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Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial 2009

Many Australians still think of the Queensland capital as a cultural backwater. Although it's Australia's third largest city, the memory of conservative premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen still casts a shadow. Once every three years Brizvegas hosts one of the world's biggest arts events, the Asia Pacific Triennial (the sixth is abbreviated to APT6). Gathering works from Iran to Hawaii, one gallery isn't enough to hold the exhibition so it rambles through the Queensland Art Gallery (known unprosaically as QAG) across to the Gallery of Modern Art (or GoMA to his old army buddies).

Entitled People holding flowers, this years coverboys decorate most promo materials, marching across the gallery floor. Chinese artsists Zhu Weibing and Ji Wenyu created the seriously dressed businessmen each holding aloft a lotus flower to play on Mao Zhedong's Hundred Flowers campaign of encouraging artistic opinion. Ironically the flowers and their bearers are identical much like political thoug…

Welcome to the Wheeler Centre

A little while ago I wrote about being inside the mouthful that is the Centre for Books Writing & Ideas. A few other people must have been having trouble with the name because it is now the Wheeler Centre.

At a function this morning the curtain slid back to reveal a Lonely Planet founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler. According to the speeches, they're funding top-class or "Melbourne standard" events at the new centre named in their honour. It's all part of their Planet Wheeler foundation.

The first program of events was unveiled in a glossy brochure. The big gig is A Gala Night of Storytelling, which boasts some of Melbourne's biggest personalities from Paul Kelly to John Marsden all telling stories passed down through their families. It's an intimate look at the cities literati. Its an exciting start to Melbourne's biblio-hub.

Inside the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas

This weekend I went to the first workshop at Melbourne's brand spanking new Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. It's the jewel in the crown of UNESCO's City of Literature and, based on the construction work going on out the front, there's a bit more polishing before it's fully open to the public.

Even still it's up and running in a pilot mode with most of the resident organisations already moved in and some even starting their events. Six resident organisations - Australian Poetry Centre, Emerging Writers' Festival, Express Media, Melbourne Writer's Festival, Victorian Writer's Centre and SPUNC - all seem to be in various stages of unpacking. The centre itself starts programming events early next year.

It's an impressive building from the inside and out - keeping the State Library's classic look while making it contemporary enough to be a work place. There's still a few bugs to iron out with the entrance which was still draped in construc…

Flemington by fascinator

It's the race that stops the nation and keeps Melbourne's milliners in business. Living not far from the track means that I've seen heaps of feathered finery so this Melbourne Cup I snapped a couple of fascinators while escaping the throng.

Made from feathers, flowers or fur and later on in the day bits of bread, beer caps and raceday flotsam, the fascinator is best seen in the morning. By the end of the day they're teetering on the edge like the drunk on high heels who is probably supporting this elaborate construction.
The wave of style washes in early as punters are keen to find their place in the carpark and flush away a few bets on dead certs. Somewhere in the balancing of headgear (when does a fascinator become a hat?) there's a horse race, but mostly it's about drinking. After a long day of waiting to not be invited into a celebrity tent, most stagger home or shout at cab drivers. Some take time out to vomit in local resident's letterboxes so we can…

Who is Sam Knott?

As you're driving from Melbourne towards Warburton, you might notice your health being toasted by a Father Christmas-like gent by the side of the road. Out the front of the Sam Knott Hotel in Wesburn there's a wood sculpture of an icon that decorated Australia's pool rooms and pub for just over a century.
The subject of the sculpture is Sam Knott, a prospector who came from England in 1888 just as Victoria's gold rush had run dry. Sam found work other work including in the pub that now bears his name. The current bartender reckons he was repeatedly paid the same pound note once a week that he religiously returned to cash register to clear off his weekly drinking slate.
In 1906 a photographer from the city snapped the enthusiatic drinker at the bar. When he remarked that he enjoyed his drink even though it was before noon, Sam cracked his famous line "I allus has wan at eleven" which became part of boozing and branding history. Carlton United Breweries loved the…

Southern Star dimming

In 2008 Melbourne's skyline saw the building-up of a large Ferris Wheel in the re-vamped Docklands. The Southern Star was gleefully nicknamed the Melbourne Eye (likening the Antipodean to its London sibling) and, as manufactured tourist attractions went, it served as the ideal centrepiece for a new shopping centre.

For just under thirty bucks, Melburnians would find themselves (according to the marketing material) 'rising gently to 120 metres in one of 21 air-conditioned cabins' for a half-hour ride. Southern Star opened in late-2009 amid excited projections of over 30,000 tourists visiting a week. It even promised views as far as Geelong. But early in 2009 a heatwave warped the big wheel and it was quickly shut down. Opened for just over seven weeks, it seemed that the designs couldn't take the heat and it seemed better to be safe than sorry. The $100m project has gone further into the red as the wheel needs to be repaired elsewhere and looks like it won't be up aga…

Australia by Boat

More travellers are looking to go flightless either for green reasons or just to slow down and enjoy their trip. Unfortunately as border security tightens and global piracy increases, taking a boat to Australia is getting tougher.

Your best bet is to try to hop a freighter. The romantic days of crewing on a freighter are gone, so today you’ll have to pay. From the UK to Melbourne, for example, you can expect to pay around AUD$8,500. That’s the tough bit out of the way, now you can lie back and enjoy the journey which will take almost 40 days. Bring a book or, better yet, a set of encyclopaedias.

Travelling from Singapore to Darwin is quicker and cheaper but few companies take passengers on this route. You can travel on from Melbourne to Tahiti, California or even Canada. Ship life is fairly comfortable with meals provided and your own cabin, shower and possibly TV, plus you’ll get to make a few interesting stopovers you might not have planned.

You can start planning with companies like S…

Out of Luck

When I had to write about definitively Melbournian experiences for Lonely Planet's the City Book I included this:

hunkering down in a Fitzroy pub to watch local band the LucksmithsIf you own that book, it's time to get out the red pen, because this essential Melbourne band is no more. And their final show wasn't in Fitzroy, but at Richmond's Corner Hotel, one of the city's great remaining pub venues.

It was a bittersweet gig after a long farewell tour but the cheeky chaps behind Melbourne's best indie/folk/pop outfit put on a great final show. Stage banter between Marty, Tali and Mark has always been a big feature and this gig featured songs interspersed with good-natured scuffles about Scrabble rules and a nod to the ex-Fitzroy landmark Punters Club, which was "dear to our hearts if not our livers". They were always a Melbourne band - where else could a song like "T-shirt Weather" be such a powerful anti-depressant?



They played songs from acr…

MIFFed film goers

As the line to 10 Conditions of Love sprawled out the front of Melbourne's Town Hall and ran a full city block up to Russell St, China's decision to oppose the film's screening was looking like the best publicity the could hope for. Without allthehackings, this 54-minute film might have got a limited release and only appeared late-night on SBS. Instead the flag of East Turkestan appeared on nationalandinternationalnews, international film festivals are saying they'll pick it up and Australian politicians are supporting a national struggle they may not have heard of two months ago.

Festival director Richard Moore kicked the film off saying "How sweet it is to push play this evening". The film itself follows the life of the Uyghur's most vocal proponent, Rebiya Kadeer, who was imprisioned in China for her actions. It uses the limited footage that has come out of the western province of Xinjiang (New Frontier) intercut with interviews with Kadeer herself. One…

Canberra: A Case of Over-Capitalisation?

When Sydney and Melbourne tossed a coin to decide where to put the capital of the new nation, it landed on its side. The two rival metropolises had to settle for a capital that was exactly halfway between both of them. This happened to be a sheep paddock.

They've done a lot with the paddock. Architect Walter Burley Griffin "planned an ideal city, a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future". For his trouble they named a lake after him and proceeded to bugger up his plans. By the time Bill Bryson arrived in the late 1990s he pronounced it "an extemely large park with a city hidden it."
I've alway had a soft spot for Canberra having gone to university in the Bush Capital. There is plenty of Bryson's parkland and once all the politicians jet home for the weekend, it's a very livable city. One thing I can never understand is why it has such a large concentration of "Nationals": the National Library, National Museum and, more recently,

Melbourne International Film Festival hacked

Strange news today that the MIFF website has been hacked in response to their screening a film by Uighur film-maker, Rebiya Kadeer. It's made even stranger by recent Chinese government demands that the film be withdrawn from the program. The film is critical of the treatment of western China's Uighur people and has seen several Chinese filmmaker withdraw their films from MIFF, but MIFF says it will still screen the film on August 8th.

Is Bendigo in China?

Last weekend I hopped the train to Bendigo, a regional Victorian town best known for its 19th century goldrush that drew prospectors from all over the world. A large group of diggers came from Guandong in China’s south. They packed their culture with them which is so well preserved that it had me wondering if a ticket to China was worth it.

In the 1800s Bridge St looked very different. It was legal to import opium until 1900 and the street boasted no less than three opium dens. Today it’s home to the Golden Dragon Museum, named for characters like Sun Loong (New Dragon) the world’s longest dragon who romps the streets every year at the Easter festival. It’s studded with 90,000 tiny mirrors to repel evil spirits. Wandering the museum’s creepily lifelike wax figures you’ll see Buddhist and Confucian relics because these Chinese immigrants got out before the Culture Revolution crushed their beliefs in China. Further out of town there’s also the Joss House, a tiny temple to Guan-Di, a god …

Three Melbourne Art Galleries

If you ask any other Australian what they think of Melbournians, the word 'arty' comes up as often as 'coffee'. We're known for our black skivvies as much as our long blacks. On Saturday we went out on an art safari taking in three very different galleries which confirmed this reputation, but also stretched it to breaking point.

First up was Heide gallery – the sprawling property of the Boyd family which is a daytrip in itself. The Modern Times exhibition currently visiting from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum races through Australian modernism (1917-1967). I was impressed to see the size of Australia’s involvement in this world art movement and even more pleased to hear they've developed a podtour to help you visit. Early in the exhibition a snapshot of Albert Tucker in Jack Kerouac’s New York apartment gives you an idea of Australia’s artistic influence. It’s a good companion to the current Brack exhibition. Swimwear and swim culture are a little over-represented, …

Vividly Sydney

Sydney has always shone out, but the Brian Eno exhibition Luminous makes it an artistic reality. As part of the city of Syd's Vivid festival, the sometimes-musician/sometimes-artist is curating an exhibition that will see 77 million images projected over the icon-loaded harbour until June 14th. The light show combines with concerts from Ladytron, Battles and Lee Scratch Perry and other events to put the city centrestage. It makes for quite a spectacle as the Opera House blushes from hibiscus flower to camouflage - the use of khaki making the building anything but invisible.

Usually the building leaves a dirty big carbon bootprint. It sucks in the same amount of electricity as a town of 25,000 and uses enough cabling to run from Sydney to Canberra (Australia's token political capital) and back. To address the balance the Smart Light Walk is a tour around the harbour that aims to turn off more lights than it switches on. By wandering through 25 light installations, you can see a…

Literally Melbourne

This weekend saw the opening of the Emerging Writers' Festival, a uniquely Melbourne event that was created to showcase "the best writers you haven't heard of yet". Friday's opening night First Word was a packed program that included hilarious sketches by List Operators, launching of the 48-Hour Play Generator, a Call to Arms from comic book writer Shane McCarthy and a hypothetical about the city's Centre for Books Writing and Ideas. And all this just on the opening night.

The ever-witty Michael Nolan hosted the hypothetical which looked at what the centre for Books Writing and Ideas could be as it prepares to open at the State Library of Voctoria later this year. There were a few digs at Readings becoming the official bookstore of the State Library of Victoria (the store's owner is a board member of the Centre) and some pointed remarks about it creating an ivory tower (from memory Nolan's delightful phrase was "Stalinism with good coffee"). …

More than Rhubarb: Craig Silvey profile

Two years into writing his second novel, West Australian writer Craig Silvey thought he’d blown it. Instead of quickly following up his first book, Rhubarb, with a new offering, he found himself caught up in his own notes and losing sight of his characters. “I kept expanding it and it turned into this amorphous blob and I just got lost inside it. It just got a bit big on me,” Silvey says down the phoneline from Fremantle. “I was kind of beginning to lose faith in it. I had this cold sweat and woke up with an idea of Jasper Jones.”

The success of Rhubarb put the pressure on Silvey. It was named the One Book of the Perth Festival and scored him the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist award. There were even comparisons with another WA literary titan Tim Winton, which Silvey humbly dismisses as “very flattering for me and equally unflattering for him”. It all left Silvey cornered with an out of control manuscript and some big expectations. His solution was to “critically pan myself but th…

Brack is back

John Brack made me move to Melbourne. His iconic painting, Collins St 5pm, takes you into his view of the city as he waited for his friend to knock-off work. But more than his bystander sketching you get a soap opera of faces - from the pinching at the eyes of the Henry Lawson lookalike to the plummy cheeks of the woman pushing behind him. And they're all grimly heading in the same direction.

The National Gallery of Victoria is currently running a retrospective of Brack's work that sweeps through his career. There's the brief period in 1956 where he headed out to Flemington to paint 'the sport of kings' but came back only with gargoyle jockeys and undertaker punters. He took on Barry Humphries cross dressing as Dame Edna Everidge and captures the strangeness of both.

On the walls is a quote from Brack himself about his charicaturing of people that makes them look sometimes like horror-movie ghouls and sometimes comic book heroines:
What I paint is what interests me mo…

Lameways, here we come

Melbourne is known for the intricacies of its laneways hiding all manner of dive bars, hard-to-find record stores, designer-owned fashion shops and enough coffee to drown the city. The St Jerome's Laneway Festival seems like a good extension of this - setting an indie soundtrack to the best back streets. But what do you do when it goes mainstreet?

The day started late as the gates didn't open until well after 12 which ate into the set of WA wunderkind Tame Impala. Leaning heavily on their fuzz pedals, the Imps were Deep Purple in shorts. With their time cut by 25 minutes, the lads did a playful cover of Blueboy's Remember Me at the core of their set that worked the crowd just right, but missed a great chance to get originals to a new audience on the large Lonsdale St Stage.
One of the more comfortable stages was well out of the alleys on the lawns of the State Library. It was also free so the crowd were a lot more relaxed than those who'd forked out for tickets. Machine …

Tasmania the Movie

I was writing an article about film locations and Australia the Movie, when I discovered this little playful promo for Tasmanian tourism:




It's all part of this satirical campaign that takes a pot shot at the big budget Baz Luhrman epic, but really does a good job of the movie trailer spookiness that promises so much (Lofty mountains! Bendy rivers!) and delivers less. The map with the rest of the world tiny in comparision to the grandness of Tasmania is another cheeky swipe at Australia always under-estimating the island state.

Big Trip Unleashed

It's been a big week for The Big Trip with the book hitting stores in Australia. Readings are giving it a nice mention which if you're in the UK translates into a Waterstones plug. Lonely Planet have created a snazzy promo site for it that lets you flip through the book's various sections. And unnervingly Amazon have a few used copies already - I guess some folks buy and then sell it immediately.

Even so we had a little celebration to wish the book on its way with Brian Thacker, author of the forthcoming Sleeping Around saying some sweet things about the book and even a few readings from some of the folks who were generous enough to contribute. It was a good night as the blurry photography attests, but it's good to know the book shows up well in the dark.