A Lesson in Canberra Art History: The Fucking Civic Sheep

If you don’t know Les Kossatz, I’m sure you’re intimate with his sheep. The Civic Sheep, also known by their proper name Ainslie’s Sheep, were commissioned from Kossatz by artsACT in 2001 for placement in the proverbial paddock that is City Walk.

Kossatz has a history of public commissions in Canberra. When the High Court was being built in the late ‘70s, somebody had the good sense to ask the coolest Melbourne artists of the time – Kossatz, Jan Senbergs, Bea Maddock and George Baldessin (of our very own Baldessin Precinct Building) – to provide the foyer artwork. Kossatz made the coats of arms on both the front and back glass façade of the building, and finished off some panels for the ceremonial doors that he was working on with Baldessin, before Baldessin’s death in a car accident in 1978. He also led the design team that engineered the Korean War memorial, one of the simplest and most elegant memorials on Anzac Parade.

This guy’s stamp is all over Canberra, but have you ever stopped to consider his fun-loving sheep? Tourists and drunk people are crazy about those sheep, but have you – sober you – ever wondered what these sheep are about? The plaque on the back of the sheep’s chair will tell you that the sheep represent the livestock of James Ainslie, a pioneering Scottish pastoralist who, in 1825 (1825!) settled in the area between Mount Ainslie and Civic. Ainslie  lived with an Aboriginal woman and had a daughter with her named Nanny, before he pissed off back to Scotland in 1935. He also apparently liked his vests. That is exactly how I imagine every colonial pastoralist ever.

Kossatz’s sculpture is a gentle satire on this guy who could barely struggle out a decade in Canberra, before it was Canberra. There’s more to the story though. Kossatz has used sheep as an ambiguous symbol in his artwork since the early ‘70s.  They provide a generous metaphor: at once his sheep-inspired works represent our pioneering history, the ongoing grazing industry that was born from it, environmental and ethical concerns and, most compellingly to me, the sheep as a commentary on human behaviour.

This last point isn’t clear-cut or moralistic. Never does Kossatz explicitly claim something heavy-handed, like “humans treat sheep poorly, therefore humans are terrible” He is a better artist than that. Works such as Ram in Sling (1973) and Hard Slide (1980) play on the sheep’s naturally amusing, harmless-looking body shape, and contrast their soft, fuzzy wool with the sharp points of industrial metal (the ‘sling’), or the hard, unfeeling processing equipment (the ‘slide’). You’re left looking at these really cute rams, tumbling around, and they look funny! Sheep are amazingly comedic once you take them out of their paddock setting. Kossatz wants to confront you with this dual response of innate sympathy versus innate humour. He doesn’t smack you around the face with his message, but instead opens up a discussion that a lot of people are uncomfortable with: “What are we doing with animals, guys?”

The Civic Sheep is one of my favourite Kossatz pieces. It’s not as edgy as his ‘70s work; the sheep themselves are quite plainly rendered cast-aluminium. But the same thing that interests me is the same thing that gets the drunks and the tourists giggling: those sheep seem deliberately positioned so that passers-by can pretend to have sex with them.

What the people posing and whipping out their iPhone cameras may not realise is that this is not an accident. Kossatz isn’t naively cooking up compromising sheep sculptures here. He’s been making them for over 30 years and he knows what they look like. The line he trots out at ACT Government events is that the sheep are a delightful contrast, being animals that belong in pastures but that are somehow in the middle of the city centre. But that kind of talk is just for the PC types. Public art has to look uncontroversial in order to pass the toddler test.

The genius thing about these sculptures is that they are standard-looking on their own, but that they come alive when we interact with them. Do you ride on the sheep? Do you laugh at them? Do you hug them? Do you ignore them? Do you mount them? I have watched people act out all of the above, and I have become pretty uncomfortable with the last of these responses

Kossatz has been using these sheep-symbols for many years as a way of talking about human behaviour. Although it’s not the only way they can be interpreted, many people’s uninhibited response to these works is sexual. When we see someone responding in such an amorous way, we’ve got to ask ourselves: why is fucking a fake sheep so funny?