MAAS Magazine

Moments Before War: the Sydney Snow Dome

On the shelf above my desk I have a little collection of objects that cluster together in a dusty assembly of sentimental curios. They have moved with me from house to house and include some seashells from a camping trip, a slightly dishevelled Zapatista doll, a framed picture of the Swilker Oak and a Sydney Snow Dome. The Snow Dome joined the collection in 2004, given to me by Will Saunders, one of the two activists responsible for painting “No War” on the sails of the Opera House. The improbably snowy world inside the dome had been altered with a miniature “No War” scrawled, in the same irregular red letters, on the iconic Sydney building.

No War Sydney Opera House snow dome, maker unknown, Installation view, Disobedient Objects, MAAS, 2015
No War Sydney Opera House snow dome, maker unknown, Installation view, Disobedient Objects, MAAS, 2015

When I was first given the Snow Dome I used to enjoy shaking it and letting the swirling white world clear to reveal the slogan. This satisfying revelation would take me back to that day on 18 March 2003 when I turned up to work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Circular Quay and by chance glanced up to the Opera House to see the giant letters emerging on the Opera House sails. It was the day before the second US-led war in Iraq began and the morning was heavy with a sense of approaching violence.

A few weeks earlier I had attended the No War in rally in Sydney’s Domain. As I caught the train into the city I was struck by the exhilarating feeling that everyone else was heading to the same place. Over half a million people attended the rally that day, forming part of the largest global protest event in human history (Walgrave and Rucht, 2010, p. xiii). As we sat in the pub after the rally figures poured in about demonstrations around the world – three million protesters in Rome, 1.5 million in Madrid – among thousands of others around the world. It felt like the people had spoken.

Our Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, deemed otherwise calling the monster rallies “unrepresentative of public opinion”. George Bush, Tony Blair and other members of the Coalition kept pushing towards war, impervious to massive global opposition, mounting questions over the veracity of their intelligence information and the legalities of threatening to remove a foreign leader by force. As I stood on the foreshore of Circular Quay that morning, watching the two tiny figures labouring over the huge slogan, it seemed like an audacious and desperate attempt to get an anti-war message out to the world.

Will Saunders and David Burgess climb the Sydney Opera House to paint the slogan “NO WAR”, 2003, AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Will Saunders and David Burgess climb the Sydney Opera House to paint the slogan “NO WAR”, 2003, AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Of course not everyone shared this sentiment. Will and Dave were charged with vandalism and sentenced to nine months’ periodic detention and ordered to pay $151,000 to help clean the Opera House. I first met Will while helping raise these funds. I curated an anti-war fundraiser exhibition at Mori Gallery and donated $5000 (raised by the sale of a huge number of Sydney artist’s works) to their campaign. I was surprised to get a dinner invitation as a thank you. The pair had raised $80,000 towards their fine and I assumed my contribution was relatively puny. During the dinner Will explained that the funds we contributed were one of the largest lump sum donations they had received, the rest being raised through the sale of $20 No War Snow Domes. He gave me a dome and we shook the snow and laughed at the trouble the action had got him into.

Since then the dome has travelled with me, a reminder of those moments before the second war in Iraq began. My last change of residence has taken me – appropriately enough for this article – to the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, also called “Little Baghdad” for its large Iraqi refugee population. As we know now, the war in Iraq has continued in escalating cycles of violence, displacing waves of people with its horror. Refugees have ended up in exile around the world, including large numbers in Australia. I recently made a video, 1001 Nights in Fairfield with the Choir of Love, a choir of refugees from Iraq as part of a residency with Powerhouse Youth Theatre in partnership with STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors). The project explored the trauma of fleeing war and seeking refugee status in Australia.

1001 Nights Excerpt from Zanny Begg on Vimeo.

The Sydney snow dome is a cheeky appropriation of a common tourist trinket speaking of the irreverence and ingenuity of Australian protest culture. Funnily enough the slogan has faded from my dome and the sails of the Opera House have returned to their original condition – just as the funds raised from the dome’s sale achieved in real life. The war itself has unfortunately not faded away…

Post by Zanny Begg

Zanny Begg is a Sydney based artist whose work focuses on political activism and community. Her work uses humour, understated drawings and found cultural artifacts to explore ways in which we can live and be in the world differently.


Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht, ‘Introduction’ in Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht (eds.), The world says no to war: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010, pp. xiii–xxvi

One response to “Moments Before War: the Sydney Snow Dome

  • Ha Zanny,

    Just came across this by accident. Yes, we did have a few quality control problems with the early batches of snowdomes. It was resolved by adding a coat of clear nail polish to the later models but with the early ones art did indeed imitate life. There’s one on display in Old Parliament House in Canberra.

    The incident is currently recounted in a film called We Are Many by Amir Amirani about the global protests of 2003 & has been longlisted for the Oscars.

    Great to read your story!

    David Burgess

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