Ten Things I Love About Australia

M.A. in Oz

I’m just back from a wonderful trip Down Under. My daughter, Julia, moved to Perth in June for a semester of school. Before she left, she hinted that a visit from me at the end of her term would not be unwelcome. The flight is loooong—15 hours from Vancouver to Sydney—so I tried to jam everything I could into this trip. We started off in Perth, and then went to Melbourne and Sydney.

At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I didn’t totally understand that it’s now summer in Australia. I knew that the weather was going to be 30 - 40°C, but I figured that their winter was our summer, if that makes any sense. And don’t get me started on the disconnect of hearing Christmas carols and looking at palm trees. Anyway, the flipping of the seasons completely discombobulated me. I felt like it was summer everywhere, and I was ready to buy little summer dresses and start making summery art. The whole holiday seemed to be out of normal time, and as a result I think I enjoyed everything much more. I’ve had some personal stress in my life lately, and it was nice to escape it all.

So, as a salute to one of my favourite movies, and the late Australia actor who starred in it, here are Ten Things I Love About Australia:

1. I loved the neighbourhood pride in Fremantle.
When you see addresses in Australia, they are identified by neighbourhood. People seem to identify with their neighbourhoods with a fan-like zeal. I visited Fremantle, an artistic town near Perth. They have used a Potemkin-like preservation technique I saw often in Australia: maintaining the original façade while creating a whole new building behind. It creates charming street fronts and modern interiors. We toured a sunny outdoor (!) Christmas craft fair at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Here’s a travel tip for you: indie craft fairs are the best place to buy souvenirs. The Freemantle one was patriotically local, with local signs like Dingo Flour gracing t-shirts, cards, etc. get souvenirs.
A Canadian aside for those of you who read Robert Genn’s newsletter, the Fremantle Arts Centre may sound familiar, where it gained recent notoriety for awarding a large cash award to a very naïve print. Despite this dubious incident, the Arts Centre was quite interesting to visit with a variety of modern work

Graffiti in Perth
2. I loved the sunlight in Perth.
I guess while much of North America is shivering under record snowstorms, I shouldn't mention that it was 40˚C in Perth. You probably don't want to hear about my tan either. Anyway, the light is so intense in Perth that even my 60 SPF sunscreen wasn’t doing the job. Naturally there is a connection between light and art. That kind of light makes the brightest colours seem natural and right, and I saw some vivid paintings in private galleries, as well as a beach installation at PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.) I have the sneaking suspicion that I belong somewhere tropical creating my bright, glossy artworks.

Science at Melbourne Now
3. I loved seeing Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria
This survey exhibition of contemporary local artists was like a crash course for visitors to Melbourne. It was the perfect overview show since the city itself was the subject of much of the art. There were video installations that were like tours of the city: an electronic map explaining various sociological changes in the city, and a seamless video tour of the various alleyways of the city.
In addition, the museum showcases a lot of local craft as well: fashion, jewellery, shoes, clay, and glass. The museum space is lovely and open, and it was packed with all kinds of people enjoying the variety of art there.

Didn't I see you in V for Vendetta?

4. I love that Melbourne is famous for graffiti.
How can you take a problem and turn it into an attraction? Melbourne has alleyways filled with colourful graffiti that apparently change weekly. Tourists take tours specifically to see the graffiti. Personally, I felt uneasy at being trapped in a narrow alleyway with a gang of teens in masks yelling and swearing as they tagged the walls, but I guess that’s part of the street scene. I do like the idea of it, though.

5. I love the way that art was woven into life in Melbourne.
Melbourne is known as an artistic hub, and rightfully so. The city is famous for its street art, and there are many studios, designers, and galleries there. What impressed me most about Melbourne was the way that art had been woven into the commercial side of the city. As well as the street art, there was excellent art in our hotel, the stores, and most of the restaurants. Art was being used to enhance the whole way of life in Melbourne, as well as show that artists are a valued part of the city. Art is clearly a viable career in Melbourne.
Adam Cullen's art was even in the elevator.
Horns not included.
We stayed in The Cullen, an art hotel in the Prahan neighbourhood. Budget allowing, I try to stay in art hotels everywhere, but I have to say that this was the best art hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There are three hotels in the Art Series chain, and each one chooses one artist and features him in all the art in the hotel, with originals in the public spaces, prints in the room, and even a curator to tell you more about the art. Our hotel featured Australian artist, Adam Cullen. Our room included two large prints, an imprinted image on the glass bathroom wall, and even a stack of art books. The hotel map includes art galleries, as well as the usual restaurants and shops. The Cullen was doing more than just using art as décor, they show a real passion for art.

But art is also in restaurants and shops. Not just decorative art either, but actually interesting abstractions that enhance the shopping experience. I loved this painting in a store called Green With Envy. The designers used challenging abstract work instead of pretty "wallpaper."
Why can't all stores look this amazing?

6. I loved the hands-on aspects of all the art museums I visited.
Perhaps you can judge museums on how they treat children. In every museum I visited, there were special tags besides certain paintings, explaining the art specifically to children. And they all had hands on activities for kids as well, although they let shameless adults have fun as well. We made necklaces at the NGV and  a paper Frank Stella room at the AGNSW.

This gorgeous room is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
7. I loved the compactness of my Sydney art tour.
Strangely, a lot of Australians in other cities warned us about Sydney, all bad stuff. But we loved Sydney. It seemed more business-like, possibly because we stayed closer to the CBD (Central Business District.) But the city was beautifully organized. In one long afternoon, we managed to do the iconic Opera House, the Botanical Gardens, and two fabulous art museums, all on foot. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have an artist for a mom, just ask my kids: you’re going to go to a ton of museums. But I do offer bribes treats in the gallery café. And naturally we do the beaches, parks, and zoos as well, it's not art 24/7/. 

8. I loved that the museums were free and well attended.
There is a definitely a problem in Canadian thinking about art. When our own Prime Minister equates artists with galas, you know that culture equals elitism. In my hometown, a visit to the Vancouver Art Galley will set you back $17 and with only three floors, parts of which are usually closed for installations, it’s generally not worth the price.
But in Australia, all the fantastic museums we went to were completely free. There were Australian artists featured everywhere, some of them quite current. In fact, I saw a lovely mix of art (below) in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW.) 
Loved the juxtaposition of contemporary and traditional portraits.
In fact, the only disappointing show we saw was one we paid for, an overview of American art at the AGNSW. The show was apparently meant to showcase an evolution of American art linked to history, but the paintings featured were mainly second-tier. The Rothko and Pollock ones were especially disappointing. I think it’s very sad that the better paintings weren’t chosen or allowed to travel, especially since so many Australian art lovers were coming out to see the show. Ah well, we saw so many great pieces in the rest of the museum that it didn’t matter. Apparently the best things in life are free.

Gregor Schneider welcomes you.
9. I loved the riskiness of the installations.
Another problem I see in Canada is that art that is challenging or weird is sometimes decried as a waste of taxpayers’ money and hidden away. It’s deemed unsuitable for children and decent people. In Australia, there seems to be more openness about risky or experimental art.
I saw school tours checking out crazy nudes with a minimum of snickering. And in the AGNSW, we went through a super-creepy installation piece by Gregor Schneider, which mimicked the original basement of a house in Germany complete with corpses. I think the scariest part was that you had to inform staff that you were entering the installation. Was this in case you didn’t come out?

10. I loved the people in Australia.
It’s not all about art, one of the reasons you enjoy a trip is the people. The Australians were so friendly and relaxed that it made everything that much better. If you’ve never been to Australia—go! With the gorgeous beaches, the culture, the design and great people, you’ll find ten things you love in no time.

You can't post about Australia without a koala photo!