Tag Archives: Art Gallery of NSW

500 people: Weeks 41 to 43

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

I had a terrific conversation in the sauna this week ranging over the relative merits of cows and goats, Buddhism and Christianity, the gym we were in and the one at Annette Kellerman, and other matters. When I was about to head for the showers I told the other chap my name, and he said, ‘I know, we’ve met before.’ So I couldn’t include the conversation as part of the Challenge – though it does confirm that at least some of these encounters have follow-ups. He may have been Number 7 in Week 14.

1. Sunday 21 November. Usually when I visit an art gallery I wouldn’t dream of initiating a conversation with an artist. Today in Articulate, a small gallery on Parramatta Road, with my 500 People challenge in mind, I did just that. The artist seemed delighted to engage. The works on exhibition were collaborative drawings, and her description of the collaborative process was fascinating. At one stage, saying, ‘I can do this because I’m the artist,’ she lifted a corner of a large hanging to show me and my two companions who had joined us the reverse side of the richly textured paper.

2. Monday, I went out early to buy some celery. At the checkout, a young woman asked from behind her mask, ‘Do you make celery juice?’ When I said I did, she told me about her own celery-and-lemon-juice routine, and how it had improved her health and ‘even’ her skin (her skin looked fine to me). I said I had mine mixed with carrot, beetroot, apple and ginger juice. And we were away – luckily there was no one else in the queue. Her most memorable line was, ‘I used to have mine with carrot juice but I stopped because it was like soup.’

3. Tuesday. There’s a Matisse exhibition on at the Art Gallery of NSW. I had a free ticket thanks to a son’s excellent gift of Gallery membership. I was intrigued by the 1944 painting Still life with magnolia, displayed alongside six preparatory sketches. I turned to a woman who was also looking at it and remarked how interesting it was to see the painting along with the sketches. Luckily she was no more of a connoisseur than I am, and pretty much finished my sentence for me. We chatted a little and then went our separate ways.

4. Sunday 28 November. I called to make an appointment to see a podiatrist (don’t ask!). Miraculously an appointment was possible the next day. As the receptionist was taking down my details, she asked how to spell my name. I told her, and thanked her for asking. She said she knew what it was like as her name is Isabel. I told her that both my mother and my quasi mother-in-law had that as a second name, spelled Isabel and Isobel respectively. (I discovered the next day when I asked after her that she goes by Izzy.)

5. Monday. At the podiatrist’s, I decided to have an actual conversation while she was attending to my feet. It wasn’t hard as she seems to have worked out that life goes better if you connect with people. In response to my asking how she got into podiatry, she told a sweet story. We talked about other things as well … Then, as I was going down the stairs, I heard her greet the next client: ‘I always look forward to your visits.’ ‘Me too,’ he answered.

6. Monday. I had a brief interaction with that man (‘the next client’) before going to the stairs. I saw that he was intensely focused on the Target Word in the Sydney Morning Herald. I contemplated telling him the day’s nine-letter word, but realised that would have been purely mischievous. I did, however, say truthfully, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen someone else doing that.’ He laughed, and told me he usually does the Quick Crossword, but he’d finished it and had time to fill.

7. Wednesday 8 December. I include this as representative of maybe a score of tiny, courteous-to-warm interactions that I haven’t noted. This morning in the pool, the slow lane was uncomfortably crowded. At one stage, I paused at the end of a lap to make way for the woman a couple of body-lengths behind me, who was swimming faster than me and would have had to pass me if I’d kept going. She took a moment to acknowledge the courtesy with a nod and a smile and a ‘Thanks’, and I reciprocated.

8. Thursday afternoon, driving down Addison Road in Marrickville, we passed an ambulance and police car dealing with someone who looked as if they’d been hit crossing the street. The traffic going in the opposite direction to us was banked up for blocks. When we came to our next set of lights, I gestured to the driver of the car closest to me and when she wound down her window I told her what the hold-up was. She thanked me. I know this is almost nothing as far as human contact goes, but the next time we stopped, I made the same gesture to a driver who was about the same distance from me. I could tell that this one saw me, but they (I genuinely don’t remember their gender) studiously refused the overture.

9 & 10. Saturday 11 December. We went on a long walk – from Cowan Station to Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin. We passed very few people, but had a pleasant chat at one encounter. We had been walking up a stretch that was classified as hard, and feeling it, when we met a family – a woman, a man and a teenaged girl – coming down. We exchanged politenesses. Then, inspired by Joe Keohane’s book The Power of Strangers (blog post to come soon), I admired their walking sticks, and asked if they were Nordic style. They weren’t, but both parents were happy to talk about the sticks, which led to an exchange of stories about walking various parts of the Camino/Caminho/Camiño di Compostella, past and possibly future.

Running total is now 262, but bloody Joe Keohane (see above) has ade me realise that I’ve set my bar pretty low in this challenge – most if not all the encounters I have listed are opportunistic, in the sense that these are people I meet anyhow, and many of them aren’t much more than hit-and-runs. I’ll (try to) do better.

November verse 15: An initial response to a work by Danie Mellor

November verse 15: An initial response to
Danie Mellor's A time of the world's making
Born on stolen Mamu Country
where the Johnstone River flows
(Robert Johnstone brought the guns, ey?),
where the cash crop sugar grows,
I loved that place, its rich volcanic
soil, the heat, and the titanic
rainfall – the rainforest too.
The place was old, and I was new.
I didn't hear its age-old stories.
Now tiny men, ropes, floating shell,
and women with their pile of skulls –
in crayon-blue, no dark green glory –
all alive, a dream unfurled:
is now a time to make the world?

Danie Mellor’s stunning work, A time of the world’s making, 2019, features in Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (next door to the huge Arthur Streeton exhibition on the same floor, and a floor below the Archibald).

Here’s a video walk-through of the Dobell with curator Ann Ryan. She talks about Danie Mellor’s two ‘landspaces’ from 11:16 to 12:58:

Sonnet #7: Rally at the Gallery

On Friday evening the Francis Bacon exhibition officially opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Premier Barry O’Farrell was to preside, on whose watch a number of gallery staff have been summarily sacked and fine arts courses in the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) system almost as summarily deprived of government funding, with devastating effect on the equitable provision of studio-based arts education in the state. A demonstration was called for, and happened. Maybe two hundred of us gathered outside the gallery with banners and art works, chanting and singing and staging a mock funeral, and handing leaflets to the invited guests. One bejewelled matron, when approached by the Art Student with a leaflet, told her imperiously to get a job.

In what looked like a display of political pusillanimity, the Premier didn’t risk having to face some of the people whose lives he has disrupted. George Souris, Minister for Arts and, among other things, Horse-Racing, did the honours instead. Invited guests were asked to turn their backs during his speech in solidarity with the sacked staff and stranded students. Evidently some did, and there was little if any applause. Outside, as he spoke, we chanted, ‘Save TAFE art’. Guests continued to arrive and I noticed that the man on the door was very quick to open the door for them and slow to close it after them, thereby ensuring, perhaps deliberately, that the door was open for as much of the speech as possible, allowing our uncouth ruckus to be heard inside.

This probably deserves more than a sonnet, but a sonnet is all I’ve got:

Sonnet 7: Rally at the Gallery
Swallows, bats and other pests
perform outside the gallery.
Some fly, some squeak, some accost guests
to talk about O’Farrell. He
was due to launch the Francis Bacon.
‘Barry, Barry, we’re not fakin’…’
‘We want to keep art education
for the future generation.’
”Oh, get a job.’ ‘Art is work.’
Don’t celebrate dead money-spinners,
snatching all funds from beginners.
No art, no soul. We’d go berserk!
Inside, poor Francis’ heads explode.
Bats claim the night on Gallery Road.

Edgar Alvarez, student, holds up his homage to Francis Bacon cum reproach to the O’Farrell government. The other feet belong to his brother.

LoSoRhyMo #4: Love and cash registers

There are so many possibilities for my fourth November sonnet. I’m resisting the obvious subject, a farewell to our weekend visitor, even though said visitor went so far as to compose a final couplet for me:

And now our Rita’s gone away
the world has gone all flat and grey.

I’m also resisting Sculpture by the Sea. It got a sonnet last year and this year I’m completely intimidated by Richard Tulloch’s beautiful blogging (that’s two separate links) about it.

Instead, here’s one about what we did last night:

Sonnet 4:
The AGNSW is
an auction house this rainy night
for things owned by the late Ann Lewis.
Six hundred people squeezed in tight
to bid on art from all her walls:
kitchen, bathroom, office, halls,
Riley, Kippel, Napagnardis,
Walpidi, Williams, packed like sardies.
This vast, exuberant collection
reduced to ‘dollars on the phone’,
or ‘absentee with me’ – soul’s flown.
That life of passionate connection
(HelicopterRosalie …)
here has its hammered exequy.

We were empowered to bid on two works on behalf of friends. Both were sold for three or four times our maximum. If there has been a slump in the art market recently, there was no sign of it last night. Perhaps people felt that Ann Lewis’s name added value, or perhaps they were being generous as a way of honouring her memory.

Election night distraction fail

Because we had predicted it would be unbearable to be near a TV on this election night, we chose to join the art aficionados at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the first night of Ken Unsworth’s ‘popera’, The House of Blue Leaves.

If this happened in the show it was after we left and would have required a transformation of the black decor.

As a distraction it was a major failure. I can’t give you a review because we left after a bit less than an hour. The image above makes it look like fun, and maybe the fun started after we left. The show involved music, dance, sculptural creations, appalling sight lines (exacerbated by sections of audience that radiated entitlement), terrible timing (long waits while clanking and scurrying behind a closed curtain weren’t quite masked by dreary chords from the piano). Much of the action happened close to the floor, and so was easily visible only to the front row of the audience. We were in the fifth row, so relied on guesswork for quite a bit of it.

Given all that, the show started promisingly. After a reverberant male voice proclaimed ‘In the beginning’ and variations, the curtain opened to the sound of heavy breathing on a more or less blank stage (there was a doll of some sort lying up the back left, but it was hard to tell if it was meant to be there), and then a further curtain opened at the back right to reveal the source of the heavy breathing, a woman in a nightie and body stocking lying on her back with her legs spread, crotch towards us. After a little while a small grotesque winged figure descended from the ceiling and rested for a moment between her legs (I think – the woman had moved around and so had people’s heads, so I could no longer see her at all). Then it rose again, and when halfway to the roof emitted a shower of fairy dust, or succubus sperm. A ripple of laughter. The only one of teh evening. The curtains closed.

There followed a song, beautifully performed by Natalie Gamsu in a shiny black frock, in German, something to do with morgen.

A man in black carried a helicopter onstage and popped three balloons by pointing it at them. There were boy sopranos, just their heads in urinal like stainless steel bowls, singing ‘See that ye love one another’. Natalie Gamsu made another appearance, her head poking out of a hole in a tall white boxy structure on wheels, this time singing in Spanish (‘Contorna‘) to a group of masked dancers. Slender wooden poles descended from the ceiling and made occasional clacking sounds that startled the dancers; after a while hands emerged from the ceiling and detached the poles, so that they fell onto the stage. Occasionally, as when a woman in a white dress floated up to land on the table holding the urinal-bowl-boys’-heads, there was a moment that seemed to promise something. But she just floated down to the floor again, helped by a man in black.

To my untutored eye, the choreography would not have disgraced a very good high school performance. The dancers were fine. Everything was done with great solemnity. There was nothing even faintly pop about the music or the decor. It was po-faced rather than pop, and not at all operatic. It was theatre without theatricality, entertainment without amusement, earnestness without seriousness.

One of the young men who made their escape at the same time as us said it was probably going to be brilliant from then on, and we’d kick ourselves when we read the reviews. He was joking.

We got home in time to see 20-year-old Wyatt Roy tell the cameras, ‘I want to be potentially the politician that is available and that gets back to people, that is connected to the community and has their pulse on the issues.’

School Holidays are almost over

School holidays are almost over and the Art Student will soon gone back to her normal routine. It has been lovely having her about the place, but it will be a relief when the holidays are over.

We’ve been up to quite a lot:

• We visited Michael Callaghan’s exhibition The Torture Memo at the Damien Minto Gallery. Text  – phrases from the ‘war on terror’, a mediaeval Arabic poem – side by side in English and Arabic, combine with images  to powerful effect: realistic water pours from a plastic bottle down the middle of the canvas with text on water boarding on either side, and a blown up woodprint showing that form of torture being carried out in the Spanish Inquisition; a hooded figure with vulnerable looking hands the only visible parts of his body against a background of text and splattered blood. Michael’s political posters have been around for at least four decades – it’s great to see this new work in a gallery, as intelligently provocative, and beautiful, as ever. Some of the large works have been bought by the Australian War Memorial.

• We got out of town for a couple of nights, stayed at Bundanoon, the small town on the southern highlands that was celebrating the first anniversary of its decision  to no longer sell bottled water. It was wet and bitterly cold (by Sydney standards – I realise that 0oC is balmy to Alaskans and others), and though the town’s Mid-winter Festival was in full swing, we mainly played Scrabble beside a wood fire, dining at the local Chinese restaurant and the Suffolk Forest pub bistro. We drove the extra ks to Canberra on our full day, to visit the National Portrait Gallery (how a newborn baby must feel, fascinated by human faces, but surrounded by far too many of them to process comfortably) and the Hans Heysen exhibition at the National Art Gallery. It turns out I can’t get enough gum trees, though the Art Student grew weary after the first hundred of so. We both loved the later, stark Flinders Ranges landscapes.

• We popped in on an Elisabeth Cummings exhibition and narrowly avoided buying a small etching – I’m not sure why we avoided it, as we both loved the painting and both thought it was probably a wise investment. And on the same trip to East Sydney we had a look at Euan Macleod’s riveting Antarctic landscapes.

• We strolled around some fetching Victoriana at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, because the A-S had to write an essay about two of the paintings. While we were there we paid good money to see Paths to Abstraction, which included any number of wonderful 19th and 20th century paintings but left me no wiser about abstraction. Between the Nabis and the Cubists, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for 30 years – and given that I have a bit of a reputation for vagueness I’m glad to report that I recognised her. We gratified each other by knowing bits of recent news about each other’s family. This alone made the exhibition worth the price of admission.

• I nearly forgot to mention that on the way back from Bundanoon we made a detour down Bong Bong Road at Mittagong to visit what is now The Hermitage but for three and a half years in the mid 1960s was my home when I was in training to be a Marist Brother. We’d intended to drive around the buildings and be on our way, but we bumped into one of my coevals, still a member of the order, who turns out to be Guestmaster (a church title, as he said) of what is now a retreat centre there. He showed us over the place, which of course bears no resemblance at all to the drab, chilblain inducing environment of our youth. Given that most mentions of the Marist Brothers in the mainstream media these days are to do with sexual abuse, it was a real shot in the arm to be spend time with my old friend Paddy, getting a sense of what he and the others who have stayed in the order have been up to. The place is full of ghosts, some of them still living (one of them in a tiny personal hermitage in the middle of a cow paddock), almost all of them benign.

On the home front, the Art Student’s studio has invaded the sitting room: an easels, a cheap mirrors (for self-portayal purposes), linocut gear, scanned images, scraps of paper, tubes of paint, the occasional fellow artist.

Life is good.

Fun with the Crowds

We went this morning to what we’re told these days is even more popular with Australians than the beach or the footie – the art gallery. Specifically, we went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the equivalent of a Grand Final, The Archibald Prize. We bought our concession tickets (I’m a senior, my companion a student) and joined the milling crowd. I liked the winning portrait of Tim Minchin (Penny didn’t). I lay on the floor to get a proper look at the distorted figure in The Alternative Ambassadors (which really ought to have been hung at the top of a staircase, or at least had a comfortable cloth on the floor beside it): ‘It’s a baby,’ I said to those who were too restrained to emulate me, ‘or perhaps a foetus.’ ‘A foetus, definitely,’ said a young woman who was flexible enough to have had a proper look without actually lying down.

In the People’s Choice I voted for Apple Yin’s ‘Previous Life‘, a portrait of a Melbourne personality as a beggar on the Silk Road in a past life. I wondered how Robert Hannaford’s magisterial portrait of Malcolm Fraser would have turned out if give a past life treatment? A Renaissance cardinal, perhaps, or a noble prisoner in the Tower of London?

There were lots of lovely things in the Wynne, including some austere Aboriginal works. I liked the winner, and was glad that among all those huge canvases it was the three smallest works that won the Archibald, the Wynne and the watercolour prizes. The Sulman mostly left me bemused, as it often does. If a work of art is supposed to be something you can look at for a long time and over a long period and still find fresh (and I know that’s a big ‘if’), how come a one-note joke won the Sulman? (You understand I speak as one who knows very little about art, and would generally recommend you listen to the brilliant Imants Tillers, this year’s Sulman judge, rather than me, on such matters, but I really don’t get it.)

We walked the length of the city, chatting happily, arguing with John McDonald in his absence, to Haymarket where we had a most satisfactory yum cha in the vast Marigold, apparently in the company of everyone who wasn’t actually at an art gallery.

Easter, the festival of the changing season, and this year also of putting the clocks back, draws to a close. I hope you’ve had a good one too.

Artsy weekend

It’s a long weekend in New South Wales, the Rugby League Grand Final, and a busy, artsy time for our household.

After the Orange Grove Market on Saturday morning, we went to the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington where there’s an excellent exhibition of students’ work as well as The Lake, in which ‘ten artists explore the exquisite strangeness of the Australian landscape through photography, video and interactive work’, and where I got unreasonable pleasure from making waves swell and crash in one of the interactive video pieces, as well as very reasonable pleasure from the many spectacularly beautiful photos, both digitally manipulated and not obviously so.

Then on to the Roslyn Oxley Gallery where we were puzzled by half a dozen large, rough drawings on butcher’s paper by Tatzu Nishi of equestrian statues that appeared to have been  wholly or partly transported into domestic settings. If these huge drawings, with much Japanese notation on them, weren’t enigmatic enough, there was the added mystery that much of the wall space in that room were bare. Deciding that both the sketches and the blank walls would remain among art’s little mysteries, we stopped on our way back to the car to look at a slide show of the artist’s installations, in which he builds domestic spaces around public objects – the spire of a European church, a street light, a large graffitied sphere in a park somewhere … The mystery of the half bare room was part way to being cleared up.

The mystery was cleared up completely the next afternoon when we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see something that had been mentioned in the small print of a Roslyn Oxley hand-out, the John Kaldor exhibition (a revelation in its own right, but I’ll skip over that). As a Tatzu Nishi project, the equestrian statues that flank the main entrance of the gallery are enclosed in bright blue cladding, with ramps leading to doors that give us access into the blue rectabgular shapes. And inside, we see what those blank walls in Paddington are waiting for. No doubt the photos that appear there over the next couple of days will be better – and much bigger – than these, but here’s a look. Go and see the installation yourself if you can – no photo can convey the exhilaration of walking into those rooms, especially the bedroom. (The John Kaldor site has a slide show of the construction.)

The Spoils of War as seen from the ground:

IMG_3827 IMG_3825

and from inside the blue cladding (the fruit on the table is real):


The Offerings of Peace in the elevated bedroom:

IMG_3829 IMG_3830 IMG_3832 IMG_3831

But back to Saturday. After dinner we were off to the Opera House to hear Christopher Hitchens at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. (Just so you know, I think such a festival is a pretty lame idea. What’s the point of giving a huge platform to people who want to argue against legislation protecting workers from exploitation?  Is any useful purpose served by Germaine Greer once again expressing her contempt for Steve Irwin? Indeed, once you’ve read the title of Christopher Hitchens’s address, do you need to pay good money to hear it?)

achitchBut we’d seen Christopher on Q&A on Thursday night, and he was impressive: abrasive and pugnacious but brilliant and, actually, civil. So we decided to make him our Saturday night’s entertainment. We managed to get late-bookers’ seats in the choir behind the stage. Here’s a phone shot taken 10 minutes before the show started from our pozzie in the middle of the front back row. In those ten minutes, the whole hall, including most of the choir, filled. It seems that many people in Sydney are hungry for atheism, or maybe just like a good smackdown, whoever is being smacked.


After the preliminaries – a fabulous Welcome to Country, a speech from the Opera House’s CEO (who hinted that he was heading off to the Sleaze Ball after the talk), an excellent two-minute speech on the right to die from Sarah Taylor (who had won a soapbox-rant competition in the forecourt that afternoon), an introduction by ABC journalist Tony Jones (who called Hitchens, insultingly I thought,  a contrarian) – he gave a forty minute talk, then conversed with Tony Jones for another half hour or so. The audience applauded frequently, which was only right and proper, but at times created an uneasy sense that he was preaching to the choir. Sadly, I mean that only metaphorically – the acoustics in the actual physical choir were terrible, so we missed an awful lot of what was said in the Hitchens’ upper-class mumble. When he started quoting from the Monty Python Philosophy Song what should have been a delight was just an irritation.

I won’t try to summarise his talk – it will be all over the internet soon, on ABC Fora or Slow TV or who knows where else. I loved it that he started out with a personal connection to Australia: he read a lot of Neville Shute as a teenager, and gave us the evangelicals’ banner ‘There is still time, Brother’ flapping in the breeze after the end of the human race in On the Beach as an epigraph for his talk. I loved his response to Cardinal George Pell’s then-yet-to-be-given address, ‘Without God we are nothing‘: ‘Don’t you take that tone with me.’ I wonder how the scattering of women in hijabs and other people of faith in the audience responded: presumably they abstained from applauding at least the cheaper shots (calling Moses a schizophrenic comes to mind). I had a sense, though, that for all his seriousness and erudition, Hitchens somehow was missing the point of religion. When Tony Jones asked him if he would consider the pervasive religious practice of Bali as poisonous, I think he said (remember, my hearing was impaired) that that wasn’t really religion because it wasn’t poisonous. And he replied similarly to a question about a Salvation Army Officer who has devoted his life to demonstrably effective good works. I’m in the atheist camp myself, but came away unconvinced that religion is the enemy of all that is good. I did, however, come away thinking, and that can’t be bad.

gethAfter our visit to the AGNSW yesterday afternoon we went to David Hare’s Gethsemane at Belvoir Street. The play started out with what might have been a quote from Christopher Hitchens, a statement that some people put their faith in a book, some in one book some in another, but the book gives them certainly, and a further statement that the play we were about to see was full of people with a book. The second act started with a similar Hitchy address to the audience about how religious people are incomprehensible. Those two moments, however, had no discernible connection to the rest of the play. There were two very watchable performances, from Hugh Keays-Byrne as a political fixer and Emily Barclay as a troubled teenager. Sadly, whether it was the performances, the direction or the writing, I found the play as a whole pretty much an incoherent mess. And what’s more the Gethsemane reference was irritatingly illiterate: the whole point of the Agony in the Garden, according to these characters, was that Jesus doubted his mission. I would have thought he was doing something a little less cerebral, like experiencing wretched miserable terror and unhappiness about it, without a shadow of doubt. ‘Father if it be thy will, let this chalice pass from me’ is surely a far cry from ‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more because there’s too much paperwork and not enough actual teaching.’ According to Time Out (as quoted on the Belvoir web page), the play provides ‘an insight into why we are in such a mess today’. Not to me, it doesn’t.