Winter in Sydney – Biennale 2018

Notwithstanding the fact that right now it is absolutely bucketing down, Sydney generally puts on a pretty spectacular winter.  Still, even when it is grey and glum, there are some soul satisfying things to do in Sydney in winter.

Like, the Sydney Biennale.

For Mothers’ day, I managed to wrangle the family out into the blustery weather to visit Cockatoo Island.  The wind and earlyish hour kept the crowds away, which is the way I prefer things.  It’s quick ferry trip across the harbour to this small but historically important island.  Wind swept, industrial, replete with rusted artefacts and empty warehouses, the history of the place is positively palpable, as though the ghosts of our wretched past walk beside us – a gentle reminder of how much progress we have made at easing human suffering over the past 150 years.

Of course, the highlight of the event is Ai WeiWei’s Law of the Journey.  A massive, dark, PVC rendition of a boat carrying refuges.  Faceless adults and children huddle together in the 60m long rubber boat.  It is, as would be expected, brilliant and confronting, and worth the trip alone. (The irony of having to travel to the exhibit on a boat is not lost on me, nor the fact that it is exhibited on what was once a convict labour camp and prison).

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There are hundreds of other exhibits, of all shapes and sizes.  All testament to the power of the creative mind to question the status quo and hold a mirror up to ourselves.   Sometimes art stops you in its tracks.  Makes you sit up and take notice.  Other times, you have to stop and take the time to notice, to see the detail and open your mind to what the artist might be saying.

We saw creative endeavours from juxtaposed singing rituals across religious cultures (The Circle and the Square, Suzanne Lacy) to vast explosions of colour where paint had been left to interact with nature (Hover, Erupt, Erode – Mit Jai Inn).   Amongst others, there was Wong Hoy Cheong’s series of photos from inside multiple different manholes, and a quite excellent marketing campaign for fuel made from the urine of diabetics (Togar – Julian Abraham) – somebody get that man a job!

However, my favourite exhibitor turned out to be Yukinori Yanagi. I am not sure if it just because of my current interest in the skies, but his exhibit Icarus Container captured my attention.  Using containers, geometry and mirrors, together with poetry and an eerie sound scape, it’s a poetic feat of engineering that had even my son enthralled.  The roaring imagery of the sun, alive and hot and compelling is the start point.  And its presence is visible around every corner, as you walk back towards earth.  Looking into mirrors, you can see your past, and everyone else who has followed you in.  In my mind, anyway, the words tell the story of those who seek to fly, and those who pull them back to earth.  The power of dreams, and the power of fear and failure, and what that says about humanity.

Tucked away at the back end of Cockatoo Island, he has two other exhibitions – Landscape with an Eye and Absolute Dud.  It is the latter one, a mimic of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, that really reaches down into my gut and gives it a squeeze.   It hangs so quietly in a shed, a rusted leftover from a bygone industrial era.  So seemingly innocuous.  So forgettable. So deadly.

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I think the thing that most compels me about artistry is the bravery of the creative spirit to invest precious time and energy into ideas, and then to present those ideas for human consumption.  But perhaps, compelled by some sort of inner fire, the alternative is mental anguish.  Regardless, artists remind us of what it is to be human, with all the possibilities and problems that presents.

Unfortunately, the Biennale is closing next week.  I’ve got to get me to the MCA and the Art Gallery of NSW before then!

 

 

 

Life lessons from the Mud

 

There was mud, a lot of it.  Stinky, sticky, slurpy mud that sucked off people’s shoes and clung with a desperation of an addict to legs and feet and knees if you happened to sink that far into it.  There were heights – tyres and ropes and walls to be scaled.  There were small spaces to crawl under, things to jump over, bars to swing upon and slides that offered a free sinus rinse if you landed with your nose close enough to the water.  Yes, after three years of wine-inspired, slurred statements promising “next time, count me in”, I finally got up the courage to do one of these Army Reservist style challenges.    And you know what, it was okay enough for me to say, sober and still wrangling with mud in my undies, “I’ll do it again next year.”

Worry is a funny thing isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of my one precious life worrying about things.  I’d been anxiously gnawing at fingernails about this for weeks, creating narratives in my head about how hard it would be and how much of a disaster I was going to be doing it.  On the morning of the great event, I was in that hyped-up space I fall into when I fly – all nervous energy ricocheting around in high pitched tones, stupid jokes and shallow breathing.

But, once we were underway, and reality took the place of the stories I had created, when the what ifs that run rampant around my head were replaced with the actual doing, everything changed.  Yes, we were still running but I was keeping up.  Well, I most certainly wasn’t last and those echoes from childhood memories of cross-country races and being charmingly referred to as running like a LEMAC (that’s a camel going backwards – thanks Dad) weren’t a reality.   And yes, we were still going over heights that made me think WTF am I doing here, but over I went, slowly, surely and successfully. And boy, did it feel good to toss up the idea of circumventing the obstacle, slip on some brave pants and do it regardless, and land safely on the other side.  Dopamine rush.  Or something.

Self-help coaches by the dozen tell you to face your fears, as a pathway to overcoming them.  And it sounds trite, but it really isn’t.  When you walk into your fears and succeed in spite of them, your sense of capability grows and your fear of failure (death, pain, looking like an idiot and so on… you know, failure) shrink.  At least, that is what I discovered about myself on this energy intensive expedition out in the mud-splattered paddock.   And I suspect then, that the fears we have at an intellectual or emotional level – about taking creative risks, for example – would suffer the same fate if we were just prepared to put on some brave pants and give it a go.

The thing that made it all possible and worthwhile and fun, though, was being part of a super duper cool team of wonderful people.  Together works better than alone, when you are a human (also true for most animals).  Being helped, encouraged, physically lifted, checked in on – all the actions of meaningful teamwork and friendship – gave me such a buzz.   Together not only works better, it feels better.  It feels good to be part of a group of people who care about each other, who watch out for each other and who seek to achieve something together.

And that’s the thing I would go back for.  Not the mud or the heights or showing off upper body strength (#wishfulthinking).  The thing that would draw me to it again is the shared experience.  The feeling of togetherness and friendship.  The laughter in the recounting of the tale over red wine and chocolate, and the memories the mud created.

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Going Bush… camping.

I am not a huge fan of camping.  It’s one of those things I like the idea of, rather than the actual, somewhat uncomfortable, practicalities of it all.   So, it came as a huge surprise to me just how much I enjoyed our recent bush camping adventure.  And by bush camping I am talking a shared porta-loo and no showers.  Sounds yuck, right?  Except, it was excellent.

It probably helped that the weather turned up and did the right thing – beautiful sunny days, crisp mornings and huddle-round-the-fire evenings.  In what might have been a first for me, it did not rain.  Not one little drop.  Nary a fluffy cloud marred the strip of blue sky we could see from the depths of our valley.  I suspect this made a massive difference to my opinion on this weekend, as none of the things I like about camping involve being cramped together, vaguely damp, in a shelter you can barely stand up in, playing endless card games with tetchy kids.

And although significant investments in the camping stash – good mattresses, a party-sized gazebo, tables and chairs – were positive improvements, it was the location that tipped the scales from “meh” to “wow” in the camping rating stakes.

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A river runs through it

We visited Wollondilly River Station over Easter.  This unspoilt slice of nature, just a few hours south of Sydney (depending on the traffic) is reached via a somewhat jolting and slightly alarming 45-minute crawl down a bumpy, narrow, unsealed road that winds its way, somewhat precariously, down the mountain side and into a lush, river-runs-though-it, valley.

Although a popular destination, campers are spread out so that you feel, largely, you have a little slice of Australian heaven to yourselves.   By the time the tent was up, the evening fire prepped and the first Gin & Tonics poured, the stress of urban living had floated mysteriously away.

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Camping

Here, the kids were able to run free, inventing battles and adventures, as they conquered new territory and laid claim to never-before set upon islands.   They canoed and swam, built forts and raced around on bikes without parental consent or involvement.  They tested themselves against the elements, and fizzed about fired up by their imaginations.   And all I needed to do, whilst dozing in the hammock, was cast a periodic lazy eye in their general direction to make sure they haven’t abandoned anyone along the way.

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In search of adventure

Our campsite, nestled under trees, fronted a shallow river and gave us a beautiful view of morning mists hovering across mirror-still water.  In the afternoon, we were captivated by swooping swirls of red-tailed black cockatoos.

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Campfires are encouraged at this campsite, and wood provided.  We had the campfire going early morning to stave off the cold and from mid-afternoon to huddle around and cook dinner on.  There is a rule in our house of Scouts, and it is this – a camp, is not a camp, without a fire.   For the kids making fires is an absolute highlight, and while we didn’t quite get as far as putting the billy on to boil, there were marshmallows melted on sticks collected during earlier adventures, and plans to make damper (even if they didn’t quite eventuate).    On the downside, everything smells of smoke, but sitting around a fire, with a glass of wine and a hearty meal, talking with old friends is what special memories are made of.

It turns out that bush camping, despite the potential horrors associated with unsophisticated ablutions, is where the joy of camping lies.  Because here, in these sorts of places, it feels like you really are communing with nature.  Out of commercially run campsites, with their individually marked sites, shops and free WIFI, you literally unplug and drop out, and it is a gorgeous feeling, and one we plan on repeating soon!