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.


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.

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….

Remaining Really Relevant; an affection for alliteration

How good is this? ‘Collide’: a six-day six-camera shoot with several hundred VE students in screen, media, comms ; they’re working with a dozen live bands in our simply fabulous Media Precinct, managing everything from cameras, sound, photography, vision and sound mixing, even presenting and interviewing. As you’d expect it’s also pretty loud, not quite enough to uproot your fillings, but enough to wake up the neighbours – in Canberra that is.

This is what the college does best: we are relevant, engaged, fit for purpose and contemporary. In fact, it’s what RMIT does best. It’s what gives our graduates the edge over others; it’s what transforms our research into impact. It keeps us sharp and edgy.

Indeed, that’s the message I’ve just broadcast to all the Associate Deans as they design ‘Road Maps’ for the 24 academic disciplines across DSC. And you know well my affection about alliteration, indeed my affliction with alliterative accomplishment… So I’ve termed the message Remaining Relevant. And here it is:

The greatest risk that faces any college with our range of academic disciplines is for our graduates, our research, our practice to be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. 

DSC prides itself on a pedagogy built on contemporary praxis; we build and maintain deep effective partnerships with industry; we create opportunities for our students in real-world settings so that they are ready for the world of work. That’s what gives us our edge. We’re not yet achieving it everywhere but that’s our aim.

Your Discipline Road Maps must remain really relevant to the worlds of work that exist today – and also tomorrow – in this city, country and overseas. It’s not enough to create Road Maps that talk just to other academics, to subject conferences or other HE organisations.

Governments will strike hard bargains with universities in the future; they will want to see a real return on investment; to see how public money translates into graduate employability, and to see how research makes a difference to the economy and society. Bank on it. The conditions are going to become harder, especially for those areas that are not considered as STEM.

That may sound unfair, but staying relevant, engaged, fit for purpose and contemporary is what RMIT does best, it’s what DSC as a partnership college does really well; it’s what gives our graduates the edge over others; it’s what transforms our research into impact. It keeps us sharp, edgy, relevant.

Collide does just that; our student sound producers, vision mixers and camera operators will be ready to walk from our media Precinct straight into a professional studio anywhere in the world. Isn’t that great? The staff are so proud.

And the band; they were great. Can’t recall the name I’m afraid. But they were definitely not a tribute band. And most definitely not Proxy Music.

STOP PRESS: dispute resolved!

Thank you to those who contacted me last month with this astonishing news. After 12 years of deadlock, stalemate and impasse the two Macedonias have struck a deal; one will be called ‘North Macedonia’ and the other one won’t. I doubt it had much to do with my timely blog posting of early June, but you never know; stranger things have happened, I mean England might even reach the semi-finals of the World Cup?

And thanks to the many of you who sent in their own pronunciation of  ‘Loughborough’. The winning entry was Lugger-burr-Ugger. I once saw a movie made in the countryside around that fine town, deep in the fox-hunting domain of Leicestershire [pronounced Lestershiyah]. It was bad beyond belief. It’s now widely considered the worst film ever made that doesn’t feature Madonna.

This past week I’ve mostly been making speeches. Sometimes I even write them myself. Tuesday I was surrounded by a throng of real academics and even more real HDR students at an ARC-funded international workshop on ‘Art and Conflict’ (so I had to brush up on my Baudrillard); then I introduced a conference crowd to the new MOMA show at the NGV  (so I had to freshen up on my Braque and Brancusi); next night I introduced a speaker at the remarkable ‘About my Monster’ show at our very own RMIT Gallery [no time to mug up on anything: they were queuing 200 metres down Swanston street for goodness sake], and the next day I presented at a panel session on ‘The Value of Art’, as part of a global conference full of cultural economists. I’ve never encountered that particular tribe before. They were an analytic and exacting crowd. Quote of the day from one of them: ”You think we’re a tough gig; it’s a good job we’re not econometrists’. Indeed. If only I really knew the difference.

And talking of the World Cup, I’ve been reading about the fitness and dietary regimes of some of the soccer squads. They are so healthy, so well-balanced, so green! I mean I remember the days when most footballers thought Broccoli was the name of an attacking forward from AC Milan…