With ten days to fill while our dog clears quarantine (we are not billionaire A list movie stars with a private jet) my partner and I spent the weekend in Sydney proper. Following a flaneur's path around Paddington market, with the glint of artisan silver and perfume of handcrafted soap, we refreshed at bar down the street.
Having spent the best part of eleven years away, I expected a quiet establishment with one or two drinkers tucked away in alcoves, and others occupied by people sleeping, or at best gentrified late luncheon diners picking over salmon terrines. I’d forgotten this was saturday arvo in Sydney, and like this one most pubs were humming with banter and cheers and boos. While there was a good range of ale, including the a smooth chocolatey stout, there was less diversity on the TV screens, with a choice or rugby-rugby, or rugby. It was nice be in a crowded bar where I could understand the jovial atmosphere.
Almost next door was a very good street photography exhibition. The large format shots from around Australia made for a great show. Things got bigger, with a venture to big screen for the first time in over a decade. I think the last time I went to the cinema was under sufferance to one of those large scale musicals, where I shortly dozed off. Here, with a thinly scattered audience we settled in a luxuriated in in the plush surrounds and were fortunate to strike an equally sumptuous film with lush overhead scenic shots and a complex and tense plot. Although I may well have just been seduced by the big screen.
Caught up that evening with a dear friend for dinner in her squishy inner city terrace, over did things into the wee ours and recovered the next morning via a big breakfast at a local cafe. And oh coffee that was just right, before meandering down to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I say meander as my partner, a one time inner city Sydneyider, has becoming a bit rusty in her navigation.
I had hoped to see the Go East exhibition during our stay and this was our purpose today. Just to remind us of where we had been, or perhaps to assuage any reverse culture shock. For that I had no need to step inside, as half a dozen Chinese tourists were busy posing for evidential snaps in front of the entrance. As was expected a strong Asian theme pervaded the gallery, with a curious hanging display in the foyer of large embroidery frames. Featuring Chinese characters and words in pinyin, threads were also left hanging to interact the viewers as they entered. As I passed through I wondered if the art of embroidery had ever been afforded such a prominent position in a state or national gallery
Up stairs the Go East show, from the Sherman Collection, took over much of the floor. At first the most imposing work was that of Nortse’s Zen Meditation from 2012. Consisting of a number of vacated Tibetan monk robes, augmented with a scattering of small denomination Chinese bank notes, there is much to read into the symbolic nature of this work, but the gallery's accompanying tag pretty much say’s it all.
Much was made of Ai Weiwei’s contribution to this show and his recent work Archive is pretty hard to miss and refreshing among his other works present. But for me Zhang Huan’s Family Tree resonated the loudest, and enhances the case for him to be recognised as arguably the most influential Chinese artist since the opening up of the country— at least the most often reference among my students.
This work from 2000 addresses one of the nagging and loathsome aspects of developed Chinese society, that of prejudice based on skin colour. It is more complex than simple racism. For one it exist within a presented unified national group that to outsiders are indistinguishable, and rather than being based on race it has more to do with perceptions of class.
Australian history provides an advantageous insight into this condition, a condition that sees massive spending on skin whitening cream, particularly along the developed and predominantly middle class eastern coast.
My first visit to China, took me from Shanghai inland into Anhui, a province I soon learned was renowned for beggars and bandits, and more recently migrant workers and taxi drivers in cities throughout the country. After getting to know our university foreign affairs liaison officer, he introduced us to his mother and quite proudly informed us that she had been a peasant all her life. While there was no hint of shame, what was unspoken in the introduction amounted to “look how far I have come.”
More recent experience suggests that, like the one time “convict stain” peasant ancestry is something to be hidden, and strongly associated with dark skin. It is indeed a sign of the cultural, social and educational development in China, and Zhang’s photographic documentation of the blackening of his face through the overlaying of Chinese characters seems to question what is one of the most distasteful elements of contemporary Chinese society and parallels its development to somewhere around the middle of the last century in Western terms.
The Asian theme continues downstairs with the Conversations exhibition, in which work by contemporary artists is set against historical artworks. This exhibition worked well for the most part, One piece providing astute commentary of the natural landscape and urban incursion, a seamless setting of Ai Weiwei’s Coca Cola endorsed Han dynasty pot and Ah Xian’s 2005 Human human, finished in green jade.
Following fine a jolt of coffee a stroll around the permanent collection reacquainted me with some classic Australian art works. Seeing Drysdale’s paintings again was like a first time viewing as was were the works of Tucker and Boyd.
As we veered toward the colonial hall, a piano and solo operatic voice greeted us, we found a seat to enjoy the performance flanked by the muscular figures of the Heidelberg painters, Streeton, Roberts and McCubbin to the fore and on the side of the performance space, Sydney Long’s river scapes, peopled by youthful elfin figures. The performers took their turn, the audience sat hushed, the songs drifted upward to barrel vaulted ceiling and we were pleased to be in Sydney.