Thursday 28 February 2013

Melbourne on a White Night (Part 1)

On 23 February 2013, Melbourne held its first White Night. Based on the model established by Paris' Nuit Blanche back in 2002, the one-night festival ran from 7pm to 7am in the heart of the city. Along the main streets and laneways were bands, illuminations, exhibitions, and over 300,000 people enjoying it all.

The numbers surprised everyone, frankly. Melbourne has always been a city in which people turn out for events, but this first White Night had been put together on short notice and faced challenges in getting the word out over the holiday period after Xmas.

I'd heard they were hopeful that 100,000 might turn up; that attendance was over three times that was a great tribute to the city's love of the arts.

As it had been a hot humid day, Narrelle and I decided not to venture out onto the streets until 9pm, after the sun had set. The first hint we had that the attendance was going to be impressive was when we crossed Flinders Street on the western edge of the White Night zone:

We walked under the train station past a series of screens playing video of artists discussing the crumbling interior of Flinders Street Station, then joined a multitude on the pedestrian bridge across the Yarra River, some looking west toward large white balls onto which were projected short messages of love submitted by the public.

I did find myself idly wondering how many people the bridge had been designed to carry, but it held up all right. Looking east, we could see the big White Night sign on Princes Bridge:

Given the crowds, we decided to bypass the core of the event and start at the Arts Centre on the river's south bank. Miraculously managing to score two wicker chairs at the cafe in the forecourt, we awaited the coming of Joey at 10.30pm. The huge puppet horse from the War Horse production at the Arts Centre was scheduled to make a one-off appearance in the forecourt, and it was an impressive one.

People crowded close to the "horse", smiling and taking photos. What was remarkable was how convincing it was as an animal even up close; whenever it reared or neighed, we flinched as if it might panic and trample us. Our brains knew it wasn't real, but our emotions had their own ideas.

Here's some video I shot as Joey returned from his circuit through the forecourt:

Next stop was the National Gallery of Victoria's international branch, right on the southern edge of the White Night zone. There were big crowds here, but movement was relatively easy and there were some great things to see.

On the outside of the building were rolling projections depicting famous works from the NGV's collections...

... inside the entrance was a relaxed zone where people could draw comic books...

... and within the Great Hall beneath Leonard French's famous kaleidoscopic ceiling, this huge temporary structure of foam by Michel Blazy was immensely popular. So popular, in fact, that the rowdier element within the crowd were pressing against the barriers and grabbing handfuls of the sticky stuff. Oh well, the night was supposed to be about interaction with art.

A wave at the odd guy seen below, and we were out into the night...

It was well past midnight now - surely that'd mean that many people would head home on the last trains of the night and the crowds would thin a little? We would soon find out...

NEXT POST: A visit to Wonderland, Fed Square in the wee hours, the Cat Empire crush and shadow play like you've never seen it before.

An official date for Melbourne's White Night in 2014 has yet to be set, but will likely be the final Saturday night in February. Check the White Night website closer to the date.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Bruny Express

It may not have escaped your notice that I'm an urban kinda travel writer. Culture, history, food... that's my beat. I generally leave adventure and nature travel to those of my colleagues who are better qualified than I to tackle that kind of thing.

However, I certainly don't mind getting out into nature should it call (so to speak), so on Sunday Narrelle and I joined the award-wining eco-cruise on Bruny Island, south of Hobart, Tasmania, which is operated by Rob Pennicott's Bruny Island Cruises.

There are some impressive vistas along the way, and we were lucky to have a calm sunny day on which to see them.

The cruise leaves Adventure Bay (named after the ship of Furneaux, the British captain who visited in 1773), and follows the rugged eastern coastline of South Bruny, an unpopulated area that'd be difficult to access any other way.

Once out of the harbour and sailing down the coast with the Tasman Sea to port, things quickly become spectacular. These cliffs with their geometric projections reminded us both of the Lord of the Rings movies, looking as if they'd been carved by an ancient civilisation:

Nearby, this rock formation gives the same impression. It's known as the Monument, and as a crew member pointed out it looks very much like a king riding a llama:

The cruise company's boats are powerful and manoeuvrable, so we were able to roar safely between the Monument and the rocky shore. Twice, in fact; I filmed it the second time:

There were lots more quirky geological features on the way. This "blow cave", for example, from which water would periodically erupt as it moved back and forth within a cave whose roof lay just above the surface:

And larger caves through the rock, which looked as if they should lead to a James Bond villain's lair:

I liked these colours too, another example of nature producing something so regular that it looked like a manmade pattern:

The highlight of the cruise, though, was our encounter with a more mobile aspect of nature: seals. As we left the Tasman Sea and officially entered the Southern Ocean, we met this big seal colony spread over various rocks and islets. As always to my mind, they resembled Labradors of the sea:

As we left them to their rollicking day in the sunshine and water, this group seemed to be waving goodbye. According to a crew member, the animals project their fins this way in order to regulate body temperature. Au revoir, mes finny amis:

I was very impressed with the cruise, as there was plenty to see with no dull patches. The boats were a decent size and clearly powerful, allowing adventurous speed while being completely under control. The crew seemed capable and knowledgeable, expert but also mindful of safety; reassuring for such a broad group of passengers, including one lady in her 80s which the crew were at pains to assist on and off the boat safely.

As the cruise can be undertaken as a day trip from Hobart, with buses picking up passengers from the city's dockside and lunch included, it's a great activity to tack onto a trip to the Tasmanian capital. High culture at MONA one day, perhaps; then seals and the rugged coast of Bruny Island the next.

If you're staying in Hobart, the contemporary apartment-style rooms of the new Salamanca Wharf Hotel are walking distance from the cruise's pick-up point.

You can also join the cruise if visiting Bruny under your own steam. If you're thinking of staying on the island, Adventure Bay Retreat is comfortable accommodation set back from the coast a short distance from the cruise office. Here's a pic:

Aside from the upmarket interior, we saw wallabies grazing in our front yard every morning and evening we stayed there; including one of the island's unusual white wallabies. Bonus.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Salamanca Wharf Hotel, Adventure Bay Retreat, Bruny Island Cruises and Tourism Tasmania.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

The Unpublished 13: MONA - Wild Art in Hobart (Part 2)

Continuing from the first part of my profile of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania, which I visited in 2011...

Truck Corridor, by
James Angus
We notice as we walk that MONA’s visitors often engage in conversation with each other as they puzzle out each piece, and we get chatting with several fellow attendees.

It may be via the general sense of irreverence or just the fact that we don’t each need to stare at a patch of notes on the wall, but there’s definitely a greater sense of interaction here than in a standard white-walls gallery.

We also notice a lot of family groups taking in the exhibits. Though MONA does provide a recommended child-friendly path through the gallery, it seems that most adults are happy to have their kids see everything and talk about it as they go; which seems a sensible approach to me.

There are plenty of pieces that work perfectly with children’s lively imaginations in any case. The brilliant Truck Corridor appears to be a full-size Mack truck, wedged tight into a corridor and only visible from front and rear.  

Babylonia looks like an enormous rock, but is entered to reveal a miniature hotel corridor with locked doors emitting mysterious sounds. White Library is a fascinating room filled with dozens of completely blank white books and magazines, stacked in shelves and on tables.

White Library, by Wilfredo Prieto

Another remarkable exhibit – one which visitors have to queue for – is held within a dimly lit room centred on an artificial island surrounded by a shallow ornamental lake. On the island are two cabinets. The one on the left houses an ancient mummy, while the one on the right projects a digital image of the mummy, which gradually dissolves to reveal an X-ray of the skeletal form within.

It’s absorbing stuff – but visitors do not live on art alone, and we decide to have a break for lunch. Before the gallery was established, the site’s Moorilla Estate was a noted winery and brewery, and you can still enjoy its products in The Source restaurant in the main above-ground building.

However, we opt for the more informal setting of The Wine Bar, which has a pleasant view across lawns where concerts are sometimes staged.

The menu is a short list of classy dishes which could easily work as sharing plates. Some of the choices today are duck and orange salad; house-cured tuna; and sweet potato, cashew and apricot salad. It’s tasty food, imaginatively served.

Lunch at The Wine Bar, MONA

The beer list is as long as the food menu is short, covering 70 brews with a dozen on tap. I order one of Moorilla’s own beers, the Moo Brew Pale Ale; it’s hoppy and refreshing on a warm day.

There’s much more to see back at MONA, but for the moment we’re enjoying the contrast between the low-light world of challenging art and the sunlit, scenic world up above. Art matched with good food and drink seems the perfect combination, and we have plenty to talk about as we mull over the works we’ve seen.

Somehow, sitting here at lunch amplifies the impression of being the absent Walsh’s guests. From his eccentric art notes to this fine place to eat and relax, his presence seems to be unavoidable.

Back in MONA, I spot a brightly painted wheel which hangs above the floor, slowly spinning. It turns out to be a work by the famed British artist Damien Hirst. In the O, Walsh’s note about this work reads “I really like it now. Maybe I’m just trying to avoid facing up to the fact that I’ve blown half a million bucks”.

If so, that was half a million bucks well blown. Not to mention the rest.

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania.

Monday 4 February 2013

The Unpublished 13: MONA - Wild Art in Hobart (Part 1)

In 2011 I visited the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania for the first time. It was only a few months old, but would soon rocket up the charts to become the island state's most popular tourist attraction. 

After the visit, I wrote this profile of the amazing gallery and its exhibits. However, the magazine which had requested it had accidentally requested the same coverage from another writer. I managed to incorporate the heart of my work in another article, but the original has never been published. Until now...

MONA, as seen from an approaching ferry

What do you do  if you’re an eccentric mathematical genius who’s made millions by designing successful gambling systems? Live the high life on the French Riviera? Or return to your roots and open a vast new modern art museum in the northern suburbs of Hobart?

It’s this thought that passes through my mind as my wife Narrelle and I sit on the deck of the ferry that’s taking us from Hobart’s CBD to the Museum of Old and New Art. 

MONA is the brainchild of David Walsh, a self-made gambling millionaire who’s beholden to no government grants. As a result, his contemporary art museum beneath a promontory in the Derwent River is packed with an eclectic collection of works that would startle any conservative state-run gallery director.

The lowest level of the gallery
I’m really looking forward to getting inside and seeing what the fuss is about. Since it opened in 2011, MONA has had locals and visitors to the slow-paced Tasmanian capital in a buzz, with reports of outlandish objects and fascinating concepts. Now we’re about to see it for ourselves.

This ferry trip seems a great way to get into the right mood. The passengers are a happy group of art lovers on a day out, enjoying the views along the broad river on a warm and sunny day. Even when we pass an enormous refinery halfway along, it feels as if we’re taking in a complex piece of industrial-themed art.

Then we’re at MONA’s dock beneath a rugged headland, climbing the steps to the entrance. There’s not much to see at this point, oddly, just a door framed by reflective metal sheets, approached by walking across a fake tennis court. Reportedly Walsh specifically ordered this low-key approach, rather than an intimidating lofty facade.

The view over the river is beautiful from this point – but we’re heading down, to the bulk of the gallery within the hillside.

A spiral staircase takes us down a circular liftwell, through millennia of exposed sandstone. At the bottom, a corridor flanked by high stone walls feels like the entrance to a tomb. We’re already impressed, and we haven’t even seen any art yet.

Bit.fall, by Julius Popp

It’s not far away. Nearby are a number of works of varying sizes and concepts, including Bit.fall, a fountain from which timed bursts of water spell words which then stretch and fall to the ground below; III Crossing, a video installation in which a giant hand moves pedestrians and cars about a busy intersection; and the amazing Loop System Quintet, five enormous machines with arms mechanically rotating in patterns, each arm topped with a single light bulb.

There’s also the memorable Locus Focus, installed within one of MONA’s toilet cubicles. It’s a functional facility equipped with mirrors which enable startlingly intimate views while sitting on the loo.

Loop System Quintet, by Conrad Shawcross

Given the diversity in size and shape of these works, and the relatively low-lit environment, the usual system of descriptive notes on gallery walls might not cut it. In place of this is “The O”, a customized iPod Touch with which each visitor is issued upon entry.

On the press of a single button, this clever device senses the holder’s location in the museum and displays details of the closest works. It’s a clever idea, freeing the viewer from the necessity of hunting down wall notation and peering at it in low light.

The O offers multiple choices of information about each work – there may be an audio interview with the artist, the usual academic notes, and some short sharp remarks designed to provoke thought. Under the “Gonzo” category, there’s input by Walsh himself, amusing meanderings which occasionally contradict the other notes or even complain about the art.

It may sound absurd, but in practice the device invokes a sense of playful humour, making the art fun...

NEXT: The wild exhibits continue, including Truck Corridor, Babylonia, White Library and a pair of mummies in a dark wet room (!).

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania.