The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.
For the past few months, the British American comedian John Oliver has been locked in talks with the Yarra City Council, in Melbourne, in what has become a labyrinthine negotiation involving public art, vandalism, koala chlamydia, a polystyrene recycling machine, three disturbing giant metal frogs and a bucket full of cursed baby dolls. This past week, the negotiations reached what (I hope) will become a tipping point, because I really want those frogs to be part of my daily life.
The situation is not easy to summarize, but let’s give it a whirl: In late 2021, the council unveiled a sculpture titled “Fallen Fruit” by the artist Adam Stone on a street corner in the neighborhood of Fitzroy. The Melbourne area, and Fitzroy in particular, has a long history of supporting public art, but this statue had another purpose as well: to help slow down traffic.
Alas, many locals did not appreciate Mr. Stone’s work. A kind of mash-up of Skeletor from “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” the Martians from 1996’s “Mars Attacks” and — let’s face it — the absolute worst fruit, the sculpture was later vandalized when someone tried to decapitate it. The city removed the sculpture in order to — well, actually, we have no idea. They won’t say what they’re doing with it, whether it’s been repaired and if it will ever see the streets of Melbourne again.
When Mr. Oliver heard about the situation, he proposed a solution: He would buy the sculpture for 10 Australian dollars; make a $10,000 donation to a Melbourne food bank and a $5,000 donation to the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Queensland (another story, which you can read about here); and send Melbourne, as a replacement, a statue of a giant alligator making an impolite hand gesture.
Mr. Oliver has been in similar negotiations with Texas, albeit with a much more straightforward outcome. The beaches of southern Texas have been experiencing a strange phenomenon: multiple baby dolls washing up on shore. These scribbled-upon dolls can be fairly described as nightmare material, partly thanks to their time in the ocean. Judge for yourself. Mr. Oliver offered $10,000 to a local sea turtle rescue organization if the dolls were turned over to him.
He now has the dolls.
Which brings us to this week. Mr. Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight” (watchable in Australia on the online platform Binge) generally focuses on one issue per episode, and this week it was about inflation. As a prop to explain inflation, Mr. Oliver purchased three giant bronze frog statues. The frogs were doing something with their legs that is not exactly lewd, but not OK, either. While perhaps less disturbing that the banana or the baby dolls, there’s something about these frogs that is both joyful and upsetting. In other words, they are perfect.
Yarra’s mayor, Sophie Black, rejected Mr. Oliver’s proposal to buy the banana, but she suggested an alternative: he sends the alligator statue, and the city will name its polystyrene recycling machine after Mr. Oliver.
Mr. Oliver has now made yet another counteroffer. While he is no longer willing to part with his alligator statue, he will throw in the three giant frogs, plus the original donations to the food bank and the koala chlamydia ward. The only thing Yarra needs to do in return is name the polystyrene recycling machine after him and then take the bucket of cursed baby dolls and run them through the machine so as to “destroy them forever.”
Seems like a good deal, right? The only problem: the dolls are not made of polystyrene. They may damage the machine.
I reached out to the Yarra City Council and Mayor Black to find out if my assumptions were correct, and to ask her what the negotiating has been like. Unfortunately, she is on vacation and her office was hesitant to reveal anything at all — even whether or not you can put cursed baby dolls through a polystyrene recycling machine. “I don’t know what the dolls are made of, so I can’t officially comment either way,” a council spokeswoman, Imogen Baratta, said via email.
But I am holding out hope that a deal can be struck, not least because the corner where this all started is three blocks from my house. I walk past it almost every day. I would love to have these frogs decorate the neighborhood, in no small part because they are so very silly and Fitzroy is so very trendy (for those not familiar, this is a neighborhood that I once described as putting Williamsburg and Silver Lake, Calif., to shame on the hipster scale), and there is no way that anyone could ever look at those frogs and see anything but ridiculousness.
And now, this (week’s stories):
Australia and New Zealand
A Test Case for Australia’s Broad New Law Against Foreign Meddling. A donation to a hospital led to criminal charges for an Australian of Chinese descent. The case hinges not on what he did, but on what he might have been planning to do.
After 37 Years, the Sunny World of ‘Neighbours’ Comes to an End. The Australian soap opera, which has aired nearly 9,000 episodes, is drawing to a close, disappointing many fans who grew up watching the show.
They Flocked to China for Boom Times. Now They’re Thinking Twice.Global businesses and industries that rode the China growth wave for years are bracing for the fallout of a slowing economy.
Rediscovering Australia’s Generation of Defiant Female Directors. Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, Essie Coffey and others had waited years to tell their stories, as a Museum of the Moving Image series shows.
DNA Researchers Name the Somerton Man, Australia’s 73-Year-Old Cold Case. Sleuths amateur and professional alike have been puzzled for years by the discovery in 1948 of an unidentified man’s body slumped by a sea wall near Adelaide. The South Australian police have not verified the new finding.
Amid Sri Lanka’s Crisis, Cricket Carries On. The success of the men’s national team has offered solace to the country, and one fan called the players “brand ambassadors during this time of hardship.”
Around The Times
Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus. In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.
Climate Change Worsened Britain’s Heat Wave, Scientists Find. Scorchers like the one last week are still unusual, but global warming is making them more likely, and worse when they do strike.
2016 Campaign Looms Large as Justice Dept. Pursues Jan. 6 Inquiry. Top officials at the department and the F.B.I. appear intent on avoiding any errors that could taint the current investigation or provide ammunition for a backlash.
An Indiana Doctor Speaks Out on Abortion, and Pays a Price. Dr. Caitlin Bernard, who provided an abortion to a 10-year-old, says doctors shouldn’t be silent. But she finds herself at the center of a post-Roe clash shaking the medical community.
There Are Holes on the Ocean Floor. Scientists Don’t Know Why.Similar openings on the sea floor were first spotted 18 years ago along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Their origins remain unknown. Scientists are asking the public for their thoughts.
Enjoying the Australia Letter? Sign up here or forward to a friend.
For more Australia coverage and discussion, start your day with your local Morning Briefing and join us in our Facebook group.