Friday, 6 December 2019

Outback Patron of the Arts

In March 2018, I spent a few days in the remote Queensland town of Normanton, awaiting the weekly run of the Gulflander train.

One morning, killing time, I visited the Three Tribes art gallery, and for the first time the ferocious dogs near the old town well declined to bark at me.

Were they asleep on the job, or was I slowly becoming accepted as a local?

The front of the gallery was locked, so I walked around the back and found an open-air shed with a dozen or so Aboriginal women creating art at tables.

Shenane was the gallery manager, who I'd met briefly the day before at the town's Visitor Centre. She had a no-nonsense manner I associated with the aunts of PG Wodehouse books.

“I don’t have a staff member to run the shop at the moment,” she said, opening up the gallery for me. She explained the women were mostly making art as part of a work for the dole scheme.

“Better than doing something pointless like weeding,” I said.

It struck me as a good idea, the artists building skills and creating works to be proud of, as well as earning a commission from sales. And it provided another way for tourists to spend their dollars in the town, which was always a consideration for remote places with limited amusements.

There was an array of work on the walls, in both contemporary and traditional styles. One large portrait with a lot of black was painted by a woman who’d suffered from depression, said Shenane.

I turned over a small glazed bowl shaped like a gumleaf (see image at left). It was $3, so I decided to buy it.

Then I noticed a framed painting on the wall above the till, about 50 centimetres square, featuring brightly coloured handprints framed by dots (see image top right). It was only $30. I bought that too.

While I was encasing it in some bubble wrap Shenane had found, she ushered in a young woman. This was the artist, Stella. We had a chat about the work and how she had created its elements, and she went away beaming.

“That was her first sale,” said Shenane, dropping the aunt-like demeanour and smiling.

I rarely make impulse buys when travelling, obsessed as I am with travelling light. Now I had to work out how to get the art back to Melbourne.

The staff at Normanton's general store gave me an empty cardboard box to encase it, which I bound with a large amount of post office adhesive tape. I dispatched it to the mercies of Australia Post, feeling good about my impulsive role as patron of the arts.

I returned home safely two weeks later. So did the painting.

Three Tribes is located at 85 Landsborough Street, Normanton, Queensland. See more details at the Bynoe Arts Centre website.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Street Art of Melbourne

Over the past few weeks I’ve been undertaking my first Lonely Planet research gig for a few years - updating sections of the Pocket Melbourne guide.

It’s an interesting experience updating a travel guide to your own city. In previous years I’ve updated overseas locations for LP, so typically I’d do several weeks of intensive research in that country, followed by several weeks of intensive data entry at home.

Because I’m doing this particular job from my own home, I can spread out the work and intersperse research days with data entry days. The results of my research will appear in the book, of course, but over the course of my walking I’ve noticed a lot of interesting street art as I’ve wandered through the inner-city streets.

Melbourne is famous for its colourful murals and other informal open-air art, so I thought I’d share some of what I saw here...

Day 1: Fitzroy and Collingwood




Day 2: East Melbourne and Richmond




Day 3: South Yarra, Prahran and Windsor


... and a side-trip to East Brunswick:

... and a bonus entry from Footscray (Go the ’Scray!):

Melbourne really is a city of murals. Keep an eye on its unassuming alleyway walls when you visit!

Friday, 22 November 2019

Review: KAWS, Melbourne, Australia

I was hosted to this exhibition by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Last weekend I had a look through the NGV's current big exhibition, KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness.

There's no avoiding it as you step within the gallery, as a huge new commissioned work by the artist (see image, right) stands in the middle of the central courtyard.

It's titled Gone, and depicts a figure with crossed-out eyes and a skull-and-crossbones head carrying a deceased BFF, one of the artist's repeated figures.

BFF also has crossed-out eyes, and a furry version of the skull-and-crossbones.

Now get this: Xs on the eyes in cartooning has always meant death. Characters depicted this way are dead. If they are mobile, they are the walking dead. The skull-and-crossbones motif seems to underline this.

So why does no-one mention it? On the NGV's website the commentary says "Through his works KAWS celebrates generosity, support for others and the deep need we have for companionship." And nowhere on the captioning in the exhibition does it mention death.

But they seem dead. They might be companions, but dead ones, at least emotionally if not physically. Narrelle and I walked around the exhibition, feeling that KAWS was really trying to say something nihilistic, pointing out the meaninglessness of existence... because we all end up dead.

The figures in this exhibition are colourful, bright, intriguing and subversive of pop culture... but at the same time, as Holly said to Lister in Red Dwarf: "He's dead, Dave. Everybody is dead. Everybody is dead, Dave."

OK, now I've got that out of my system, what is the exhibition like if we acknowledge its macabre overtones?

Interesting stuff, especially the work from the early days when KAWS would hijack advertising posters and paint his cartoonish death masks over them. This is where the "We're all gonna die" visual cue really resonates, juxtaposed with the artificial vibrancy of the fit, alert figures found in ads.

Further on, we see KAWS' trademark adoption and reinvention of popular cartoon characters, such as Snoopy and The Simpsons - with his version seen here swapping heads because, I guess, they're dead.

There's a room of incredibly vibrant abstract paintings too, their vividness attained by applying multiple coats of paint. And at the end is a room full of big figures - classic KAWS creations, cartoon giants with their eyes crossed out, some with exposed inner organs.

To be honest, this later part of the exhibition didn't move me as much as the earlier work which interacted with real-world posters.

I can see the figures might hint at our need for companionship seeing we're all going to die, and have something to say about isolation and loneliness. But mostly I was spooked by those dead, dead eyes.

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness continues to 13 April 2020, at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. Tickets $20 for adults, $17 concession. Make bookings here.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Cairns of Inverness

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain and Visit Scotland.

As part of my recent visit to Scotland, I visited the battlefield at Culloden, where the rebellious Jacobites were finally routed by British troops in 1746. (And for the Doctor Who fans out there, where the Doctor first met Jamie McCrimmon, who travelled with him for a while.)

That's a story for another day. What I wasn't expecting was the nearby site I was taken to by my guide afterward, somewhere he thought I'd find interesting.

He was right. Where we stopped was the Balnuaran of Clava, which contains a series of three Bronze Age cairns dating back to 2000 BCE. I'd never heard of these before, but they were intriguing.

The cairns are low grey circle of stones, two of which have passages into their centres. The entrances to these seems to be aligned toward the setting sun in midwinter, and separate standing stones are dotted around each cairn.

It's fascinating stuff. No one's sure what the meaning of the cairns' layout is, or who was buried there, but the layout of circles in the green space is an impressive piece of artistry in itself. As an arrangement, it seems both creative and deeply embedded in the environment.

It was an interesting place to wander through, the most accessible of more than fifty such cairns scattered around Inverness. Without remaining records, we'll never know who precisely were the people who built them there, or why. But we can admire what they left behind.

Learn more about the Clava Cairns at the Historic Environment Scotland website.

Friday, 8 November 2019

There's a Light... in Hamilton, New Zealand

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

As the poet John Whitter famously wrote:  

For all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'

I was thinking of those words as I stood in Embassy Park in the New Zealand city of Hamilton last month. For before it was a park, this rectangular space off the main street contained the Embassy Theatre.

Opened in 1915, the theatre was used for stage productions and other public event for many decades, until the stage was removed and it became purely an ageing cinema.

By chance, this era coincided with the arrival of Richard O'Brien, who would later create the musical The Rocky Horror Show and its movie spinoff, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

O'Brien at that point was cutting hair for a living, in a barber shop housed within the theatre building. As a result, he caught a lot of late-night double feature movie screenings - an experience which acted as inspiration for his gender-bending musical which drew heavily on that B-grade material.

The actor/writer became famous when the musical and movie became international hits in the 1970s. But I don't think the upright burghers of Hamilton were entirely proud of the highly sexualised stage and movie output of their once local lad.

For the Embassy Theatre closed as a cinema in 1989, and then - get this! - was demolished against protest in 1994, when the work it had inspired had already been a phenomenon for two decades.

Imagine if the creaking old cinema had survived, and had been refurbished by the city into a small cinematic arts centre. Nowadays Hamilton could have a wonderful old cultural asset in its heart, perhaps drawing visitors from everywhere for a weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show screening at midnight Saturday.

Belatedly there's been recognition of the one that got away, and the park where the cinema once stood has been transformed into a celebration of the musical and film. It contains a prominent statue of O'Brien as the character Riff Raff, and various other quirky features including sound and lighting.

It's a fun place to visit... but ah, what might have been. As they sang in the musical:

Rose tints my world
Keeps me safe from my trouble and pain.

Embassy Park is at 218 Victoria St, Hamilton, New Zealand. See the live camera feed at

Friday, 1 November 2019

Dazed by the Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

On this trip I was assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

On my visit to Japan last year, I bought a ticket to the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo's Shinjuku nightlife district.

This live show is something of a tourist trap, but also very Japanese in its combination of music, bold characters, and Japanese legends. Audience members sit in facing sections on each side of the room, as the loud and flashy action happens between them.

Afterwards I jotted some notes on my phone as I sat in the Deathmatch in Hell bar in the nearby Golden Gai enclave, trying to make some sense of the experience as I became progressively more intoxicated by shots of Japanese whisky (666 yen each!).

Here are those notes, and some photos I took. See if you can make sense of them.

First act. Loud, bright, vibrant and noisy. Opening sequence revolves around drummers on brightly lit floats, dressed with a suggestion of demonic robots or robotic demons.

They gyrate around as music plays, lights flash and drums beat, coming within a few centimetres of audience members in the front row, who need to lean back in order not to be hit. It's loud and lively.


Between the short snappy acts are intervals, in which the restaurant flogs drinks and souvenirs while setting up for the next act.

Second act. A future in which the robots have taken over, but are then fought by guardians, including a giant panda. Basically it's an anime movie played out live.

Third act. The king of the robots, a huge silver thing, dominates the stage.

Fourth act. A wild, colourful extravaganza that resembles a Brazilian carnival more than anything robot related. Lively, exuberant, over the top.

I hope that's clear. It was wild. Tokyo-style.

Find details and make bookings at the Robot Restaurant website.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 2)

Lola Montez and Henry Seekamp,
depicted in
Melbourne Punch in 1856.
Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
From last post: In 1855, the notorious courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez visited the Colony of Victoria, shocking many with her saucy 'Spider Dance'. Her story continues...

Moral reaction came quickly. In Melbourne, Dr John Milton, head of the City Court Mission, appointed himself as Montez’s arch-enemy.

After her first performance of the Spider Dance, he demanded a warrant be issued for her arrest, to prevent any repetition of the affront.

He was unsuccessful, perhaps due to mayor and theatre-builder John Smith being in the chair as presiding magistrate. Worthy citizens of Geelong also tried to shut her act down, without success.

Things were easier for Montez in gold mining country.

“Bendigo and Ballarat were turning into settled towns, but their goldfields still held large migratory male populations,” says historian David Goodman. “Entertainment was very welcome, so touring companies and other entertainers quickly got onto a circuit through the area.” Ever the canny self-publicist, Lola visited Ballarat miners at their diggings, and shouted them at local bars.

Her time in Ballarat included a violent incident that was reported in newspapers around the world. After a disapproving letter to the Ballarat Times described Lola as possessing “notoriety of an unenviable kind”, she laid into the newspaper’s editor, Henry Seekamp, in the bar of the United States Hotel, with a whip she’d just won in a raffle (see cartoon above).

Seekamp had been a hero of the 1854 Eureka Stockade revolt through his support for the rebel cause, and was known for his energy and temper; so he was unlikely to take the attack lightly. He replied with his own whip, and the two had to be separated by bystanders.

With highlights like these, Victorian newspapers used up plenty of newsprint on Lola. As they do now, the media loved a controversial woman for her ability to increase sales, whether they were praising or damning her. They were also happy to exaggerate existing stories about Montez, repeat unlikely rumours, and make new ones up, in an ever-expanding game of Chinese Whispers.

It was a situation that would suit her down to the ground. Lola thrived on controversy, often stoking the fires herself via letters to the editor, twisting facts to suit her public image.

She also gave the colony’s moral guardians a clear target, though they’d rarely seen the work they were complaining of, and the varied reactions of newspaper critics suggests the Spider Dance’s impropriety was very much in the eye of the beholder. But as we see today, outbreaks of moral panic have a lot to do with expressing the ego of the complainant, via the volume of his or her moral indignation.

Despite this sporadic resistance to her tour, accompanied by unsubstantiated rumours of intoxication and other unladylike behaviour, her audiences voted with their feet. They were happy to buy a ticket to be in close proximity to fame. They may also have sided with her dismissal of accepted authorities, not unlike the audiences who applauded Madonna’s critically panned West End stage debut in 2002.

Though Montez was only in the colony for a few months, she brought an air of international glamour to this remote part of the Western world. Did her success foreshadow the cultural cringe by which Australians sought validation from imported figures and culture?

No, says Goodman. “International entertainment was welcome, but ‘cultural cringe’ is anachronistic. Most of the population had only been here a couple of years, so they’re not thinking of themselves as Australian. Gold rush Melbourne is a very cosmopolitan society; more so than an English regional city like Bristol, for example.”

How significant was her visit to our developing colony? There’s no question that Lola Montez was one of the most colourful characters to visit Victoria, in the most colourful era of its history. But on the face of it, it’s hard to see her as anything more than a footnote.

Her outspoken commitment to liberal democracy was adopted for a New World audience, and her possibilities as a feminist icon are problematic. Though she was clearly a woman with a desire for an independent life, it was driven by her own demons rather than commitment to a cause.

Whatever her importance beyond the stage, Lola Montez is remembered. Even now, many Victorians recognise her name, some from history lessons at school. There’s even been a children’s book and a musical inspired by her tour. Why is she still so fascinating to the inhabitants of a post-modern era awash with celebrity scandals?

Maybe her memory lives on because, like Oscar Wilde, Lola Montez seems a contemporary figure trapped in an unforgiving earlier age. Or possibly, despite all our advances in equality between the sexes, we’re still fascinated by a woman who could break all rules of female propriety and get away with it.