Thursday, January 14, 2021

From the vault: The P & O Sculpture, Sydney


From Bytes, Sunday, November 14, 2010 

I can never drive past the above P & O wall sculpture in Sydney without recalling the related Oz obscenity trial and the photograph which gave rise to it. I guarantee that after reading the following, the wall sculpture will never be the same for you either. 

The wall fountain had been completed in 1963, a time when Australian society was vastly different from today. Censorship was in force and quite restrictive. The NSW Obscene and Indecent Publications Act 1901 vested censorship in the hands of the police, who had wide powers of entry, seizure and arrest. One therefore regularly read of court cases wherein a police sergeant or detective gave evidence that works such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover was obscene and with no artistic merit. It is also said that one particular judge determined obscenity by whether or not the publication gave him an erection, and that as he became older, the test became more and more liberal. 

Enter upon the scene Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp, with their satirical magazine Oz. Between 1963 and 1969 they published Oz in Sydney; between 1967 and 1973 it was also published as a psychedelic hippy magazine in London. In both places it became the subject of noted obscenity trials. (Neville’s book Hippy Hippy Shake Shake has been filmed and should be released some time, its release having been delayed for years). 

1963: Sir Robert Menzies was PM, the Vietnam war was beginning, Kennedy was assassinated, 2 years before Jean Shrimpton shocked Melbourne Cup matrons by wearing a skirt with a hemline above the knee and no stockings, the Beatles had their first hit and shocked mums and dads by not having short back and sides haircuts… and Tom Bass’ sculpture was unveiled by Sir Robert Menzies. It was, and remains, mounted in the street facade of the Sydney offices of the P & O shipping line at the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh Streets. 

In February1964 Neville et al published the following cover on Issue No 6 of Oz: 

The wording underneath the pic reads: 

On the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh Streets, Sydney, the P. & O. Shipping Line has completed its contribution to the Australian Ugliness – the P & O Building, officially opened by the Prime Minister in January. To alleviate the severe drabness of its sandstone façade, sculptor Tom Bass has set an attractive bronze urinal in the wall for the convenience of passersby. This is no ordinary urinal. It has a continual flushing system and basins handily set at different standing heights. There is a nominal charge, of course, but don’t worry, there is no need to pay immediately. Just P. & O. Pictured is a trio of Sydney natives P. & O’ing in the Bass urinal. 

Not funny, said the Law, you’re nicked m’lads and charged with obscenity. 

Magistrate Locke also had no sense of humour. Despite sculptor Tom Bass testifying on their behalf, Locke found them guilty. Deciding to make an example of them, he sentenced them to 3-6 months imprisonment with hard labour “for obscenity and encouraging public urination”.

 The defendants were released on appeal where the convictions were overturned, mainly because the appeal judge found that Locke had misdirected the jury and made remarks that were found to have been prejudicial to the defence's case.

Now see whether or not you recall the above image next time you drive or walk past the sculpture. 


Some updates: 

Richard Neville passed away in 2016. Here is a pic of him in later years still peeing in the P & O fountain. 


From Wikipedia about the fountain’s sculptor, Tom Bass: 

Designed as a purely abstract wall fountain, this sculpture did not symbolize any particular aspect of the P&O Company. Bass's sculpture caused considerable controversy when it was completed in 1963. When the work was unveiled, its indirect resemblance to a Parisian pissoir and its position opposite the French Airline office provoked a witty comment in the sixth edition of OZ magazine (1964) about the city's latest status symbol as a convenience for the people of Sydney and as a welcoming sign to French travellers: "there is a nominal charge, of course, but don't worry, there is no need to pay immediately. Just P. & O." (pee and owe). 

With it they published a renowned satirical photograph which showed the fountain apparently being used as a urinal, with a caption which read "Pictured is a trio of Sydney natives P. & O.'ing in the Bass urinal". For this and other supposed offences the editors of the magazine, Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp were charged, tried and sentenced to jail with hard labour for "obscenity and encouraging public urination", although the defendants subsequently appealed against the sentences, which were revoked. In the trial Tom Bass appeared in their defence. 

Although the building is no longer owned by P&O, the work maintains an iconic presence in Sydney. The building was demolished in December 2017 for the construction of the entrance to the Martin Place Sydney Metro station 23 metres below street level, and the wall fountain will be reinstalled into the public space of the replacement building. 


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