Supersize plastic bananas may point to a town’s reliance on the local banana producer. “The Big Pineapple” in the Sunshine Coast Region is pretty self-explanatory, while a 40-foot-high guitar could potentially indicate to aspiring musicians: This is the town you’re looking for. And that spooky, red prawn that’s watching drivers in Ballina, New South Wales? Well, some of the giant attractions that can be found along streets and car parks in the world’s sixth-largest country (by area) have clearer messages than others.
Giant monuments are not unique to Australia, as any fan of American roadside attractions will know. But Down Under, the “big things,” as locals call them, are such a cult phenomenon that they have been the subject of political and financial scrutiny, academic research and pop-cultural fascination.
To some, Australia’s “big things” echo the downturn of some of the country’s once-prosperous rural areas. While the Australian economy is doing well overall, many of the more remote towns that gained momentum after World War II have faded in recent times as residents headed off toward more prosperous urban areas.
The town of Banana in central Queensland lost 95 percent of its residents between the 1940s and 2011, declining from more than 7,000 people to about 300 now. Banana, by the way, does not have a giant banana as its “big thing” monument; instead it has Banana the Bullock, a giant ox. Like the town (and many “big things” across Australia), it has seen better days.
“While the wider community may look upon Big Things with misty-eyed fondness, many of these structures have or will eventually become financial liabilities,” wrote Amy Clarke of the University of the Sunshine Coast last year. She argues that “community-led campaigns to prevent the demolition of Big Things are not indicators of their commercial viability . . . but evidence of an attachment to an idea: they are familiar markers in a changing landscape, and their absence would be an emotional rather than practical loss.”
Most “big things” were erected between the 1970s and the 1990s and are now in need of renovation work. But as local councils realized that their financial benefits in attracting visitors and businesses did not live up to expectations, willingness to spend more money on them plummeted.
Simply disposing of the unusual monuments has proved difficult in some towns, where “big things” were in fact associated with, well, bigger things. A supersize statue of Captain James Cook in the city of Cairns has become the subject of a debate over Australia’s legacy for historic exploitation, for instance. Cook has drawn the ire of critics who say that celebrating him as the country’s discoverer ignores the fact that indigenous people lived there for a lot longer.
When critics spray-painted another Cook statue in Sydney last year, they focused on the oppression of Australia’s indigenous people by European discoverers. Then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rallied support for the statue’s continued existence, saying the campaign against Cook was an attempt to “obliterate” history.
In Cairns, the “Big Captain Cook” monument has received somewhat less attention. A 2017 Google Street View image showed that the controversial 32-foot monument still presides over an empty parking lot (but without spray paint).
And what about that big prawn that sits in a car park in New South Wales? Well, academic attempts to figure out its meaning have stalled in recent years, but here’s one explanation cited by researchers: “[The Prawn] says we have character, it says we have a sense of humour. The Big Prawn is very Australian. And anyone who thinks otherwise must be un-Australian.”
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