Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A break in Brisbane

Going away for a few days in the January school holidays is turning into an annual event (well, we've done it two years running, put it that way), and this year we headed up north as far as Brisbane and the Gold Coast in response to an email promising big discounts on hotel bookings.

We did various things, including taking our Darling Daughter (seven today!) to Seaworld, but by far the most satisfactory part of the trip from all points of view was our visit to the Gallery of Modern Art in the new South Bank complex. We have been there before and were impressed, and we were impressed again this time. Not only is the architecture stunning, but the project designers and gallery directors have really, REALLY thought about children in the whole thing.

There are walkways and low walls to run along, shady trees to sit beneath, funny things going on with inside-out buildings to look at, the river to enjoy, free circus activities in tents, open-air cafe spaces with real comfy chairs and nice food, nearby parking, plenty of toilets... and, the piece de resistance in my view, just fabulous art-related activities run in tandem with the GoMA exhibitions. Hooray! And if I sound like a walking advert for the whole caboodle, I really am. We love it and both times we've been we've said our big mistake (apart from lunching at the not-so-marvellous cafe at the hands-on science centre) was failing to get there early enough so that we can enjoy it for even longer before we get booted out at 5pm.

This time around there were at least five separate activities designed for children: indigenous artist Tony Albert had a room full of computer screens connected with identity card-making machines (somewhere behind the wall), and children were asked to answer a series of questions to find out if they were citizens of the Alien Nation. Questions were eerily reminiscent of the questions asked by the Australian Government of would-be citizens (as I know, being part-way through the process of applying for Australian citizenship), and raised all sorts of questions about belonging in the context of White Settlement in Australia and the 13th February 2008 "Sorry" from Kevin Rudd's newly-elected government to the Indigenous owners and inhabitants of Australia. Darling Daughter came away proudly wearing her new ID card on an elastic around her neck, and moved on to Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy's collection of fold-together houses. They set a 'creative challenge' for children to re-create their own home or their dream home, using templates that fold together to make a house, a castle and a caravan. For me the end result wasn't just about the making of something that became three-dimensional: it was more about the concept of 'home'. It was combined with their extraordinary piece Not Under My Roof which is essentially a house with everything cut off except the floor, mounted vertically on a wall like a painting! The pair seem to be concerned with 'im/permanence' and 'home'. The floor of the house in Not Under My Roof is actually beautiful, with the weathered stud wall constructions raised to the ground and forming a series of outlines, like picture frames, around different sections of patterned lino. There are residues of its former life as someone's home: you can see the scuff marks of the passage of many feet across the lino, the heat and scorch marks in what was the kitchen, and stains and damp from the bathroom. It seems strange to put a floor on a wall, but it presents a house in a totally different way, stripping it back, laying bear its materials and showing the marks made by its inhabitants in a former life. Sadly I couldn't take a photograph, nor have I yet found one on the web as it is a new piece, but hopefully at some point in the future you might get to see it for yourselves.

I'm hanging on to these cut-out shapes for my own amusement!

Ella had a quick go at a house while at the gallery before impatiently moving on...

In another part of the South Bank we'd been to see a display about museum collections: a series of cabinets revealing braces of dead birds, impaled butterflies and beetles, collections of aboriginal (in the small 'a' sense of native peoples of different lands, not just Australia) artefacts and pickled animals. In the GoMA children's activity rooms there was a perspex box with all sorts of things inside, but covered on the outside with different sized gilt picture frames. The effect was to 'frame', surprise surprise, the contents of the display in different ways. The kids were provided with printed, die-cut paper 'frames' and they could then choose what they wanted to draw and lots of their drawings were then exhibited alongside the display. I must admit I liked the idea and have purloined a couple of the blank 'frames' for Darling Daughter (or me!) to re-visit another day...

Beautiful faux frames for imaginative drawings

Darling Daughter also had lots of fun in a darkened room filled with glowing coloured shapes that could be fitted together and reconfigured. The darkness and luminous colour completely changed the act of slotting one shape into another, a game I used to get bored with quite quickly as a child! It became a very visual game, as well as tactile, and it seemed that no matter what you constructed the end result was beautiful. It was such a simple idea, and yet so well executed. There were other things as well, but these were the absolute highlights and M and I had as much fun as Daughter did, spending well over an hour in these activities alone.

Also very engaging was an installation piece by Kathy Temin called My Monument: White Forest, which is a Dr Suess-like landscape of white fake-fur shapes winding through an enclosed space. There's more to it than that, of course, and the landscape is Temin's response to visiting Europe recently and seeing Holocaust monuments. Her father and step-father were both Holocaust survivors and in a series of works Temin addresses the conundrum of meaning in a landscape that now contains the memories of the horror but may no longer contain the physical scars. The exhibition catalogue puts it all much better than I can, saying "As a personal reflection in a public space [the piece] constructs a somewhat unstable site for collective remembering, inviting viewers into a provisional, fragmentary encounter rather than a singular, rhetorical statement". I loved it, and it was an inviting space in which to remember people now gone: soft white tree-like shapes crowding around winding paths with white wooden seats against a Wedgewood-blue backdrop: peaceful, soft, comforting, poignant. I shouldn't really have taken a photograph but I did...

I didn't manage to get any sense of the overall 'space' of the installation, but you get the idea of the shapes

Michael Leunig is one of Australia's best-loved cartoonists/illustrators, with a really whimsical take on the world. I don't know that I warm much to his brand of essentially Christian spirituality, but I really do like a lot of his drawings. Judging by the comments posted up on the walls and various collaborative drawings he did with a bunch of visiting school children he seems to have had as much fun as they did with his drawings.

This is a picture of him doing a site-specific piece at GoMA on a big wall - lovely!

I do seem to be smitten by cityscapes and skyscapes. Here are pictures all taken from the window of our hotel room, overlooking south-west Brisbane and the river. Two huge tower blocks are going up nearby, and there were some spectacular sunsets

This is a close-up of the sun setting, and I love the blurred, abstract quality of the photo. Not everything has to be in focus...

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