Thursday 24 November 2011

Street Art à la Cockatoo

This week's guest post is from Julia Hilton, who recently visited the Outpost exhibition of street art in Sydney...

This inaugural exhibition of street art was being held on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour; an easy journey by ferry from Circular Quay for a $10.20 return ticket that included free entry.

Cockatoo Island had been used by the military since 1839. It was built by convicts as a prison and then developed into naval shipyards, which it remained until 1992. Surprisingly the government didn't sell it to developers, leading to its new life as an entertainment and exhibition centre.

As I entered via a very '40s government office archway the island revealed itself, shaped rather like a top hat. The sheer side cliffs at the centre of the island led the eye to a number of pleasant houses on its top, while the brim constituted the main dock and grassed areas.

I was immediately drawn to walls bearing massive paintings of Australian wildlife; murals made of cyclone fencing and coloured plastic cups; a bus in progress of being graffitied by two young men with spray cans; and large groups of children and adults getting down to a session of pavement decorating with chalks provided.

Walking on towards the dockside workshops, I passed a mythic temple-cum-teepee and a sinister hot air balloon whose evil face seemed to watch my progress. Each of the workshops housed a different type of art show, including work from projects such as the Project Ugly and May Lane Project, which aim to direct talented spray can artists to creating art experiences in urban environments.

It might seem paradoxical that you could host a street art exhibition off the street; but the cluster of sheds, workshops, warehouses, open spaces and even a couple of caves proved ideal for the purpose and concentrated the experience of these art forms.

My favourite part of the exhibition was the huge painted mural of Australian animals by a Belgian artist called ROA. They all seemed dead and this made for an uneasy reminder of how fragile our wildlife is. This painting was executed in black and white paint, stark and beautiful.

Then it was on to the Banksy exhibit in a double storey workshop which was once the machine-making shop. For those who have never seen a Banksy stencil art work - you actually probably have, down an alley or on a wall where you've come across an outline of a rat with a crown, or a policemen giving flowers to a child. This highly secretive UK street artist has become very collectable. There were 20 prints made from stencils by him, a great selection.

Some of the larger projects included a house painted with a lifelike skull on its front by Kid Zoom (an Oz artist working in New York) with three wrecked cars outside. Inside the back of the house you could watch an audio visual presentation of the wrecking procedure by the artist.

Nothing in the exhibition was without message and attitude. These could be very confronting and often quite obtuse; but street art is not for silent contemplation, it’s in your face and you can’t help but share it with those around you. I found myself discussing some of the works with complete strangers and feeling more connected to the works as a result.

There was so much to see that after three hours, visual indigestion and sore feet set in. So I made my way to an open-air bar and sat watching the chalk artists in action with a cold beer in my hand. Heaven!

The Outpost exhibition continues to 11 December 2011; more details at Julia Hilton recommends the Doc Rat comic strip by Jenner for your daily entertainment:

Friday 11 November 2011

Burgers of the North

Ever since The Age ran a piece on the new wave of pop-up food vans in Melbourne, I've been meaning to check one out.

This is how it works. Each day the van's operators tweet its planned location that night. It might be placed next to a park or on a main street, but either way it'll be in an inner-city location near public transport.

For some reason the two I'm following, Beatbox Kitchen and Taco Truck, seem to hug the inner north rather than crossing the Yarra River. Presumably the grungy streetscapes of Brunswick are a better fit than the delicate facades of Albert Park, and I suspect the local councils in the north are more relaxed about permits for that reason.

Yesterday afternoon the call came, or in fact the tweet: "@beatboxkitchen: Dinner outside mr wilkinson, lygon st east Brunswick from 6pm". A little cryptic, but it turned out Mr Wilkinson was a bar at 295 Lygon St, East Brunswick.

I was slightly puzzled by this location - it was on a tram route, so easy to get to. However, I knew the footpaths there were average width and lined by shop fronts. Where would people eat, exactly?

The answer turned out to be quite clever. When I got to the burger truck's serving window, I saw this:

As people ordered, they were asked "Are you eating in the bar?" The van had formed a friendly arrangement with Mr Wilkinson - burger buyers could sit in the bar if they liked; and naturally, they tended to buy a drink while there.

This was the same methodology I followed. After placing my order, I went in and bought a schooner of Kirin ($5), then took it outside and used it to save a spot at the bar's narrow streetside stools while I waited for my burger. The resulting combination of beer and food looked like this:

My verdict? Very tasty. It was a simple burger ($11) but better quality than you might expect from a roadside van, with cos lettuce, a spicy meat pattie, crunchy onion, tomato and cheese. And the bread roll was soft, but not sweet and unyielding like a mass-produced hamburger bun - it had some welcome density.

The fries ($5) went cold too quickly, but that's always the danger with fries rather than thicker chips. The spicy mayo that came with them was good.

As for the atmosphere, it was a great vibe on a balmy spring evening, with people spread between the van and the bar and in a burger-induced good mood.

My next assignment - if I choose to accept it - is to track down the Taco Truck.

You can find Beatbox Kitchen's latest location at

Friday 4 November 2011

Melbourne Art Deco

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life and the Melbourne Literary app for the iPhone and iPad.

It was all in the detail.

There’s something about Art Deco design which never ceases to delight me. Maybe it’s the combination of geometry and colour. Maybe it’s the frescoes in which 20th century technology looks decorative and classical. Maybe it’s just the way I associate Deco with PG Wodehouse and his Jeeves and Wooster books.

Whatever the reason, the Melbourne Art Deco Architecture Tour provided the requisite delight as I walked around the city under the guidance of guide Robin Grow. Some of Melbourne’s Deco architecture was already known to me, but Grow revealed a few secrets as well (the secret, guys, is to look up!)

The Manchester Unity Building was the logical start for our walk. Although I’m very familiar with the elegant sweep of this 1932 building, I hadn’t really stopped to look within its interior. How had I not seen the picture of the grieving woman near the Collins Street entrance? The curve of her back, the image of Death in the corner. The art is blocky but eloquent:

Further along I noticed the lovely stained glass highlights under the walkway to the Capitol Theatre for the first time:

Then, after spotting the little K on the former Kodak House, I got a better look at the mosaic on Newspaper House. I’ve always seen it from the other side of the road, but up close, I could see the dates and strange little designs on the insets of the windows:

It’s strange to think you know a city well, only to discover you really haven’t been looking at it properly. The Aztec influence in Harry Norris’s floor design for Block Court was obvious once it was pointed out to me. Howey House’s musicians were a surprise, as were the fish forming what I thought was a floral design on the Majorca Building:

I hadn’t expected the strange combination of images at the top of the Theosophical Building on Collins Street. The design is a combination of the six pointed star, a cross that looks a bit like an ankh, a swastika (the peaceful Indian one,  not the reversed Nazi one) and the ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail):

My favourite surprise, though, was the Egyptian motif on a building on Bourke Street. The winged sun and lotus columns reminded me of the time I lived in Egypt. The Egyptian craze in design that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb reached even our far shores and this elegant decoration represented a bridge between Melbourne’s history and my own:

Robin Grow knows a lot about the architectural history of Melbourne, helping you see the parts of the city you never noticed before; but it was the tour's interaction with my personal history that added detail to the experience.

The MELTours Melbourne Art Deco Architecture Tour takes place on the second Sunday of each month. Cost $49. Bookings via +61 407 380969 or

Narrelle M Harris was a guest of MELTours. You can find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her Melbourne Literary app and other published work.