Sunday, December 6, 2009

ricky swallow

I had no preconceptions about what I would see at Ricky Swallow and was thrilled by what was there. The only downside to the exhibition was that there wasn't enough of it!

Despite appearances, the work at left, Peugeot Taipian, Commemorative Model (Discontinued Line), PVC Pipe, Plastic Sheeting, epoxy, 1999 scale 1:1 (photo by Kenneth Pleban) only just came to my attention a moment ago and wasn't what drew me to the exhibition. In fact, this work wasn't in the exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre. Instead, The Bricoleur exhibition contained a fascinating collection of non-cycling related wood carvings, bronze sculptures and some works on paper. The carvings in particular were spectacular investments of time and energy and evidence that the craft of art-making is held in high esteem by some. A 1:1 scale dining table still-life, littered with seafood and other astonishing adornments was the largest and most striking evidence of this fact, but not my favourite...

The signature image of the exhibition was Tusk (2007), two disembodied, skeletal arms, their hands clasped as they hang naturally from the wall as if on a shared stroll. I didn't mourn for the long-since decomposed couple, whoever they were. They seemed content to wander throughout eternity in this bizarre form. The work improves upon the arrangements of bones I have seen around the European tourist sites (such as the Sedlec ossuary in the Czech Republic). It takes the human fascination with mortality and twists it out of range of those who would terrify followers with threats of hell. So often in Italy for instance are the churches scattered with momento mori of similarly bony form, yet what seems to be an opposite message.

Fig 1. (2008) was a naturally finished wood carving of a skull wrapped in something that might have been brown paper. It reminded me at once of my lunch and a museum artefact wrapped for storage in a musty drawer. Without the wall-plaque it was not obvious what was hidden within the paper wrapping... a mystery object that, perhaps would have been more interesting left unspecified. The wood lost its solidity. I expected it would make un-crumpling sounds if I touched it.

The bronze Caravan (2008) was a great idea... barnacles growing on balloons. But the choice of material didn't work for me. It said nothing about balloons' vulnerability or their short lifespans. In fact they hardly felt like balloons at all.

Unbroken Ways (for Derek Bailey) (2006) was a free-floating arm, hanging limply down the wall. While the bronze balloons didn't work at all, from a distance, the texture of the wood in this piece was so gently carved and texturally reminiscent of flesh that I had to look twice to be sure of what I was seeing. Although a slightly different pose, the limb hangs in a way strongly reminiscent of that belonging to the freshly murdered Marat in the famous work by Jacques Louis David (1793). Swallow's work was really beautiful in this case. The arm appeared to possess a pulse. Had it reached out towards me as I left the gallery I would not have been surprised.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

the butterfly and the bicycle

How many butterflies died in the making of this Hirst-Armstrong-Trek bicycle? I prefer Damien Hirst's shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). The shark shows some understanding of the essence of life (and death) and fear and decay and nature and the sublime... lots of things really.

The Trek is something a little girl might do with her first bicycle and a sheet full of butterfly wing stickers from the supermarket. It is unimaginative and completely ignores the form of the machine. It is considerably less than I would expect from an artist of Hirst's reputation. It is of course big news (it even makes it onto this blog for instance) because it is a Hirst, and an Armstrong, and for "a good cause". But not because it is good. Disappointing.

This Marc Newson TT bike really works I think. For the most part the bike has been left alone, but its disc is rounder than round. At first I thought the design a little gimmicky but it is growing on me. It doesn't interfere with the bike's lines (which I have to say, coming from Trek are not in and of themselves anything to write home about – Trek should look at Pinarello or Ridley or even Specialized dare I say it, to see how to make a lovely and fast TT machine) but it adds a kind of rolling oomph to the machine, like it is being propelled from the rear towards warp speed. Whilst quite geometric, the design is simultaneously very organic. A good crossover point between the human and his machine. I love this one!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

solar light

It is true. Despite the countless un-PC jokes told in primary schools across Australia concerning solar-powered torches, there is one available now. The Cateye solar-powered bicycle headlight charges an internal NiMH cell during the day, so that you can spare it from using standard AA cells at night. Alternatively, buy rechargeable AA cells for your usual headlight and switch to solar powered home energy. This lamp is a bit gimmicky... and ugly. Did I mention it is ugly? :-( It ain't going near the handlebars of my bike but perhaps I could use it to light the driveway if I attached it to the front fence.

Monday, October 12, 2009

sunday climbs

A chilly Sunday morning in early Spring. The sun is still low over the distant hills, its warmth not yet able to penetrate the fog. Mist sits idly in the valleys that stretch out in a fading, pale sequence of ploughed fields, some neatly striped with the greenery of market gardeners. The road plummets into the frosty air. At 85 kilometers an hour I dive. My freewheel is not buzzing – I am pedalling like fury. The air is tearing the warmth from my grimacing face and howling through the slots in my helmet. Below me, two white, red and grey streaks clear against the black bitumen, are my companions. They vanish into the trees that surround a gully creek. I swoop past them in an aero-tuck as they sit up to catch the air. Stand and power up a short rise, then ease off. The incline brings me to a gentle glide. Downshift, then soft-pedal in the little ring to the top, coasting to a halt at a deserted junction.

A stream is trickling through the undergrowth. Magpies tunefully call to one another from the canopy above the way. In the ditch beside the road a small but cheerful chorus of froglets is chirping. Horses stand silently under musty green jackets, their heads lowered to the due laden grass. I hear the quiet buzz of the gears as first one, then the other of my friends approaches. We all stop and listen to the morning.

Where would you rather be?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

len lye

I went along to see the Len Lye exhibition at ACMI last Friday... I'm glad I didn't miss it. The kinetic sculptural works in particular are fantastic, amongst my very favourites. There was also a large collection of his sketches and screenings of his innovative scratched film works which are fun to watch but not amongst my favourite pieces of cinema. All the same, for the sculptures – I find them completely mesmerising, in particular Grass (1961-1965, photograph by Nolan Bradbury / ACMI above left) – I highly recommend this exhibition!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

world car free day

Today is officially world car free day. There seemed to be slightly fewer cars around but perhaps this was just a normal school holiday. There were certainly a lot of people out on their bikes along the bike trails – streaking at speed through the puddles and spraying their backs with water and squished worms after last night's rain. If kids walked to a nearby school or rode bikes, would the morning peak-hour traffic always be lighter?
I feel sorry for the worms that ended up decorating my rear brake caliper. There must have been about half a dozen of them. And there were several more sliced by the spokes and decorating the fork crown. Poor things.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

La France

For better or for worse, here are some minor thoughts I digitally jotted down during a recent trip to Paris.

Sculpture. In the gardens of the Louvre is a bronze sculpture of a reclining female nude. A succession of (mostly but not exclusively) male tourists are posing for photos embraced by her arms and legs. How many times has she endured this as she stares passively into the space just beyond her outstretched hand? What is she reaching for? Tourists?

The new tourists. All around Paris I see groups of well-groomed American girls. Are they out of school on a communal gap year? They are polite but their accents grate through no fault of their own. "Yeah... Like... Yeah... Mercy. Or rev-woir". They are practicing their French just like me. I bet my accent is ghastly to the locals :-)

The French certainly love their baguettes! At breakfast and at lunchtime, I have seen them walking the streets, brandishing their sticks of bread by a sheaf of wrapped paper. Much of the world has succumbed to practicality and carries a compact loaf. Still, there is something comical about a handlebar-mounted pannier with a baguette thrusting it's nose into the air ahead of the rider. This makes their perseverance endearing.

Velolib. I watched a guy pedal his bicycle from the hire racks down a cobbled lane. His girlfriend was perched cheerfully on the handlebars, facing him. This didn't improve the steering any, but the view was always to his taste.

Tour de France reporters. The sport presenters discussing the TDF this morning were two gorgeous, eye fluttering, posing blonde dolls. Why do we get Mike Tomalaris? SBS should import some European talent.

Foreigners in hotels. It can be funny leaving a foreign hotel frequented by tourists. This morning I was greeted by an American on the stairs in French. Later, a Chinese man and I awkwardly smiled as we passed in the corridor, unsure how to greet one another. There was a good chance he was Australian.

Monday, June 15, 2009

on making up your mind with clichés

During a recent discussion on creativity with a colleague (there's quite a bit of that going around at our lab lately), he made a remark that I interpret as "You can't hope to change the mind of somebody who has made up their mind". That's not exactly what he said, but that's how I am going to interpret it for the sake of this post. He felt that only fence-sitters could be swayed. Once you're on one side of the fence, there's no way you'll be able to haul yourself back to the opposing side, even if the grass is greener over there. Personally, I feel that whether or not you can climb the fence again depends heavily on how much you have invested in your back garden. Sometimes its hard to write off your investment and run into foreign territory. Also, I suspect, some people are better climbers than others. How's that for a string of lousy metaphors to start the ball rolling?

So where am I going with this? We have all heard the cliché that we must "accept change". This grates like a block of cheese. Change, instability and complete and utter (to quote Paul Sherwen) chaos are steps on a steady decline. This is not how the universe works. Let's take the evolutionary process for example. It doesn't just throw away things and replace them with novelty! It selects the successful strategies and slowly weeds out those that are less so... in nature, evolution has shown itself to be superior to revolution. I don't see why anybody in their right mind would adopt "accept change" as their personal motto. According to my theory, either those who live by and spout such nonsense are not of right mind, or I am simply a poor fence climber.

One argument I have heard in favour of accepting change runs, "change is inevitible so you may as well accept it". There's no point in fighting a losing battle... get onside and move forwards. This sounds to me like a cop out. If you are opposed to something, the hardest thing to do is stand up and fight. This approach could cost you your life, or the lives of those around you. An unfortunate consequence that too often holds true. The easy, and often peaceful, way out is to accept change. Sit silently. Say nothing. Maintan the status quo. Resistance is futile. Be at peace with the world.

Is the fight ever worth the cost? How much have you invested in your back garden? How green is your neighbour's lawn? This is a question that only an individual can answer. There cannot be a "one size fits all" solution to this problem. I will make up my own mind and I leave it to you to make up yours as the need arises.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

on old age and evel knievel

A couple of days ago, Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel screened on local TV. Like Hammond, I had played with the Evel Knievel fly-wheel driven motorcycle as a kid. Perhaps I still have some bits of it lying around. I knew little of the man himself, having invested most of my childhood days jumping pedal-powered bikes off dangerous concrete landings and dirt piles, rather than watching motorcycles hop cars and buses. Still, I switched on to have a look...

Evel was frail and very ill. He sucked on his oxygen mask unhealthily as he was driven around his small-town American home and asked to reminisce about footage of him crashing and injuring himself. Strangely enough, Evel reminded me of Frank Booth, the bizarre and frightening character from Blue Velvet. The hovering body guards, the unpredictable turns in Evel's demeanour, these radiated unease. It was as if the whole situation would turn violent at any moment. It didn't seem like Evel ever really got along with Hammond and the most pertinent questions often went unanswered. All the same, his character (well, at least two characters) came through. Perhaps Evel was too concerned with his own health at the time to take to the British interviewer. This is hardly surprising given that Evel had suffered a stroke just a couple of days before.

I found much else unusual about this documentary also. The way Evel hovered between being "the legend" and the reality of his current existence was unsettling. Certain triggers caused him to roll out the old bravado, whilst others seated him firmly in his past and present woes.

Why is it that former celebrities seem convinced that they mustn't "let their fans down"? This is a common remark made by today's elite cyclists as they are suspended for doping infringements and led tearfully to waiting cars. Hammond's wander around Evel's town during a festival of bike stunts revealed to me the extent to which some of the locals idolised their fallen and broken-boned angel. Or was this only the kids who never grew up? Did the true youngsters really care about this man? Could they reconcile his appearance with the daredevil their parents insisted he had been? Without him their town would be just one of thousands. Evel was the icon that put them on the international map... long, long ago, before many of these childrens' parents had themselves been born.

"Jump for Jesus"!? A modern Knight Templar and former bodyguard of Evel, dressed in white with giant red crosses emblazoned on his bike and leathers jumped through a flaming board. The announcer on the P.A. claimed it was something to do with Jesus and Satan. He was so earnest. The Knight's followers were so serious and were moved to tears by his words. For them, this was a religious experience. As a viewer from far away, this was a chance to see the U.S. of A. in all its technicolour glory.

"Live for your dreams", proclaimed Evel near the conclusion of the show. Quite likely his own poor health prevented him from dreaming too far in advance. Nevertheless, he had prepared his own tombstone. This of course is the limit point for the dreams of those who don't cherish anything that carries on without them. His last dream was to be buried in the middle of town, the centre of attention at least in this tiny location, so far from the centre of anywhere.

Friday, May 8, 2009

bagel safety warning

Tip of the day: When slicing your bagel, keep your digits out of the hole.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

the death of j.g. ballard

Crash. Until I'd read Ballard's book, I had no idea twisted metal, burning plastic and shattered bones could be considered by anybody to be erotic. I remember diving into the text on a flight home from Canada 15 years ago. The air hostess thought I was reading about aeroplane crashes... "Ahhh. Ummm. No. Actually the book is about sex in car accidents." I think that stunned her. She didn't pose any more questions apart from those she was paid to ask. "Tea or coffee?"

"J.G. Ballard died of cancer on the 19th August, aged 78", I read over my morning toast. The first thing that sprang to mind was Crash. Then by chance my eyes fell upon the water level indicator on the front page of the paper and a vague memory of The Drought returned... people travelling miles across barren salt plains created by desalination plants to capture sea-water with paddles and sweep it homewards... it has been a long time since I read this book. Concrete Island is fresher in my mind... an architect becomes trapped in a concrete space between freeway lanes. Unable to escape, he spends days, then weeks in the company of a couple of other outcasts who call the tiny island in urban hell their home. Shades here of one of my favourite books, Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes. Ballard was that kind of writer.

I only know a half dozen of Ballard's books, but of those, I'd call Crash and Concrete Island "great" works of disturbing fiction. His comments on human psychology, the bizarre but believable views he takes towards humankind's future and that of our planet, all ensure I am saddened by his passing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

compact gearing

Not that long ago (well, maybe 20 years ago), the default pair of chainrings on a road crankset was 52T x 42T. Of course there have always been variations made depending on the application. I've got a pile of rings ranging around that general vicinity from the 80s. Come what must have been the mid 90s, I was convinced by the thought of the Victorian Alps that I ought to have a 39 onboard. 39 with 21 on the back got me up Tawonga Gap, Falls Creek, Tawonga Gap again in the opposite (steeper) direction and then up Buffalo. 21T — what was I thinking!?

Late 90s and along comes a 9 speed rear cassette with the luxury of a 23T cog. Up front a trusty 39 spun me up and a 53 geared me down the hills in the Tour of Bright. I've not been back to Bright to ride now for more than 10 years. Time flies! But when I do get out that way again...

I will be sporting a new combination, 50T x 34T and 11-25 on the rear. I am a recent convert to compact gearing, having been lucky enough to secure an 11 speed Campag. groupset in Australia last year (thanks to the guys at Mascot). At first I was unconvinced. I seemed to spend a lot of time fidgetting with the gears, fumbling over the little ring paired with the little cogs, or the big ring with the big cogs. Things fell into place like the chain onto the little ring of my new groupset. Now I wonder if I'll ever love the 53 x 39 combination again. On the compact cranks I can spin up the steepest slopes with ease, faster and with much less effort than on my 39 x 23. With the 50 x 11 I can tear down the steepest slopes, passing more inches per stroke than on my old 53 x 12.

Long live compact gearing and wide cassettes. I can go slowly pedalling quickly, and I can go quickly pedalling slowly. What's not to like about that?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

green contractors

Monash University used to have a bunch of green-clad grounds staff. They were a friendly lot who could always be found around the university with their rakes, brooms and wheel-barrows. They cared for the trees, bushes, grasses and ponds. On a number of occasions they took the time to answer my enquiries about various native plants around the place. I knew them by face and a couple knew me also. We would exchange simple smiles of greeting as I encountered them at lunch or on my way to and from lectures and my office.

They are gone, having been replaced by a number of green contractors who blow dust and leaves around with leaf blowers. These contractors remove garden leaf litter to make the place "neater", thereby ensuring the lizards, spiders and other critters have nowhere to live. I don't know these people although they wear green uniforms with a company name emblazoned across the back. Their leaf blowers are noisy and make them unapproachable. They use petrol-powered line trimmers around the cafe whilst the academics are trying to chat about philosophy, chemistry, maths or important things.

A couple of years ago, a garden of native plants used by the aborigines was destroyed to make way for a new building. This had been tended by some senior academics, in particular an elderly woman who was most distraught about the loss of her contribution to Monash's gardens. Did anybody care besides her? I did! I bet the old grounds staff did too. My favourite quiet lunch spot, the botanical specimen garden by the pond, had occasional oddities — such as the foul-smelling Dead-horse lily and the glorious, Triffidesque sunflowers — has been partly demolished by building works.

I am getting old and grumpy. Some changes are clearly not for the better.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

the carbon fibre bidon cage effect

The weight of a bicycle is perhaps the most widely understood measure of "quality". The first thing anybody ever does when they see a racing bike is lift it up to gauge its weight. Even if they know nothing else about bicycles, they will know that a light bike is expensive and desirable. Now that bikes are often in the 6 or 7 kilogram range it is becoming increasingly difficult to save weight. A new frame weighs less than 1 kg, a gruppo around 2, a set of lightweight wheels less than 1.5 kgs... add bars, stem, saddle, tyres and pedals that have all been shaved to within an inch of their warranty periods and there aren't many places left to save weight. Bar tape is pretty light stuff. Enter the humble bidon cage (water bottle cage for the uninitiated)...

Special thing 1 about the bidon cage (henceforth referred to as a BC) is that it doesn't do very much. It holds bidons. That's it. It doesn't make the bike go any faster, stop any faster, shift gears any smoother, stick better to a bumpy road or corner in the wet. It just holds bidons. Special thing 2 about BCs is that good quality steel or aluminium cages will set you back less than $40 for a pair and they will hold onto full bidons even on the cobbles. Between them they might weigh about 85 grams.

Have a look around at your local "Café Racer" and you won't see too many steel cages. You might naively think that's because if you spend $200 on a pair of carbon fibre Campagnolo Record BCs you can save a massive 40 grams on the weight of your bicycle! Indeed, for some this may well be the clinching factor. After you've replaced all your steel bolts with titanium ones to save a total of 20 grams on your bike, nothing remains apart from the BCs.

You'd be wrong. This is where special thing 3 about BCs comes into play... they are visible and have logos on them. An anonymous steel BC on a carbon fibre bike is just not on! It looks silly, a bit like putting a sheepskin car seat cover in your Lamboughini. Of course carbon fiber doesn't hold bidons any better than steel – irrelevant for the Beach Rd. crew since there are no cobbles between St. Kilda's cafés and Oliver's Hill ;-) enjoy your Campy Record carbon cage... maybe save to upgrade it to an "11 speed Super Record cage". Just don't pretend you have it to offset the weight of the dribble of water left at the bottom of your bottle or I shall choke on my Gatorade!

Monday, February 9, 2009

significant figures

07/02 - 09/02/2009
108+ lives lost*
20 patients in Alfred Hospital burns unit (10 are listed as critical)
750+ homes lost
330,000 hectares burnt
15 Red Cross relief centres
48 degrees C max. temp. in suburban Melbourne
31 fires continue to burn...

It seems so absurd that people battle to save their homes with buckets in the face of a fire-storm rocketing up a hillside. A garden hose? It must of course be absolutely devastating to lose a home. But would there have been so many deaths had people surrendered their houses? Was it worth it?

Telling for me were the words of a woman interviewed last night... she had a fire plan in place. Her intention was to stay and defend her home. But in the face of the inferno that appeared on the horizon she rapidly changed her mind and fled. How can it be worth the risk?

As unpopular as I might be for saying so, what fire plan is worth a life? If a plan is anything other than "leave as soon as there is a risk of being trapped and burnt" no amount of property damage is worthy of concern. Its not a battle for ideals, or human rights. Its not a struggle in the face of oppression. Its not even a sport or a challenge. Its an inferno. Its hard enough to fight with tankers and aerial water-bombardment. Set your sprinklers going, fill your gutters, hang wet blankets on the windows... and then get the hell out of there.

Of course I can't understand. I'm a suburban resident watching it on the news. The smoke haze is changing the colour of the sky but no flames are visible from here. Its easy for me to say "its not worth it".... Well its not. Its plainly not worth it.

* over 200 lives lost as of 23/02 and still counting...

Friday, January 30, 2009

the death of arne næss

A couple of weeks ago Arne Næss, the instigator of Deep Ecology, died at 96... a ripe old age! In reading his obituary I discovered he was a keen mountaineer. I am surprised by the number of philosophical writers who are also mountaineers. Mountaineering is not a very common past-time for Australians (we don't really have any mountains here and need to make a trip across the ditch to NZ to climb). Of course in Japan, New Zealand, Europe and Scandinavia (well, at least Norway) the sport is much more popular and you are likely to find yourself sitting on a train beside a person cuddling a day-pack, rope, crampons and ice tools. Still, I wonder, does the experience of mountaineering, its struggles, the extremes of temperature and slope, the ultimate dependence on your climbing partner, and the risk, breed philosophers? Or do philosophical types turn to the mountains? Whichever way it works, the allure of the world's peaks is hard to resist for any with a spirit of adventure, sturdy knees and a love for nature.