Dead Red

Thanks to all of you who responded to my invitation to comment on early drafts of the text for my catalogue of paintings; here’s another few words about a land that is far from ‘dead’, but is indeed very ‘red’, and orange.

… the striated surface of the landscape appears like a vast skin pulled taut in the foreground that ripples and wrinkles as the mountains rise out of the ground and recede into the distance.

For any painter trained in the northern hemisphere, nothing can prepare you for the impact of Australia’s Red Centre. Instead of the shifting cloudscapes under which I lived in England and Scotland, here around Alice Springs the light has an alarming intensity. Shadows look like they’ve been hewn from the rock. Their purple density is scored into the earth as if incised with a metallic blade.

Along the MacDonnell Ranges, the gorges beat with a heat that is of its own baking. Around the plunge pools and waterholes the rock pulsates with a flushed blood-orange glow. Shadows emit their own light. Everywhere there is a harsh and uncouth beauty. Clambering high above the creeks, up the steep, chossy rocks veined with shining quartz, I am immediately reminded of the sea; ‘a savage sea whose mighty swirling waves of ochre and dark olive streaked with white were curling over, and just about to break, when they were frozen into everlasting immobility.’

Several hundred miles further west, alert and indomitable, surfacing out of the flayed landscape is Uluru, an immense monolith of rusted rock, a supremely sacred place that defies conventional understanding. More than 1,100 feet in height and five miles round at the base it is almost beyond description in word or image. Under a piercing summer’s light, the Rock assumes the colour of dried blood, its surface pitted and pocked, streaked with black striations; its dents and caves speckled with hand-painted circles and outlines, proof that it is the temple of a living faith.

Nothing is as it seems. The immense scorched domes of Kata Tjuta some sixteen miles west of Uluru, are places of metamorphosis where ancient myth and legend is deeply embedded in every groove and chasm. Outwardly it seems to be an emptied place but that is not the case. Everything is named, every part is known intimately by the Anangu people who revere it as home to spirit energies from the ‘Dreaming’.

Stunned by the scale, the sizzle and the spectacle I take what shelter can be found, flick away the flies, and paint outward appearances, filling the crowded emptiness with layer upon layer of rusted orange and cobalt blue.

‘Australia is not a country from which a painter may easily learn’ wrote Cynthia Nolan in 1949, ‘for above all it is the changing colour of space which gives this empty land so intoxicating beauty.’

 

Wandering and wondering cross WA

Sorry readers (I’m saying plural, but that’s only a weakly informed guess), I’ve been neglecting my blog. Apart from the one about the dog eating my notes I do have the best excuse – I’ve been introduced to Yammer. I’ve been implored to become active, which requires fearsome fortitude and earnest application. It also requires me to set aside my other pursuits. You probably don’t know, but I used to be keen on DIY: hours in the workshop, sawing and chiselling, a tool in each hand. As a hobby it was especially well suited to a rather solitary youth like me stuck in the tool shed and practicing to overcome a slight speech impediment that kept me a little isolated from my peers.

So now, instead of Hammering and Stammering, you can find me Yammering.

For today’s reading, I share with you here some texts that I’m drafting for a catalogue of recent paintings now well under way with my clever student group at The Bowen Street Press, under the expert guidance of Tracy and Cinzia.

Do feel free to drop me a note with any observations, typos, and other such edit; thanking you all in advance.

Nambung

Spread across a vast tract of desert in Western Australia stand hundreds, perhaps thousands, of craggy conical stone pillars. Resembling jagged stumps of broken teeth, they poke out of the custard-coloured sand like steeples, like dented towers, like the fractured walls of a long-forsaken city. The Dutch crews who landed near here in 1650 described it so: an ancient metropolis lost to the sands.

Of course those European sailors were not the first to stumble across the pinnacles, nor were they the first to be wary of their haunting ambience. For previous eons the land was important to the semi-nomadic Aboriginal peoples who came to draw water from a chain of waterholes and caves that filled during the wet season.

Original custodians of the region are the Nyoongar: the desert there belongs to the people of the Yuat and Wajuk language groups. The angular course of the river that flows through the land each winter gives the region its name – Nambung, which translates as ‘crooked’.

To paint and draw amongst these crowds of brittle conical stones is challenging. But in fact they are not brittle at all: they are tough fibrous rocks impaled in the earth. They appear to have traces of tree roots trapped in their cocoons of shelly limestone; they congeal as thick veins of toughened sand; jugular and aorta coursing through the earth.

This is but one of several theories devised to explain the geological mystery of the pinnacles. I am standing amidst a calcified forest, the elaborate casts of tree roots and intricate soil drains that over the eons have filled with wind-blown sand and petrified in place

From Melbourne to Mungo to and north-west to Kimberley

Apologies for my tardiness in writing to you all. I’ve been out and about. Namely Lake Mungo in NSW and the far Kimberley in WA. What an extraordinary depth of experiences. At Lake Mungo, I joined the Vice Chancellor’s Executive (VCE) on a 3-day indigenous immersion, which was really remarkable. We were accompanied by Jock Gilbert and Christine Phillips from the School of Architecture and Urban Design: they acted as academic guides, cicerones, ‘interpreters’, drivers, but also they were the crucial points of contact with the indigenous elders, their families and rangers. Their insights over the three days was really effective, compassionate, informed and at times very moving. Over the years they’ve run successful partnered studio projects in the region. The impact of these staff-led, student-centred events has been really profound.

In addition to touring the lunettes, the ‘lake’ and the features of the Lake Mungo NP we met indigenous elders, workers and their families in Mungo, Culpra Station, and the Mildura / Gol Gol area. The rangers and families entertained us to an evening barbeque with live music and rich fireside conversations; on another day we visited some highly contested historic sites on the banks of the Murray and had lunch with members and family members at farms and homesteads. The outwardly becalmed terrain around the Murray concealed some dreadful acts ‘visited’ upon the original custodians of these infinite lands.

This is our 3rd annual VCE immersion event. As ever, we left the region deeply moved by all that we saw, felt and experienced but also deeply committed to realising RMIT’s vision around reconciliation and a shared future.

I’ve also been on leave in NW Australia; on an 18 day road trip across the Kimberley, from Broome eastwards to Kununurra, taking in the Woolfe Creek Meteorite Crater (avoiding hitch hikers), the vast bloated Boab Trees (unique outside Africa) the deep chasms and beehive domes of the Bungle Bungles (quite unique in the whole world). What our rather ancient Land Cruiser camper lacked in refinement and luxuries it certainly made up for in character – by ‘character’ I mean the unfailing ability to attract red dust, black termites and blue-tongued lizards.

After Hall’s Creek, Wolfe Creek, the Bungles, and the oasis of ‘Palm Springs’ we took on the 660 km ‘Gibb River Road’; described fondly as one of the country’s great 4WD adventures. It was also described by me on one occasion as: ‘You mean we’ve got to drive across that river? And there are crocodiles in it? Are you serious? Yes, I think you are…’. And so off we went, even when the water (but not the crocs) leaked into the footwell.

There’s not much in my UK Driving Test that equipped me for this epic journey, where Petrol Stations are 300kms apart and the [rather] few food shops decided to close for Easter and then again for ANZAC day. It didn’t help either, when, on Easter Sunday, after a rather severe stretch of corrugated ‘road’ one of the back-wheels shed two nuts, shredded the hub, and spectacularly burst the tyre. After quick running repairs in circa 37 degrees we took refuge in a hospitable homestead run by the most thoughtful owners. The truck was recovered, repaired and we went fearlessly back up the road again, clocking up an additional 460km.

We arrived back in Derby after 5 days of wild camping and numerous dips in the most stunning pools and falls at Manning, Lennard, and Bell Gorge.

By any standards, it was quite an adventure really. Certainly beats a Sunday afternoon drive around the Cotswolds, although we did find a homestead at EllenBrae (230 kms from the nearest other building) that served rather fine scones with cream and homemade jam. Apart from the crocs, the heat, and the dust it made it feel quite like home from home.

Talking to Trees after a Touch of Tinselitis

Let’s talk trees. In fact, why bother talking, let’s write to trees.

I thought it was only the heir to the British throne who had a reputation for hugging our green frondy friends, spouting poetry into their lofty limbs, and emitting a regal air of arboreal abundance. It turns out that hundreds of Melburnians – yes, you and me, and him over there – are in the daily habit of actually writing to trees. Short messages on SMS, whole passages of purple prose, screeds of words on the leaves of notebooks.

There’s one fine Golden Elm on Punt Road, which receives hundreds of emails each year. Yes, Hundreds. ‘Dear Tree’, begins one such message, not yet on first name terms, ‘ if you are that big round beautiful low hanging tree, I think you are my favourite tree. Such beauty in such an ugly road.’ (Which may be a tad unfair on Punt Road, although having sat in an interminable traffic jam there last week, maybe not). The anonymous message concludes with the rather cryptic imprecation:  “Keep up the good work.”

In fact, Melbourne’s trees – all 77,000 of them – have a Name (usually two: the common version and the scientific one), an Address (‘on the corner of Letsby Avenue’) and a Number (“I am a tree, not a number!”) and they form a virtual woodland called the ‘Urban Forest’ that was established six years ago, with its own interactive website, promotional video, range of T-shirts, and syndicated merchandise. But it’s the messages that really resonate. It seems that we really like writing to trees. Over 3,000 treemails have been received by the elms, planes, and gums that beautify our sprawling metropolis. Some of them are even answered: ‘So lovely to be appreciated. I am lucky to be well looked after’, then a link to the tree’s webpage, and a perky cheerio from ‘Your special elm’.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief, to keep a grasp on reality. I mean I’m still wavering about Father Christmas, but emailing trees? So I implore you, log on to the site * (refer to the link at the bottom of this blog) and you can learn about the nearest branch of urban forest in your neighbourhood. I’m delighted to discover that the two pink-limbed giants on the roundabout near the vast cemetery in Carlton are on the protected list; gladly, the two immense lemon scented gums (‘Corymbia’ to the scientists amongst you), are fully expected to live at least 60 years despite the vortex of exhaust fumes they suffer every day.

Discovering this fabulous on-line resource compensated for the acres of burned and charred trees that surrounded me while wild camping in the Grampians last month. And it made me feel better about the thousands of neat conical Balsam Fir and Norway Spruce that are lopped in their youth to decorate our Christmas lobbies and halls. Hence the title to this unseasonal blog: a tinsel-tagged Christmas Tree goes to the Doctor feeling unwell; after a short diagnosis the medic says: “it’s OK you’ve just got tinsillitis.” Beats my other favourite surgery joke: ‘Man visits his GP. Doctor, I can’t help myself, I keep wanting to do impersonations of Tom Jones!’. To which the Doctor, unconcerned, replies: ‘It’s not unusual’.

* http://melbourneurbanforestvisual.com.au/

 

A Christmas Message

There’s a cartoon of three Carol Singers gathered in front of a house on Christmas Eve; light pours from an open door illuminating the owner who is admonishing the hapless singers: ‘What? You want me to give you money? Don’t be daft, no one pays for music anymore!’

So, time to sign off for another year; amidst the mandatory mayhem of Michaelmas. I’ve been in Saigon and Hanoi, been in Bundoora and Brunswick, and have been recovering from night after night of student shows, exhibitions, runways, talks, screenings and book launches. It’s exhausting but exhilarating. I bought some applied art, in fact, an applied artefact:  a 4-foot high ceramic object of piled high teapots with white spouts, which are – apparently –  all fully functioning and pour tea. It was created by a wonderful overseas student who travelled here from the US because he knew that RMIT still taught and treasured crafts programs. I’ve been working with a group of post-graduate students on our renowned professional Writing and Editing programs. It’s produced some of Australia’s great writers. [Rosalie Ham of The DressMaker; Graham Simsion of The Rosie Project, and many more] Each year the students work in groups to produce up to a dozen books; six students allocated to each book; they work closely with the author; they edit, they proofread, they design. In fact they undertake the entire production life cycle. They are guided by the formidable program manager, Tracy O’Shaugnessy. What’s more they have their own imprint. Bowen Street Press, but they also work closely with many commercial presses. I also commissioned a graphic designer called Kit, an RMIT alumnus from Vietnam, and together all 8 of us produced a book, 208 pages, 60 colour reproductions.

And so, I hear you say ‘what’s the book about’. Well, you should never ask a writer what a book is about. The playwright Tom Stoppard was once asked the same question by journalists. ‘What’s it about?’ he replied, ‘It’s about to make me a lot of money I hope!’ This book won’t make any money, but it’s better than that: it’s a genuine collaboration between me and the two artist-academics on our ARC Discovery Grant project, and it’s a collaboration between me and the students. They’ve surpassed my expectations – hard-working, intelligent, fastidious and constantly seeking the highest quality. I can’t thank them enough, they embody everything that RMIT does well, and I wish them the very best as they go forth into the world of publishing, and I wish them – as I wish all my readers, Seasonal Salutations and a Happy New Year.

Choosing to remember: deciding to forget

I’m sorry for the long absence from your screens. It’s been weeks. Nay, longer. A month or more. It’s not as if I’ve been that busy, but I have been finishing a book: I’ve coloured in every page and didn’t go over the lines once. More about that later. My puny excuse: I have been taking part in a succession of events connected to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, the ‘Great War’ as it was known in the 1920s and 30s, before the next one came along and made everyone realise the pause between 1919 and 1939 had just been a moment to draw breath, recover and re-arm.

Last week many of us joined the remarkable team of Kirsten Haydon (from School of Art) and Neal Haslam (School of Design) and Elizabeth Turrell from the UK, to launch a quite stunning artwork marking the commemoration. A four-metre wide wreath made of over 400 finely enamelled and etched leaves, petals, flowers and fronds, lit up in a unique space under the vast Shrine of Remembrance. The impact is awesome, quite literally. Moving and monumental. Marked by a speech I was invited to give about the value of flowers in remembering.

We adopt the poppy as an emblem of remembering. And yet, how ironic. The poppy is from the opiate family. A drug more associated with amnesia, forgetting, the sleep or reason. Do we remember so that we can more readily forget, or do we simply forget once the intensity of commemoration is over? Cenotaphs and monuments are invisible for so much of the year, just another item in our over-furnished cluttered cities, props for the pigeons. And yet once a day every year, like the puya raimondii, they spring to short life, a floral aneurysm that bursts bloodily into our streets and into our consciousness.

Then we move on; we compartmentalise the memory and forget. In fact, talking of moving on, over the past few years I’ve been invited to speak at Great War centenary conferences, in UK in 2014, in the Dardanelles 2015, in Melbourne and Te Papa Wellington, 1916 and 1917; and in Macedonia and then Ypres in Belgium this big one-hundredth year. Some organisers asked me to be a bit provocative, to raise the stakes about why we choose to remember. Hence the draft titles of my papers: ‘Let me forget’, or even ‘Best we forget’. I argue that if war is about fracturing, destruction, the dis-membering of the whole, then recovery, recollection is about ‘re-membering’, the gathering and ordering of shattered parts into new shape and meanings.

And the new book. A team effort with the wonderful students from Tracy O’Shaughnessy’s fine post-grad program in professional writing and editing. They’ve done all the proofing, the editing, the pictures, the design, even an index God Bless them. It has a snazzy title called ‘Dead Ground’ and a new word in the sub-title – ‘MemoryScapes’. Out soon, 208 pages, lots of colour pictures, and I haven’t gone over the lines once, well not often anyway.

Back on the Ground

Greetings! I’ve been on the road again, then up in the air, then sky to ground. In Belgium delivering a paper at a 100-year reflection on the commemoration of the Great War. The inspirational organisers invited a ‘provocative paper’. So they got one: ‘Best we Forget?’ was expected to irritate and inspire in equal measure. Which it did; well, they let me out the country anyway. Then north to Finland. Flew with the national airline. Literally, we vanished into Finnair. I was invited as one of 40 international experts to assess research output, impact, and innovation in the universities. It was wonderful: Helskinki is heavenly when the sun is shining at least. On Day One, Session One the President’s Address (a perfectly poised presentation packed with pie charts, data diagrams, moving parts, etc) was dramatically interrupted when a student Silver Band burst in bugles a-bugling and drums a-drumming. President remarkably unfazed. Stood to one side; told us later that this was very Finnish, very innovative, and evidence that ‘we do ‘ave a sense of Yuma, here in Finn Land’. Later that week President Macron pitched up (though I think that was pre-planned) and guess what, the Silver Band popped up again and disrupted him and his endless entourage. I hope he had the same sense of yuma.

Then flew far south to Saigon and Hanoi to meet and greet the fabulous folk in RMIT Vietnam, in the School of Design & Communication (the ampersand is critical, apparently) which now formally joins the College. What a place. The students seem so happy, singing and smiling; must be because their chances of getting or creating jobs after graduating is so impressive, pushing 95%. Most memorably, I was driven by scooter – at speed – through the Friday evening rush hour traffic. That’s one for the bucket list. Basket case actually. It was really refreshing, indeed riveting. I’m still picking the dead flies from my teeth. In a future blog, I’ll share with you the poncho I was wearing. Wouldn’t quite cut it down Collins Street.

And back here to more exciting events: interviewing Donna McColm at the NGV, one of our College’s leading partnerships, about the future of her industry. Just look at the setting: the Salon Gallery, simply divine. Not sure what I’m about to do with my left hand (weigh an egg perhaps) but Donna had the right answer for everything. And then the opportunity to introduce the estimable Australian journalist Peter Greste, a champion of press freedom and investigative reporting second to none. His talk about the battlefields of truth captivated a huge audience in Lower Storey Hall. He spoke movingly about the plight of one of our adjunct professors Dr Shahidul Alam currently under arrest in Bangladesh. Following staunch work by staff in Art, Photography and Journalism, our Academic Board passed a resolution of support, which we all hope will add to the barrage of protest to release him.

So, with that, I’m back in the office, with my wonderful team, ready for the clamorous creativity and endless energy as we head into the final furlongs of this academic year….