Sunday, 29 June 2008

John McDonald's pan of Sydney's 2008 Biennale (The Sydney Morning Herald 29 June) is saturated with ennui.

It's a kind of approach to art that I thought had passed long ago into oblivion along with society's rejection of the Impressionists. Australia's incredulous reviewers practically choked on their mutton and McDonald is doing likewise faced with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's Biennale of Sydney 2008.

She sought "a sudden shift in perspective" (SMH 23 June) which includes what Angela Bennie labels "a lodestone or spinal cord" running through the exhibition: the "old tat" and "old hat" McDonald sniffs at. There is a lot of stuff from the early 20th century and even more from the 1960s.

Bennie liberally dubs two works a "quixotic" addition and it is in this spirit that Christov-Bakargiev's effort must be judged.

On the blog Speech Interviews, 29 April, Christov-Bakargiev talks about "a constant celebration of uncertainty, failure of the narrative" in relation to one artist, William Kentridge, who screened this afternoon on the ABC talking with Virginia Trioli.

In the June 2008 issue (38) of Artwrite (available online) Christov-Bakargiev again refers to "an open path for change and encourages doubt, uncertainties and failure, as a path to freedom".

But McDonald is possibly part of the problem. Perhaps he's been in the driving seat too long to get it.

In his piece today, McDonald derides the sorbet Christov-Bakargiev included to freshen our palates in preparation for the more recent work - all those pieces from last century he regrets because "their presence seems, at best, superfluous" they are so familiar.

I beg to differ.

Even those of us who studied fine art at tertiary level do not possess perfect recall. It is fun - great fun - to be reminded of these knickknacks.

But McDonald's understanding of revolution in general is so two-dimensional and simplistic we involuntarily reach for our gun when he derides "uprisings in the streets of Paris and Prague" and "millions of people waving little red books in China".

Paris, he avers "was a complete fizzer" and since the Czechs were "suppressed" (oddly bureaucratic term, John) their revolution was futile.

The Chinese, he opines, "are still trying to forget" the Cultural Revolution. This historical approach is "old tat" and "old hat" but McDonald is so on top of the material his only link to the present is to thumb his nose at Robert Mugabe in ex-Rhodesia:

In present-day politics, Robert Mugabe stands out as a revolutionary leader who has kept up the bad old associations with arbitrary violence and totalitarianism.

This is not historical analysis and I regret to say that I find McDonald's equally bland ideas about the exhbits similarly uninspiring. Not that I agree with Mugabe. But Mugabe is not the point.

The point is that western Europe - specifically, protestant England - took hundreds of years acclimatising to notions of citizenship (as opposed to subjection, the state of being a 'subject').

Other parts of the world did not. Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Japan - these countries went through in the 20th century what England - and by extension America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - went through during the Commonwealth (their so-called 'interregnum').

Jumping straight from the middle ages into modernity - as China did last century - had never been attempted. They had no manual. They didn't even have a script. Neither did the Russians - which isn't really a European country anyway.

Frank Moorhouse was the first novelist to catch onto what happened after WWI. In Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace (2000) Moorhouse examines the beginnings of a new world order.

Post-nationalism, or trans-nationalism, is where McDonald was brought up. Within the comfortable confines of its guiding ethos privileging diplomacy over war, behind-the-scenes over behind-the-barricades, spin over manifesto.

Emphasis on 'guiding'. This is what Christov-Bakargiev wants to challenge.

So it's not really surprising that the Herald''s chief art critic heaps opprobrium on her attempt to do what has seldom been done except on a few 1970s albums: turn back the clock.

Or at least imagine turning it back. She wants us to have a taste of 'then' by linking it with 'now'. By reexperiencing the past we may 'imagine' the future.

And I think it's good. What does McDonald know about the Winter Palace?

I like Ranbir Kaleka (see pic for detail from a drawing included in the catalogue - Thames & Hudson, $59.95). Kaleka's He was a good man (2007-08) is a wonderful tableau vivant in ironically kitsch style.

An old man sits in a small hut or hovel holding a needle that he seems to thread. His gnarled hands are suspended before his acne-scarred face. They move slightly. In fact, the whole object shivers and twitches with the actuality of living flesh.

But the needle never gets threaded. There is no narrative.

The lime-green highlights on his arms evoke the classic kitsch of Russian painter Vladimir Tretchikoff, who died two years ago. “Painted in 1952, Chinese Girl became the world’s biggest-selling print,” wrote the SMH on 28 August 2006.

Sounds emanate from beyond the walls around him. Images flicker on and flicker off. An immediate analogue in popular culture - apart from Tretchikoff - would be the incredible early VR games of the 1990s.

McDonald mentions in passing Jesus Soto but he fails to invoke the richness of Soto's 1977 visual display - an abstract bird of paradise - Triptico Azul, Negro y Violeta.

More recently, Mark Dion has made an interesting 'performance', inasmuch as the parcels that constitute a major part of the installation were, in fact, mailed to Christov-Bukargiev for the Biennale.

The Return (A Cosmological Cabinet for New South Wales) (2008) encapsulates a lot of confusion surrounding the traditional (now) post-colonial narrative. Each packet must not be opened, Dion demanded. (Here's where we can start talking about Mugabe.)

They are lined up on shelves in a red-stained wooden "hutch" (actually, it's more like a bookcase or a dresser). There's a small parcel from Canada in the 'water/hearing' sector of the hutch and from Indonesia there's a parcel in the 'earth/sight' sector.

A "bird call" in a cylinder - I couldn't make out the provenance - is in the 'water/touch' sector and, from Murcia (Spain), there's an 'air/smell' parcel. From Folkestone, Kent, there's an 'earth/smell' box and there's another Indonesian package: in the 'fire/hearing' sector.

On the bottom (which is for "the underworld" or 'chaos') we see an almost full shelf which includes some "children's blocks" that passed quarantine.

Each item is thus classified and they are not to be opened because Dion "refuses to engage" in the possession of knowledge inherent in classification. But how are they to be classified if they are not open?

Who is to judge?
Melissa Tankard Reist's Quadrant July-August 2008 piece on child sexualisation would seem to be 'of a piece' with her other public writings.

Website "has her number" and makes a long analysis of her participation in the public sphere, which started to kick in, the page says, when - as a cadet journalist - she won a "Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study journalism in the United States".

Naturally, Quadrant is going to publish her words, you think. But ironcally the article following Reist's, by Leonie Kramer, begins with her noting that Lady Chatterley's Lover was the "first book [she] asked for when [she] became a reader at the Bodleian Library".

Reist is about my age and appears to be a healthy, generously proportioned woman. Like me, again (not the 'woman' bit). Reading her piece today - 'The Pornification of Girldhood' - I get the impression that she's mainly interested in protecting children from a predatory capitalist system.

Depending on your social bias, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. But the painful reality is that any current 'player' in the public sphere will know where she stands on the spectrum and treat the argument accordingly.

Or perhaps she needs this issue more than it needs her. Perhaps Reist has, now, entered an arena where there is no need for debate, where an association of sexualising imagery pairs off inevitably in the popular consciousness with pedophilia.

If so, case closed.

Reist's article is definitely worth reading. She has more time than most people to (a) research and (b) assemble data that may, indeed, be available to all. Unfortunately, not everyone has time to go looking.

The major beef that inner city liberal types have with Reist (I won't say "and her ilk" because that would destroy my own argument instanter) is such associations as hers with NSW Right to Life.

The following graphics appear in a scrolling banner on their website. Images such as these are highly polarising. Althought Reist, herself, is on record defending lesbians against attacks, groups like Right to Life do not have this latitude.

They must keep onside their core constituency. Reist worked with Tasmania's infamous Brian Harradine for 12 years, so she must be aware of the kind of attacks people in his situation endure from groups on the other side of the political fence.

Being associated with Right to Life cannot help her case, which is why I think she needs the issue of 'corporate pedophilia' more than it needs her. Obviously, from the article, she is pairing herself off against Catharine Lumby.

What she says is true, but for some reason it reminds me of the 19th century debate about novels. OK, I know this is not original. Others have used the same analogy. But what about the other significant heresy - access to the English Bible?

Back when Shakespeare was still just a gleam in Anne Hathaway's eye (the left one, we hope), it was only 'sad' men (meaning 'sober'; no women - please!) who were deemed eligible - by Henry VIII's censors - to have a copy.

A few years later this became moot when he opened the floodgates as a result of wounded pride.

Now I love reading Quadrant and I hate it when politicians such as Morris Iemma feel compelled to criticise people operating on the far-left fringe of society - people who ordinarily band together for protection, and who thus fortify the ancient left-right divide due to wounded pride.

So when I read Reist's excellent article in the magazine, I am compelled - Google gives us an almost-synchronous ability to classify - to condemn her affiliations because of the dishonesty implicit in the images below.

These images damage her standing in the community because the people who put them on the Right to Life website are as dishonest as rapacious magazine editors criticised in the article.

It is also true that conservative Christians are very much as one with capitalism. I listen to 103.2FM on many mornings during my commute and so I am very aware of the clear bias in favour of entrepreneurism.

Which is what the magazines Reist criticises are very much a party to.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Stateline‘s long Michael Booth segment on Friday 20 June was awash with slow footage of sandstone - it blamed the University of Sydney, and especially its VC, Gavin Brown.

But if you want to piece together a sequence of events, you need to do your own research.

The ABC’s story follows a much shorter print story by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Harriet Alexander. The sole focus of the 28 April story is Booth’s misuse of blood samples.

But on 3 May, Alexander adds (‘Whatever you do, don’t rock the boat’) the sort of details the ABC includes. Still, dates are scanty. It’s hard to construct a timeline.

But in the story Alexander implies that researchers are pushed to publish conclusions that suit the government that provides the money.

We must rely on the ABC’s version for details. Which are:

  • Tony Cunningham, director of the Westmead Millennium Institute asks Booth to let him use blood samples to be collected, for herpes research
  • Booth “received verbal permission from the [ethics] committee chairman” to alter words on “parent information sheets”
  • “No such letter could be found”
  • Booth promoted to associate professor
  • Booth’s SPANS finding was that “over-eating and not lack of exercise” caused children to be overweight
  • In April 2006 Booth was “asked to discuss these findings at the NSW diabetes summit”
  • He gets written approval “three days later” to go ahead
  • Reporter Nick Grimm says “John Hatzistergos had had Michael Booth’s report in his possession for eight months”
  • But the health minister “had not yet officially released it”
  • Receives email about “extreme dissatisfaction” over “early release of this information” without ministerial consent
  • An “ethical misconduct case against Michael Booth” “dormant for five months, suddenly ramped up”
  • The university investigator “Helen Colbey of the NSW Internal Audit Bureau” (according to Alexander, ‘Uni academic denied natural justice: review‘) says “Professor Brown wrote … expanding my role to deal with … allegation[s] … that Dr Booth prematurely released the SPANS results by participating in press releases”
  • In April 2008 a “retired Supreme Court judge” found the sacking to be “unreasonable” due to a lack of “procedural fairness”
  • As soon as Stateline told the university it was doing the story, Booth “received a settlement offer from his lawyers”
  • Booth refuses to accept the offer

The ABC could be said to have distorted the message to create drama, and accompanied it with acres of sandstone, to create a compelling, David and Goliath frame of reference for Friday night viewers.

This image should not be used against government. We know that universities have been being squeezed for some time. But the problem will not go away, especially now that notions of 'spin' and brand management are so visible.

In The Australian on Wednesday 18 June David Rowe and Kylie Brass paint a familiar picture of university spin doctors eager to stay on-side with the mandarins in Macquarie Street and elsewhere.

“Speaking beyond disciplinary peers to broader publics is a necessary - and necessarily risky - business.” But outcomes are “difficult to script”. Institutional “damage limitation” is the inevitable result when feisty and intelligent - and well researched - teachers enter the public sphere.

Bringing the university into disrepute is the risk. But what is the alternative?

Back in the late middle ages before Luther used the new technology of printing to disseminate his ideas of authenticity against corruption, it was John Wyclif who stood firm.

But Wyclif was fully protected by his employer - Oxford University - which refused to let him become meat for the cats, the inevitable result. A few generations later Jan Hus was assassinated by the church for the same heresy.

Luther, later, would be protected by a sympathetic ruler. Nationalistic and religious issues were almost always connected in the early modern period. Anti-German feeling helped the utraquists in Bohemia gather support among notables.

If Oxford had surrendered Wyclif the university’s reputation would, now, suffer.

Nick Grimm, ABC reporter, Michael Booth overlayed during broadcast
Deborah Rice, ABC TV presenter
Letter from former chair of the ethics committee
University of Sydney quadrangle detail
Michael Booth and Nick Grimm go over the details
University of Sydney quadrangle detail
Wayne Smith, public health, Sydney Uni
Stuart Rosewarne, NTEU
Michael Booth at home

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Ita Buttrose speaks for Advocates for Child Abuse, 22 June 2008Ita Buttrose came for Frances Keevil Gallery's auction fund-raiser to earn money for Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA), sponsored by the CorriLee Foundation.

Double Bay's Goldman Lane is a small mall leading from famed Knox Street toward the harbour. Frances Keevil Gallery is located on the corner of Knox Lane, a bendy traverse where the BMWs crawl silently behind the back doors of cafes and boutiques.

Chamber of commerce head Kate Dowling opened the auction and you could tell that the attendance pleased her. "It's great to see so many people in Double Bay on the weekend," she said. Talking later she mentioned future initiatives to increase patronage, including a market.

On a cold June day the diminutive strip of shops along New South Head Road are quiet. While the sun strikes the green rising suns on the classic deco facade of the Golden Sheaf Hotel, the hundred or so people standing in Goldman Lane were wrapping their jackets tight by the time Dowling carried the mic onto the podium.

Art hanging on Keevil's walls are all for sale. Unusually, it's a group show and includes pieces priced from about $250 to several thousand. Proceeds from sales today go to ASCA. Some artists, such as Simon Collins, are forgoing their cut entirely. Keevil is donating her cut on all sales to ASCA.

Fuelled by pint-sized but delicious pies, attendees soaked up the remains of the morning sun. As the shadows got longer toward the auction launch at 3.30pm, glasses of tasty white made a difference.

Buttrose followed Dowling onto the podium while Professor Freda Briggs, a child abuse specialist based at the University of Adelaide, stood nearby wrapped in a tan pea-souper. Born in England, Briggs has worked in the field for decades.

Like Buttrose, her motivation for being here - really it's a tiny crowd of eastern suburbs types, more often than not over 50 - is to help. As editor-in-chief of The Womens Weekly and founder of Cleo magazine, Buttrose is used to talking to crowds. A seasoned campaigner.

"There has been a lot more notice given to child abuse in the media in recent years." Not 'there is more child abuse now than ever before' or something similar. Which would be incorrect.

She mentioned the Austrian case of the Fritzl children. No mention of the outback.

The auction was led by Andrew Shapiro, who sold three prepared items.

A duo on violin and accordion kept up a festive atmosphere through the afternoon. Patrons still around at 4pm when stage events finished were still quaffing chardonnay half an hour later. Mikey Robins and his partner - patrons of ASCA - did not show.

Who could blame them? The bright sun of morning quickly fell off, allowing the chill in Sunday's 10-knot breeze, discernible since the morning, to take charge. Like Mosman, Double Bay parking metres do not take a fee on Sundays.

I spoke with Yong Kang Gao, a Chinese painter whose traditional still lifes were on sale. Arriving in Sydney in 1989 with the other survivors of post-Tiananmen hostilities, he took lessons in oil painting.

Although he had started to draw before leaving Shanghai, where he was born, he never used traditional Chinese techniques.

Two new Simon Collins paintings - both 40cm x 40cm and affordable - build on his earlier series of "metal" paintings - 'portraits' of Peugeots, trades vans and 4-cylinder Japanese 1990s 2-door sedans.

The new works are beautiful, like 'Mulga Road'. In this vibrant painting, the road's raw dark teal is set in motion by dark green foliage on trees along its length. Set in them are flashes of orange and a bright blue sky gains tone from diagonal brushstrokes rendering the fluffy depths.

Suburbia hasn't been done this well for a while. An exhibition starts on 25 July. Eat your heart out Howard Arkley! I really like the series but what drew me to Collins at first was his personal infatuation with auto bodies.

Keevil says she prompted the artist - who had a portrait of his son just out of the water at Bondi hung with other finalists of 2007's Moran prize - to "talk to the viewer" and reach out with a more narrative approach.

Collins has taken this advice on board. Another painting - 'Motor Fest' - shows his trademark automobiles under the influence of a walking figure and two daring double-yellow lines, the kind seen running down the middle of a thousand suburban roads.

But here they cut across the corner of the painting adding panache to an interesting tableau. Behind the cars - parked back to the curb - stands a strange, brown building that could be a town hall in an Australian country town.

Outside Frances Keevil Gallery, Double Bay
Outside Frances Keevil Gallery, Double Bay
Artist Yong Kang Gao at Frances Keevil Gallery, Double Bay
Outside Frances Keevil Gallery, Double Bay
Ita Buttrose and Prof Freda Briggs raise funds for survivors of child abuse
Auctioneer Andrew Shapiro raises funds for survivors of child abuse
Kate Dowling of Double Bay Chamber of Commerce and Frances Keevil draw for the door prize
Musicians at ASCA auction, Goldman Lane, Double Bay
Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse auction, Double Bay
Frances Keevil at auction for Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse
Goldman Lane, Double Bay

Friday, 20 June 2008

John Micklethwait drew a good 700 to the Seymour Centre on Thursday night to hear ringing vowels - a flat, utterly middle-class English burr - atone for the public sphere's conventional absence from mostly private lives.

Located on the edge of campus, the theatre building lacks the infrastructure to deal with this kind of volume. The queue at the 'pre-paid' window stretched to the back of the lobby full of tall, well-dressed young men (some in suits) and well-attired young women.

A few grey individuals loitered at the edges but even they looked fit.

The sheer volume of chatter was mesmerising, invigorating. I could feel the excitement build among the 'brash'. Certainly you felt that these people have (a) top communication skills and (b) their milieu's highly competitive.

Mostly journalists, I thought to myself.

The louder, more confident you are, the less likely you are to be left out. Micklethwait is one of these people, having spent an hour the previous day - so Prof John McKern of International Business with the USSC tells us - talking with Kevin Rudd.

McKern spent time at Stanford (California) and, while there, had introduced the new Economist editor-in-chief's predecessor, Bill Emmet, to a similar audience.

The magazine was "an essential lifeline to the world beyond our borders" and "the best weekly journal in the world". We expected nothing less. The figures - 180,000 sold in the UK but 1.3 million globally - back him up.

The Economist has essentially liberal roots. It was was set up, Micklethwait tells us, to fight the Corn Laws and slavery.

His opening words also called on history for support. He traced out a series of headlines that, in the second decade of the 19th century, responded (hilariously) to the reemergence of Napoleon following the escape from Elba.

The audience clapped on queue. The volume of chatter, which had seemed so spontaneous, turned itself down just as the performance was about to begin. There would be perfectly timed guffaws, too. The audience was totally in tune with his rhythm the whole night.

The result of this would be that, although the show started late due to so many still queueing at 6.30pm when it was scheduled to begin, Micklethwait allowed questions to run until 8pm.

By this time the rain had started but I didn't mind. Nor, it seemed, did several middle aged men who had - somehow - lost their cars in the diminutive Shepherd Street carpark.

I felt it symptomatic of general euphoria when one - in his fifties but hale - started throwing confusion around like a flamenco dancer at a bus stop: "Where's B2, do you know?" - "There's no basement level in this carpark." - "I've lost my car. Do you (turning to another victim) know where B2 is?" - "Sorry."

As I squeezed my car out of the tiny space typical of this future-facing edifice I saw him down half a level pacing and gyrating in search of a car that - I assumed - must have six cylinders and take 100 dollars of E10 fuel to fill.

Micklethwait touched on the economics of the new world order, including high crude oil prices.

He started working with the magazine in the 1980s after working at a bank. He was the editor of its US section from 1997 to 2006 and head of the US bureau for two years. He also set up The Economist's Los Angeles office.

But while he addressed economic matters the main area of interest was tailored for the audience. For this reason, he talked about the "reemerging world, not the 'emerging' world".

In the future we would not characterise this period with labels - such as the 'war on terror' - currently employed. It would become, rather, the time of the "reemergence of Asia". A few cogent historical facts were put up to bolster the prognostication.

Globally, there had been "dramatic amounts of people whose status has changed extraordinarily". Africa, too, is doing better than it has for a very long time. We were seeing the fastest growth in human history and it was "not coincidental" that there had been a "leap forward" in freedom at the same time.

Even in China, Micklethwait said, "there's no doubt about which direction it's going". Later, I would ask a question about the Party and its plans to dismount the thundering stallion of continental growth.

China, he answered, was "run by engineers, while India is run by lawyers".

"It's like a mechanic getting out from under the bonnet to explain to a passenger what needs to be done." They want to get on with other things while they're required to stop to explain what has to be done.

In terms of precedent, however, his assessment lacked the assurance he displayed in most areas. In Chinese history, when something seems to be happening there's always something big that comes along to derail it.

Or so historians tell him. "People who know the history better than I." General ignorance is a legacy we may come to rue.

"Sinophobia has much deeper roots than Japanophobia in the 80s." China, too, was "an angry place". Rudd's attempt to bring the East Asian powers into some sort of order was a valid response to the "Kissingerian" issues today of "competing interests".

China's dissatisfaction with the world's reply to its sudden modernisation caused many to be angry. They want an invitation to the G8, but don't get it. The West goes on about Tibet all the time. "These things run deep."

He mentioned the problem of what's taught to children in China and Japan and the government's ability to "turn on the tap of Japanophobia".

Progress won't halt, however. In 1998 alone, 28 million people moved from rural areas to the coastal cities. In the period of rapidest US growth - the 19th century - there were not as many over the whole hundred years making the trip across the Atlantic.

Imagine the social tensions, he asked us, when the economy doubles in size every eight years. He predicts that China will be the world's biggest Christian (and Muslim) country by 2050.

The Olympics, he posits, would come back to bite the Party. Especially if China wins more medals than the US. This would "spook America", which - in 1908 - was the 'rising hegemon' that China is now.

The French - naturally - have a term apropos for the new world economy: "le capitalisme sauvage".

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

'Natasha' is a Nabokov story his son Dmitri says dates from 1924.

It's in the 9 & 16 June issue of The New Yorker (pic) and it has never been published. About 2000 words long, it comes as a surprise - and as no surprise - to watchers of this extraordinary writer, who died in 1977.

The story - which deals with the travails of a very young woman living in the Berlin Russian emigre community - if written 'circa 1924' as Dmitri posits, reliably anticipates both The Enchanter (1939 but published first in 1985) and Lolita (1955).

It can also be seen to point toward one of Nabokov's "first cut" stories, which appeared among the favoured 16 in his first short story collection, A Russian Beauty (1973). This is 'Torpid Smoke' (1935), in which a young man inhabits the same space as his sister and father.

Again, we are in the apartment-dwelling regions of Nabokov's personal mythsocape.

In 'Natasha' the girl must sleep on the couch because her sick father uses the bed. The presence of couches and tobacco in both stories also makes itself felt (Grisha is also lying on the couch as he dreams).

But the closest point of contact between the stories is a propensity of their protagonists to dream awake. In Grisha's case, the pleasures of literature are elucidated adequately. His heart is "bursting with happiness" which is the "greatest thing on earth".

Natasha, for her part, is trying to go to sleep. But even though the couch is lumpy and her father will make her wake during the night:

I feel so wonderful, she thought, laughing into her pillow. She was now lying curled up, and seemed to herself to be incredibly small, and all the thoughts in her head were like warm sparks that were gently scattering and sliding.

Later, on an outing in the German countryside with Baron Wolfe:

Natasha was lying on her stomach, elbows widespread, watching the brightly lit tops of the pines as they gently receded into the turquois heights. As she peered into this sky, luminous round dots circled, shimmered, and scattered in her eyes. Every so often something would flit like a golden spasm from pine to pine.

Here, as in the later story, Nabokov charts untravelled domains. The space of the Id, the region of one's "being" had never, so completely, been viewed. And especially by such a rigorous, Apollonian writer as Nabokov.

We see the line between 'me' and 'the world' fold and buckle. But the proprieties - some kind of innate moral law - are also upheld.

Bastienne Schmidt, Embroidery, 2007, The New Yorker, 9 & 16 June 2008
Almost a year ago, I blogged on the premium still given to youth in the image market. The blend into online porn was - and still is - unmistakable.

This was long before Bill Henson's uncomfortable, dizzy dip into the colder corners of the public sphere's "level playing field".

The picture chosen by the magazine's editors here - 'Embroidery' by Bastienne Schmidt - is almost identical to two I used to illustrate my points in August 2007.

What's topical in the story, furthermore, is the relationship - which surges into clarity a single page-column from the denouement on page 60 - between Natasha (impoverished, sick father, emigre, underage) and Baron Wolfe.

Wolfe's body is brought into sharp focus on page 59:

Wolfe took off his jacket, and his thickset body in its striped shirt exhaled a gentle aura of heat. He was walking very close to Natasha; she was looking straight ahead, and she liked the feel of this warmth pacing alongside her.

The point is visible, but it's not yet ready to sink into the flesh - that would wait another 31 years. But already, here, Nabokov is aware of what he wants to do. The emergent sense of his own genius piles up into other, less orderly and generous, sensations about life.

I'm not sure why Dmitri chose this moment to publish the story he also translated. Perhaps he needs a new Maserati.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that - apart from The Original of Laura (1977 but unfinished) - there remains some good stuff at the bottom of the barrel yet.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Brockhaus Leipzig map 1897Does Colleen Morris think Drummoyne is "awesomely hideous" with "immense tonnages of concrete and ugliness"?

Is it "bestial, breathtaking horror" that she feels when confronted by the suburb's "profoundly antihuman environment"? Possibly John Birmingham (Leviathan, 1999, p 372) would

... expect to create [such] if you pollinated the grossest excesses of triumphant capitalism with the aesthetic sensibilities of whatever engineering department the Romanian secret police tasked with fitting out the torture chambers in their blank-faced, ferroconcrete punishment palaces. (p 372)

Morris merely says "So much has changed. So little remains."

The suburb did not "resist the Sydney land grab for long" as John Huxley writes in today's The Sydney Morning Herald (p 7).

Birmingham is more colourful. Drummoyne was ripped apart in the early 1970s by "architects and developers with little or no sympathy for the nuances of history and the needs of the human beings who must actually live inside their nightmares" (p 236).

In the top map - Brockhaus of Leipzig, 1897 - the label on the peninsula is 'Hythe' and the continuous strip of Victoria Road is seen traversing the Parramatta River where the Gladesville Bridge now sits.

Off Birkenhead lie Snapper Island and Spectacle Island, just this side of Cockatoo Island (which is labelled on the SMH map).

Colleen Morris in Drummoyne, SMH, 17 June 2008
Morris will publish a book titled Lost Gardens of Sydney with the Historic Houses Trust. It comes out in August.

Drummoyne House and grounds estate sale notice, 1894, SMH, 17 June 2008
This is the way to "imagine" history in Sydney - the word is Richard Stanton's, from his All News Is Local (2007). In fact, it's one of the only ways to talk about history without coming across as a rabid Tory.

Either that, or sport or war. The wonderful sculptures (by Cathy Weiszmann) being commissioned by the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust are evidence that it is possible to validly render historical figures in Australia.

But only just. Similarly, you can buy work by the man who gave us the recent New Zealand mate to the ANZAC bronze who has faced west for the best part of a decade at the Balmain end of the ANZAC Bridge.

Alan Somerville's other work is available from Frances Keevil Gallery. The show is on at 2 Danks Street, Waterloo, until 28 June.

Drummoyne House, SMH, 17 June 2008

Saturday, 14 June 2008

An unsigned piece in Salon magazine labels Robert Hughes one who is good at “telling stories about objects”.

His magisterial Barcelona (1992) - which may be the culprit when it comes to allocating blame for the almost endless series of cultural histories that ushered in the new millenium - illustrates the point.

Not Simon Schama but Robert Hughes is thus responsible for the endless histories of clocks, salt, cod, and everything else made or consumed by humans. Barcelona - published just before the 1992 Olympics disturbed the sleep of the city angels - is likely the catalyst for an explosion of non-fiction that continues without cease.

The book covers a lot of ground, though not all in equal detail, as Hughes candidly points out in his introduction. Yet there are still too many names belonging to individuals who have no resonance for the average English-language reader.

Something similar must happen when you watch a Formula One race from trackside. You glimpse a name as it flickers across the retinal glass and disappears in a blink around the narrative arc.

The only sound we hear is ‘i’, ‘i’, ‘i’, ‘i’ - every Catalan name has the vowel in its centre, so the city seems to exist like some surreal box of chocolates that are irritatingly various on the outside but are all filled with the same orange cream, reminding us of afternoon tea with aunty Madge in Waverly.

When what we really want to do is race our billy cart down the dangerous hill of Wharf Road, along with the others - all the boys who go without shoes in summer.

Hughes is stiff with politicians, priests, kings, mayors and soldiers alike. The most luscious prose drips off the end of his mental spoon when he’s dipping it into the aesthetic kernel of some beautiful object, and the more curious and striking - the better.

Even poetry seems secondary to Hughes. He doesn’t quite ‘get’ literature, just as he doesn’t quite ‘get’ the Gothic. While he pays obedient lip-service to art and architecture conservation - as a self-evident public ‘good’ - in his writing style and in the ‘genius’ of his mental habits, he’s more akin to the later 18th century absolutists who redesigned Paris.

Similar projects in Barcelona did not go as far, because (he tells us early on) Barcelona and Catalunya in general are monumentally conservative places. The reason why Hughes’ concepts - the avenues of his bias and thought - are straight and true is, of course (and he also makes this clear early on), because his native Australia is similarly hidebound and parochial.

Hughes lives in America but his mind is of the French type. He has respect for the patriarchal habits of the Catalonians but his heart is in the streets of Paris, storming the Bastille.

It is quite possible - likely even - that one day Hughes will write the definitive book about regional competitiveness in Australia. The main rivalry - between Sydney and Melbourne - resembles that between Madrid and Barcelona.

Unfortunately, like the 20th century, Barcelona is just too long. It’s not worth finishing because you know (not hard to see straight down those long, elegant avenues into the far distance) how it will end.

Hughes is no novelist, and as a chronicler of art as a collection of objects with everyday relevance, he has few equals. Nevertheless, the weight of his sarcasm and his scorn are more significant than the lift of his praise.

European control valve manufacturing facilities as at year 2000
The map shown here was made during a period working for a manufacturing company in Tokyo. It shows how the north of Spain is categorically different - it is strong in manufacturing, not food production - from the rest of the country (with the exception - and Hughes also points this out - of the Basque country).

The map shows that northern Spain, like northern Italy, is a manufacturing and engineering centre, similar to northern France, Germany, England, and the western parts of the Czech Republic.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Japanese goldfish seller in 1948 by Madge Dean in Tokyo with BCOFKevin Rudd’s Nagoya visit may be big news here (see 5 photos from today’s two Sydney broadsheets, below), but in Tokyo it’s no biggie.

Mainichi Daily News (my Japan broadsheet website of choice) shows nothing about the trip on its front page.

The only mention is below the fold in ‘business’. It's a story that includes the Altona upgrade (10,000 annually) as part of a global move to offshore production of hybrids, which will also be manufactured in Thailand (9000 annually).

The main point is buried down the bottom of the Mainichi story, where we learn that Altona has an “annual production capacity of 150,000 vehicles, and made 149,000 vehicles last year”.

No mention of Rudd in The Yomiuri Shimbun or The Japan Times.

Last time I got my Aurion serviced I asked - as I always do - the sales manager about Toyota’s business. It’s fascinating to read today’s journalism because they miss the point entirely. Or they pretend to.

Only Matthew Warren, in his feature on page 11 of The Australian, points to the salient fact. It's the single most important fact but it’s at the bottom of the column.

Toyota has been making cars in Thailand for decades. But what no Australian is told - unless he or she asks their local sales manager - is that practically all taxis in the Middle East are Australian-made Camrys.

Kim Carr made a related point - against a spray of negative stories from media outlets keen to hang a sign around the government’s neck. Toyota is - and the CSIRO’s David Lamb (pictured) underscored this when interviewed by the ABC - a world-class manufacturer.

Last year it overtook GM as global No 1. In 1997, when it brought the Prius to market, nobody saw potential. Japanese foresight means Toyota is set to expand exponentially while US rivals close manufacturing plants at home.

With Lexus Toyota's domestic plants can produce high-end vehicles while it offshores older, less expensive technologies in places like Australia and Thailand.

Carr pointed out that having Toyota here causes positive outcomes to proliferate in ways that would not be possible otherwise.

Skills developed working at Toyota‘s Altona plant, for example, would be easily transferable to other automakers and to other industries.

Apparently Rudd was asked about food security during a talk at Kyoto University. Similar topics emerged at today’s meet at the Tokyo Press Club, says SBS's Karen Middleton on the ground.

Photos, below, of Rudd hitting the supermarket aisles tell the real story. Imagine the president of Vietnam in Sydney to promote factory subsidies.

The Sydney Morning Herald went further than its rival in pointing to the war mentioning - in its page 4 story (Rudd doling out beef cubes to a three-year-old as minders watch) - Hodogaya Commonwealth War Cemetery.

If Rudd and his wife Therese Rein were in Nagoya - in cars, fuelling cars, looking at hybrid powerplants under bonnets - and also in Yokohama, they’re busy.

Hodogaya is on the outskirts of Yokohama, west of the capital. Yokohama was fingered to billet foreign troops post-WWII just as an island off Nagasaki was home to Dutch traders during the previous century.

David Lamb, CSIRO Low Emissions Transport Leader, ABC News June 2008
Therese Rein in Nagoya June 2008, The Sydney Morning Herald
Kevin Rudd in Nagoya June 2008, The Australian
Kevin Rudd in Nagoya June 2008, The Australian
Kevin Rudd in Tokyo June 2008, The Sydney Morning Herald
Kevin Rudd in Tokyo June 2008, The Australian

Monday, 9 June 2008

Lyall Munro’s speech at Myall Creek Memorial Rock followed an emotional Fred Chaney’s. The former federal minister for aboriginal affairs (1978 - 1980) compared remembering June 1838 to ANZAC Day.

Chaney does ANZAC Day marches with his grandfather’s unit medals - from AIF fighting in Europe - on his chest.

He has done for decades. “Walking down this path I had the same sense as on ANZAC Day.”

Myall Creek was a totally unnecessary destruction. “The sense of grief is no different.”

Munro welcomed assembled participants - numbering 430 this year, a good 200 more than usual since remembrance ceremonies began:

“I know you’re a sincere people, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

“The Europeans outgunned us,” he admitted. Munro and Chaney go back a way. Chaney was once deputy chair of the Australian Native Title Tribunal.

“What I said 50 years ago seems like yesterday,” said Munro. “Fifty years is quick.”

“Your critics are not your enemies,” said Chaney, now co-chair of Reconciliation Australia. For years Munro gave him "powerful advice and trenchant criticism". He thanked Munro for letting their friendship flourish despite "many mistakes".

Munro was the driver behind events on 7 June 2008. This became clear when, near the end of proceedings, John Brown, a man involved since 2000, tried to schedule a meeting.

Munro walked quietly up to Brown - at the mic - and whispered to him. “It seems we’re not having a committee meeting,” announced a flustered Brown. But Munro kept to the rear except for a brief turn at the mic at the memorial Rock.

Chaney told us, as he stood in front of it, that all government departments were preparing ‘reconciliation action plans’ to work out how to fit in a post-Sorry world.

The government was committed to recognising and protecting indigenous heritage, said Peter Garrett.

He handed a National Heritage plaque to an elder in front of guests seated outside the Myall Creek Country Womens’ Association (CWA) hall.

The corrugated iron building is situated ten minutes south of the tiny Northern Tablelands town of Delungra (pop 330), just west of Inverell on the Gwydir Highway.

There are now 79 places on the National Heritage List.

Myall Creek was important for all Australians, Garrett said. “It was the first and last time the colonial administration intervened to ensure British law applied equally” to blacks and whites.

Paul Lynch, NSW minister for aboriginal affairs and history buff, repeated the same message later in the day. He noted that absentee landlord Henry Dangar was also instrumental in the 1890s' shearers’ strikes, events leading to establishing the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

The Memorial Walk started in bright sunlight up on the hilltop with a delicate composition by Neil Murray sung by the group A Third Below.

Then the fragrant smoke of gum tree leaves.

Ochre and ashes, daubed on the face or forehead, signify the assembled - citizens, children, school kids, reporters, police, politicians, musicians, photographers, and descendants of those alive 170 years ago - pay respects. The order of service notes there is “a long Jewish/Christian tradition of putting on ashes as a sign of sorrow and grieving”.

At each of the eight stations school children - stately and happy in green or blue local uniforms - gave a brief version of events of June 1838. Similar words are inscribed on plaques mounted on rocks on the way.

They have been coming for years, and the support of people like them - “All reconciliation is local” said a tearful Chaney - had moved the Myall Creek Memorial Committee to propose the successful heritage listing.

This is very much the local community's ceremony, not just the aborigines’. Despite Chaney's words, grown-up children will be making the kind of concessions and decisions that will follow 7 June 2008.

Already Glenn Milne in The Sunday Telegraph (‘A Memorial controversy’ 8 June 2008) writes that the RSL disapproves of a suggestion - from Labor's Peter Conway - to establish an ‘Aboriginal Wars’ memorial on Canberra's ANZAC Avenue.

For this reason the Barwon LAC uniform of Chris Styles stood out. He shared the patch of dry grass scattered with bark and sticks off shade eucalypts with hundreds of aboriginal and non-aboriginal citizens.

Silence fell until the bullroarer began to hum. Chaney, Munro and others spoke in the silence of the crackling, dry bush. Children played with gravel strewn at their parents' feet before the Rock.

Many participants signed a visitors' book placed under a nearby gum tree.

John Heath, a part-aboriginal from Port Macquarie, where Henry Dangar lived, has studied Myall Creek for years. Walk with him for 20 minutes - as long as it takes to reach the CWA hall - and you learn a lot of pre-WWI history.

We agreed that convicts - seven of whom hung for murder in 1838 - would have been loath to disagree with an overseer.

Chaney had mentioned "one man of principle" - George Anderson. Anderson worked at Myall Creek Station and alerted the Muswellbrook magistrate after witnessing stockmen lead away a group of trussed aborigines.

But the status of ticket-of-leavers and convicts made them susceptible to violence.

Communication in this kind of environment - unmediated and freely shared - gets you details often missing in the daily media.

Dympna and Diana from Armidale, and Russell from a closer town, talked freely with people they’d never met. Author Peter Stewart was on hand to sign copies of his book, Devils At Dusk (see Friday‘s post).

Organisers didn’t expect so many. Graeme Cordiner, of Sydney Friends of Myall Creek, said at 10.05: “this is what we usually get”. Half an hour later it had doubled.

The Gomeroi Dance Group Company impersonated a family of ‘banda’ ('kangaroo' in Gamilaroy language). Sleepy to start with, banda stir, raise their ears, and rise to look around.

Prizes were awarded for artworks by local kids. Madison Eastcott from Bingara Central School accepted first prize for category two. The Tingha Singers performed a children’s song in their language.

In the photos you can see the local Gamilaroy boys lazing around just like regular kangaroos before starting up, ears twitching, to survey the environment. “It takes a bit of acting,” they said. “We’re all actors in case you're a movie producer.” They're keen to succeed.

Roger Knox, accompanied by one talented youth, sang a song.

I am what I am
I am aborigine

I am like a river
Pollute and abuse me
And I will die

Taking only what I must
I am what I hunt.

Myall Creek Memorial committee member Ivan Roberts addresses attendees
Graeme Cordiner of Sydney Friends of Myall Creek chats with Fred Chaney
John Brown and Lyall Munro talk
Elder Elizabeth Connor welcomes those present at Gamilaroi Country; and Lyall Munro
Peter Garrett, minister for the environment, heritage and the arts, presents the heritage listing to an elder
Peter Garrett speaks to those present in front of the Myall Creek Country Womens Association hall
Documentary maker Steve Webber
Walking along the Whitlow Road to the ceremony
An SBS reporter at the start of the proceedings before walking to the Rock
Local school children read a chronicle at stations of the walk
Fred Chaney and elders at the Rock
Peter Garrett and an aboriginal girl at the Rock
Aborigines watch the Memorial ceremony
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participant
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants listen to the bull roarer
Fred Chaney addresses Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants return for lunch
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants return for lunch
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants return for lunch
Myall Creek Memorial ceremony participants return for lunch
Gomeroi Dance Group Company perform
Gomeroi Dance Group Company perform
Art awards given out
Singer Roger Knox sings I Am An Aborigine
Field of dead sunflowers along the Gwydir Highway
Gwydir Highway, looking east, between Inverell and Glen Innes