Australians love a Big Thing. If Brett Whiteley had called his sculpture “The Big Matchsticks,” and plonked it by the Pacific Highway, there would be a kiosk selling postcards at its base, and tourist buses pulling in by the dozen.

As it was he donated the piece called “Almost Once” to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1991, a year before he died of a drug overdose. It was stuck around the back, overlooking the Cahill Expressway, out of sight and out of mind.

The striking sculpture, eight metres tall including its plinth, has suffered from the elements over the years. Cockatoos make a habit of tearing at the work as they sharpen their beaks on the charcoal at the top of the burnt matchstick.

During its second major overhaul in 2002 sculptor Matt Dillon, who constructed the piece under Whiteley’s direction, was critical of the gallery’s maintenance record. “It will always be a reparation, it’s not original, and that could have been avoided if the gallery had agreed to doing maintenance on it every two years or so,” he said. “The two matches are the orphaned siblings of the Art Gallery of NSW.”

“Almost Once” prompts meditations on life and death, burning out, and the cost of living life to the full. If Whiteley had put his sculpture by the Pacific Highway, as well as attracting more visitors, he would have spared tourists from troubling thoughts as they asked themselves, “What does it mean?” No one has ever asked what the Big Banana “means.” It’s big and it’s a banana: that’s enough.

Chris Ryan

“If you want to be an artist, you go to an art supply house and get some ink and some paper and pens, and a calligraphy brush and charcoal, and aim at virtually whatever is in front of you, the subject matter is not that important. And then try and cheat and deceive and lie and exaggerate and most particularly distort as absolutely, as extremely, as you can. And after some six months or a year, or usually in a state of intense frustration, you’ll see something that you truly have never seen before, and that is the beginning of yourself, and that heralds the beginning of difficult pleasure.”

Brett Whitely in Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley (1989)