December 26, 2021

Our Big Things

on the relevance of Australia's big things

On a balmy night in 2006, on the back verandah of a face-brick suburban home in a town called Tully, a group of men stood around a few oversized amphibian limbs made of polystyrene, debating the anatomy of frogs. Roger, who was charged with carving the creature, defended against accusations that the left foot was on backwards. Ron was less than convinced.

In some ways the whole thing was an absurd assignment. But driven by a powerful desire to put the small town of Tully on the map. Because ever since cars began crisscrossing the country, regional towns have had to compete for drive-by business, and ‘big things’ – a big banana, big pineapple, big prawn – have meant the difference between visitors stopping here or there.

But how relevant are big things today? With regional tourism opening again, this article examines their role in our tourism infrastructure.

There are currently over 150 of these enormous beasts are scattered across the country. Some are furry, like the Big Merino in Goulburn, others have razor sharp claws. At the Dadswells Bridge in Victoria there is a giant Koala with piercing red eyes that glow at night. Incredibly, in Taree, a big Oyster has laid claim to the roof of a used car dealership.

With so many of these oversized installations strewn about you might think they form part of a national tourism initiative. But big things are a grassroots phenomenon, each one dreamt up and built by small groups of passionate people. Most depict crops or exports, a reminder that in regional Australia, industry and identity aren’t easily separated.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

At the time of their making, they were popular creatures. Tasked with the noble purpose of signifying their place, they stood proud beside regional highways. People from neighboring towns and far off cities stopped to marvel at them, spend a few bob, and even climb inside to check out the view.

But today many are in a sorry state of disrepair. As Amy Clarke observes, the original big things of the 60s and 70s have become something of an endangered species. Threats to their livelihoods include dislocation by new highway routes and dwindling local patronage. Desperate to save them from the scrap heap, many owners have relocated, added rides and restaurants or launched crowd-funding campaigns to keep them alive.

For a lucky few, like the Big Pineapple, this seems to be working. They’re receiving the required upkeep.
For others, their fate is less certain. Without visitation their coats have discoloured, their fangs have lost bite. Many are falling apart. But their reasons for being have not gone anywhere. Small towns still rely on drive-by business, and tourism infrastructure is crucial. Faced with the challenge of boosting tourism, some small towns are still building big things. There’s the Big Thermometer in Stanthorpe (2018), the Big Melon in Chinchilla (2018) and the Big Bogan in Nyngan (2015).

In 2007, the big things phenomenon inspired an ethnographic documentary called Big Dreamers, which focuses on Tully, a small town on Queensland’s Cassowary Coast. The once prosperous sugar cane region was as experiencing something of an identity crisis after Brazil dumped its sugar surplus on the global market. Tasked with finding a solution to the economic gap left by sugar cane, a group of local men decided to build Tully’s big thing, in the hope of boosting the town’s tourism economy. Their choice of mascot was a 7.9m tall gumboot, emblematic of Tully’s record rainfall of 7.9 meters in 1950.

Big Dreamers paints a picture of big things as objects of curiosity and their small towns as strange foreign lands. The film poster’s graphic design, with its carnivalesque typography and red drapes, echoes Tully’s struggle for identity as a sideshow in a travelling circus. Yet the struggle is real for towns like Tully and big things are built with even bigger expectations.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

Whilst big things vary wildly from potatoes to pink galahs, each one is built for the same reason; to express the identity of an area and put it ‘on the map’. In the contemporary design world, we call this a ‘sense of place’. The distinct character of an area, it’s landscapes and local stories. But as a designer, I can’t help but see the story of Tully as evidence of our failure to evolve. Of a dated, colonial approach to placemaking by a group of older white men. Of a reduction of our regions to cartoons of commodity and a lost opportunity. Surely we can do better?

Sensitive responses to landscape, consultation with first nations people and heritage interpretation are all becoming expected parts of critical design process. Even our smallest structures are beginning to benefit. Designed thoughtfully, lookouts, visitor centres and toilet blocks can become tourism attractions in their own right. Recent regional projects like the Kalbarri Skywalk in WA or the Warumbungles Visitor Centre in NSW boast glowing google reviews from tourists and critical acclaim from the design community.

So why then, did that group of men in Tully choose to build a giant gumboot? It’s not as if they were oblivious to big things’ kitsch reputation. Nor were they under any false impression that a gumboot would actually
fill the economic gap left by the sugar cane industry. Nor was there any shortage of skepticism from Tully’s townspeople. As one concerned local neatly summarized in the film, “what hope do we have when [with] everything that is wrong in our industry, in our town, the best we can come up with is a frog on the edge of a tacky gumboot?”

In a 2010 radio interview, Ron Hunt, the man responsible for Tully’s big thing, was asked to reflect on the effect of his creation. Ron described the boot as a success, but not in an economic sense. “It gets people to break their trip and come into town”, he says. “They may only buy a cup of coffee or nothing at all, but they come into town … and that’s what matters”. Ron acknowledges the presence of the “naysayers” during the process, but explains that once the thing was on site, “people were coming up and asking how they could help.”

And help they did. The cost of the boot blew out from $35,000 to $90,000, and the local townspeople contributed a further $60,000 of trade and labour to see the project through. Since then, the boot has seen two cyclones and required several restorations, the most recent being in 2015. Each time, Tully has rallied behind their big thing and ensured it remains a pivotal part of their tourism offering.

Perhaps big things can be viewed in another way, as unique expressions of community. Each one depends solely on the impassioned energy of individuals, motivated by their love for their town. Camille Hardman, the director of Big Dreamers, explains how each big thing “has never been built before and will likely never be built again”. Each one is created in a “confined environment with no money or materials”, and “depends solely on local tradesman”.

By judging big things against contemporary tourism infrastructure I may be missing the point. Sure, elegant visitor centres appeal to tourists and designers, but what of the local people they represent? A record rainfall of 7.9m may not seem like obvious boasting rights to me, but the fact is that in Tully, holding the title of ‘a pretty wet place’ matters.

Big things are truly unique because they aren’t part of a national tourism initiative. They aren’t funded through government budgets or developed in consultation with a myriad of experts. Their form, materiality and the stories they tell are selected by the people who decide to make them. For all their kitschy cringe, these oversized artefacts deserve their place in our collective culture. For the lucky few that receive the required upkeep, they will continue to put their town on the map.

Illustration: Jordan Silver

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