In Melbourne’s Docklands precinct there is a four-ton bronze sculpture of an upside-down bovine, helplessly entangled in the branches of a gum tree.
“Cow up a Tree” is the very precisely-named work of Australian artist John Kelly, exhibited in Paris and the Hague before it was installed in Melbourne. Floodwaters have more than once stranded a poor cow or two in the limbs of trees, and Kelly has captured this pathetic yet whimsical imagery perfectly.
“Cow up a Tree” is not the only piece of Kelly’s featuring a bovine theme. In fact, it is one of three in an edition that caused a sensation in the modern art world in 1999, featured at the “Champs de la Sculpture” exhibition on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. “Three Cows in a Pile,” another highly recognized Kelly sculpture, was shown at the 2002 Monte Carlo Sculpture Festival Parade des Animaux, alongside the work of modern masters such as Keith Haring and Red Grooms.
While the subject may seem silly (and it is), the use of cows in Kelly’s work is not completely random. Aside from the flood imagery he has tried to capture, the cows represent a sort of “inside joke” in Australian history. They are an homage to Australian artist Sir William Dobell, who was assigned the task of using his craft to camouflage airfields during WWII. Having little faith in the eyesight of the Japanese bombers he was charged with fooling, Dobell made papier-mâché cows, scattering them around the airfields, a ruse that is said to have had absolutely no effect on the outcome of a single thing.
Know Before You Go
The Cow in a Tree is a 13 minute walk from Southern Cross Station.