Category Archives: Art

Place of Worship

I stood waiting in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – this was my temple. Art galleries around the world are my place of contemplation, providing idols and shrines to inspire thought, and seemingly infinite space and time. It had been 5 months since my last confession: the Tatsuo Miyajima exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

With its diverse subjects, political commentary, and a genre-twist, the 2017 finalists for the Archibald Prize were of high calibre. Every year, Sydneysiders enjoy browsing the portraits of well-known personalities, obscure-but-accomplished citizens, and actor/director John Bell (only two works featuring him this year!). Almost-three-dimensional oil-paintings are popular as ever (see pictured below), perhaps because of the painting of John Bell that won back in 2001. But there’s everything from photo-realistic paintings to cubist art, like this year’s winner: “Agatha Gothe-Snape” by Mitch Cairns.

There was some interesting uses of mixed media: “JC” (pictured above) contains a dead moth and a unicorn hologram; there’s a school-boys’ collaborative work made of blocks of painted wood; a Peter Powditch portrait with folded cardboard and wood; and a fabulous Wynne entry by Juz Kitzon (below, left) that is made of porcelain, wool, resin, pelt, wax, horns, teeth, quills and more.

I’ve realised that portraits of white men in suits rarely interest me anymore unless, like Phil Meatchem’s painting of Francis Greenslade, they reveal something unexpected. I realise that the suit is an important symbol in its own right, but it hardly jumps out at you. On the other hand, Dee Smart’s “The mayor of Bondi” (above, right) was strikingly beautiful with pops of colour offsetting the monochrome realist body of John Macarthur. Then again, I was just captivated by his shocking white hair and dark wrinkly skin that reminded me of my grandfather who had passed away a week earlier.

The highlight for me was to see that an artwork by Indigenous artist Tjungkara Ken had been submitted as a self-portrait:

‘My painting is a self-portrait through Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa, the Seven Sisters dreaming – a self-portrait of my country. For Anangu, they are one and the same.’  – Tjungkara Ken

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“Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait” – acrylic on linen, Tjungkara Ken, Archibald Prize finalist.

After her collaborative work with her sisters won the 2016 Wynne prize (now hanging in the foyer of AGNSW), I had started to wonder if these so-called landscapes should in-fact be portraits given that they are an expression of identity, so I was thrilled to see this entered as part of the Archibald, but then there was still a full room of Indigenous dot-painting landscapes in the Wynne Prize. I’m not if it was accidental or clever placement, but while in that very room, I spotted through the doorway the Sophia Hewson entry that challenges viewers to confront  their white guilt. It wasn’t the only piece of political art in this exhibition, but I’m curious to see how the Australian art community responds. Until next year…

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Ramandolo

It was the 1980’s when the young Italian followed her husband across the world from the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to the city of Sydney, Australia. She eventually found work of her own in the lower-north-shore suburb of Neutral Bay and spent her weekends hanging out in Kings’ Cross. Just before she returned home a few years later, somewhere across town a little girl of Indian heritage would move to the country with her family. But the two wouldn’t cross paths until 22 years later, when the girl, now a young woman, would turn up in her small but pretty village, Chialminis, to sing Sunday mass with her Triestino choir.
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La Chiesa di Sant’Elena Imperatrice in Chialminis where the Sunday mass took place.     Photo Credit: http://www.natisone.it

The entire village of about 50 people attended both mass and a concert held after a coffee break at the local cafe-bar. At the end of the concert, their conductor proudly elaborated on the choir’s diversity and international-roots; the now-elderly Italian woman asked to be introduced to the young Australian, before she’d even left the stage. There was plenty of time to talk as the town had invited the choristers to join them for lunch. The two women sat down together and exchanged stories in an awkward mix of Italian and English. Each had had very different experiences of Sydney, but both had bought groceries in Leichhardt (a suburb that still hosts a large Italian community). Meanwhile, the village served up a feast – including vegetarian pasta specially made at the last minute for the young woman – and plenty of their locally produced dessert-wine Ramandolo. The locals and the visitors would take turns to sing folk songs amongst the rounds of food. When the day came to an end, the two women bid each other adieu with the usual kisses on cheeks. Five minutes into the drive back to Trieste, the young woman and her fellow singers stopped to buy bottles of that sweet white-yellow wine. She would share it with her friends and colleagues at the astronomy department on her birthday that year.
Even after she left Trieste, the young woman couldn’t shake the feeling that she had been gifted a memory from someone’s life to protect, of which only she could understand the significance. She would recall this as one of her favourite days out of her three years spent living in Italy. Years later, she would find herself scanning the dessert wine section in Sydney, hoping (but not really expecting) to discover a bottle of Ramandolo, so that she could drink in honour of a woman named Lucia.

Seven Sisters

Every year, the Art Gallery of NSW (Australia) features the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Alongside this exhibition are the Wynne Prize for Australian landscapes, and the Sulman Prize for … everything else.

While the Archibald tends to get most of the attention, the Wynne finalists are pretty impressive, and this year’s winner was worth a special mention. The acrylic painting is a collaborative work by five sisters from the Ken family, who live in a remote Aboriginal community in South Australia. The Seven Sisters depicts a Dreaming story** of seven young sisters escaping the advances of a man from ‘another skin group’. They eventually land in the heavens as a small bright group of stars; the man follows them into the sky, forever in pursuit but never able to catch them. The songline for the story extends from south/central Australia all the way to the west coast, and so comes in several variations and languages.

**Aboriginal works such as this are an expression of identity – through representations of country and traditional stories – so sometimes I wonder why they wouldn’t be classed as portraits. But I digress.

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Seven sisters by Ken Family Collaborative (acrylic on linen), winner of the Wynne Prize 2016 for landscape, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The group of stars that the seven sisters become is known to many as the Pleiades, an open star cluster that lies 400 light years away within the constellation of Taurus the Bull. It actually contains not seven, but over 3000 stars, and can be seen from both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. Blue reflection nebulae surround some of the stars; these are the result of carbon dust grains reflecting blue light from the stars themselves. The man in pursuit is sometimes thought to be Orion the Hunter, or just one of the stars in said constellation.

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M45: The Pleiades star cluster (image credit & copyright: Robert Gendler)

Interestingly, this star cluster is associated with mythology across many other cultures: Indian, Greek, Native North American, Maori, and Japanese to name a few. As an aside, the Japanese name for the star cluster is Subaru, which is why the eponymous car manufacturer uses a stylised image of the cluster as its logo. In most of the myths and legends, the Pleiades represent seven sisters. So it’s no surprise that the Astronomical Society of Australia has chosen the Pleiades as the name for the Award that recognises institutions that actively advance the careers of women in astronomy.

Outliers are people too

I confess: I like Tom Stoppard because his plays highlight all the intellectually stimulating but somewhat pretentious (aren’t they all?) discussions I’ve had over the last 15 years. His latest, The Hard Problem, was no different. It follows Hilary, a psychology student who we meet as she applies for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, hoping to inject some humanity into their research. As always, Stoppard treats us to some witty banter, this time about altruism, animal behaviour, coincidence, consciousness, ego, evolutionary biology, morality, neuroscience, religion, and the worlds of academia and finance. The Hard Problem is perhaps less clever and fresh than Arcadia or RosenGuild, but fun and thought-provoking nonetheless. Some of the characters are true to the bone while others, disappointingly, feel typecast, but there is definitely some familiar truth in all. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the brain-lit Hytner production that we saw streamed live from the National Theatre in London – worth seeing.

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre. (Opening 28-01-15) ©Tristram Kenton

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre.
(Opening 28-01-15)
©Tristram Kenton

Free Candy

In my fist was a single piece of candy wrapped in bright yellow cellophane, accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of guilt and sadness. I had just seen a little boy grab four: one for him, one each for mum and dad, and one for grandma, presumably back at home. There was a sign on the wall saying “Please Take One”, but it still didn’t feel right.

“We shouldn’t do this. Don’t you see? We’re killing him.”

“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”

“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, Félix González-Torres, 1991. Multicolored candies, individually wrapped in cellophane; ideal weight 175 lb.; installed dimensions variable, approximately 92 x 92 x 92 cm (36 x 36 x 36 in.)

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Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

recent interview with George Ellis, from the University of Cape Town, had him confront the potential for his religious faith to affect his scientific views. (Part of) his response:

“Many key aspects of life (such as ethics: what is good and what is bad, and aesthetics: what is beautiful and what is ugly) lie outside the domain of scientific inquiry”

appears – at first glance – to concur with Stephen Jay Gould’s vision of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). NOMA demands that moral values lie in the domain of religion, a claim heavily criticised by Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Not a huge fan of the book, but I’m definitely less of a fan of NOMA. For completeness, according to NOMA, art and beauty then belong to yet another “magisterium”. Ellis argues, rather, that ethics “what is good or bad” is “a philosophical or religious question”. [Edit: to clarify, my qualms are regarding whether this is a religious question, not whether it’s a philosophical question.]

“Scuola di Atene”/“The School of Athens” Raphael

“Scuola di Atene” or “The School of Athens”, fresco by Raphael 1509-1510

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Photojournalism Will Tear You Apart

The protestor clashes with policemen. One sprays tear gas not 5 centimetres from his ear, while the other holds him in a tight grip. You have barely begun to acclimatize to the mood of the room — the undercurrent of rage and fear — when suddenly, you are confronted by bodies. Dead. Mostly children. On the street; in coffins; in ambulances; in pools of oil; and, in the World Press Photo of the Year by Swedish Paul Hansen, carried through the streets of Gaza in the arms of grieving uncles.

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