Monday, July 16, 2018

Going, going, gone – the final spiral of a cultural icon?

Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse Museum was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. The current travails of the internationally renowned Powerhouse are a measure of a lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it. The Powerhouse continues to play a crucial role in the area of creative industries, especially design. Yet no-one seems to know about it. Where will exhibitions of this relevance and calibre be exhibited and, more importantly, developed, once these short-sighted changes have become real?

Who would have known? I thought there weren't many exhibitions of note on in Sydney during a recent visit because I'd seen no publicity. I searched online and discovered that in fact there was nothing on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I was shocked, though, to find that the Powerhouse Museum had a major mens fashion exhibition from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Costumes from the Reigning men: Fashion in menswear 1715-2015 exhibition.

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015 explores the history of men’s fashionable dress from the 18th century to the present. As the Museum notes, 'it is the largest and most important menswear exhibition ever assembled, and explodes the myth that menswear is restrained.'

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture

A recent regional road tour through Victoria to South Australia showed how a focus on arts and culture is a pointer for how regional centres can take a path other than slow decline. It also showed how a small country on the edges of the mainstream can become a global design force by staying true to its language, locality and culture – the things that make it distinctive in a crowded, noisy marketplace dominated by big, cashed up players.

At the end of last month I came back from a regional road trip to South Australia which inevitably was an arts and culture tour. This involved a quick stop in Euroa. In Euroa the temperature reached 16 degrees – perfect to my mind, just like summer in Scotland. I was reminded of Elephant Sessions, the band from Inverness which I saw at the National Folk Festival earlier this year. The members of the band had just come from WOMAD in Adelaide.They said it was snowing back home in Inverness and 36 degrees Celsius in Adelaide. They said to the locals 'It gets hot here in summer.' The locals replied 'It's not summer.'

The monochromatic mural of Guido Van Halten on grain silos at Coonalpyn

A path other than slow decline
From there it was time to hit the road to Bendigo, one of my favourite places in Victoria. I've been visiting the Bendigo Art Gallery for quite a few years now. It presents fashion and design exhibitions that you can't see anywhere else in Australia. I've seen a string of them. Apart from the ones the gallery curates, it seems to have a special arrangement with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It's certainly a pointer for how a regional city can take a path other than slow decline.

‘It's certainly a pointer for how a regional city can take a path other than slow decline.’ 

I saw an extensive Marimekko exhibition from the Design Museum in Helsinki. Ironically its most well known design, the poppy motif, is referred to as 'the rebel flower' because the designer disregarded the dictum that Marimekko would never use floral motifs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world

What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage.

I knew that the exhibition ‘Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters’ at the National Museum of Australia Seven Sisters was getting close to the end of its run and I knew I definitely wanted to see it. However, like so many things, I discovered that it was only days away from finishing – and even then only because it was extended for a few days. I missed the accompanying virtual reality show because unfortunately that wasn’t extended. I’m told it was excellent.

Visitors view moving digital images of some of the many participants in 'Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters' before entering the exhibition.

Yet I did get to see the exhibition and I am very happy I did. I don’t know what it meant to Aboriginal Australians – I know from years working in the Indigenous cultural programs how much the maintenance and revival of culture and languages is valued. What interests me, though, is what an exhibition like this means for Australians generally, even if most of them won’t ever see it.

A mere 220 years
After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Regional Australia recognised as Bendigo named City of Culture

It’s been apparent for some time that regional centres and smaller cities and towns can be interesting and creative places and that cities that have missed out on the benefits of globalisation in the era of neo-liberalism can be brought back by community action and imagination. It’s certainly not happening everywhere but it’s true of many lucky regional towns and cities and some suburban and outer suburban areas – witness Sydney, where it’s increasingly clear that the excitement never really stopped at the edges of the inner city. The regional rollout of interesting keeps on happening.

Perhaps as large cities become more and more crucial – to the economy, to innovation, to creativity and to cultural diversity – we are seeing a balancing focus on the regional, the local, to life on a human scale. Both globalisation and regionalism, the fast (and vast) food economy and the slow food movement at the same time.

Bendigo has a rich history of cultural diversity and is firmly a part of Australia's cultural heritage and contemporary culture

Amongst all the cheer and beer of the festive season I see that Bendigo and the surrounding region has been named as a City of Culture by the Victorian Government. It certainly deserves it. I remember several years ago planning a visit to the Bendigo Art Gallery to see one of their series of fabulous fashion exhibitions from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Expecting to turn up and buy tickets, I was shocked to see the queue stretched along the block.