Reflections on The Kimberley

I’ve just returned from a 2-week trip to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. It was the furthest I have travelled from Melbourne, and the longest vacation I have had, since mid-2019 and before Covid struck in early 2020. Covid still managed to make its presence felt, in several ways, but thankfully did not directly impact the holiday. Here are just a few observations from my time away.

Although I have been to other remote parts of Australia, living inside the Melbourne bubble can make you forget just how big this country is, and the Kimberley is particularly difficult to get to thanks to the vast distances, and limited access points. I was travelling with my significant other and five of our friends, so the logistics required careful planning. Scheduled flights are limited, and the knock-on effects of Covid have resulted in higher air fares, more demand for accommodation and hire cars, staff shortages across the hospitality and tourism sectors, pent-up demand from interstate visitors who can now travel to Western Australia, and some indigenous and remote communities remain closed or visitors are being discouraged. (We had to take RAT tests before we were allowed to travel to one remote location.)

Our journey started in Broome (via Perth, as there were no direct flights from Melbourne), and then took us to Kununurra, Bullo River and Darwin. In between, we visited Quandong Beach, Mitchell Falls, the Bungle Bungles, Lake Argyle, Mirima National Park, and Litchfield National Park. Along the way we looked for dinosaur footprints, went whale watching, got up close to some crocodiles (freshwater and saltwater varieties), did some star gazing, hiked to see rock art, saw loads of wild fauna and countless boab and kapok trees, and swam in billabongs, waterfalls and lakes. Most of the journey was made on scheduled commercial flights, or with regular tour operators.* In one case, it was cheaper (and far, far quicker) to charter a pair of light aircraft to take us to and from our destination, instead of hiring a couple of 4WD vehicles.

We heard about the significance of the pearl industry in Broome (and its multi-cultural origins), the importance of the Ord River Irrigation System to agriculture, the historic and ongoing role of Darwin in Australia’s defence strategy, and the efforts being made towards sustainability, eco-tourism and environmental conservation and protection across the region (including some of the enormous and historical cattle stations).

Although we did not have an opportunity to meet with any local communities, one of our guides had been working closely with indigenous organisations, and shared some of his insights and experiences of customary law, the corporate nature of some aboriginal businesses, the challenges of addiction and mental illness within indigenous communities, and the knowledge gaps between the Stolen Generation and the younger members of our first nations people.

In addition to some amazing scenery, stunning sunrises and sunsets, pristine beaches and crystal clear waters, the vacation also provided tangible examples of some of the challenges facing Australia: immigration policies, the Jobs and Skills Summit, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the environment, energy policy, agricultural production, and national security – themes which I hope to draw on over the coming weeks.

* Our scheduled flights to/from Melbourne were booked direct with the respective airlines, and a couple of charter flights were arranged directly with the local operators, who were extremely helpful. We did hire a couple of 4WDs for part of our time in Broome, but vehicles were scarce, and tended to be expensive. However, most of our accommodation and guided tours were booked through Georgia Bedding at The Tailor, specialising in personalised travel itineraries.

Next week: The Jobs and Skills Summit

 

 

Renzo Piano & the Centro Botín

In March this year, the Victorian Government unveiled the winning concept design for the NGV Contemporary, a new centre for art and design, forming part of the planned revamp of the Arts Precinct on Melbourne’s Southbank. Due to open in 2028, The Fox: NGV Contemporary (to give it’s full name, thanks to the benevolence of trucking magnate and close acquaintance of Premier Daniel Andrews, Lindsay Fox) is being heralded as an iconic, nation-defining statement in support of Melbourne’s claim to be the cultural centre of Australia. So far, so good – but I can’t help feeling the design competition has been conducted with some undue haste: Expressions of Interest were sought in March 2021, with a one-week registration deadline. The competition for Stage One of the project closed in August 2021, and Stage Two in November 2021, with the winning team announced in March 2022, barely 12 months from the EOI. Why the hurry (especially as Melbourne was in lockdown for much of that time), and up to now, there does not appear to have been any public consultation in the design process.

The Centro Botín, Santander, designed by Renzo Piano (image sourced from Wikimedia)

Contrast this with the design of the Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, by Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose story is told in an absorbing documentary, “Renzo Piano: The Architect of Light”. First, neither the architect nor the sponsoring Botín Foundation had any aspirations of creating an “iconic building”; instead, the goal was to have as minimal physical impact as possible, while reclaiming an area of land and returning it to public use. Second, there was a public consultation process, to overcome concerns expressed by some nearby residents. Third, while the documentary has no doubt been artfully edited, it does provide extensive “behind the scenes” access to the design and construction process over its 7-year development, which included a 3-year delay in completion. The fact that this was a private commission rather than a competition may account for this approach, but there was still a great deal of negotiation with municipal and community stakeholders.

The documentary itself is notable not only for the degree of transparency (we observe meetings between architect, client and project managers throughout the process), but also for the simplicity of its narrative, and the wise decision to dispense with any voiceover commentary – the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves. There are also references to cultural icons such as novelist Italo Calvino and film-maker Roberto Rossellini. The use of Mahler’s ‘Symphony No. 5’ in the soundtrack underlines Renzo Piano’s fascination with light as a construction material, as important to him as glass, concrete and steel – the music is most famously associated with the film of ‘Death in Venice’, a city renowned for its light.

If the primary inspiration for the design of the Centro Botín is light (and lightness of construction), I’m struggling, based on the available evidence, to see what the inspiration is for the NGV Contemporary. Despite being a statement about “art and design”, I fear that this project is as much about political statements and lasting personal legacies. Much has been made about the potential job creation during its construction, but much less about the design principles and aesthetic objectives. I hope this project does not turn into a municipal white elephant.

The original NGV (now referred to as NGV International) is a landmark building and one of the most popular destinations in Melbourne. I have known it most of my life, having first visited it aged 10, when it left an indelible impression on me. Having lived in Melbourne the past 20 years, I have been a regular visitor since it was extensively refurbished in 2003. As part of the Arts Precinct, the NGV is a focal point for the city’s cultural activities, and is a major draw card for local and international visitors. Any enhancement of the NGV and the surrounding facilities is generally to be welcomed, and certainly there are parts of the precinct that could do with upgrading. However, I’m not sure the design for the NGV Contemporary is the right decision.

Aside from the hastiness shown by the NGV Contemporary’s design phase, I’m surprised that the winning design team, Angelo Candalepas and Associates, do not appear to have built any comparable projects, despite winning multiple awards for their past work. The Candalepas studio has designed many residential buildings (and I lived very happily in one of their first competition successes, ‘The Point’ in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Pyrmont), but as far as I can see, nothing on the scale, significance or importance as NGV Contemporary. The proposed design looks very “blocky”, notwithstanding the internal “spherical hall”, which is highly reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s also not clear what the spacial relationship will be with the existing NGV and other neighbouring buildings, nor whether any of them will need to be remodelled or demolished to make way for this latest addition. I’ve tried, without success, to find a map or ground plan of the proposed development, or any details on how the NGV Contemporary will be accessed from adjacent streets, other than via a new garden that appears to envelop the NGV International – so what existing land will this garden occupy, and what current facilities might be lost in the process?

In conclusion, since its opening in 2017, the Centro Botín appears to have been enthusiastically embraced by the residents of Santander, and manages to be both utterly modern and easily accessible, unlike so many other examples of “statement” architecture. I hope we will see a similar outcome for NGV Contemporary.

Next week: Mopping up after the LNP

Getting out of town

This week, if all had gone to plan, I would have been reflecting on my latest stay in regional Victoria. Instead, Melbourne is under lock-down #6, and my mini-break out of the city had to be abandoned. But at least I managed to enjoy a great lunch and a walk in the country, before day release came to an end, and I had less than 4 hours’ notice to get back to town ahead of the latest curfew.

Greetings from Castlemaine – local art for local people….

Despite the abrupt end to my trip, the few hours of freedom were enough to remind me of the benefit (and downside) of living in a regional town.

First, regional and rural towns provide a great sense of belonging. You can experience a form of community in Melbourne’s urban and inner-city areas, but the connections don’t always run as deep, and they can be quite transactional and event-driven – meeting up to watch sport, going to the pub or catching up for dinner. Whereas, regional communities just “are”, and are always there to offer support, especially during challenging times.

Second, people living in regional areas tend to have a very different perspective and outlook on things, with a healthier approach to work/life balance. They have a greater appreciation of the country, nature and the land on which they live – something we can overlook or take for granted in our urban bubbles.

Third, rural and regional towns come with their own individual personalities and identities – something seriously lacking in our sprawling new suburbs with their increasingly cookie-cutter homes, and distinct lack of character.

The recent pandemic has shown that if you can work remotely, and don’t need to meet colleagues or clients face-to-face, regional centres are very attractive locations (even for a temporary tree/sea-change). But while the locals may welcome your city spending power in their shops and cafes, they may not appreciate the impact on property prices.

However, regional towns can take a while to warm to new-comers, and in these edgy pandemic times, strangers are viewed with as much suspicion as they are curiosity. More than once on recent trips I have noticed the locals almost crossing the street to avoid getting too close to the out-of-towners. Not quite dueling banjos (or the country pub scene in “An American Werewolf in London“…), but enough to suggest visitors are not entirely welcome.

Small towns are also notorious for everyone knowing each others’ business, where you can’t even sneeze without the rest of the village knowing about it. It can get to the point of suffocation, along with repressed emotions and dreadful secrets, especially where local traditions are based on very conservative (even regressive) values, beliefs and prejudices. (I was reminded of this recently when watching “The Last Picture Show”.)

In case this reads as overly pessimistic, I should emphasize that I really enjoy visiting regional Victorian towns (lock-down permitting), as they offer a rich variety of scenery and local produce – even if I can’t get there as often as I’d like these days, it’s good to know they are there. (And my wine cellar would be poorer for the lack of choice…)

Next week: More Music for Lock-down

RONE in Geelong

Public art galleries need to attract paying customers if their funding derived from government grants is being cut. To pull in the punters, galleries have to resort to “blockbuster” exhibitions. In these uncertain, post lock-down times, the lack of international tourists means that galleries are forced to focus on local audiences. It’s good to showcase local talent in the shape of conquering heroes returning to their roots.

These may have been some of the arguments behind the Geelong Art Gallery‘s decision to mount a retrospective exhibition featuring the work of street artist Tryone Power (aka RONE). Of course, the planning began long before COVID struck, but otherwise the above assumptions would seem to be valid.

Let’s acknowledge the positives of this show: First, it is certainly pulling in the punters, and helping to bring in visitors and their wallets to the town. Second, it is hopefully creating a platform for future exhibitions, and public engagement with the Gallery itself. Third, it’s nice that a locally-born artist is being recognised (even if he has had to travel afar to make a name for himself at home).

Unfortunately, that’s where it ends, for me. My recent visit was probably the shortest time I have spent in an exhibition which I had paid to see. Overall, I found the work vapid – there was nothing of substance (nor anything challenging) underneath the painted surface, or behind the concept of “beauty and decay”. As a street artist, RONE does not have the wit or depth of a Banksy; as a conceptual/installation artist, he’s no Christo. The main images he creates or imposes on his work are highly stylised and extremely idealised portraits of young women – it’s a very limited exploration of “beauty”. At best, the work reveal something interesting about abandoned and overlooked locations. At worst, the installation reeked of interior decor magazines and displayed a taste for romanticised and sentimental kitsch.

Which is all a great shame, because given RONE’s apparent interest in deserted and decaying structures, there is a deep and rich vein of Australian Gothic he could have tapped into. (In comparison, think of the work of Nick Cave, Peter Weir, Peter Carey, Julia deVille, Rosalie Ham, etc.)

Despite the use of physical objects, this exhibition felt very one-dimensional. Artists as disparate as Helen Chadwick, Paola Rego, Cindy Sherman and Rachel Whiteread have all deployed notions of female beauty, decay, abandonment and destruction to far greater effect and impact.

Next week: Intersekt FinTech Pitch Night