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van Hout, Ronnie - 2015.1

Ronnie van Hout

Dayton 2014
aluminium, patinated bronze and steel
400 x 320 x 400 cm (irreg.)
Monash University Public Art Commission 2014

The issue with most public art is that it is largely decided upon by a broad range of stakeholders, a committee of people working at odds to wean out any aesthetic merit that an original proposition might hold. The road to consensus is a journey paved with compromise, dismissing outright any potential for risk or offence. This is what makes permanent art so dangerous. The process of eliminating any aspects that might be deemed contentious often eventuates in a work that means nothing or offers little – and we are then forced to live with that forever. This is why minimalist sculpture has such enduring appeal in the realm of public art commissions; it isn’t representational, so there is no affronting subject matter, and it doesn’t compete with architecture, as its simplicity should serve to make buildings look more complex in their design.

On approach to New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist Ronnie van Hout’s Dayton via Rainforest Walk on the Clayton Campus of Monash University, we are greeted by what seems to be a familiar homage to large-scale minimalist sculpture, with formal shapes manufactured out of durable metal. So sympathetic is the conglomeration of forms to the enveloping architecture that the work’s contours appear to mimic the lines of the car-parking building that flanks it. The aluminium from which Dayton is made is so consistent with the surrounding palette of steel and concrete that the work almost appears part of the architecture, or at least a remnant of its recent construction. Yet, as one comes into closer contact with the work, this exercise in formalist abstraction gives way to something altogether different, something more like us, in a way. Perched on this frugal mound of green space is a humanoid figure, a prototypal robot gleefully smiling. As if extracted directly from The Jetsons, the figure appears as if it may have sat there for some decades already, expectantly awaiting the construction of the neighbouring New Horizons Centre.

It is in the facial features of the robot that the emulation of and sympathies with the human form really take hold. Dayton’s expression is beguiling; one cannot be certain whether this is some form of reset emotion, arguably neutral, or whether it spans an entire interpretational spectrum that extends from excited to terrified. As if to reflect the experience of a student’s trajectory through the university system, the sculptural work simultaneously acknowledges both optimism and trepidation. There is the leisure-laden appearance of student life, with plentiful conversations across the university campus exploring new ideas and challenging the conventions of the day, meeting other intelligent people all similarly driven to setting up foundations for rewarding, noble or financially lucrative career pathways. Then there are the anxieties of modern education: the pressures to succeed academically, but with ever-greater financial investment and vocational imperatives.

The upright and obedient Dayton is inspirationally situated, as if a mock-up for relaxing between lectures on an elevated patch of grass amid the architectural expansion of the campus, yet remaining aspirationally focused on the broadening of its horizons. This is the masterstroke of the sculpture, to formally connect with and even flatter its architectural surroundings, while simultaneously eking out a connection to the students, lecturers and administrators walking past every day, applying subversive humour to potentially tap into their respective hopes, fears, anxieties and doubts.

Mark Feary is Artistic Director of Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne.