Category Archives: reviews

Get back on lappy

Didn’t let me down

2pm Saturday, November 27

I’m sitting all by myself in a motel room in Cooma, waiting for Part 3 to drop. It’ll turn up right here, on this laptop, any time from about 7pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, when it finally clicks over to Saturday in Los Angeles. I’m talking about Peter Jackson‘s marathon documentary Get Back, streaming now on Disney Plus. It takes us back to the month of January, 1969, in which the Beatles are hard at work in two studios, writing and rehearsing material for their next album. With clashing schedules – Ringo has promised himself to a film crew in February – the whole project needs to be in the can by the end of the month.

The footage was originally shot for a television special that never eventuated. Instead, it was cut into the 1970 film Let it Be, which emphasised fractures in the band and was forever associated with its break-up. The Beatles didn’t like the film, and it was quietly withdrawn from circulation after limited release.

Jackson’s Get Back is a completely new edit of the original material, revealing footage that has never previously been made public. It shows John, Paul, George and Ringo in full flight, gloriously young and far less fractious than the original cut suggested. Jackson has used 21st century technology to restore picture and sound to give an immediacy, immersion and vibrancy that almost seems too good to be true. We’re right there in the room with them as they jam, joke, argue, smoke, drink, stand up, sit down and sometimes dance. Ringo has already tweeted that he loves it, and Paul does too, so it passes muster on that front. It goes for about eight hours, divided into three chunks, culminating in the famous rooftop performance above the Beatles’ own Apple studios in Savile Row, London.

In his review in the Guardian, Alexis Petridis describes the documentary as “eight hours of TV so aimless it threatens your sanity”. I’ve only seen the first two chunks – as I said, I’m waiting for the third to drop – but I’m more than ready to leap to Jackson’s defence. Get Back is long, but it’s far from aimless. It successfully, respectfully and joyously makes the most of the precious raw footage made available to him. It is beautifully framed, crafted, paced and contextualised. Yeah, it’s long, but for me that’s not just a bonus but a hallelujah. Never assume that I don’t want to watch someone eat a biscuit.

Okay, so just to get something out of the way. Like Jackson and – oh, a few million humans around the world – I’ve been a fan for a long time. I do believe that some things can be ubiquitous and excellent at the same time. (Galahs are another example.) Back in August, in the middle of lockdown, I happened to catch Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s documentary about the Beatles’ touring years, on SBS TV. I was moved to tears for days afterwards, in a way that I couldn’t quite explain. A sort of exquisite grief. I’d always loved the Beatles but now I found myself at the bottom of a rabbit hole, tunnelling up, down and sideways. I watched YouTube clips, I downloaded whole albums, gave myself virulent ear-worms. I tracked down movies like Backbeat about the band’s Hamburg days, and Nowhere Boy about Lennon’s childhood. I’d get sick of it and write myself post-it notes to stick to my computer: BEATLES-FREE DAY! (I had other work to do). To no avail. I’d find myself sliding back to the Beatles Bible for another factoid. In other words, over just a few weeks I reached a tipping point. I went from common-or-garden fan to fully-fledged Beatles tragic.

Which is to say that this review contains not a shred of objectivity. It is the enthusiasm of one tragic for the work of another tragic.

But then, as I just said, there are a lot of us around. If you gather common-or-garden fans plus tragics plus ordinary people hearing snatches of music in supermarkets aisles feeling a stab of pure nostalgia, then we have a strong case for the very long version. We really do care that much. You wouldn’t do it in 1970, but because the Beatles have been continuously gathering meaning ever since – social, historical, personal – over the ensuing 50 years, there’s a case for a the long, slow, forensic version.

My nephews, Joe and Max, at the Beatles Museum in Liverpool, 2017. Pic: Deb Sorensen.

Not that their cultural importance is universal, or forever.

I find myself thinking about BTS, the Korean boy band that is huge right now, at least as important to teenagers now as the Beatles were in the 1960s. There are seven boys for young people to swoon over. Each has a different look, a different personality. They write their own songs. Where the Beatles had Apple Scruffs, BTS has its Army. The BTS video clip, “Dynamite“, has had 1.3 billion views on YouTube. (“Hey Jude”, by way of contrast, has had 41 million views.) It’s all about what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledges“. There’s no God’s eye view; only particular, situated views.

Jackson’s documentary is not supposed to be universal; it’s for the lovers. That may seem indulgent, but it fits with the way we consume media these days. In an era of personalised media consumption, often consumed alone, wearing earplugs, “content” (I hate that word but it’s the best description for “things we watch, listen to and interact with”) is changing. Released from the constraints of cinema release and time slots on free-to-air television, content-producers are more free to play around with the parameters. Content can be stretched and adapted in all sorts of ways. It can get down to very specific audiences, subsets of subsets. For example I can sit here in this two-star motel in Cooma and pursue my interest with abandon. I don’t have to drag my partner into this, or family members. It’s just me and this lil screen, mooning and communing.

I do like a director’s cut. Sometimes I want to see an artist’s vision in its entirety. There are times and places for constraint but we’ve bent the stick too far. There’s too much asking audiences what they want, too much market research. I often think about Tiny Tim. Nobody knew they wanted Tiny Tim; he arrived in all his bizarre glory and added something really nuts to the party.

Having said all that, I will admit that some parts of Jackson’s documentary do drag. For example, there’s the bit where the band is sitting around at the Twickenham film studio doing absolutely nothing. They face the camera, listlessly. The actor Peter Sellers joins them and sits there, awkwardly (he’s working on The Magic Christian, the film that Ringo will start work on in February). Sellers is famous for being funny but in this particular instance, nothing funny emanates from him and conversation fails to take flight. After a moment he gets up and wanders off. Perhaps this sequence could have been left out. But then we’d miss seeing the Beatles listless, Sellers awkward. There’s something in this. Creativity is often about showing up, getting irritated, feeling awkward. There will be down time, flatness and boredom. It may look aimless (and in that moment the Beatles themselves were certainly pretty aimless) but part of Jackson’s aim, I believe, is to show this. This is how albums and films and books are actually made.

Then again, maybe I’m just happy to look at these four young people under any circumstances at all. To paraphrase George Harrison: I’d have them any time. I just want to be around the magic. I want to be there when John Lennon and Paul McCartney, playing their guitars, look intently into each other’s eyes for cues and inspiration, excluding the rest of the world. I want to see Ringo start drumming and George experimenting on the guitar, supporting and co-creating something we’ll still be talking about in 50 years time.

The story arc that languidly – and finally with more urgency – emerges out of it all is Paul McCartney trying to keep the band together, to try something new that will get John out of his drug-addled, love-sodden state, that will get George to hang in despite feeling bossed around and overlooked. While Ringo seems happy to keep playing along indefinitely, Paul is at real and immediate risk of losing the other two.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a Lennon girl (and more George & Ringo as time goes on), and have never particularly warmed to Paul, but watching Get Back, you can only be astonished. His surging creativity is almost supernatural. You can see he wants to play all the instruments himself, tell everyone what to do, make the world realise his ideas, but he forces himself to tone down, to stick to his bass as required, to preserve the unity of the group. And the result is infinitely better than if he did do it all himself. He knows he can’t do it without them, and he doesn’t want to do it without them. He wants them, he wants them so bad, but they’re drifting away. They’re joking around, they’re having fun, riffing and jamming, but you can see the stress and desperation in Paul’s eyes. “And then there were two,” he says, at one point, and struggles to hold back tears.

In the end, he triumphs. By the time they’ve done the rooftop concert, they’re all energised and ready to do it all again. We know that they get straight back into the studio and record Abbey Road.

That’s more than enough story arc for me.

Meanwhile, such a lot of smoking. Takes me right back to my own childhood surrounded by brimming ashtrays. Even this makes me weep for something lost, even though it is something that should be lost. “All things must pass,” sings Harrison in Get Back, trying to get the others interested in his new song. They’re not that interested.

And then there’s the Woman Question. Let’s just say they’re seen and not heard. Yoko is in just about every shot but the original film makers were clearly not interested in a word she has to say. Another thing that must pass.

8pm, Saturday November 27

I have started watching the third episode. I’ve just seen Ringo sharing a scrap of “Octopus’s Garden” with the others, for the first time. He’s bashing it out on the piano, trying to think of more words. George comes over to help. We know how this song goes before they do. They still have to struggle to get there.

And then it’s fun again. John and Paul holding hands, rock n roll dancing. George Martin sitting on the floor, enjoying the vibe. Billy Preston, spontaneously brought in to play keyboards, is smiling all the time, pleased to be part of it all. Later, everyone’s tired. Hair is bedraggled, especially John’s. The Apple studio is looking very lived in. It is full of friends and family, assistants and onlookers, littered with brimming ash trays and tea cups. Maybe BTS sessions also seem like magic. But they’ll never be the particular magic that was the Beatles. Get Back took me there. It didn’t let me down.

UPDATE: For a little balance, see this fab review by my old mate Bob Short. Note that he uses the words “the horror the horror” and “get an editor” ūüėČ

Yesterday

Yesterday, I went and saw Yesterday with Mum. It’s a high concept film, which means the audience is invited to walk through one great impossibility in order to play around with a giant What If. In this case: What if you were the only person on earth who remembered the Beatles? What if every last trace of the band’s existence was wiped out in a 15-second cosmic glitch, leaving you, a struggling musician, with the memory of their entire back-catalogue? You could, perhaps, sing Yesterday and let everyone think you wrote it yourself.

Yesterday is a family-friendly rom-com that satisfyingly reaches a heart-warming and highly ethical conclusion. It is almost ridiculously wholesome. Watching this film about twenty-somethings communing with the pop music of their grandparents’ generation, it’s hard to believe that anything about the Beatles was once considered edgy. The playlist leans towards McCartney (“Yesterday”, “Let it Be”) over Lennon (there’s no “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”¬†or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”).¬†In this movie,¬†there’s actually a first kiss in which the girl says, “Oh! You’ve touched my bottom!”

While¬†Yesterday is¬†strictly feel good, it does push the envelope in its own way. Himesh Patel, a South Asian actor, is cast as the romantic lead, and this is presented as entirely unremarkable. There’s no explaining it, no tracing of origin or identity, no making anything of it at all. Jack Malik (Patel’s character) is just¬†one of a group of twenty-something friends. While it’s no big deal in the movie, in the real world it is of course a big deal. The number of South Asian romantic leads in mainstream English movies might even be as low as one: Patel himself, in this one.

Patel’s presence – his unremarked but undeniable difference – gives the Beatles story a revivifying angle and some much-needed gravity. At the same time,¬†Patel delivers an effortlessly believable, perfectly understated performance. A bit of a miracle happens: the over-familiar Beatles songs really do come back to life.

Just a word about The Girl. Jack’s love interest, Ellie (Lily James), never gets to be more than The Girl. That said, I still found aspects of their relationship interesting. Let’s not forget that the Beatles once wrote a song called “Run for Your Life”: I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than see you with another man little girl.¬†While men and women have had valuable friendships since forever, it’s not something you see much in popular culture. But here, fifty years after “Run for Your Life”, we see Jack and Ellie in a serious discussion prior to imminent sexual activity. They’re talking about how they’re going to¬†shake off that brother and sister feeling that results from having been friends for so long. We may have a pussy-grabbing leader of the free world, we may have a long way to go, but it’s also true that millions of young people really are¬†working at treating each other respectfully.¬†But as this is a rom com and as feminism has not quite played out in the way we might have anticipated back in the 80s, we must still return to a climax of wedded bliss, complete with a montage of adorable future children and dancing in the marketplace. Obla di la da.

So back to that¬†what if. What if the Beatles had never existed, and a¬† young singer/songwriter – the sort who hones his craft in¬†his bedroom replaying YouTube clips, not in bands in sweaty pubs –¬†came along today who could write like Lennon and McCartney? There he’d be, uploading “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road” to Soundcloud and updating his insta. Would anyone notice? How much do works of art rely on their context, and how much can they stand on their own two feet? Maybe the answer is right there in that contorted metaphor. Maybe without¬†a supporting context, a work of art can’t stand up at all.

The very existence of the Beatles themselves requires the confluence of countless facts and flukes: human evolution out of the primeval swamp, the history of Western Europe, industrialisation, the history of Liverpool, slavery, the invention of the radio, black music, Paul McCartney’s parents meeting each other and having children; Paul McCartney meeting with John Lennon at a fete in 1957, the particular skills of producer George Martin. “Eleanor Rigby” was sent out into the world on the crest of the wave that was the Beatles, a wave that only took that particular shape because of the (fleeting) world that created it and held it. Yes, it’s brilliant. But so are, and were, other songs. It was Eleanor Rigby that was able to reach out, lending her particular flavour to the idea of loneliness in our culture, because she had a spot on the crest of that particular, unrepeatable wave.

It makes me think of a discussion over dinner at the Varuna Writers Centre earlier this year.¬†One of the poets told how someone had sent out a chapter of a Patrick White novel to a list of Australian publishers, without letting on the writer’s identity. The work, surprise surprise, was¬†universally rejected. How disappointing that our publishers can no longer recognise¬†genius! On the other hand, we also said, reading¬†White today, knowing the context in which he wrote, would be very different to reading the same words if actually written today. If they were written today, you might think the work was strangely caught in the preoccupations of an earlier time, strangely unaware of its twenty first century audience. You might recognise beautifully crafted sentences but finally put the work to one side, regretfully, thinking that¬†perhaps the time for this sort of thing had passed.

Perhaps. And yet.

The artist is always striving for work that takes leave of the ground it grew in. Art that comes at you directly, in words or images or sounds or movements so powerful that they seem to defy the normal rules of time and space, so unexpected when they first arrive, so fitting when they do that their creation seems inevitable.

There is the hope that a work of art¬†can be¬†better than, separate to, the miserable artist. Alice belongs in a different dimension, somehow, to the possibly pedophilic¬†Lewis Carrol. Young Elvis is a luminous idea that persists despite the corporeality of Fat Elvis bingeing on hamburgers. It’s¬†a trick, this separation, but it’s the artist’s only trick. Afterwards, the artist will put their name on the work, although this will never feel quite right, because they’ll suspect that¬†they are only a conduit for bigger, longer-lasting, more important forces or perhaps¬†they’re simply fashionable, or well connected. In Yesterday, the combination of joy and misery¬†at having tricked the world is written all over Jack Malik’s face.

Yesterday‘s thesis is that great art can and should take leave of the mere artist; can and should go out into the world across time and space. The songs of the Beatles are so good that they are guaranteed to move¬†people 50 years later, at first hearing, without explanation or back story. Brilliance will be seen, understood, duly rewarded, no matter what. In Yesterday, Jack Malik goes straight to the top. People are soon saying he’s the best songwriter in the whole world.

Interestingly, the original screenplay by Jack Barth¬†starts with the same premise – the cosmic glitch that wipes out all memory of the Beatles – but reaches precisely the opposite conclusion: even the back catalogue of Beatles songs isn’t enough, by itself, to lift a struggling musician into fame and fortune.¬†He’s quoted in The Australian saying:¬†‚ÄúMy view was, even if I woke up and I was the only person to know Star Wars or Harry Potter, I probably wouldn‚Äôt be very successful with it because that‚Äôs kind of the way things have gone for me.” Once screenwriter Richard Curtis, king of the feel good and rom com (Four Weddings and a¬†Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary) got on board, he reversed Barth’s premise, plumping for what he called “optimism”.

***

I was 16, and the year was 1980, before I heard a Beatles song all the way through, at least consciously. It¬†might seem odd that something so culturally prevalent could have failed to reach my own corner of the Western world. We were living in a small town that only had ABC TV and radio, and neither ever played the Beatles, as far as I can remember. Our small collection of 45rpm¬†singles included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Glen Campbell and Tom Jones, but no Beatles. If we went to a barbecue at someone else’s house, it was Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” or perhaps, later at night when parents were drunk, the more soulful “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. When Countdown arrived in 1975, my preteen sister and I¬†were smitten. We watched every episode between 1975 and 1980 without exception. Skyhooks, ABBA, ACDC, The Clash, Blondie. But never a Beatles song. The Beatles were ancient history; Countdown was now. Maybe it’s not such a big deal that I got to 16 without hearing a Beatles song. We lived in our own niches, even then.

I was standing in the doorway between the living room and Mum and Dad’s bedroom when I heard a kind of organ piping, an intriguing sound and tone that I couldn’t place. I walked over and stood in front of the portable radio/tape player. The¬†music was not like anything I’d heard before (not that I’d heard much, as you can see) and nor were the words.

Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Whoa! Who knew? A little bit of my soul was psychedelic, and this song was making it vibrate.

Context: John Lennon was inspired by the garden at Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army children’s home where he¬†played as a child against the advice of his Aunt Mimi.

Work of Art: This context, this “real” garden, doesn’t for one moment explain the¬†song’s Strawberry Fields, their mysterious, strawberry-coloured, dreamy energy.¬†Context and work of art. Maybe one can pull free of the other.

In the ’80s I binged on the Beatles for a while. But I moved on pretty quickly. There were the share houses that always had Patti Smith’s Horses album in the milk crate beside the record player.

In writing this piece, I’ve been realising something weird. I’d always claimed to be a John girl, if asked (and perhaps something of a George girl).¬†Paul was always considered a bit naff. But now I find I’ve changed my mind or at least opened up the door.¬†I’m thinking about¬†“Eleanor Rigby”, written by Paul with a little help from this friends, the song that Jack strains to remember in Yesterday.

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

What is this? It’s fucking brilliant. It’s a sad song that can make things better.¬†It deserves a long and decontextualised life.

On failures of communication

 

jbraine/flickr

jbraine/flickr

If you’re following along on this blog, you’ll know that last week I went to a function in town, got the shits with one small aspect of it, and wrote this blog post.¬†The innocent victims of this then fought back in the comments. In the grand scheme of things this was all very tiny, but it was my teacup, my storm. I went on about it to my partner and friends.¬†What did it all mean? Was I being mean? Were they being mean?

I kept trying to say, “I’m looking for the meaning, I’m not trying to be mean,” and they kept saying, “You’ve got the wrong meaning, and you are being¬†mean.” Communication failure!

We live in a world of intentional and unintentional meanings.¬†On one level, I have been a racist person today. I have not left the house; I’ve barely spoken to anyone. So how can I be racist?¬†Well, I’m in a house on a plot of land that my partner and I own. We’ve got the key to the door. If a stranger wanders in off the street I have every right to shout at them or call the cops. All this is normal and ordinary. This natural ordinariness is the sort of truth I need to live in, today, for practical reasons.

But there’s another truth about what I’m doing here, on this bit of land. A couple of hundred years ago this block belonged to the Wiradyuri nation, or, to put it the way they often put it – they belonged to this piece of land. Today, there are Wiradyuri people who live in rented houses in Kelso; some are homeless. But¬†because of our racist history I’m the one who owns this block, not them. I get to say who comes in and out. I didn’t personally create this situation. I’m also not going to give up my privilege. I’m going to keep living here, keep locking the door, keeping treating the place as if I own it.

My intention for today is to hang out inside the house, working from home. But another,¬†extra layer of meaning (out of many) is that I’m living the privilege of a white person in Australia. Perhaps it’s a bit much to say I’m “being racist” but I think it’s true to say that I’m benefiting from, and perhaps in some way perpetuating, the racism in our culture.

The British decided to declare the land¬†terra nullius – belonging to no-one – so that they could seize land without feeling like criminals.¬† If¬†“nobody” owned it, then it was there for the taking. Finders keepers. The downside of this is that¬†Aboriginal people were made to feel like nobodies. Racism comes in to support the threadbare logic of occupation and theft.

It’s not nice to think about this. It’s much easier to forget about history and just live in each day as it comes.¬†But Aboriginal people – just by being here, just by walking down the street, passing me as I do my shopping¬†– remind me that there are other layers of meaning embedded in my ordinary day. And they’re not just trivial layers of meaning. They’re about who we are and what we are striving to be. This is what I was trying to say about the marital arts demonstration. There’s intention, and there’s meaning. They’re different things. There are always lots of possible meanings, depending on your perspective.

After a day agonising over my martial arts storm in a tea cup, I decided to forget the lot of it and just watch Brad Pitt’s zombie film, World War Z. But my brain wouldn’t shut down that easily. Brad says goodbye to his family when he goes off to fight the zombies. He cuddles the little girl and says words along the lines of she’s a precious thing. He high-fives the little boy and says, “Look after the women.” This includes the adult woman who is twice the boy’s size. He’s nine, but he’s the man of the house! Arrgh! Somebody please EAT MY BRAINS.

Culture chases me wherever I go. I can’t not see. I’m constantly mulling over how we are all part of a culture that perpetuates racism and sexism and environmental destruction – even when we’re just doing our thing,¬†even when we’re just trying to fight the¬†zombies or spend the day in the house. We perpetuate racism and sexism not because we’re bad, or because we mean to, but because we’re caught up in history and culture. By becoming more aware of this, we might be able to change how we do things in the future. That’s my hope, anyway.

So, back to communication, to failures of communication. My commenters thought I was being unjustly mean; I felt they were failing to get my point. It was a disagreement about the meaning of an event and we all had feelings about it. I can’t “unfeel” what I felt at the time; they can’t “unfeel” their response to my feeling.

This brings me to the interesting question of audience.

Who is this blog for? Who is reading it? My audience is mostly family and friends¬†– people who know me personally. (Average readership is in the dozens.) But it’s not a secret or protected blog; it’s public. In¬†its own way, it’s also part of “the¬†media”. With that, comes all sorts of other responsibilities. When I wrote my post last week, I was not imagining – or perhaps I was forgetting – that the young people in the demonstration might also read it. If I’d been addressing them directly, I might have expressed myself differently.¬†Instead, I was addressing my “usual” audience … ¬†which is what, exactly? You. You reading this, whoever you are. Sometimes I think I know you; sometimes you’re a mystery.

As the host of this blog, I can go under the hood and have a look at my statistics. I can see how many subscribers I’ve got, how many people read a particular post. I can see¬†which posts get read over and over again and which barely get a look-in. I can see the search terms people use before they stumble upon my blog (I love this one, for example: “what to do with galah when it has tumour in its bottom”). I¬†know who some of you are but many of you are a complete mystery.

That’s how¬†this Internet and social media thing works. Something can go from a semi-private discussion to global controversy in two seconds flat. Context goes out the window. It’s like sitting in a booth in a cafe having a deep and meaningful conversation, forgetting that the people at the next table can hear everything you say. And might be tweeting it.

Was my blog post capable of doing actual harm to a group of teenagers innocently¬†doing their thing? Are hurt feelings harm? In the end, I decided not to delete my post. It was a review of a public performance; it was not a positive review, but that’s in the nature of review. I reviewed it from my own perspective, which was not the same as their perspective. But they had space to reply to me and to defend themselves in the comments. So I decided to let it all stand: my original post, my update after a personal discussion over the phone; the comments. People can make of it what they will.

Perhaps it’s not about failure of communication so much as about what happens when different types of communication¬†bump up against each other. It’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful, but always enlightening.

 

Leave Matt Damon on Mars

tiny_orchid_chris_marshall

A tiny lily from Peel, near Bathurst. Pic: Chris Marshall.

There’s an awful lot going on, and all of it’s good, all of it’s about participating in Life with a capital L.

A couple of hours ago I got a text message from a nurse at Prof Harnett’s clinic. The entire text message was just two digits: a one and a zero. Ten. Ten! Brilliant! My lucky number relates to my CA125 level, an indicator of possible ovarian cancer activity. High numbers bad, low numbers good. Ten is a lovely low number.
In the run-up to this blood test I kept myself pantingly busy working on the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition which opened last Friday night. We had about 50 people at the launch. The exhibition, whipped into aesthetic line by Cate McCarthy, looked fabulous at about 4pm on Friday evening. Two hours to spare! I even had time to go home and have a shower and put a skirt on.

The exhibition is all about paying attention to where we live. Which is in a planetary system that appears robust but is actually caving, crumbling, subsiding, declining, getting warmer, losing bits of itself. The exhibition (which continues until 5pm next Sunday) explores the bit of the system that we’re inhabiting right here, right now – focusing on non-human living things. A hundred local plants, a hundred local animals all feature in the exhibition. The largest thing is the skull of a horse; the smallest is a tiny, tiny dead beetle. It includes my own bit of amateur biologising: a pressed dandelion from the back yard, and crocheted human brains (humans are included but only as the “one hundreth animal”). There’s a spotted marsh frog painting by the Hazzards; Mum’s pobblebonk; my friend Kirsty Lewin’s black cockatoo mask; lots of photos by Tim Bergen; bright pastels by Johannes Bauer who is both ecologist and artist; Ray Mjadwesch’s specimens including the dried remains of a sugar glider that died after being snarled in barbed wire; our old dog Taro; a glass-art cat with a chain saw. Mostly native animals and plants, but a few introduced species that share this habitat.

Working on this exhibition with the BCCAN committee and others in the team, my sense of this planet as a teeming, rich-in-every-corner thing has grown. I got angry with an ad for Mortein on television the other night. It seemed incredible to me that wholesale scorched-earth policies in private homes are allowed, willy nilly, along with anti-bacterial hand washes. Good to have in hospitals, but the idea of daily life in disinfected spaces now seems a lesser life.
Which brings me to Matt Damon on Mars with his potato plants fertilised by human dung. There he is in a superhuman struggle against the basic facts of life: our bodies were created and are supported by our one and only planet, with its air and water and animals and plants and seasons and sea and earth. And he wins. He works out how to “science the shit out of” his dire situation. The movie brims with an eager love of science, of figuring things out, trying things out, failing and trying again. I enjoyed that. It was also a long paean to NASA. I’m as much a fan of NASA as the next person, or maybe even more, having grown up next to one of the tracking stations that tracked the Gemini and Apollo missions.

But in these days of climate change and environmental destruction, such enthusiasm over humanity’s ability to shuck off the demands of our slow-evolving nature just makes me a little sad for us and for the planet we’re buggering up in the process. There we are, soiling our own nest, just waiting to take flight, get off into outer space, colonise distant planets, all in close-fitting Star Trek suits.

On television a few days later, there was the lame Revenge of the Sith, in which the vibrant world of the original Star Wars movie was oddly reduced to a cross between daytime soap and a computer game for kids. It was all smooth surfaces and whizzing things. Where were these beings growing their food, disposing of their waste? Where was biology in all this? (Okay, just Googled it. Star Wars does have its own biological objects and rules, according to Wookieepedia.) When James Cameron’s Avatar came out, I thought it might have been the beginning of a different type of futurism, one that explored the idea of living sustainably within an ecosystem. But Avatar was a one-off. The future, as imagined by Hollywood, still has a Jetsons quality (it’s the future, and you never see the Earth’s surface, let alone a single tree).I love science as much as the next person, or even more, having so far been saved by modern medical knowledge. But the idea that we can “science the shit out of” our environmental problems, including climate change, will not work on its own. I think it needs to be united with a profound acceptance of – and interest in – the limitations and workings of our own bodies and our own planet.

Dubbo is better than Paris

Giraffes at Dubbo's Western Plains zoo.

Giraffes at Dubbo’s Western Plains zoo.

Is Dubbo better than Paris? It depends.

A few years ago I was sitting on a bus on the way to Cobar, a red-dirt outback place a few hundred kilometres west of here, when I overheard a discussion between two schoolboys about places they’d been. One of them, about ten or eleven years old, delivered a line I’ve remembered ever since: “Dubbo is better than Paris.”

For my international reader*, Dubbo is not well known for the arts, history, romance, food or architecture, although all of these things exist there. It is known for a zoo just outside town that has giraffes, rhinos, zebras and other charismatic animals. These animals have large open spaces to run in rather than the small allotments offered by city zoos. If they squint their eyes and try to ignore the fences, they might be able to imagine themselves on the plains of Africa: the flat, dry landscape is similar. I’m assuming the boy who had been to both Paris and Dubbo had this in mind when he made his surprising pronouncement. In Dubbo, he would’ve been able to get quite near a majestic giraffe, close enough perhaps to smell its flanks, to see it breathe. At the Louvre, by contrast, he would’ve been herded about with dozens of other children by cranky worn-out adults. He might have looked through gaps between the backs of other people’s heads at the small framed Mona Lisa and thought: “Whatever”.

For him, Dubbo was better than Paris.

This ran through my mind the other night when I went along to a discussion panel at the local regional art gallery. All of the people on the panel were, metaphorically, Paris. We in the audience were, metaphorically, Dubbo. Or that’s how it felt, to me.

***

I just got up and started cooking dinner. I can feel the weight and mass of the chip on my shoulder.

***

Okay, to continue. Three of the artists on the panel had work in the gallery’s current exhibition. Juz Kitson works with shapes that are like bodily organs or appendages, drooping, hanging, bulbous, hairy. The hair looks like real hair, growing out of synthetic skin that looks like real skin. It’s all bundled together in ways that are both beautiful and uncomfortably intimate. The sparse, coarse hair, reminiscent of pubic hair, flows down over pendulous bodily shapes to touch the floor. It’s exquisite.

In the next room there was a small house suggested by a bare timber framework. Sandra Nyberg’s work is open and airy. It is generous toward its surroundings because you can see the surroundings through it. In the gallery, at the moment, it frames jewelry made of shells and other sea-things and other bits of found nature. There’s a gleaming necklace made of king green maireener shells. These pieces by Lola Greeno are beautiful, an engagement with the biology of her Tasmanian home.

In the last rooms at the back were the joined PVC elbow pipes by Mark Booth. This plastic looked plastic, unlike the skin-plastic of Juz Kitson’s assemblages. After the tactile, overtly biological pieces in the other spaces, these things seemed hard and remote to me. It took a moment to recalibrate before I could enjoy them.

Juz Kitson, Sandra Nyberg and Mark Booth were all on the panel discussion which was hosted by Alex Wisser from Cementa 15. Juz, Sandra and Mark were introduced as artists who “live and practice in a regional setting”.¬† Juz lives between the Yarramalong Valley and China; Sandra went to art school in Sydney before returning to a tiny island off the coast of Finland; Mark Booth has worked and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney but now has a studio in Hill End, an old gold mining town that is now partly an artists’ colony.

The topic under discussion was the “advancements, challenges and future of contemporary practice in a regional context”. The main preoccupation was how contemporary artists located outside of big cities might stay in touch with the main game. Networking is essential to a career in the arts; if you’re not showing up in all the right places, you risk being forgotten. Thankfully, said everyone, there’s the Internet. Now, you can have the best of both worlds:¬† splendid isolation plus Facebook. This is a win-win in all directions: artists can now spread themselves around. They can rent cheap studios in little towns.

The downsides were expressed with disarming honesty by Alex Wisser, the host of the discussion: Out of your window, there’s this unchanging landscape. Whereas a city has a “nowness” about it, the countryside has a timelessness about it. The art world, the main game, is all about the now. If you’re not careful, the landscape might soften your edge. And the locals think you’re crazy. As a rule, the people you run into don’t understand what you’re doing, or don’t like it, or don’t care. That small, daily, lack of recognition can grind you down. (These are not exactly Alex’s words. It’s a week later and my notes are not that good. But this is the gist of it.)

“You need an audience,” said Alex (I wrote this bit down). “I mean in people who, in an affectionate way, come to understand what you’re doing.”

Alex, his artist partner and their daughter and some other artists have moved from Sydney to Kandos, a small town next to a giant cement works that has closed down. The rent is cheap. The post-industrial setting against the drama of sandstone cliffs is inspiring. Cementa 15 is coming up just after Easter.

Sandra Nyberg spoke about her experience on the island of Korppoo in Finland, accessible only by ferry. Every year there’s a contemporary art festival on the island, in which artists respond to the local environment. She said artists work closely with the locals, and they feel “part of it”.

So far, the discussion was all about what happens when artists go “out” to live and work beyond the major cities.

In question time, Vianne Tourle, who grew up on a farm near Dubbo and now lives in Bathurst, asked if it might be possible to conceive of a contemporary art practice born, maturing and continuing to exist outside of the city. She wasn’t being mischievous, or perhaps only a little bit.

Anyway, as they say in the Sesame Street song, it’s all relative. The big becomes the little when you take it back a bit. There are probably only a handful of artists in the world who truly think of themselves – and are thought of – as being in the centre, whatever the hell that is. The closer you get to it, the further it moves away. The chip on my shoulder – resentment over the city’s sense of superiority just because of its address – is a bad old habit, weighing me down. In any case, a lot of people would look at me and see some sort of insider, or at least someone closer to the inner bands of the circle than them. And there’s the fact that between my remote and regional days, there were years in Newtown, which is the centre of the entire universe.

Afterwards, I headed over to Russell Street and the opening of the latest t.arts gallery exhibition. In that tiny artists’ co-operative gallery you find a heterogeneous mix of traditional and contemporary arts. The new exhibition includes the luminous landscapes of David Lake – evocations of that seeming timelessness that Alex Wisser was talking about. David and fellow artist Tim Miller had been out to White Cliffs – the remote beyond remote – to paint in the extremes of light and heat. Music for the opening was supplied by a trio called String Theories, who had written a piece inspired by David’s painting, Moon rise Hobby’s Yards.¬† Someone brought the painting out and put it on a chair next to the band so we could listen and look.

Another artist in the exhibition, Margaret Ling, fires her pots in a hole in the ground on a friend’s property out of town. She likes slow-burning hardwood. She arranges the layers of fuel in such a way that the fire burns down slowly towards the pots. It’s work that emerges, quite literally, out of this landscape.

So, at one gallery we had a self-conscious discussion about who we all are and what it all means, while at the other, it was just people getting on with doing their home-grown thing. All very interesting. All part of being out and about in a regional city on a Friday evening.

The moral of the story is that Dubbo is better than Paris for giraffes; Paris is better than Dubbo for croissants. But there are also giraffes in Paris and croissants in Dubbo and pictures of all of the above are available, right now, on the Internet. And I do love this song.


* Her name is Jane.