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Archive for the month “February, 2016”

Melbourne’s Museum of the Moving Image

It looks a bit like a camouflaged air-raid bunker, (or is it art?), but it was a great museum with a range of permanent exhibitions and a programme of slightly off-the- wall films in the evenings.

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The bunker

There was one film called ‘Mavis’ about a black American jazz singer who was old enough to know better, but still continuing to belt out some thrilling jazz with undimmed vigour.  Well worth seeing, if it comes around.

Then there was the temporary six screen exhibition devoted entirely to short films by local heroine, Cate Blanchett.

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Just amazing how professional actors can change their appearance with the help of a wig, a bit of facial hair  and the judicious use of No 5 and No 9.

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So many museums, so little time!

 

 

Problem solved

Now I know that these things exist, Christmas presents will no longer be a problem.

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Red faces in Denmark.

I mentioned that Ai Wei Wei has a well deserved reputation for being a thorn in the flesh of authority, very often, but not always, the authority represented by political monoliths like the Chinese Communist Party.

But who would have thought that a toy manufacturer in Denmark would become one of his targets, particularly if that manufacturer was the universally known and respected firm Lego.

Ai contacted Lego and tried to place a huge order for Lego bricks.  Lego refused to supply the bricks, arguing that they didn’t want their product to be used for political purposes.  What they were, in effect, saying was that they reserved the right to censor the views of their customers, which represents a denial of customers’ freedom of expression.

Clearly the executives of Lego didn’t want the publicity that might come from any art installation that Ai Wei Wei might produce with their bricks.  Unfortunately, they failed to notice either the red rag or the bull!

Big mistake!

What Lego had not taken into account is that Ai is not good at being muzzled and is a master in the field of social media.  He appealed over social media for supporters to donate Lego bricks.  He set up collection points in various countires and kids’ toy boxes were raided all over the world.  Lego bricks poured in.  The company in Denmark felt very silly and tried to staunch the torrent of bad publicity by changing their position on supplying the Chinese artist.

Below is just one sample of Ai’s work from the Melbourne exhibition.

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Back at the Exhibition

I saw a clock that told me that the time was 6.13h.

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As I watched, a hidden hand started to wipe away the time.

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And suddenly it was 6.14h.

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As we stood and watched, the next minute was erased and a new one was drawn.

We had been watching one of the exhibits.
And, no, there wasn’t a little man inside the clock.

Two extraordinary men.

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Our all-too-brief visit to Melbourne coincided with a major exhibition of the work of Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, both giants of the art world, brought together in one exhibition.

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 Warhol was obviously a highly influential and innovative artist in his time, but, for me, the various exhibits, and the life story, of Ai Weiwei  stole the show.

 Ai Weiwei is what my mother would have called “a bit of a bugger’.  He is a cultural iconoclast who aims to question accepted doctrine at every turn, regardless of the danger that such outspokenness exposes him to. 

 A fervent believer in individual freedom of expression, he is not afraid to shock and to voice his criticisms of authority and to question cultural orthodoxy.  This has, not surprisingly, brought him into conflict with the government of his native China, where criticism of the status quo and, particularly of the ruling Communist Party, is simply not tolerated. 

One of his earliest pieces, which was recalled in the exhibition, was his famous, or infamous, deliberate smashing of a Han Dynasty vase.  Many interpretations have been put forward for this eye-catching piece of ‘vandalism’, which, if nothing else, opens up a discussion on the subject of the value placed on cultural icons.

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It has been suggested that the vase dropped in the photograph might not have been a genuine Han vase and that, therefore, the outrage that greeted the event was misplaced.  It might, or might not be significant that the design and architecture company that Ai Wei Wei owns is called ‘Fake’.

In 2008, there was a huge earthquake in Sichuan Province. News of the scale of the disaster was suppressed by the Chinese authorities who refused to release proper casualty figures and sought to minimize the significance of the devastation.  The media was muzzled and a veil of secrecy was draped over the whole event.

Ai Weiwei travelled to Sichuan, with a team of volunteers, who went house to house in the affected area, interviewing bereaved parents and recording the names of more than 5000 children who had been killed when their jerry-built, government schools collapsed on top of them.

Ai then listed the names of all of the children on various social media platforms and displayed them in pubic exhibitions.  This did not win him any friends in the Communist Party. It also resulted in him being savagely beaten up by anonymous ‘thugs’, and left with serious head injuries.

 On April 3rd 2011 Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport, by plain clothes men who refused to identify themselves.  He was hooded and taken into custody.  His studio in Beijing was raided by around 50 police offers who arrested his wife and eight of his co-workers and confiscated various papers, laptops and hard drives.

Three days later the China Daily was describing Ai Weiwei as “a deviant and a plagiarist.”  He was kept in custody for 81 days, during which time he was watched by two uniformed prison officers 24 hours a day.  One of the works in the Melbourne exhibition records this fact.

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 During his period of imprisonment, he was interrogated every day for between two and four hours.

One of his ‘artworks’ that had attracted the attention of the interrogators was a series of photographs that Ai had produced featuring a raised middle finger salute in front of various famous landmarks including the gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

forbid He argued to his tormentors that Forbidden City represented China’s pre-Communist “feudal’ culture and that, therefore, the government should be not feel in any way upset by the picture.  He pointed out that he had done a similar photo in front of the White House in Washington. 

His interrogators said that that was a matter for the American police. 

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He was returned to his padded cell, where his was held incommunicado for the entire time. In order to go to the toilet, he was obliged to ask permission from his guards and salute them as a sign of respect.

Following his release, Ai Wei Wei’s passport was confiscated and he was forbidden to leave Beijing, on the basis that further charges of pornography, bigamy and money laundering might be brought against him.  His reaction to this was typically provocative.  Knowing that secret service agents were watching his studio around the clock, he announced on social media that he would display a bunch of flowers in the basket of a bicycle park outside his gate.  So that the secret service men would not get bored, the flowers would be changed every day until his passport was returned to him. Every day, he posted pictures of the day’s flowers on the same social media for the world to see.

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 In a typical act of defiance, the surveillance and the whole period of being held as a stateless person, became part of the exhibition.

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 From wallpaper…  to flowers.

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600 bouquets of flowers later, his passport was returned.  No further charges were brought.

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Sometimes, a photo just works.

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Well, never done that before.

Melbourne’s botanic gardens were certainly worth a visit.  Indeed, I think it is true to say that everywhere we have been, the botanical gardens have been pretty spectacular, especially if you like taking pictures of exotic flowers.

However, one unique feature of Melbourne’s gardens was an event that only happened after the gates, well, most of the gates, had closed for the night. It was the Moonlight Cinema, which took place on a grassy slope that normally overlooked one of the park’s beautiful lakes and surrounding trees.

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So we turned up, as the light of day started to be replaced by the reds and golds of the sunset, and paid our money.

The first thing we were offered was beanbags.  Oh well, “when in Rome….”  We hired a couple of beanbags and discovered the best way, ever, to watch a film… horizontally.

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We took our beanbags and settled down for the evening

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But where’s the screen?

Hallo, what’s that, down at the front?  Looks like a big black tarpaulin.

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No, no, I think it’s a screen.  An inflatable screen.

 

 

 

 

Yes, there it is.  How clever is that?  So where are the pictures coming from then? 

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Ah, yes, another innovative use for a shipping container. 

So, the sun has set, the adverts are over, the trailers are finished, we just lie back and…

Da-Da, dad-ah, Da da dah!

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P.S.  If you haven’t yet seen the latest James Bond film, all I can say is that ‘Spotlight’ is probably the most ‘Must-See’ film of the past few years, beanbags notwithstanding. ‘Spectre’ isn’t.

 

Every Country has its Dark Side.

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OK.  Cards on the table before I start.  We have been completely smitten by Australia.  We have made the remark more than once that if we had discovered this country when we were in our thirties, our children would probably have Australian passports by now.  All of the Aussies that we have met have been delightful.  Outgoing, upbeat, utterly hospitable and generally very good company.

However, (and there is always a ‘however’ isn’t there!), at the top of Australian politics there is a streak of callousness, bordering on xenophobia, that is hard to reconcile with the generally ‘laid-back’ nature of many of the country’s citizens.  It is this attitude, which flourished under the leadership of the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, that has resulted in the fact that Australian is currently running internment camps to two other countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, both of which are too poor and too aid-dependent to be able to resist the lure of the Aussie dollar and the influence that that dollar buys.

In these camps, refugees, who have tried to reach Australia by boat, have been interned without trial and without any idea how long their incarceration will last.  It’s called “Off-shore Processing”, which means solving your immigration problems by dumping refugees in someone else’s country.

Men, women and children are kept in poor conditions behind barbed wire, guarded by Australian security guards.  Journalists are not allowed to visit the camps and the Abbott government even passed a gagging law that says that anyone who visits the camp, even in a medical capacity, and makes public what they have seen, will be liable to imprisonment for up to two years.   So the security guards can do what they like, without fear of being exposed, and there are many rumours that that is exactly what they do.

Such a harsh and secretive regime runs counter to all the principles of an open democracy and is in contravention of Australia’s obligations under the UN Human Rights Convention.  It is a source of shame and embarrassment to many Australians, some of whom are hoping that the government’s position will be modified under the direction of the new, and rather more grown-up, Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.  So far, however, there is no sign of anything of the sort actually happening.

The treatment of the ‘boat people’, who, for whatever reason have risked their lives to escape conditions in their native countries, (many dying in the process), has unfortunate echoes of this country’s  “White Australia” policy of the 1950s and 60s where immigration was encouraged, but only by people from Britain, Ireland and one or two other countries, and even then, only people with white skin.  This policy is credited with have plunged Australia into decades of economic decline and it was eventually abandoned, but not before many thousands of non-white applicants had had their requests for entry into the country refused.

One tactic used by Immigration Officers during that period was to insist that applicants for a visa should complete a dictation test.  Not a bad idea, you might argue, if your aim is to ensure that new people coming into the country have a reasonable command of English.

However, it was not as simple as that.  The Immigration Officer at the border had the unchallengeable discretion to decide which language the applicant should be tested in, so if the applicant was a black African civil servant, or a Malaysian taxi driver, the Immigration Officer could insist that the dictation test should be in Scottish Gaelic or in Serbian.  If the applicant failed the test, the visa was denied.  A shameful piece of officially sanctioned skulduggery? Certainly, but nonetheless widespread and widely supported by some Australians.

At the moment in Australia there is a fierce debate raging about the fate of several dozen children who were brought to this country from the internment camp on Nauru for medical treatment.  Nauru is a tiny island state in the middle of the pacific Ocean.  The Australian government is saying that, as soon as their medical condition has been dealt with, the children should be returned to Nauru and put back behind barbed wire.

Some doctors are arguing that the conditions in these camps are, in themselves, detrimental to children’s health and they are refusing to declare the children fit to travel.  There are street protests outside the hospitals in support of the allowing the children to stay.  Some doctors, at great professional risk, are going so far as to say that sending young children back to prison conditions is tantamount to child abuse, a phrase that is uppermost in everyone’s mind in Australia at the moment with the news being dominated by the case of a high profile, Roman Catholic Cardinal who has escaped to the Vatican rather than face the many people who are accusing him of either directly abusing children or covering up the abuse committed by other priests.  He says that he now has a heart condition that prevents him from flying back to Australia to face court.

The public response to this has been a ‘crowd-funding’ appeal to raise funds to allow the accusers, the victims of abuse, to travel to Rome to confront the Cardinal.  The target of AUS$60,000 was reached within days and has subsequently been doubled.

It is against this background that I was very pleased to walk over a certain bridge in Melbourne.  It was a disused railway bridge, which is now used as a walk-way between one side of the river and the other.  Just to make the walk more interesting, the city authorities have installed large information perspex panels, acknowledging and celebrating the contribution made to the life of the city by the various waves of immigrants that have come to Melbourne over the past century from all over the world and have helped to create the vibrant and dynamic city that we were now enjoying being part of.

ba      ch

e     j

z   n

su   so

The great irony that the current government seems to have overlooked is that, in the 1970s, when the Vietnam War ended in chaos and thousands of South Vietnamese took to boats to escape the retribution of the Viet Cong, Australia opened its doors.  Today,  the Vietnamese community is one of the most productive and successful communities in the country, making a major contribution to Australia’s economy. Funny old world!

Gorseinon’s Loss is Melbourne’s Gain.

Building upon our success at Brighton Beach, we went to see the other seaside resort, frequently frequented by Melbournians, known as St Kilda.   Apart from having a pier that gave us great views over Melbourne’s marina and skyline, St Kilda’s also boasted an up-market fish and chip shop.  We were seduced.  The temptation was just too great.

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We were served by a very pleasant and efficient waitress who found us a table, even though the place was packed.  The young woman’s accent was strangely familiar and when we enquired, it turned out that she came from the village of Gorseinon, a few miles outside of Swansea in South Wales, where Linda and I were brought up.  Indeed, a couple of our oldest friends, (in terms of the length of the friendship rather than the age of the friend), retired to Gorseinon only a few months ago.

Our waitress had left the soft embrace of Gorseinon for Australia some five years ago and had managed to pick up one job after another to keep herself busy all that time.  She was an unashamed fan of Melbourne and, despite her best endeavours, could not think of a good reason to go back.

Try as we might, as we sat there in the open air restaurant on a warn afternoon, watching the kites floating over the harbour

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and the sailing dinghies  bobbing about in the bay, neither could we!

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Sorry, Gorseinon.

How could we resist?

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As soon as we saw that Melbourne had its own version of Brighton Beach, we just had to go and visit. We weren’t disappointed.

When we finally complete our long journey home, we will be settling back in Brighton, UK, a great little town which was once described as looking as if it has been up all night helping the police with their enquiries.  Melbourne’s version is much posher.  It has no fish and chip shops, no penny arcades, no gypsy fortune tellers, no Kiss-Me-Quick hats.

However, like its British counterpart, Melbourne’s Brighton Beach has some very impressive beach huts, with rather more eccentric frontages than their British cousins.

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Apparently some of these beach huts, which have no running water or electricity, are selling for over Aus$200,000 (about £100,000  sterling).

 

Unlike UK’s pebbly Brighton Beach, Melbourne’s beach is sandy and full of people swimming, surfing and generally having fun in the water, despite the innumerable deadly species with teeth, tentacles and bad tempers, that lurk under the surface of the sea, ever ready to despatch the unwary holiday-maker.

As a result of these dangers, the Australian’s take beach safety very seriously.

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Baywatch, he isn’t, … but quite reassuring if you are going to go into the water to play with the stingrays, sharks or box jellyfish.

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And of course, the best part about paddling on Melbourne’s Brighton Beach, rather than its counterpart in the UK, is that it doesn’t freeze your toes off.

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