Words of Regret
Whenever I am out and about in the city I read what’s written on the crusty surfaces beneath my feet, but I often feel as if I’m being admonished. It’s not the written instructions that bother me. I generally Look Right when I’m supposed to. I Look Left. I Stand Behind the Yellow Line. But it’s those wordy public artworks embedded in the asphalt that are unsettling—those installations that I come across as I turn into a laneway, or cut across a park. Their text seems to envelope us all in some kind of collective regret for acts and omissions of the past.
At Sydney’s Town Hall Square there is one such installation paying tribute to the city’s most famous graffitist. It takes a bit of finding. Located beside an artificial waterfall,it has been difficult to see since the space was leased to a coffee shop. But there it is, set into the pebblecrete among tables, chairs and cafe umbrellas, the word ‘Eternity’ in shiny aluminium script.
The story of Arthur Stace has been told many times. An alcoholic no-hoper and petty criminal who had converted to Christianity; he was transformed one day by a thundering sermon by the Reverend John Ridley. “Where will you spend eternity?” the preacher cried, and hearing this as a call from God Stace stooped to chalk the word ‘Eternity’on the footpath outside the church. From 1932 until 1966 Stace continued to write the word on Sydney footpaths every morning in the pre-dawn light. ‘The Eternity Man’ has become an eccentric legend, memorialised in poetry, opera and film, in the paintings of Martin Sharp, in New Year’s Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge, and on souvenir mugs at the National Museum of Australia.
But most replicas of his copperplate artwork miss the point. Only that horizontal aluminium plaque on Town Hall Square acknowledges that Stace’s word ‘Eternity’ and the surface of the pavement are elements of the same ritual. Stace rose from the gutter then got back down on his knees to express regret for his dissolute and wasted youth, finding absolution in the gritty union of chalk and asphalt. His stealthy act of penitence repeated over and over for thirty years became his own sermon to the public. And if Sydneysiders have adopted his word as a symbol of our city, it is not only because of the mysteriousness and doggedness of its creator, but because it reminds us that we too have regrets for what has been lost. Our beautiful harbour, fringed with bushland and sandy beaches, is an ever-present memento of the once unspoilt land that has been crushed under the city’s asphalt and concrete.
"His stealthy act of penitence repeated over and over for thirty years became his own sermon to the public."
These days other pavement artists have taken over where Stace left off, reproaching city dwellers for wrongdoings past and present. Guerrilla street artist and sculptor, Will Coles for example, understands the symbolism of the pavement. He knows that’s where the detritus of our urban life accumulates—the drifts of advertising leaflets, the thrown away takeaway coffee cups, the cleanup piles of electrical appliances not in working order, the homeless people with their cardboard begging signs. Coles makes concrete casts of consumerism’s cast-offs, often stamped with a single evocative word, and glued to the footpath. There they wait in ambush among the chewing-gum blisters, challenging us to think deeply about the shallowness of our lives: a remote control that reads ‘Memory’; a mobile phone embedded with ‘Nothing’; a discarded teddy bear inscribed ‘Culture’. Perhaps it was inevitable that Coles would eventually appropriate Arthur Stace’s word. He writes it on crumpled drink cans to rebuke us for our lazy wastefulness.