“Are you pulling the birds off the Disco Dong?” I ask one of the workers through the barbed wire fence of the Byron Shire Council Depot.
“Yeah,” he nods. “A lot of pop rivets. It’s not real structural. Are you with the papers or something?” And that’s about where our conversation ends, though he says he’s cool with me taking photos from outside the fence, as long his face is obscured.
He’s deconstructing a 12-metre lighthouse sculpture that was made from 5,000 interconnected stainless steel birds. It was a massive, shiny, phallic piece of public art that was constructed on a roundabout on the way into Byron Bay, a hugely popular tourist town in northern NSW. Officially called the Bayshore Drive Lighthouse Sculpture, it was later dubbed the "Disco Dong" and that was the name that stuck.
The $55,000 sculpture was ambitious, highly controversial and the source of many dick jokes. It enraged the community so badly that in August the local Council voted to spend $13,000 removing it. Then, last Wednesday night, workers arrived with a crane to begin the dismantling process and by Friday morning it was here at the Council Depot, getting pulled apart one bird at a time.
So how did a $55,000 public sculpture get reduced to scrap metal in the course of eight months?
For decades Byron Bay has been known to attract artists, surfers, hippies and tourists of all kinds, so it seemed logical that in August 2018 the local Council would develop something called a Public Art Strategy. Their stated goal was to further establish the area as, “the arts and cultural capital of northern NSW”. They decided to fund and build something “contemporary and distinctive” that they hoped would have “longevity”. With a budget of $55,000, it was the Council’s biggest ever investment in a public art piece.
The location was a new roundabout on the road that runs from the Pacific Highway into Byron Bay. The lighthouse sculpture, designed by an artist named Cory Thomas, was supposed to frame the existing view of the real Cape Byron Lighthouse in the distance, at Australia’s most easterly point. The problem was that the sculpture actually impeded the view of the lighthouse, unless you were standing in a very specific spot. Since almost everyone would view the sculpture from their cars while driving past, the concept didn’t work.
Of all the people I know in the area (I grew up in Mullumbimby), Tommy Bacchiella, a local plumber, loathed the sculpture the most. “Every time I’d go to Byron, I’d drive past it and I’d go, ‘Fuck, this thing’s ugly,’” he tells me. “I hated it. It took up most of the roundabout so you couldn’t see cars coming when you’d pull into it at a certain angle. What a shit design. They didn’t think about that. They’ve wasted so much time and money on that fucken sculpture.”
Scrolling the Byron Bay Community Facebook page, it’s obvious that Tommy’s opinion is not a unique one. The Disco Dong has been derided regularly there for months, with locals posting photos, dick jokes and rants about the sculpture that range from snide to vitriolic. The group is also where a Change.org petition to remove the sculpture was circulated and received almost 1500 online signatures.
Beyond aesthetics, there were scores of other criticisms of the sculpture: the cost, the lack of community consultation and the lack of structural integrity. People frequently brought up the Byron Shire’s notorious potholes, suggesting the $55,000 could have been better spent on road maintenance. But it was when people started climbing the sculpture and hanging stuff from it that things kicked up a notch. Toy koalas and indigenous flags were among the fodder that was repeatedly strewn across the sculpture. In July, the Council conducted a safety inspection that cost an additional $8000.
Their conclusion was, “The sculpture was not designed to be climbed and, because of the height and location of the artwork, there were real concerns about the potential for serious personal injury as well as the risk of compromising the structural integrity of the installation.” The sculpture was officially decommissioned on August 22.
One of the major problems was that the Council rushed the Disco Dong through, allowing just one month to pitch expressions of interest and then three months to complete the project. Acting Mayor Michael Lyon told The Guardian, “We didn’t have time to get really decent expressions of interest,” concluding, “We have learned how not to do public art.”
Once it became clear that the sculpture would be removed, people started to consider how the artist who created it might be feeling. One woman began a post in the Byron Community Group: “I recently discovered that the artist behind the 'disco dong' had experienced a deep amount of emotional pain from public response and ridicule.” She wasn’t wrong.
For Corey Thomas, the Melbourne sculptor who created the work, the backlash has been brutal. Back in January, when he was building the sculpture, it was reported that he ran into a landscaping issue (the council’s fault) and was forced to use a crane that blocked one lane of traffic. He received up to 100 insults a day from irate motorists. Sometimes he chose to work at night with no lights. On the final day of the project, he started work at 5.30 am, thinking he would have the whole day to finish it, but was ordered off the site three hours later.
Since then, the artist has been completely silent, refraining from talking to the media at all. In August, Councillor Sarah Ndiaye told The Echo, “He’s had to shut down his website. He’s lost his next two commissions and there’s been a serious impact on his mental health… He’s suffered a crushing from this community.”
Laith McGregor, a Melbourne artist who has lived in the Byron Shire for the past two years, told me, “I’d never heard of [Corey Thomas] but I really feel for him. I’d be in the same boat, I guess. I would not want to talk to anyone if I got that much flack.” Laith explains he wasn’t a fan of the sculpture and that he would regularly complain about it when driving past, but that now he feels compassion more than anything. “It must be hard for him because that’s a career changer.”
I tell Tommy about how the artist has dropped off the radar and stayed away from the media. “No one needs to be put in that position,” he says. “It wouldn’t have happened if the council had proposed it to everyone and said this was what they were going to do.”
As it stands, the stainless steel birds are bound for the local tip, where they will be sold for $20 each. At the Council Depot, the workers are removing the birds one-by-one and stacking them in a pile. Pop rivets, unlike screws, are time consuming to remove, so it’s a lot of work. This is the council’s attempt to recoup some of the money they spent building, maintaining and eventually removing the now infamous Disco Dong. Calculating the initial $55,000 outlay, plus the $8,000 in maintenance and the $13,000 in removal costs, that’s $76,000, which is only a rough estimate. The true cost could potentially be much higher.
I spoke to one of the guys who works at the tip shop about the rise and fall of the Disco Dong and how the birds would be sold there soon. He had been following the story pretty closely but seemed neutral and detached from the whole thing, asking me with a smile whether I thought the birds were terns or seagulls. When I asked if he would let me interview him, he said he didn’t want to get involved and that he could only tell me what he’d read in the papers anyway. Besides, he had work to do, it was Monday morning and a steady stream of people were dropping off trailer-loads of old chairs, sinks and scrap wood, along with bags of garbage.
In the next few weeks, the tip will receive a delivery of about 5000 stainless steel birds. They might be reused as garden ornaments or wall hangings or be melted down and recycled for scrap metal. The guy from the tip went on to say that more than 300 people have already registered their interest in buying the birds, which is a start.
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