Thursday, April 23, 2009

in which the fish goes to the art gallery again

It's an awkward and ungainly building, really. It looks out over the green dip of The Domain, watching the skyline soar spectacularly ever upwards, watching the squadrons of bats rise from the Moreton Bays Figs in the evening light to seek their nocturnal places.
Its sandstone columns usher in countless children, variously clad in Bottle Green and Navy Blue, in legionnaire hats or straw boaters. Blazers. No Tie At All. 

Christine Borland 
The Velocity of Drops, 2008 AGNSW

It has changed shape over the years, though there are paintings which have not moved from their original place ,and I could find them blindfolded. There is a beautiful new wing at the back like a floating translucent cube, within which stone Buddhas smile in the calm diffused light. Small adjustments here and there.
 As Art galleries go, it's nothing spectacular, but it's mine. I'll own it, though going to the National Gallery in London the first time caused me so much open mouthed amazement that I could barely look it in the face when I returned.

I have been coming here so long I m often greeted by the attendants. There is the same grumpy lady who watches me like a hawk,  the same thickly bespectacled man who like to tell me a story, and who I must avoid because I so hate to hurt his feelings by not wanting to hear them.
When I was about 15 I had my artistic epiphany here, at one of the Sydney Biennales. 

I was on school excursion too. Clutching my notebook, I stared in complete wonder, captivated by my first experience of Art That Was Saying Something. There was a lot of installation work, and work by European contemporary artists, such as Gerhard Richter, Daniel Buren, Daniel Spoerri and the horrible Herman Nitsche. There was Arte Povera, Marina and Ulay, and the wonderful Rosalie Gascoigne.
Nitschs's Orgy and Mysteries Theatre was so dreadfully bloody and by all rights should have sent a little sappy airhead like me running from the room in tears, and yet I remember standing there marvelling at the sublime beauty within the gory imagery.

Art gallery of New South Wales.

I want to do this, I thought. Social commentary. 
All well and good: I took that path, but it was a very long time before I discerned what on earth it was that I wanted to say. 
I wrote no less than twelve pages of critique that day, continuing into the night, writing writing writing in my obsessively neat and pretty handwriting, about dead cows, beautiful veils of blood, the beauty of refuse.

Balgo Hills/East Kimberley Painting
Desert painting: Lucy Napananka (?)

In my mid-twenties I chose it as my safe haven for a meeting: a place where I could have the upper hand.  Somewhere I could prove myself to be Not The Girl I Used to Be, but someone now very sophisticated and clever, just back from living in Europe. 

Trouble was, I was the girl I had always been, I just didn't know that. 
It was one of those pivotal moments where my life was swinging in the balance. We were both struck dumb from nerves, and, as usual, completely misunderstood the other, thanks to the defence systems we both immediately put into place. 

Jacques Blanchard 
Mars and the vestal virgin  


So we lurched around awkwardly, waiting to hear words which were evidently stuck somewhere. I was paralysed by a sense of my own inadequacy, and he was mute as a result of my perceived indifference and his large ego.  It was a spectacular scene of misunderstanding, of uncovering old wounds, of wishing to impress but failing. The volume of nervous prattle which emerged was impressive.
It would be a very long time before I realised what he had meant to say.

We sat near the Glovers, with their twisty branches, and still the words evaporated. 
I think at that moment I may have been forming a thought upon which I have acted ever since:
Life is short, never hold back. If you have something to say, you must say it, for you may never get the chance again.

We walked out of those doors and as a result, travelled as far as the earth could allow, until we were worlds apart. Until the next cosmic shift, in which we would again collide. As we do.
At this safe distance I look at this, and tell myself that this was a very good thing. Because look at me now, right?

John Glover 
Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen's Land 1838, 
Art Gallery of New South Wales

But even now, I come here and can look at a whole room of paintings as if I have never seen them before. The paintings themselves never change in a material sense, but the meanings shift: the world around them changes, I change. For me they are different each time I look, and it's wonderful. I stand on the seat and bellow over the heads of my ninety art students, and wave my arms, and I am perfectly at home.

This gallery, I learnt fairly quickly, is very rarely the recipient of valuable pieces from overseas. If there is a show, there will be one or two significant works, and a bucketload of indifferent ones. Although there has been the odd  moment of glory:  I recently had the joy of revisiting someone who I had fallen in love with when they visited Sydney many years ago, when I visited her home in St Petersburg. 

Jacopo Pontormo 
Holy family With St John, 1524 
The Hermitage, St Petersburg

Not so long ago I found myself at theGallery, looking at a show which was, as I had predicted, filled with rather uninspiring works, the collection of an American Museum which had kindly lent them out. The paint surface of all the Monets seemed strangely crusty and inert, the colours strange, the Renoir fake.

So I looked at things, and wondered vaguely, that even though I had known this would be so,
what was really going on. 

I looked at persons in the room, more than once. I looked at them looking.
I looked at one person in particular.

We went outside, just as the rain had cleared,  the sun appearing for a moment, and I felt filled with light.

We walked down the sandstone steps and into the late afternoon.
Later on it began to pour, but I was perfectly happy.

Piazza San Marco 1746

Thursday, April 16, 2009

in which the fish thinks again about the mountains

A lot of my life was spent in the Blue Mountains, on my cousins' property,

a place which formed a Bachelardian backdrop for many imaginings. 
 said narrative can only exist within remembered sites, 
or something like that.

For me, the image formed by any word associated with landscape is a memory-snapshot garnered from this place:
drought dam gully shed clay sandstone
All redbellyblacksnakes are the one I almost trod on on the track, abandoned by dogs and cousins all.
Rocks, trees, dirt. Teabrown weirwater
Long shining plaits caught in low hanging branches.
Bellbird whipbird honeyeater crow

Interstitial places existing between house and edge of bush, between orchard and dam, hard baked ground festooned with curls of eucalypt bark, black windborne swoosh among pines and casuarinas, that is all here.
Smell of wet sandstone and taste of wet clay secretly licked and gum leaf chewed, sticks poked down holes and raging big ants gearing for a spat with your feet. All laid down, by my little synaesthetic self, embedded like sediment.

Twenty first birthdays echoing out into the bush from the big veranda. Boys scuffling in the dust. The big wood stove. Christmas. Walking through sheet glass, hey, no-one said you had a new door after all these years. 
The noise frightened Grandma awfully.

I was eldest , all cousins led upward in size to me and my mood set the tone for games. Whether to pelt top speed down the slope into untamed bush, or swim, or whether I was sulking over god knows what. Small boys, big boys, dogs, us girls.

Summer:  racing the thunderstorm we flew out of suburbia and up Bellbird hill. Bushfires threatened the strawberries, so we were given a very quick lesson on picking and packing.
I took my harvest work very seriously.

I grew up first. I left the circle, or rather, I brought within it my dreams and loves and staring-at-nothing and wrote names in the mud and onto trees. Two decades later those sisters from the farm next door reminisced
you were always a little bit wild

Every stick, stone and tuft of grass, every yabby in the weir, is imprinted in my head. I have no photograph.

The farm was sold. I was in France at the time. By the time I was back, it had gone. 

We are dispersed now, like blown seed. New York, Singapore, Mandurah, London, Byron, the coast.

I went back today, first time in 15 years or so.
( A bunch of us apple-picking at an orchard further up the road.)
Went down the drive, stood staring at the homestead under the trees.

It was all I could do not to stride right in there and hug my grandma, who sat on her chair by the window, and bustle in to see how Aunty Barb was doing in the kitchen. Their presence so strong as to be overwhelming.

A lady came up out from the trees, wondered what I was doing there motionless, but it was impossible to speak. 
I was looking at the ghosts: everyone was there on that verandah, even me.

This was originally posted in 2007

Sunday, April 12, 2009

in which the fish swims through easter

At Easter the light is more oblique and secretive,
The sea having recently had a tantrum, has thrown up vast reams of ocean forest.
This fish swims deep among it and looks up to the light.

Out here each return to the air is a resurrection of sorts.
Close to the silver billow of the surface, darting light:
the garfish pass with not a word. This fish, before she can stop herself, says
happy easter, garfish,
knowing they will of course pretend to know what easter is, when they don't.
All of them turn to stare, their silver, flutelike snouts all briefly stilled . Collectively they say:

Easter. yes, Easter.
WE care not for easter,

and all rush off, haughty and gleaming and thin, leaving the fish to try and remember NOT
to engage with the garfish, so irritating they are.
But what can she do?
She loves them, despite their shallowness, their mass stupidity.

The fish slips back into the day,
for there are lighthouses to look at.

banksias to draw,
love to think about,

aging parents to give an airing to,
and the great huge headland of Barrenjoey to draw also.

The fish turns for a minute, and sees a girl in a yellow dress, leaning on that rail, looking out to sea.
Her hair is blowing in her eyes, but she is watching.

The light shifts then, and she is gone.

But look!
Here is an easter cake.
Made by the fish.

And what do you know?
it is all