Say Yes Australia

What is it?

A new ad campaign, viewable here, that accompanies the endorsement of the Labour Government’s proposed carbon tax by a group of 140 prominent Australians. Despite the Opposition’s vehement denouncement of the tax, former Liberals leader John Hewson is one of the 140.

However, it is Cate Blanchett, Australian actress and active supporter of a greener future, who has come under heaviest media fire for appearing in the ads. She has been condemned, somewhat hypocritically, by various conservative voices for being too rich to be in touch with the needs of normal Australians.

The voices, none more vocal than Opposition leader Tony Abbott, are the same as those who oppose the tax for the burdens it will place on the average Australian family (this despite the Government’s pledge to direct 50% of the revenue raised by the tax towards assisting those self same families). Their argument is that Blanchett, an individual of considerable means, should not stick her nose in a debate that’s really about the big bad Government slamming yet another tax on the little Aussie battler.

Is it just us, or are the ironies so thick in all this we could make soup out of them?

So what do we think?

We suggest that the voices are attempting to muddy the discussion on the carbon tax by misdirecting our attention towards the totally unrelated issue of whether successful Australians have the right to get involved with politics. This is absurd: be it Pamela Anderson and PETA, Bono and Live 8 or Hugh Jackman and the Global Poverty Project, celebrities the world over have always promoted causes close to their hearts (indeed, there is even this website dedicated to tracking the philanthropic activities of the stars). Does Blanchett not have the right to voice an opinion, to use her fame to influence the opinions of others in a direction she feels is both positive and important? In a country dedicated to the freedom of speech, that others are attempting to censor Blanchett is simply preposterous.

The controversy over Blanchett’s involvement with the ad campaign has unfortunately obscured a far more important dimension, its message: that by putting a price on the carbon released when fossil fuels are burned, the price of those fuels will explicitly take into account the environmental damage caused by their use. This is not the GST, a tax whose primary purpose was to increase government revenue. This is a tax with a larger social agenda in its sights, the first big step towards our country participating in a global economy that values the longterm health of the natural environment.

Read this article for general discussion on the proposed carbon tax, and initiatives currently underway in other countries.

E10 petrol

What is it?

An automotive petrol mix that includes 10% ethanol and offers the benefits of reduced fossil fuel consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions, an improved octane rating, cleaner engine operation and better mileage. It also usually carries the bonus of a slightly cheaper pricetag over standard petrol, in the realm of 2 – 4c per litre.

What do we think?

We have a small car (a Mazda 3 to be precise) that runs on petrol and boasts a little sticker inside the fuel lid with the inscription, E10 ethanol fuel suitable. We like using E10 fuel. It offers the best of everything – cleaner engine, lower emissions, better mileage, cheaper pricetag – what’s not to like?

So why then has our local Shell petrol station, from which we also claim the much-vaunted but frankly overrated 4c per litre Coles supermarket discount, gotten rid of all its E10 pumps? Querying the cash register operator after this recent discovery, he suggested it was because customers didn’t like the E10, that Shell had in fact received complaints about the poorer fuel consumption it offered. It was odd receiving a blatantly incorrect response from someone nominally representing the fuel giant. Is it Shell’s standard practice to misinform its staff?

We fully appreciate that E10 fuel is hardly the solution to global warming or the rapid consumption of the planet’s natural resources. It does make a small difference however, and one we want to see back at the fuel pump.

Art Melbourne – Melbourne’s affordable art fair

(Natural Order by Janine Mackintosh)

What is it?

An annual fair held at the Royal Exhibition Buildings populated mostly by small art galleries and self-represented artists, both armed with affordable art pieces for sale (from our informal survey, prices generally range from AU$500 up to AU$7500, though a few small-scale pieces and prints go for less). The fair runs each year for one weekend only, this past Sunday its last day for 2011.

What did we think?

Lying somewhere between an art exhibition and a craft fair, the Affordable Art Fair is a lesson in wandering through a lot of unremarkable, instantly forgettable works to discover the few extraordinary gems lying in the rough. Lethbridge Gallery of Paddington, Brisbane, had one such gem in the warm and luxurious charcoal drawings of Yanni Floros. Unfinished Business is one of his best, the subject’s long, twisting ponytail has visible weight, its glossy surface textured and sexy.

(Unfinished Business and Hear No Evil by Yanni Floros)

Two other self-represented artists had a collection of particularly engaging works on show:

Janine Mackintosh‘s works in naturally sourced mixed media were stunning on first glance and got better and better the more we learned of her story. Living on Kangaroo Island, Mackintosh spends a lot of time trekking her bush property and the surrounding beaches collecting leaves, shells and pebbles. Departing from the techniques used by her husband in preserving his extensive insect collection, Mackintosh has evolved a patient and careful art of assembly.

The fastidious arrangement of Eucalyptus cneorifolia leaves and gumnuts in the aptly titled Natural Order (pictured at top) celebrates the inherent geometries of each, the curled and serrated edges of the leaves aligned with precision. Each leaf is tied to the backing canvas with neatly looped linen thread, a further mark of the skilled preservationist. Mackintosh’s compositions display a clear dedication to the natural world, their calm and unifying circular forms emphasising the uniqueness of each individual piece of her medium.

Will & Caro possess a similar interest in craft, though instead of the Australian bush, their butterfly assemblages explore the cultural traditions in origami-making. The immaculately folded butterflies are a repeated motif across their work, appearing in varied sizes, arrangements and colours. Our favourite is a sublime series of butterfly matrices that have been burnt in an oven for different periods, arranged in progressively burnt hues, from white through dusty golds to crisp chocolates. The irregularities produced by the burning process (through which, William Du notes, 20 – 30% of their already-folded butterflies are lost) contrasts against the severe order of the matrix.

The works of both Mackintosh and Will & Caro stood out and up within the exhibition. They are clearly artists dedicated to developing not only the ideas within their works but also the processes of their technique – considerate and thoughtful, their refreshingly hand-crafted approaches are a rarity in today’s digital age. They have fascinating stories to tell that transfer powerfully onto canvas, or in their particular cases, preservation board and Japanese paper.

What did we learn?

The Affordable Art Fair is an exhibition fine for a wander, however it can be too hit and miss to be considered a good general barometer of the most cutting edge art being produced in Melbourne and around Australia. We will wait for the Melbourne Art Fair (next taking place in August of next year), which has historically better fulfilled this role, to get a more comprehensive picture.

That said, we nevertheless walked away from our visit on Sunday with an important lesson learnt: the art that appeals to us most is multi-layered, with interwoven nuances creating a work of complexity that engages at first sight, but then continues to reward with subsequent viewings. We think there are plenty of artists and artworks possessing interesting ideas, plenty that reveal a creative eye and plenty that exhibit great technical skill. However, it is a rare thing indeed, and we think a fundamental necessity of good art, for the artist and the artwork to boast all three.

(Purity by Will & Caro)


What is it?

Recently released film by director, Neil Burger, based on Alan Glynn’s novel, The Dark Fields. Bradley Cooper plays the lead character, Eddie Morra, a lank-haired loser with perpetual writer’s block and zero positive outlook in his life. Returning to his grotto of an apartment after being dumped by his girlfriend (a small but meaningful part played confidently by Abbie Cornish), he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, a fast-talking drug dealer, gone “legitimate” and offering a designer pharmaceutical with almost magical powers. The street value of the drug? $800 per pill, though the first one’s on me. Side-effects? None of course, it’s FDA-approved. The promise? Access to 100% of Eddie’s brain synapse activity.

Supremely sceptical but with little left to lose, Eddie takes the drug… And his world is transformed. A lifetime of memories, previously thought forgotten or barely recorded in the first place, are open to him; detail blossoms from every person he meets, revealing their stories in a glance; words pour out of him, be it into the book over which he has languished for months and now finishes in four days, or in conversation with the rich and the powerful; he sees much much more than he ever has, and he understands it all.

In remapping the neural pathways in his brain, Eddie’s opportunities are, as the film’s title suggests, limitless.

What did we think?

Burger has crafted a film with a juicy plot, great energy and sharp cinematography that deftly communicates both of Eddie’s worlds: off the drug, it is shut to him, sluggish and almost bleached of its colour; on the drug, it is suffused with myriad detail, information arriving into, and being processed by, his turbo-charged brain with effortless speed. Burger achieves this with subtlety, painting the two worlds without labouring them. Eddie’s new world may know no limits, but the experience is not alien, just magnified and accelerated.

Prior to seeing the film, we were worried that Limitless would be one of those stories centred around an individual accumulating vast power thanks to ill-gotten and easily-lost gains. We feared we would spend its duration nervously counting down the seconds until Eddie overdosed on his wonder-drugs or worse, ran out of them. And while this is a significant dimension of the film’s story arc, there is so much more to it.

Eddie’s two worlds are not black and white, they leak into one another again and again, muddying the edges of his existence, shaping both his ambitions and his fears. His breakneck rise from obscurity to notoriety has more than a little of The Great Gatsby to it – both characters are unknown quantities, passionate, full of themselves and immensely likeable. The similarity even extends to a reckless drive along a cobbled clifftop road in a hot car (the sublime Maserati Granturismo) with a hot woman.

Via nuanced gestures throughout the film, Burger touches on important questions of morality, the warrior spirit and human nature. The drug may be the stuff of science fiction, but Eddie’s experience comes from everyday dreams. Limitless left us sated and, best of all, wanting to do more with our lives: 4 stars.

From my sketchbook: Roller derby corridor house


A dream I had on the 21st of March and sketched into my workbook the morning after: I am visiting the apartment of some friends of mine, situated on the third floor of an old walk-up building, racks of clothes, footballs and other miscellaneous paraphernalia cluttering the communal halls. As I arrive at their front door, an awareness of a sound comes to me from the other end of the hall. I turn toward it, following it to its source. The hall has a timber floor, glossy from decades of use. The walls are covered in gently peeling wallpaper, festooned with some dense pattern, honey on chocolate. Skylight tubes hang low from the ceiling, requiring me to crawl underneath them to get past. I arrive at a double door, one slightly ajar, the sounds and smells of contest wafting out at me. Beyond the doors, filling an impossibly large space inside this cramped and crumbling building, is a roller derby rink, complete with change rooms, lockers, viewing platforms, a rollerskate shop and the rink itself. I watch the match, cheering along with the other spectators. I venture out onto the balcony, surveying the sprawling city below me (I find I am suddenly dozens of storey up in the air). I buy a pair of rollerskates for my wife from the shop, imagining her triumphing against the other players, elbows out and head down.

Too young to reason and too grown up to dream

(View House, Rosario, Argentina)

What is it?

The title of a lecture given yesterday evening at the Faculty of Art and Design at Monash University by Mark Lee of American architecture practice, Johnston Marklee.

Lee presented a number of the practice’s projects to the predominantly student audience, both complete and current, spanning countries as amazingly diverse as the United States, Italy, Argentina and Mongolia. Despite the claim of the lecture title to hover between the poles of reason and dreams (New York brains and Los Angeles beauty), the practice’s work is far from subtle or nuanced. Indeed, we found it to be the opposite – bold and striking, unapologetically monolithic. Most of the projects shown during the course of the lecture employ heavy mass, carved into shape and punctured by sharp apertures that serve only to emphasis the solidity of the volume.

Lee’s stage presence was similarly emphatic. Relatively young to be treading an international lecture circuit, his “prodigious knowledge of both architectural history and contemporary discourse” leant an academic air to his address. Curiously though, his references to architectural, artistic and literary influences were so regular they bordered on an uncomfortable intellectual snobbery (“of course you will recognise this photo by Julius Schulman…”). However, his imagery was polished, ideas interesting and built forms beautiful. This is an architectural practice already comfortable with the world stage, an arena in which we expect them to feature even more prominently in coming years.

What do we think?

During the lecture we experienced an odd nostalgia that we were able to place only later. Thinking about it, we understood it to be a nostalgia rooted in the lectures we attended as architecture students, impressed and inspired by the rich world of ideas introduced to us for the first time. The ideas of that world were expressed via an intoxicating alchemy of slickly crafted images and thesaurus-augmented parlance. Eagerly we drank it all in.

More than a few years have passed since we first fawned over Sean Godsell’s timber boxes and Howard Raggatt’s photocopying distortions. As practising architects, we are alas all too familiar with the responsibilities of planning regulations, tight budgets, building codes and clients who are less interested in esotery than having a good view from their master bedroom.

Now that we know how things get done, we ask how Johnston Marklee can continue to occupy a world of pure ideas? Questioning Lee after the lecture on this subject, he was quick to reassure us that pragmatics are indeed central to their decision making during the evolution of a project’s design. The accidental intersections that occur between the “randomly arranged” vaults in Vault House for instance are not accidental at all, but carefully placed to ensure the program is addressed and the client is satisfied.

(Vault House, California, United States of America)

This was a revealing insight into the truth lurking within or perhaps behind Lee’s smooth architectural discourse, and perhaps an interpretation contrary to his claims. The pure world of ideas that delighted us as students is dirtier than we might have thought. It exists, but it does so alongside, or even in subservience to, the more mundane priorities of construction, engineering, affordability and planning guidelines.

At first glance, this may read like a pessimistic conclusion with which to finish, but we see it otherwise. Our takeaway message is that the opportunity for us to engage at an intellectual level in our work is limited only by our desire to do so and commitment to see our ideas through to completion. As architects, we must be careful to keep one foot firmly planted in two worlds – we must forever remain grown up enough to reason and young enough to dream.

(Hill House, California, United States of America)

The Archibald Prize 2011

What is it?

An annual competition for portraiture running since 1921 in honour of Victorian journalist and art lover, Jules François Archibald, who bequeathed in his will one tenth of his estate to the Art Gallery NSW to set up and run the competition. Submitted portraits must be of “some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics” and be painted from life with the subject’s consent. Archibald’s original intent for the prize was to foster portraiture, an art form he admired, support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians.

The art gallery provides some interesting essays on the prize’s history and past controversies, the latter focussing on a long-running debate over the purpose of portraiture – whether should be concerned with achieving a good likeness of the subject or a revelation of his or her character. William Dobell, whose winning 1943 entry was highly controversial and bizarrely faced legal action over whether or not it could even be considered a portrait, has argued that portraiture is about “…trying to create something, instead of copying something… A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject.”

The Archibald Prize 2011 was awarded to Ben Quilty for his portrait of important still-life artist, Margaret Olley (above). The exhibition is on display at Art Gallery NSW until the 26th of June, at which point it commences a regional tour around Australia, list of venues and dates viewable here.

What do we think?

This year’s finalists are a fascinating and varied exhibition comprising high quality paintings, each bearing unique technical application and artistic character.

Quilty’s portrait uses few brushstrokes that manage to be both energetic and precise, capturing a face whose lines tell the story of many years lived but whose expression remains innocent and hopeful. Here is a woman we immediately sense to be kind and compassionate, gently eccentric in the way of many great artists – qualities captured in the colours used for the painting as well as the loose ruddiness of the strokes. It is an expressive work well deserving of the prize.

Perhaps it is not surprising that many of the portraits’ subjects are themselves artists, given the inherently painterly natures of both the entrants and the judges, but we confess to have found this repetitive content underwhelming. More engaging for us were those works that had chosen subjects from other walks of life, providing unexpected windows into the lives of Australians having important and positive impacts on our country. Abdul Abdullah’s portrait of lecturer, political commentator and rock musician, Waleed Aly, was one such work, as were Andrew Mezei’s painting of astronomer and physicist, Professor Penny Sackett, and Amanda Marburg’s depiction of cryptic crossword creator, David Astle.

One other finalist who chose a non-artist as his subject and for whom we voted in the People’s Choice Award, was Tom Macbeth. His sublime portrait is of Jessica Watson, the youngest person in the world to have sailed solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world, returning to Sydney Harbour on the 15th of May 2010, three days before her 17th birthday. Watson sat for the portrait on board her manager’s yacht, the bottom edge of a sail visible behind her. She looks completely at ease, confident and capable in her domain. The environment of the sea has left its indelible marks on her, from her squinting expression – eyes gazing into the sun or perhaps towards far away landmarks and future expeditions – to the bleached white of her hair and its dampness as its clings to the side of her neck. Both her determination and the crisp smell of salt water on a clear but windy day leap out to us from the canvas. It is a powerful and mesmerising portrait, our favourite for 2011.