The importance of Australia’s Big Things

Monday, Jan 4, 2021, 12:54 AM | Source: Pursuit

David Nichols, Cristina Garduño Freeman

As many Australians enjoy (relatively) COVID-normal summer holidays, many of us may be heading off on road trips, family breaks or beach holidays to take in the much-missed Australian sites.

And some of those sites may be big. The Big Pineapple. The Big Merino. Even the Big Prawn.

Photos of Big Things, like the Big Pineapple, serve a larger social and cultural purpose (as well as being kitsch). Picture: Mark Gillman

But there’s a long history of scaling up.

“French journalists and some others are harping a good deal about the proposed construction of a giant metallic tower that an engineer by the name of Eiffel has had the temerity to propose”, observed the American journalist Henry Haynie in May, 1886.

“There are supposed to be millions in this tower affair. Everybody will go up in it, say these people, but will they? I doubt it – I know I won’t.”

Three years later, Haynie had succumbed: he was describing Paris for his readers as it appeared from “the top of the lofty Eiffel tower”.

The truth is, that while some people might sneer at Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana – an institution since 1963 – or Gumeracha’s Big Rocking Horse, a comparative baby about to turn 40 next year – what is the Eiffel Tower but another Big Thing?

The only differences are that, rather than being shaped like a baguette or a carafe de vin, it’s, well, Eiffel Tower shaped; and that you’d need to stack twenty (for instance) Big Pineapples – pride of the Sunshine Coast that particular icon may be – on top of each other to reach the Tower’s height.

Which is to say – Australia’s Big Things aren’t as big as the Big Things of some other countries.

The Big Merino opened to 1984 aimed at the millions of tourists in their cars to make them stop for a photo. PIcture: Getty Images

But why do we keep scaling the everyday up? What is the point of dotting our landscapes with gargantuan prawns, penguins and potatoes?

On one hand these iconic-yet-useless structures are built to demonstrate without fear of contradiction how advanced and resourceful a nation is. On the other, they are just a bit of fun: sculptures that encapsulate ‘homo ludens’ or, in real-speak – the playful element of cultures and societies.

Australian local businesses and governments are pragmatically visionary, concentrating on local industries and branding – or brandscapes. They frequently deployed a quirky ridiculousness that has quickly passed into the realm of kitsch.

In 1973, American journalist Calvin Trillin wrote about tourist attractions “too silly to be passed by” but if Rambo, Goulburn’s Big Merino, is silly – and many people have found it so – it also makes a profound statement.

We are, after all, in the country that rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back.

The Big Merino’s story illustrates a lot of the thinking behind our ‘big things’.

It has its genesis in the story of two Hungarian-born brothers, Louis and Attila Mokany, and their canny idea that the millions of tourists travelled the east coast of Australia in their cars every year needed a visceral conversation-starter to make them stop for a photo, a souvenir, a soft drink and something overcooked from a bain-marie.

Ballina’s Big Prawn features in tens of thousands of snapshots. Picture: Getty Images

When it opened in 1984, their Big Merino gazumped the good people of Hay’s proposal for something similar (but half the size).

The Mokanys followed it with a Big Prawn at Ballina two years later and a Big Oyster at Taree in the south of New South Wales in 1988 (which then became a car dealership).

Not surprisingly, Australia’s tastemasters were appalled by the “series of monstrous, life-size replicas of local products” the Mokanys and others were producing.

Often, local communities found themselves benefiting financially from the association, at the same time as they were diminished – many felt – in the eyes of the world by the commercialised branding.

Yet the maps, itineraries and tens of thousands of snapshots we take, post and share of all these Big Things belies their value as purely commercial.

After all, we are capable of both despising kitsch while also revelling in it is brash ugliness; some say this contradiction is a truly Australian trait.

It is not enough to take a photo of the Big Merino or Big Banana – a selfie that ‘puts us squarely in the picture’ is de rigueur.

In Australia, we are developing quite a Big collection, like the Big Cow near Toowoomba. Picture: Mark Gillman

As pointless and meaningless as these snapshots seem, they do, in fact, serve a larger social and cultural purpose in being places of common experience that good-naturedly connect us to one another at both local and national levels.

In Australia, we are developing quite a Big collection. By 1994, one enterprising journalist by the name of Julian Lewis counted 80 “‘big things’ in all states, with varying degrees of success and local pride”.

It had all started, the journalist claimed, with the Big Banana theme park in 1963; thirty years later, it seemed never-ending. Who knows how many there are now, a quarter of a decade later?

At the time, the Victorian town of Dimboola was planning a big ear of wheat and Moonta, in South Australia, was hoping to make its mark with a big pastie (presumably in honour of its strong Cornish heritage).

At the end of the 20th century, local regions were grasping at straws to figure out something distinctive to attract tourists – or at very least to send a message about their local ubiquity.

But it doesn’t stop there: as our lives become dominated by the digital, there are new Big Things to contend with.

In 2013, conceptual artist Aram Bartholl’s giant Google Maps ‘red marker’ or ‘pin’ temporarily installed at the exact geographic location of the virtual one in key global locations became a new icon of the 21st century.

In 2020, the lure of Big Things remains, with families stopping to take a photo. Picture: Tegan McAuley and Jonathan Crowther

Unlike, the banana, the prawn and the merino, Bartholl’s ‘big pin’ speaks of global homogenisation rather than local identity – which is more unsettling than playful.

But, this summer, if you are making a pilgrimage to something Big, it’s worth thinking on the Big Picture of where they fit into our culture and history.

Banner: The Big Banana in 1981/Mark Gillman