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Australia’s ‘Big Things’ go from kitsch to art

Dadswells Bridge — Long dismissed as tourist kitsch, Australia’s "Big Things" — giant models of everything from koalas to pineapples — are now being heritage-listed and recognised as works of folk art.

The gaudy structures, commissioned since the 1960s by rural towns keen to put themselves on the map, have gathered such a following they are even being compared to Egypt’s pyramids.

"They’re like our pyramids, our temples," respected artist Reg Mombassa said. "Because European settlement was so recent, Australia doesn’t have historic old buildings like in other countries and the Big Things are a way of saying ‘we’re here, this is our place.’"

Australia has more than 150 Big Things, including the Big Banana at Coffs Harbour — which is about 13 metres (43 feet) long — the Big Trout at Adaminaby and the Big Gumboot, an oversized wellington that adorns Australia’s wettest town, Tully in Queensland.

Among the more unusual examples are the Giant Worm, celebrating the oversize invertebrates found near Bass, the Big Cigar in Churchill and Humpty Doo’s Big Boxing Crocodile.

Mombassa, internationally renowned for his designs for surfware brand Mambo, painted his favourite Big Things in 2007 for a range of stamps commissioned by Australia Post.

He said he first fell in love with them when travelling around the countryside in a crowded mini-bus in the 1970s and 1980s with his band Mental As Anything, best known for 1985’s Live It Up.

"You’d be on these long, long trips and they’d break up the tedium," he said.

He described their tackiness as part of their charm, calling them a typically extroverted Australian phenomenon.

"Some of them are pretty crappy," he said. "But others are folk art, definitely. You look at the Big Merino (a sheep in Goulburn weighing almost 100 tonnes) where they’ve recreated the texture of the wool in concrete. Or the Golden Guitar, that’s a beautiful-looking guitar."

The Big Things’ highest accolade came earlier this year when the Queensland government placed the Big Pineapple on its heritage register, ranking it among the state’s top historic buildings and cultural sites.

The Queensland Heritage Council said the 16-metre (52-foot) high fibreglass fruit had attracted millions of visitors since it opened in 1971.

"(It) is important in demonstrating the development of agri-tourism and roadside attractions in Queensland," the council said.

There have also been lovingly photographed coffee-table books dedicated to Big Things, and websites where overseas tourists express a mixture of admiration and bemusement at the giant structures.

Julie-Anne and Rob McPherson fell under the spell of the Big Things late last year, when they bought the Giant Koala at Dadswells Bridge in Victoria.

Rob was working as an incident controller on Melbourne’s motorways at the time, an often-stressful job investigating car crashes, and the couple wanted to escape the rat race.

"We were looking to maybe buy a caravan park or something," Rob said. "But I stopped in here, found the place was for sale and just fell in love with it."

He said friends and family were initially sceptical when told they were buying the 14-metre bronze and fibreglass koala, which comes with 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres) of land and an adjoining shop and cafe.

The pair are in the process of revamping the koala, nicknamed Karla, installing red lights in her eyes to give her an imposing night-time appearance and applying a lick of paint to make her markings more distinctive.

In recent months, Karla has been featured in comedian Paul Hogan’s yet-to-be-released feature film Charlie and Boots and a national advertising campaign for a telephone company.

Rob said the public’s fascination with Big Things showed no sign of waning.

"We get 100 cars a day coming here and buses making the trip specially, bringing in 50 people at a time," he said. "There’s just something special that appeals people, it’s a sense of fun or something, I don’t know."

Neil Sands / AFP / Expatica