It's Wednesday, isn't it? I get a bit lost after long weekends. Mind you, it's been business as usual, with only my Monday class missing. Yesterday I spent all day in the studio printing a special birthday present for the Aged Poet -- she is turning 90 on Friday, and I wanted to make her a letterpress print of some of her haiku to be able to hand to anyone who comes to wish her well. When you're 90 you don't need more stuff, but you do want to give things to people. It's a present strategy I've been using with her since she turned 80!
I've also been finishing Wolf Hall, which I really enjoyed, and would feel bereft about finishing except that it is to be continued and I'll reread it again when the next one comes out. I think bereftness is felt (for me, anyway) when there is no more of that story, ever.
So. The weekend.
Saturday was spent learning how to do woodcuts in a workshop at Megalo taught by Tasmanian printmaker Michael Schlitz, who is generous and charming and funny with his teaching, so it was a fun day.
You might be suffering the same delusion as other people that I knew at Megalo: that I know how to do all kinds of printmaking. Not so! I went through the very marvellous but thoroughly eclectic Graphic Investigations Workshop until my third year of art school, at which point the workshop was dissolved (it was very dependent upon the Head of the Workshop for direction, and when he retired, so did the workshop) and I was rudely thrust into the Printmedia & Drawing Workshop, a completely different animal. In GIW we were taught skills if the project needed them and/or the visiting artist du jour knew them. It was really the luck of the draw unless you had a definite personal agenda. You came out well versed in poetry and odd Czech filmmakers, but with whatever skills had been passed under your nose during your stay. In my case they were etching (which I loathe), drawing, monoprinting and letterpress.
So I've been trying to pick up new printing skills, hence the excursion into wood engraving last year, and the chance to do wood cuts on Saturday. for those who don't know an engraving from a cut: the former is done on the end grain, which is smooth and gives a rich, deep black, and you can cut in any direction with very fine tools; the latter is done using side planks, with coarser tools, and your cutting is strongly influenced by the grain of the wood, plus the grain is usually visible within any solid printing area.
Here is Michael, showing us his spectacular woodcuts, finding it hard to explain their meaning but happy to share how he cut and printed them, and then offering them to us at half price, but unfortunately we were all skint after paying for the course...
Here he is, sitting next to resident Megalo octogenarian Patty, who is never too old to attend a course, showing us the various ways to sharpen the tools. His tools are mouthwateringly beautiful, bought in Japan whilst learning the craft direct from the masters.
Having been busy almost to the moment I walked into the print studio, I hadn't really thought through what I would be printing. I had no s or ideas. So I laid my arm on the block and traced it a few times and then made a lot of different marks with all the tools to give myself a kind of mark sampler. Here I am, using the baren to rub the paper onto the print. The fact that you can see the print clearly through the paper is owed to the paper being Japanese, and that I have been burnishing it under newsprint for a while so that it is almost ready to peel the paper back & look at the print.
Mmm, black ink on white paper. The smell is great, and it glistens. Wet ink is so nice, and then it dries. Sigh.
Sunday morning I got up at dawn's crack, helped by stomping Padge who KNEW I was getting up, he was just helping, and got into the car and drove to Sydney.
I'd booked a feral little room at a cheap hostel in Wooloomooloo, which turned out to be odd in the best ways (contained a shower but no loo, which was down the hall, also had a fridge and a tv, but they shared the only power point, so you had to choose whether you wanted a cold thing or a tv show or to recharge your phone) and brilliant in other ways (for a bit extra, they had parking, and the entrance back to the M5 to Canberra was only a block away and I could walk everywhere I wanted to go).
I had planned to start with Pier 2/3 then catch the free ferry to Cockatoo Island, but someone (can't remember who) in Canberra told me that the ferry ran widdershins to my plans, so I walked around to Circular Quay and joined a loooonnnnnnggg queue for the ferry. Apparently, so a nice photographer lady on the ferry we caught an hour later told me, this was the first bit of nice weather in Sydney for ages, and it was a long weekend, so expect such lines everywhere I went.
And then I got to the front of the queue and it turned out that the people who were already on the ferry each time it arrived (thus making the CQ line slower) had actually got on at Pier 2/3! GAH! I should have stuck to my original plan, I would have seen the art and then probably caught the same ferry I'd queued for all that time. I did get to see Rachel Ward walk past me (I mentioned this to Lia at the art school reception this morning and she trumped me with Ewan McGregor) and join the line, nice lady that she is, not like all the dudes who got bored and flung money at water taxis.
I've found an app for my iphone that makes my photos look like Polaroids. I loves it, I do. it made my trip lots of fun and already looking like it happened 30 years ago.
It was a beautiful day. The ferry was full of people who were all heading to one place to see art, which made for impromptu conversations that might not have happened on normal public transport. I met someone who helps organise Sculpture by the Sea, and another person, aforementioned, who is a photographer.
Cockatoo Island is, in it's own way, also beautiful. I spent as much time looking at old signs and peeling paint as I did looking at the art.
I'm going to mention the art a bit later, because I think there's a lot of dross to wade through in this Biennale, and I'd like to compile a shortlist of favs.
I walked around for most of the afternoon; I didn't bother lining up with the masses for another hour to get the free ferry back. I paid $5 and caught the rivercat and had time to wander around the Quay and through the Botanic Gardens to see the Fiona Hall and Janet Lawrence pieces before it got dark.
The Quay wasn't looking its best:
Every bin for miles looked like this, which looked very colourful next to the buskers and dancers and other tourist sites.
And the bats were ready to wake up towards the end of my walk:
That night I wandered down to the Rocks to catch a bit of Vivid:
Great stuff, except for the horrendous crowds. I fled to Chinatown, wandered around for a while, and decided that I didn't want Asian, I wanted Indian food, so I tramped up to Oxford St and fell upon a Chinese masseur who pummelled me for an hour before I ate yummy and cheap North Indian. And so to bed.
On Monday I checked out and meandered down through Wollomooloo, past a long row of homeless men basking against a sunny wall across the road from the Police station, and down a charming plaza area (probably used to be a road that was closed off) with terrace housing on either side, full of little park bits and shy cats.
I slapped my forehead with a silent DOH when I realised that Artspace wouldn't be open because it was a Monday, even though it was a holiday Monday. So I didn't get to see anything at Artspace. I did sit by the water and ate a pie with mushy peas from Harry's Cafe de Wheels for brunch. I listened to the chat around me and noticed that many people would eat and then leave their wrappers on the ground or the pylons used as seats, even though there was a fresh seaside breeze and a bin right next to them.
Consequently, the beautiful clear water next to where they sit is full of plastic forks and paper plates and eerily suspended paper napkins. Sigh.
Ok. Next I walked up to the NSW Gallery, where I never fail to see masses of artfully arranged children who betray the preoccupations of the artlessly arranged parents.
At one point I was looking at a group of people standing around a Biennale painting (there are only about 8 Biennale works at that venue) with one woman standing at the side reading the label out loud. I thought they were a tour group listening to a guide until about halfway through when the woman suddenly snapped, mid-sentence, 'YOU'RE NOT LISTENING', and all eyes whipped down to a small boy I hadn't noticed, standing next to her. Poor mite, he was trying hard to understand what Shaw's beautiful treatment of trans/mog/ri/fic/a/tion in erotic desire meant, but the painting was just so lovely, all sparkly and colourful.
And then over to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I spent the rest of the day, and then caught a bus back to my car and drove back to Canberra.
The Art Shortlists
Don't trust my taste in art if you're heading to the Biennale, but if you want to, here's my thoughts. Bear in mind that I didn't see Artspace and Pier 2/3, and I didn't see absolutely everything at Cockatoo Island (but I gave everything a red hot go).
The buzz that is going around says that Cockatoo Island isn't as good as last time, and that the MCA is fantastic. I think the buzz is spot on.
Cockatoo Island shortlist:
AES&F, The Feast of Trimalco, building 67. Stunningly beautiful and ascerbic in its message, which is we've all gone soft.
Cao Fei, People's Limbo, building 4. Second Life with political humour. Hilarious in parts.
Amal Kenawy: My Lord is Eating his Tail, building 4. Fantastic use of contemporary dance in a fantasy about a wheelchair-bound person 'borrowing' the body of someone else. At one point the sight of a stunningly healthy physical body moving sinuously next to an empty wheelchair made my heart thump wildly.
Shen Shaomin: Summit, building 6, plus his amazing display of bonsai plants at the MCA. Waxworks of dead political idealists, with a 'dying' Fidel Castro, barely breathing, but just breathing enough to spook. The bonsai have had nothing artistic done to them, they are merely shown in the torturous contraptions that force them into desired shapes. Gobsmackingly eloquent on numerous levels.
Jemima Wyman, Combat Drag, building 3. Mandala-like collages using photos of people dressed as guerrillas, but their uniforms/costumes are devised from flannelette shirts and other Australian cultural identifiers.
Enough of the video-of-someone-singing-alternative-or-even-mainstream-texts-opera-style genre. There are at least four of these scattered around the Biennale. It's an interesting idea once... in a lifetime.
I was charmed by the woman who turned up to the MCA in a full-length wedding gown, combined with short hair and multiple piercings. She enjoyed the confusion over whether she was an exhibit or not. Judging by the notebook in her hand, and the attention she paid to lots of the videos, I'd say she's an art student.
Here she is, watching John Bock's curious piece (here goes, apologies if I type it incorrectly) Fischgratenmelkstand kippt ins Hohlengleichnis Refugium (I'm not going to even attempt the accent marks).
Every single art student in the world should watch Christian Jankowski's video Live from the Inside as a theoretical text. It's a wonderful study of how artists can (or should) use the media to disseminate their ideas and how contemporary art works. He even has Kylie Kwong doing a cameo to discuss similarities between combining flavours and video editing!
Enrique Chagoya was fantastic, not so much for his paintings, but for the couple of artist's books on display.
Louise Bourgeois has a number of works in the show, the best of which, for me, were the bronze jumper sculptures.
Angela Ellworth's pioneer women's bonnets, with their beautiful but painful sheen of corsage pins are well worth seeing, as are Annie Pootoogook's sledgehammer-in-the-forehead deceptively naive drawings of contemporary Inuit life, complete with domestic violence and drinking problems.
Don't miss Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's amazing video where she plopped three nineteenth-century high art French paintings by Manet, van Gogh and Millet in front of groups of Thai farmers and then documented their conversations about the paintings. They are so interesting and funny, and grounding.
The first work I saw as I walked into the MCA sticks in my mind: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, with their photographic series that completely covers the walls of that first space. The artists invited 100 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong to take a toy grenade and photograph it in their favorite spot at their place of work, and then took a photo of each worker (from behind) and placed it next to the grenade photo. The result is awesome. I'm not sure if they really are their favorite places, or the places they'd actually like to see blown up...
There are more that I liked, and many I just thought 'meh' about; I'd love to hear if you have any of your own stand-outs.
I bought a few books on sale (one lovely one about Jan Tschishold's Penguin years), and a Biennale bag, because I love the typography design of the artwork by Jonathon Barnbrook, and some nice Haigh's chocolate from The Strand arcade for the boys.
The cats were pleased when I got home.