If you’ve been near Southern Cross Station or the Grand Hotel in the last few days, you may have seen a whimsical new piece of public art – a 10-metre-tall, upended W-class tram. Named Raising the Rattler Pole – the Last of the Connies, the artwork was commissioned by the City of Melbourne.
We spoke to the artist, David Michael Bell, about what inspired him to undertake the project.
To me, the most iconic Melbourne object is the W-Class tram. I wanted to offer a tribute to this icon and make a comment about the demise of the connies [conductors]. Raising the Rattler Pole is a stone monument to the memories we all share about our trips on the old trams. I designed this piece to stand 10 metres out of the ground and be tilted at 10 degrees. I liked the idea of creating a piece that caused wonder and the recounting of stories.
Why make a tram, rather than use a real tram?
For a few reasons. A real tram weighs 18 tonnes and isn’t structurally designed to stand on end, so extensive and complex engineering would be required. My experience in the film industry showed me that converting or restoring an existing structure is often more resource-intensive and potentially wasteful than building from scratch. W-class trams are also of great cultural and historical value – they were classified by the National Trust in 1990, and decommissioned stock remains in catalogued storage.
You’ve had extensive experience in the creative industries. Fill us in.
After school, I became a stage manager in New Zealand’s largest theatre, The Mercury. On moving to Australia I worked at the Melbourne Theatre Company and toured with the Victorian State Opera as an assistant stage manager. I then worked for Mother’s Art, a props and special effects company for about seven years, before going freelance into the TV and film industry.
Some of my roles included senior props maker for Where the Wild Things Are, The Pacific and roles in Australian independent films and television series. Five years ago I did my first public artwork with Gary Tippett, a film industry colleague, in Wodonga’s main street. Since then, public art has been my full time passion and interest.
Yes, most Melburnians have a soft spot for the W-Class tram and remember them grinding to a halt when the contact pole came off the overhead wire. I also have fond memories of the conductors, some of whom were extraordinary characters.
How do you hope people will respond to the piece?
I really hope that a wide demographic of people will identify with this tribute and that children will be amused by its presence.
What is your favourite aspect of art in Melbourne?
I love street art in general and enjoy the sense of discovery. Melbourne has some beautiful public art, both formal and informal.