Thursday, October 23, 2008

tindale's map of australian aboriginal tribal boundaries

Tindale's map of the boundaries of the tribal lands of Australia's aboriginal inhabitants is currently appearing on television sets across Australia as part of an advertisement for SBS's documentary, First Australians. The narrator for the advertisement announces that the early settlers arrived here to inhabit a land declared terra nullius... an empty land, belonging to nobody. Tindale's detailed map is convincing evidence of the arrogance and ignorance of the claim. The map lends weight, at least to my Western eyes, to the existence of a people and culture that occupied the space we are now claiming as ours. I knew and acknowledged this previously. But the map brings it home with alarming force. How could it be possible to go through an entire Australian school education "knowing" this fact without really understanding it? What I have seen of SBS's documentary so far is stunning. This would be great to show Australian school kids! I wish I could have seen it years ago.

It is more than a little discomforting to consider that "my" city and the house on the tiny suburban block of land where I live, have all been taken forcibly from people who belong here. What's worse is that in many cases these people weren't simply displaced, they were killed.

Just down the road from me is, by Melbourne's settler standards, an old cemetery. The oldest graves there are from the 1850s. Settlers living 10 or 15 kilometres from the central city set up orchards and market gardens in the hills now called Burwood. Their families are buried, looking away from the city towards the Dandenong Ranges. Some of the old weatherboard houses still remain. The oldest I've found has sat above the cemetery since 1905. The spaces between it and the graves have been subdivided and filled with rows of brick and timber houses and units. All of this suburban development is on land that was in the range of the Wurundjeri. I wonder, when was the last time an aboriginal family stood on the hill, looking towards the ranges? When was the last time an aboriginal family left their own dead in the region?

Thankfully the First Australians is not all glum. It includes fantastic archival film footage, spectacular photographs, fascinating readings from journals and field notes, interviews with historians and, thankfully, interviews with people who know a good deal more about native culture than the recent visitors. Terrific!

Friday, October 17, 2008

creative bike parking III

By the third episode of a TV series things have settled into a routine and something special is needed to keep things moving along. By the third in a series of feature length movies only a miracle or an obsessive fan base will keep the numbers rolling in. The third blog post on a topic? Well, I think probably only the author is going to care... unless there's something really special to share. And this is it. Yes, its the ultimate jukebox-inspired, robot controlled, multi-storey, swipe-card operated, architectural marvel... a bicycle parking contraption. This is the stuff of Wallace and Gromit's basement laboratory. In fact, its just thing I need in the basement. I will never snag my pyjama cuffs on a pedal as I stumble around in the pre-ride darkness again! A simple swipe and within 23 seconds today's bicycle is waiting. Now where did I put that darn swipe card? What was the bay number for the yellow racing machine again? 23? Or is that the old ten-speed? :-(

Thursday, October 16, 2008

carbon ecologies - richard thomas

On the second floor of the Carlton Hotel in the Melbourne CBD (2nd flr, 193 Bourke St.) are a handful of ex-hotel rooms (with cutely numbered doors) that are housing Richard Thomas' exhibition Carbon Ecologies for the next couple of days. On the floor below, hundreds of men and women in smart office attire sipped their after-work beer as the artist's friends, acquaintances and family members packed themselves into the tiny rooms to enjoy a series of international works, the first of which was created in 1998, well before Carbon was a trendy dinner party conversation topic in Hawthorn, Toorak and Canberra.

There's something much more raw about attending an exhibition in a cramped and tired suite of rooms above a bustling hotel than in visiting (for instance) a glossy, glitzy showcase of Art-Deco at the NGV. In Thomas' case, and especially for the work he was exhibiting, the venue was (almost) perfect. What I've seen of his work is down-to-earth and deliberately rough-hewn. It would have been disconcerting, perhaps even hypocritical, to see these works arrayed across a glistening, echoic and expansive gallery. Or would it? The artist might have been pleased with an NGV blockbuster.

The two works at the exhibition that most attracted my attention were Brown Out (2008), "a simulated coal face, using brown coal from the Mattingley coal mine near Bacchus Marsh. Brown coal is being burnt in real time to generate the electricity which lights the installation." and Carbon Cycle 2 (1999) which was realised as part of the Natural Disasters exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art (Curated by Zara Stanhope). Three metal trays presented the three primary materials providing energy and transforming terrestrial carbon into carbon dioxide, these being coal, oil and wood carbon."

Why did these works attract my attention in particular? Carbon Cycle 2 is a beautiful installation in all ways. I am strongly in favour of beauty in art! Firstly the viewer is struck by the textural qualities of the materials. The matte black irregularity of the coal and the slick mirrored surface of the oil make this a fascinating aesthetic object. At least one woman reached down to touch the oil, attempting to reconcile the shiny hard surface with her understanding that it was in fact liquid. These boxes of unfathomably dense black are also difficult to reconcile with the invisible gaseous CO2 that is emitted when they are oxidised. It seems absurd that their solidity can depart in this way. I suppose Carbon is not unlike the soul of these materials. As they are exhumed and cremated the soul is left to wander about the atmosphere causing strife. The work is sublime in the way that Malevich's Black Square or a Rothko is sublime. I would have appreciated a chair beside the work so that I could sit and gaze into the inky darkness. If people were so inclined perhaps they could also sit and contemplate their own reflection in the slick oil - Narcissus sees himself reflected in the oil he burns.

Brown Out is a fantastic surprise. "Down the corridor and on the left" ...directions you'd be given at any hotel to find your room. But step inside and your feet are nearly buried in a mass of steeply sloping coal dotted with blackened bulbs. Never one to shun hard work, I expect Thomas carted all this coal up two steep flights of CBD stairs, slaved away in a tiny, dusty room (no doubt for many hours) in order to confront the visitor with such a spectacle. Considering the show is on for a mere three days I find this even more marvellous!

Indeed, we were burning the coal fires as we chatted under the installed lighting. Thankfully though even this was taken into account. The emissions of the exhibition are offset through his own company, I am so glad I caught public transport to the opening!

Monday, October 13, 2008


Wall-E gets my thumbs up. I couldn't help myself. The story was so predictable, the moral so overt and the characters so typically Disney, but it was great.

The Earth has been buried under mountains of rubbish and the Human race has departed for life on a giant cruise (space) ship where their every need is catered for by a squadron of handy robots. All inter-human interactions occur on-screens from the comfort of mobile, levitating deck chairs. People have (d)evolved into jelly blobs. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a sole cleaning robot, Wall-E, remains diligently collecting and organising the rubbish. He gets immense pleasure from watching an old video of Hello Dolly he has found in the rubbish... and then along comes a surprise.

The animation is great, the rendering super, the dialogue minimal. The sound effects are distinctly Apple-flavoured. The film is closer to traditional character animation than the usual Hollywood dross. I rate it 4 stars David. Me too Margaret.

Monday, October 6, 2008

art dec-adence

The (now closed) Art Deco blockbuster at the NGV was a gallery-sponsor's dream. Plenty of photo-opportunities, advertising quality (and advertising) imagery, spectacularly sleek cars, elegant dresses, striking accessories, exotic furniture and household goods. Everything was designed to within an inch of its life utilising the best in brushed or polished steel, gloss black enamel and the finest shagreen. The NGV was the house of style. Had it been a shopping centre for homewares I may have been tempted to buy one or two of everything. A wander certainly topped even a trip to the local Ikea megastore, social-democratic, utilitarian designed, pine extravaganza. Thankfully visitors were spared the Swedish names (Does anybody outside of Scandinavia want to sit on a couch called Ektorp Jennylund?) and I suspect none of the goods was flat-packed (apart maybe from the glass and chrome Strand Palace Hotel foyer).

Its great to see the attention lavished at the time on linking materials and form, especially for mass-produced household goods. Bold colours, material contrasts and strong geometry are a welcome change to the current soft, fuzzy friendliness of much of today's design. Of course these were times when no heed was paid to environmental impact. Decadence was the style of the day (for those who could afford it and for some who couldn't). I hope we don't rebel against the current green trend and head this way again, but I still enjoy looking back at the glory that was. The greenest thing in the show was the jade AWA radio.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

aboriginal rock painting: ships, aeroplanes and... bicycles!?

Djulirri in north-western Arnhem Land is home to the most expansive and spectacular discovery of Aboriginal rock art spanning ancient and modern humanity - Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sept 08.

This is the most exciting news I have heard in a long time! According to the article in the SMH and the fabulous video there are images of ships (both outside and inside), aeroplanes and even bicycles! Obviously I am very interested in the bicycles... when would people up that way have seen bikes? Who would have been riding them? Perhaps it was the missionaries.

Bicycles aside, I think this is a marvellous find for Australian history. The drawings of the ships are extremely detailed and so well performed it is easy to identify the subjects. Sails and rigging, deck layouts and portholes... all are depicted clearly. What a bizarre and incredible outlook these drawings document: from kangaroo to biplane. Is there another archaeological site anywhere in the world that has been a living document of a history for so many thousands of years?

The fact that the ship drawings include internal detail is particularly telling. I wonder if the Aboriginal artists had seen drawings made by the visitors prior to setting these images on the walls. Would the Chinese or European style have influenced their own depictions of the world? Perhaps these images might provide evidence of this. Is there any evidence in China of the interactions with the Aborigines of Australia? Can anything in this find somehow be linked with the map drawn by Mo Yi Tong in 1763? (This map was apparently copied from a map made in 1418... see image below from The Age, 16 Jan 06.)

Early visitors to our shores may have been a little less destructive than the later invaders and missionaries in order to trade for sea cucumbers! Very strange. I hope they could be preserved for the journey back to China. Anyway, there is a huge part of history waiting to be coloured in. Not the least of which is... what kind of bicycle did the artists draw and did they draw the frame and handle-bars correctly? Non-cyclists are notoriously bad bicycle drawers!

P.S. Thanks to RealDirt for the heads-up on this one.