Unsettled

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Tracey Moffatt is an Australian photographer, our entry in the Venice Biennale, and only incidentally an Aboriginal woman, although a lot of her art is very much about the Aboriginal experience.

I return to Bega Regional Art Gallery to see an exhibition of her work. I begin with “Doomed” (2007), a video collage and the genesis of my unsettling. It is ten minutes of disaster – tidal waves, fire, collapsing buildings and general mayhem – all footage from movies. This is not my usual visual diet. My response is to giggle uncomfortably at many of the sequences, I hope the ones the verbiage designated “trashy”.

“Something more” (1989), a sequence of nine photographs, both cibachrome (colour) and silver gelatine (black and white), does nothing to settle me. This is a narrative sequence, and could also be called “Doomed”. It’s the story of a young Aboriginal woman who moves hopefully beyond her life in an outback hut, only to be murdered and left by the road.

 

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“Some lads”, an early work, provides a brief moment of relief. Here the photographer captures the energy of dancers in the Aboriginal and Islanders Dance Company.

The relief doesn’t last long. The series of tone gravure prints called “Laudanum” (1998) contain horror subdued by technique, but there’s still a sense of doom in the architectural contortions and the ghost-like figures. The photos were taken in Elizabeth Bay House and a Georgian farmhouse north of Sydney, and were produced by Mapplethorpe’s printer by techniques unavailable in Australia. I’m learning a bit about the collaborative nature of photography., and about a photography nothing like my snaps of sunny beaches.

Photos from the series “Scarred for life” (1990s), captioned very matter-of-factly, depicts incidents from childhood which will never be forgotten.

 

The final video “Nice coloured girls” (1987) shows colonialism stood on its head as Aboriginal girls cruise Kings Cross looking for a drunk bloke to roll, with juxtaposed extractcs from early colonial journals about the exploitation of Aborginal girls. Or is it the ongoing outcome of colonial brutalities?

A lot of Moffatt’s photographs are staged costume pieces. The children’s room in the gallery has a collection of props and costumes, a mirror, paints and a camera and encourages children to emulate Moffatt’s modus operandi, if not her dark themes.

If you’d like to see Tracey Moffatt’s entry called “My horizons” in the Venice Biennale, you can find some images here, and a Guardian review here.

Disclaimer: I had no idea that this exhibition would give my readers cause to say yet again: “Not for me Meg.”

Hotchpotch 6

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Narooma shopping centre ((iPhone)

Geological anomaly: Billy’s Beach

Shells on whale-rocks at One Tree North (iPhone)

Camellias outside an old house in Bodalla

Spotted gums beside the highway in Bodalla

 

Bodalla: mountain view, old house, garage

Poinsettia, Bodalla

Old tree, Bodalla

Leaves, mud and flowers

Potato vine: my back yard


View from a bird-hide in Melbourne Botanical Gardens

Fern unfurling

Last Melbourne mural

Nowra mural

 

Postcards from the past: Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Sunday, December 30 2000

It’s afternoon now. I’ve spent the morning in the National Museum amongst carved statuary and screens, glass, pottery, inlaid swords, suits of chain mail and a room which was panelled, painted, carved, domed and richly dim. 

I enter the  mosque tentatively, not quite sure of protocols, and find myself in an area of space and shade, where I’m offered a long brown robe with a hood and watch a gardener sweep up leaves, and knock a huge rough-skinned lemon off one of the courtyard trees close to the mausoleum of Saladin. I move into the main area, the area shown in the postcard and I’m overwhelmed by detail: minarets, marble inlay, wooden screens, lapis lazuli and gold. Above it all swirls of pigeons.

Inside the mosque is vast. Children race up and down the centre part, skidding on rugs and falling flat on their backsides. Groups of women sit in groups off to the side chatting. Men, shoes lined up neatly behind them, prostrate themselves in prayer. An old man sits talking to earnest groups and blessing children. I too sit at the foot of a pillar, taking it all in.

As I put my shoes back on, a small boy wearing a Pooh Bear jacket takes up his position in front of me and looks with huge brown eyes at this strange woman, who smiles back without breaking his concentrated stare.

The day hasn’t ended yet. I move into the calligraphy museum next door. There is a woman caretaker and I feel more at ease. I’m in a square space with an octagonal fountain in the centre, which suddenly comes to life. The ceiling is gold and blue-corniced and richly painted with vases  and spirals of flowers; the back wall opens into a casement with heavy, brass-barred doors; behind an arch a stained glass window. I sit down, sketching and describing. What began by looking like relatively simple patterning proves to be intricacy within intricacy: pink, gold, green, white, black, grey, red. This focused frenzy of description comes to an end when my fingers begin to freeze: a functioning fountain is best on a hot day.

I walk the length of the street called Straight: the churches of Ananias and St Paul; keffiyehs, iqals, sacks of pulses and grain; a small foundry with two young men cross legged rhythmically banging something glowing and metallic; another young man sitting on the kerb demonstrating a kind of kitchen whizz, chopping parsley and making a lattice of potatoes.

 



A short slideshow in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque

 

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That was my experience of Damascus seventeen years ago. For Damascus now, read this.

Four months of movies

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While I was in Warsaw, one of the things I missed was the Narooma Kinema, and John’s satisfying programming. Since I returned I’ve been indulging myself in an ongoing private festival, often sharing the small theatre with only one or two other people. It seems from this collection that I don’t have much of an urge towards comedy, that in fact my taste is for the sombre and movies that reflect reality, that are based on true stories. That is when I’m not revisiting the classics of theatre and opera.

Circumstances are against the characters in the first four movies, which portray different kinds of oppression and different ways of dealing with it.

In “Hedda Gabler” the set is sparse, marking the disappointed hopes of Hedda when her husband looks like missing out on the job they pin their hopes on. Hedda behaves like a spoilt child: throwing flowers, making hurtful comments about Aunt Julie’s hat, a wilful adolescent woman, dissatisfied with her life and eager to upend everyone else’s. She betrays two friends, one of them three times: by encouraging him to drink, by destroying his manuscript, and by offering him the gun that kills him, expecting him to die a grand and noble death. The staging is overdramatic in places where it needs gravitas: when Judge demonstrates his power over Hedda by dribbling red liquid over her the effect is disconcertingly comical; and Hedda’s death throes when she shoots herself are far too twitchy in silhouette. For my money, Terence Rattigan’s “The deep blue sea” is a far more satisfying portrayal of a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life. 

I’m far more pleased with the low key acting in “I Daniel Blake”. Life’s given him a far harder hand to play than Hedda’s: he loses his wife and then his job, and has to deal with Kafkaesque bureaucracy to be given a pension. His occasional outburst are controlled and measured and none the less powerful: in the employment office waiting room he sees a young mother’s dilemma with compassion and takes what action he can to support her. When he’s knocked back after suffering the indignity of applying for jobs his health won’t let him take, he takes a stand with spray paint to make his demands before he’s lugged off to gaol. When poverty really takes hold, he retreats into isolation, emerging only to die on the way to his hearing. Through all this he remains dignified.

“Loving” presents a seemingly insoluble problem: a mixed-race couple is driven out of their home state by the race laws, under ban of returning for 25 years. Joel Edgerton plays the husband who just wants to be allowed to love his wife and his children:   his submissiveness to the intransigence of the law rings very true. His wife is more proactive and finally their case goes to the Supreme Court and changes the American constitution. Beautiful, low-key acting again.

This true story of displacement, begins when 5 year old Saroo is separated from his brother and finds himself on a train that takes him alone across India to Kolkata. There he doesn’t speak the language and he has to fend for himself until he’s adopted by an Australian couple. The fairy tale life collapses when he’s at university, and he longs for home as he knew it in his childhood and for his beloved mother: he sets off on another journey to find his obscure village. The young Saroo is a delight, and India is beautifully portrayed, without drawing back from poverty and other sinister aspects. I’m glad I didn’t let my almost pathological dislike of Nicole Kidman keep me away from this movie.

A movie that is absolutely beautiful to look at, although the story is far from “beautiful”. Yet another attempt to deal with the aftermath of war: the loss of fiancé and son up against the horrors committed in the name of duty; and another doomed love affair.

I desperately want to see this opera, which I have never heard of – because of the costumes. A previous MetOpera Live took me behind the scenes into the wardrobe room. I wasn’t disappointed, and the opera itself satisfied me in a way that many operas don’t, with their ridiculous overwrought stories. Here, the plot worked as parable rather than melodrama. A nymph wants to be human so badly she is prepared to take the consequences if her lover discards her. The storyline keeps me interested; the singing is superb; and the stage sets (palace and woodland) are beautifully contrasted. The quirky thing about this opera is that muteness is the price the nymph pays for becoming human, a strange state for the main character in an opera.

I’m an addict of National Theatre Live filmed performances. I can sit in the small theatre in Narooma Kinema, twenty kilometres from home, and for $25 I can watch superlative Shakespeare. And this production of “Twelfth night” is superlative, Shakespeare very much alive. The staging is triangular and clever – it manages to be a ship foundering at sea; a grand staircase for Malvolia’s appearance in yellow stockings, cross-gaitered; a room for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew to perpetrate their drunkenness; and a dark cell for the imprisonment of “mad” Malvolia. There are plenty of laughs, but there is also the darkness of the bullying Malvolia is subject to. Tamsin Greig makes me feel outraged at her treatment and to break into applause for her performance, something I never do at the movies.

“The innocents” is based on a true story from Poland. As the Russians move through they take the spoils of war. Breaking into a convent, they rape the nuns and leave a number of them pregnant. The mother superior is determined to keep the shame secret, but one of the nuns enlists the help of a French Red Cross nurse. The story traverses difficult terrain: the black and white of the winter landscape and the nun’s habits belies the complexity of the consequences that have to be faced as the nuns give birth, and as babies are left to die in the snow at the foot of a cross.

On a rainy June Tuesday, I create my own mini-film-festival. A morning viewing of  the Australian movie “Don’t tell”; and in the afternoon “Denial”.

“Don’t tell” is the harrowing true story of a young girl sexually abused by a teacher at Toowoomba Anglican school. Years later she dares to accuse the school and take it to court: the outcome is recognition that her story is true and the resignation of Australia’s Governor General, Peter Hollingworth, who was Anglican archbishop at the time of her abuse. It’s not an easy movie to watch: while it focuses on the court case, Lyndal is subject to disturbing flashbacks, especially when the court moves to the school. It is confronting not only for Lyndal but for her parents who ignored her pleas not to be sent back to the school: for other abused students who have submerged their abuse; and for the school nurse who finally dares to name something disturbing she saw as the girls were showering. The closing scene is moving: Lyndal and her younger self sit companionably on haybales in the paddock as long-awaited rain begins to fall.

“Denial” is based on the true story of holocaust denier David Irving’s court case against Penguin books. It raises many pertinent questions in this age of alternative facts, as Penguin’s formidable legal team set out to prove that Irving knowingly perverted documents in his attempts to rehabilitate Hitler. The dilemma the team faces is demolishing Irving’s credibility without giving him airspace to pursue his cause. A visit to Auschwitz on a snowy winter’s day is the centrepiece of the movie.

Brett Whiteley is an Australian artist. The documentary begins with a Sotheby auction where one of his painting sells for $1.2million, a record for an Australian painting at the time. In the course of the documentary you hear his voice, see the splendid diversity of his art, watch recreations from childhood, and stand by with his wife as he destroys himself with drugs. His boyhood epiphany that he is an artist comes in church in Bathurst, when he finds a book of Van Gogh paintings someone has left on the floor. This moment is dramatically represented as his image and everything around him swirls into Van Gogh brush strokes and spirals. He is very quotable: “My libido is as present in my paintings as ultramarine”: “Artists are not nice people, but they make honey.” His art is immensely varied: the huge sequences of “Alchemy” and ” The American dream”; the serial killer series; the voluptuous bath room nudes; the Sydney harbour scenes; birds; and Nobel Prizewinner Patrick White as a headland. His wife hits the nail on the head when she says his attraction is his “blazing energy”.

For once the trailer is well worth watching.

My fourth visit to the movies in one week. Maybe I take my sleeping bag and camp out! This time it’s Opera from the Met in New York. I’m familiar with the voice-free music: I played my “La traviata” LP over and over as a girl, and everything is familiar except the story which I’d never even wondered about. The music no longer sounds quite so beautiful when I know it’s the accompaniment to a long dying. A large clock and a motionless man onstage all the time remind us of Violetta’s mortality. This production is stunning to look at in its starkness and curves: black, white, grey and red except in the carefree Act 2 when Violetta and don Alberto are deeply and playfully in love. Violetta is played by Sonya Yoncheva whose voice is superlative. Alberto is no actor, which spoils things a bit. His declarations of love are accompanied by a robotic stare into space. 

I’m pleased with my viewing: not one movie I’m sorry I saw. Australian, French, French-Polish, English productions. No Hollywood. Thank you, John.

An untold story

Here are the ingredients: an archeologist excavating a Minoan temple at Phalasarna on Crete; a swim in the shallow waters to clean off work-dust; a mysterious wreck from World War 2; a young man navigating the Mediterranean with a broom handle, the northern star and memories of school astronomy; official denials and a paucity of documents; a Cretan with a Vickers gun in his cellar; Churchill’s special convoy; a pair of another man’s shoes; an ongoing obsession.



So many stories, told by Dr Michael Bendon, a man who knows how to tell a story. Finding the wreck sent him off on a terrier-like journey to discover its identity and its story. It was a landing craft developed in secrecy under orders from Churchill after Dunkirk to enable mass landings and evacuation of tanks and men. This one was used at Tobruk and later in evacuations from Crete. 

As he searched for information about these landing craft he found the man who captained this one (Mark1) when it was sunk by dive-bombing stukas, John Digby Sutton DSO, whose shoes he is wearing. Because? All because of a book, “The forgotten flotilla“. He had 18 copies in his luggage, so he ditched everything but the books and arrived in England wearing shorts, Tshirt and thongs. The very proper Sutton provided him with a pair of shoes, and so he is “wearing the shoes of a hero” as he tells his tales in Batemans Bay library.

I’m always interested in search and the paths it leads along. Bendon connected with Sutton (who died recently at 95) via the internet, a neighbour of a neighbour. He found plans of the landing craft and took meticulous measurements to compare with the plans. He talked to locals, who actually witnessed the bombing and knew the site of another wreck. He delved into official archives.

Now he’s on a mission to publicise what he’s discovered, and a side mission to acknowledge the 646 Anzacs still on Greek soil. He’s talking to clubs and libraries, anywhere he can get a hearing and expenses. 

Happy 70th birthday!

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Cruz has just turned 70. Therefore he feels entitled to take up residence on top of the dirty pink sheets in my washing basket at the top of the stairs. We brought him home from Queensland as a too-young puppy, whom my son rescued from extermination. He was one of a litter of ten, and my daughter has his brother, Loki. Cruz travelled for two days in the car from Queensland to Potato Point up J’s jumper, and he’s still ecstatic whenever J visits.

He’s a great addition to our household. Everything is impregnated and interwoven with his white hairs: there are never any foodscraps to dispose of; he barks madly whenever anyone stops in the drive; and he lays claim to every patch of sun – which is why he’s in the clothes basket.

Cruz and Loki were once very tiny snub-nosed puppies. 

Here’s my daughter’s account of their birth, snaffled from her Facebook birthday post:

Ten years ago a ten-pup litter was born during a huge thunderstorm at the Happy Apple (a Stanthorpe caravan park). I had to drive a tractor over from work because the road was too muddy to get my old Pulsar out, and these are two of the little faces that greeted me. Happy birthday to the two funniest, weirdest dogs in a long life of peculiar canines.

They are still cosy companions on occasional visits.

For a collection of wonderful black and white headshots – but none as handsome as Cruz! – have a look at Paula’s black and white Sunday.

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with lichen

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It’s early morning in the bush. My first job is to head down the hill below the house and photograph lichen rampaging over fallen casuarina branches. I take a low folding chair because everything is damp from evening mist. Below me in the gulley I can hear a lyre bird calling and every time I grab a tree for balance I’m showered with droplets. As the sun crests the roof of the house I begin photographing. I move around keeping close watch on my feet: mobility is very precious to me.

After my five minutes I crab my way along the slope to a small pile of firewood and heft an armful to the stairs cut out of the hillside and then onto the deck. When I download the photos I’m disappointed. The lichen luxuriance has posed the perennial problem (for me) of depth of field and the clumps are sharpshot in the foreground and a background blur.


This gallery turns into a slide show if you click on one image. It’s my contribution to DesleyJane’s RegularRandom, where this week she gets up close and personal with pens.

 

 

 

 

Eurobodalla beaches: Wallaga Beach

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With thanks to Kate who provided the many pleasures of this day.



It’s a perfect winter’s day, warm in the sun but a definite chill out of it. I meet my friend at the highway turnoff near Central Tilba, and head through farmland following signs to the cemetery, two enclosures on an empty hillside. We ramble round the one nearest the sea, noting local names; the age demographics of the dead; and the devotion of  descendants who mark unmarked graves after locating them with cemetery records. Then we settle on a substantial and comfortable wooden bench amongst the graves to enjoy our picnic lunch.

A sandy track leads through dune growth to the beach. A lagoon reaches out from the sand towards majestic Mother Gulaga. 

We skirt the water, amongst many footprints, human, dog and bird, and head towards the low cliffs on the south end of the part of the beach we can see. The beach actually stretches for five kilometres, but the tide interferes with any plans we don’t have to walk the length of it. The beach tilts towards the water, and is quite heavy going for someone who only likes the taut sand of low tide. However, I trudge my way along, stopping for desultory conversation with my companion.

I reach the rocks, and forget the human as I and my camera converse with them, different yet again from others I’ve seen along my coastline. The cliffs are listing under the impact of past – long past – upheavals. 

The rock face below the cliffs has the appearance of bulbous blocks stacked neatly – or is it rounded tesselations? – and broken occasionally by diagonal lines and mini-gardens.

In other places the rock forms tiny caves with stalactites, or elegant swathes.

Then there are the blue rocks: some with stripes, others with more regular geometric shapes.

There is also honeycombing and wandering inserts, such as I’ve seen in slightly different forms elsewhere.

I acquire delusion of grandeur and decide I’ll play the role of a seismic shift and photographically tilt the rocks. Such power!

A lone seagull with a limp takes a fancy to us and follows us back along the beach, hoping for who knows what. Out at sea a faint haze resolves itself into a whale blow, and we pause to track and capture it as it moves slowly north. The sun is speeding down the sky, cars are spilling out dogs eager for an afternoon run, and we make our way to Central Tilba (remember it, Jude?) for a cuppa. The café clocks our age, and the music changes to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Elvis.

Wallaga Lake, south of the beach we’ve just walked along, is fading to pink in the late afternoon light. 

This charmed day ends with a concert hosted by the Yuin Folk Club in Cobargo. Fiona Ross, singer of Scottish folk songs, has a voice unlike any I’ve heard before, and entertains us with an account of the unremittingly lugubrious nature of the songs she sings: you meet a girl and you die, or your mother puts a curse on you, or (less direly) the girl you want marries someone else.

However it is Tony McManus the guitar player who makes my evening. He is one of those musicians who is inseparable from his instrument. The music flows as the fingers move, and when he and his steel guitar play his arrangement of Sati my enchantment reaches its peak. It doesn’t hurt that his patter is laconic and amusing, but if you follow the link and just want the music it begins at 3.20. 

And so to Kate’s place, and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.