does the aesthetic parallel hold, inside Backen’s structure a plethora of reverberations entering from the outside – or which can be produced noisily from the inside – amass as fleeting distortions of sound. This activation of the space should not go unheard, since sound is often an underprivileged element in public structures.
Delicate Balance seems to successfully negotiate the challenges of the park with understated eloquence. This is easier said than done. Public art faces the challenge of existing in, yet at the same time resisting the need to vanquish its given context. It must respond to its environment while simultaneously producing new insights into that environment, and it must be able to accommodate both the foreseen and the unforeseen uses it will undoubtedly encounter. David Leatherbarrow has recently argued in Architecture Orientated Otherwise (2009) for the renouncement of the ‘self-sufficient object’ in favour of seeing a “glimpse of a new – and newly significant – collective, communicative, or urban order.” While we should not fall into the trap of over determining Delicate Balance, we could take note of its posture. It leans towards a communicative addition that attributes to the visitor an experience of sensory agency and subtle eccentricity. While it’s not the start of a new urban order, its contribution remains open for sentience, and therefore most importantly, use.