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Vault's 40th Anniversary

— Monday 26th March 2018

Robertson Swann Vault 2012
The Age's Ray Edgar writes 'from yellow peril to pure gold: 40 years on, Vault has been vindicated' and of the sculpture's continuing influence on Australian designers.

From yellow peril to pure gold: 40 years on, Vault has been vindicated

Forty years after it was commissioned, Vault continues to influence Melbourne designers.


By Ray Edgar
The Age, 26 March, 2018


If public art's success is measured by public reaction, Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault is pure gold. In the cultural philistinism it unearthed, Vault is Melbourne's Blue Poles, its Sydney Opera House. 

Dubbed the "yellow peril" and "steel henge", the abstract steel sculpture was removed from City Square and dumped at various locations along the river for its first 20 years, where it was adopted by graffiti artists and the homeless. 

Since 2002 it has been out to pasture beside ACCA gallery, causing neither disruption nor offence. The "peril" has lost its power to provoke. 

Yet for architects such as DCM, who commissioned it, and ARM, who mischievously continue to reference it, Vault has not been forgotten. For them it remains a metaphor for the community's smugness and conservatism. It's both underdog and irritant. 

DCM adopted peril's yellow almost as a point of pride and solidarity, like an awareness ribbon – lest we forget. The Tullamarine gateway "cheesestick" and the Adelphi hotel's yellow colour scheme, original angular furniture and entrance awning all refer to Vault. 

"[Employing yellow] was a provocation and restatement of something strong and powerful that had been lost," says John Denton, DCM co-director. "We still resent the stupidity of the whole thing." 

Vault wasn't just a provocation to a conservative public, but to smug conservative architects. 

"Colour is something [architects] always had a problem with," says Howard Raggatt, ARM co-founder. "The fact that it was yellow and [coined] the 'yellow peril' was fundamentally a part of us taking up that political story." 

The vehement responses to Vault go beyond an antagonism to abstract art, Raggatt believes. He attributes it partly to the sculpture's resemblance to a tent or housing. 

"People like to graffiti it and say 'jobs now' or 'f--- you'. People don't usually do that to art. That piece took a lot of that underbelly of our culture. I'm not sure we appreciate just how important it is. Maybe that's why we keep trying to represent it." 

ARM's Storey Hall interior at RMIT features a relief detail of Vault, while its National Museum in Canberra has an abstracted black homage, designed to be a "shadow of the original". A forthcoming addition to St Jude's church in Carlton incorporates a rusted steel version of Vault. 

Several of ARM's unbuilt projects also dramatically reference the sculpture. Inspired by its use as a shelter for the homeless, ARM adopted the form for Hanover house by the Yarra. It appears as a tent-like roof in an early render for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, and makes a cameo in Elizabeth Quay in Perth. 

"We use [models of] it as 'plonk art' as well," says Raggatt gleefully. Any setting, anywhere in the world requiring a public art proposal gets a yellow peril – Asia included. 

"It's an obsession," says Raggatt. "To us it almost becomes a typology." 

Indeed the obsession can be infectious. One starts to read Vault references across Melbourne: from Federation Square's angularity ("that geometry came before we ever got to Melbourne", says Texan co-architect Donald Bates) to Peter Elliott's yellow noise wall on the Deer Park bypass with its kinked split section (dynamic planar surfaces are "not uncommon in the design world", they are simply "parallel interests" of architecture and sculpture, says Elliott). 

The signature yellow? Practical. "Fades less quickly," he says. 

Surely Wood Marsh's ACCA, with its jutting prows, off-kilter entranceways and tilted walls, an institution designed to fulfil the same provocative function as the stalwart artwork outside it, must be Vault writ large?

Architect Randal Marsh says no. "We have always been influenced by sculpture, but [ACCA] wasn't specific about that piece. People [wouldn't] have thought so much about it if it hadn't been put next to it." 

Indeed Marsh wants to see Vault moved once again. "It's inappropriate next to ACCA," he says. "Crowded by the tunnel vent and the access block, it's ugly and doesn't work. It was designed to be like a glowing jewel in the middle of a grey city, enhanced by its surrounding tall buildings. Therefore the focus is on this contrasting vibrant 'thing'." 

Along Swanston Street is the most direct reference to Vault. It's also the most public, and yet most subtle. Melbourne City Design director Rob Adams collaborated with Robertson-Swann to overlay the prows of Swanston Street's tram stops with Vault's yellow planes. What appears to be simply warning protectors Adams dubs a "calling card". 

It anticipates Vault's future move back to the City Square once Metro Rail is completed. 

"This will depend on the final configuration of the square after the Metro tunnel and the consent of the artist," Adams says in Urban Choreography. "It's an urban piece and is lost where it currently resides." 

More than 40 years later, will we appreciate Vault back in City Square? Will it be a reminder of how far we've come, or how embarrassed we are by our past? Until that's resolved, artists and designers such as ARM will keep irritating the wound – and mining the gold.


Please find Edgar’s full article, including images, online at https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/from-yellow-peril-to-pure-gold-40-years-on-vault-has-been-vindicated-20180323-h0xv60.html

Or contact the gallery.

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.