Tuesday, March 29, 2011


"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."
- Kurt Vonnegut, from God Bless You, Dr Rosewater

Monday, March 28, 2011

30 days of biking

If you've been thinking about getting back in the (bike) saddle but lacking motivation, try this for size. 30 Days of Biking is a pretty self-explanatory initiative now in its second year. There are no rules. You just have to ride every day during April, whether it's a quick trip to the corner store or a few kilometres' commute to work, and then share your experience online. Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Flickr, whatever floats your boat. It's a great way to get people riding - and talking about how awesome it is.

Thirty days of biking - no matter the weather, no matter the distance - won't be a picnic, but it's a great way to start a good habit. Tone up those gams, lose some weight, meet some fun people, feel the sunshine on your face, ring a little bell, trail some streamers, see your city from a new perspective, and best of all it won't cost you a cent. What's not to love about the biking life?

Now, I know it can be intimidating riding on the road so ease in by planning your trips to take maximum advantage of bike lanes and paths. Ride The City is a great resource and they've just recently launched their Brisbane map. Trick out your treadlie with lights, strap on a helmet, make sure you feel safe and comfortable. Be confident and careful, follow the road rules. You don't have to wear lycra. You don't have to go fast. Get out there in your favourite floral frock and both cars and other cyclists actually tend to be more patient and friendly (call it the Mary Poppins Effect).

Personally I'm already riding around six days a week, including my commute to and from work every day, so I'm quietly confident I can smash this sucker. It's also a good opportunity to blog about some basic, important bike stuff - how to stay safe, how to look after your wheels, routes and shortcuts, what to wear, combating helmet hair...

Won't you join me? Register here, get your tyres pumped up ready for your first ride on Friday April 1, and do keep me posted on how you go through the month.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It's time we Met

The antidote to Tuesday blues, and indeed a shamefully extended blog inspiration hiatus? A night of great art and fascinating insights to how it's curated. Brisbane's Gallery Of Modern Art tonight hosted a talk by Gary Tinterow, a curator with 25 years' experience at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now the Met, if you haven't been there, is like heaven on earth. Perched in Central Park, with an impressive facade onto Fifth Avenue, it houses acres of amazing art and artefacts from throughout history. I would happily part with my left pinkie to spend a night locked in the Met. I'd walk around in a suit of armour (til it got too heavy, then I'd switch it out for something from the Costume Institute), play the old musical instruments, have a nap spooning a Rodin sculpture and basically just stare at my favourite paintings til I grew cross-eyed. Watching the sun rise over the Temple of Dendur would have to be pretty spectacular, too.

Tinterow's talk was a meandering stroll through the history of the museum, framed through the evolution of the collection he creates - modern and contemporary art - from 1870 to the present day. As well as being a delicious overview of the art of the past couple hundred years, this was a fascinating insight into how a great museum collection is acquired. And it was peppered with the kind of anecdotes only an experienced curator can collect.

Like the last words of H.O. Havemeyer. He and his second wife Louisine were filthy rich and avid collectors. (There's a fabulous article about her here from TIME Magazine in 1930) Louisine had a fortunate penchant for French art far advanced to what the Met was showing in the 1920s. Courbet, Manet, Degas and Renoir were among her favourites, and the collection at their amazing house on 66th Street (interiors all designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, swoon) had a big impact on the tastes of well-to-do New Yorkers. They tried in vain to lead a friend of theirs, Bingham, into amassing his own collection, starting him off by letting him buy some of the works they coveted - like Degas' famous "The Dance Class". Bingham never did collect with the Havemeyers' enthusiasm, much to their chagrin, and on old Havemeyer's deathbed his last command was to "try to get Bingham's Degas".

When you see grand-sounding names plastered over a wing of a museum you don't tend to think much about these benefactors. How they came to amass such crazy wealth that they could acquire a breath-taking art collection and then leave it to a museum. How curators at that museum might have cultivated those benefactors, perhaps in a decades-long flirtation, a delicate seduction.

There was an eccentric Ms Milton de Groot, who brought with her from Holland an impressive collection. She always intended to leave it to the Met, but until she died she kept it in her modest apartment, where all the museum's curators at some point were forced to take tea.

A sadder story was that of Scofield Thayer, who I visualise as quite the young dandy in the early 1920s when he ran a literary magazine called The Dial, which published the likes of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Thayer's pal from Harvard ee cummings. Thayer took off for Europe where he collected artworks to use as illustrations in the magazine. He suffered from what Tinterow described as "sexual anxieties" and ended up on the couch of none other than Dr Freud - who encouraged him to collect the erotic works of Klimt and Schiele. Thayer lost his mind and was institutionalised in the mid/late 1920s; his collection came to the Met, but only after his death in the 80s.

There were a few decades of lean years for bequests, until the Annenbergs donated their collection in the 90s. Publishing magnate Walter Annenberg had been Nixon's ambassador in London and to the Brits' delight had redecorated the embassy with his epic collection of French impressionists and post-impressionists. When the Annenbergs returned to the US they had a bunch of museums contest for the right to collection - Tinterow described it as being like a reality TV show competition. Naturally the Met won, and the Annenbergs even helped the museum acquire works above and beyond their collection. Including Van Gogh's "Wheat Field With Cypresses", likely his first painting after being allowed to leave the asylum (after the whole ear thing). Tinterow said when they unwrapped the painting at the Met it was so fresh they found traces of pollen on the surface.

Such is the work of the curators of these great museums - stitching together the grand collections of rich benefactors with smaller donations from individuals, working out the narrative of the overall collection, identifying the gaps and then making acquisitions to fill those gaps.

Making these acquisitions highlights the conflict curators face - pulled in one direction by advanced collectors wanted them to push the boundaries, pulled back by often conservative boards of trustees. Tinterow related how the museum purchased Jasper Johns' amazing "White Flag" for an even more amazing price in the tens of millions of dollars. Decades earlier the same painting had been on loan display, in the 1960s, and was offered to the museum for $15,000 but the trustees declined. "We're at the mercy", Tinterow put it, "of the vagaries of taste and the market".

As well as exhorbitant purchases there are other options for acquiring works. Sometimes a private collector will offer to purchase a piece in shares with the museum and they take turns hanging it - two years in my house, two years in your museum, etc. In recent years Tinterow says the museum has done a number of retrospective exhibitions of ageing but still living modern artists, which often end in acquisitions. "And when we can't acquire a work, we'll borrow it," Tinterow says, citing Damien Hirst's shark floating in formaldehyde, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", on loan from the Connecticut billionaire who bought it from Charles Saatchi for $8million.

As Tinterow moved into the most recent acquisitions, the idea of participatory art became more common - works that come alive or mean something only when the audience interacts with them. The works currently on show at GOMA are an excellent illustration of this idea, and Tinterow says it's also a parable for the Met itself. Whether on the grand scale of donating a collection, or the simple act of visiting and marvelling: it is communities and people who love art who bring these institutions to life.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Love & war

Lovelorn Brisvegans: you have but days left to wallow in the sweet sadness that is the State Library of Queensland's Love & War exhibition. On loan from the Australian War Memorial, it's a lovely little exhibition exploring the many stages of love as magnified by the pressures of wartime.

From meetings and rushed courtships before men were shipped out, to tearful goodbyes and correspondence-fuelled seperations, and ultimately reunion or loss. There are some remarkably intimate insights into love affairs spanning a century; and unfortunately a happy ending is never guaranteed.

My mum and I went in on a Saturday, expecting a lot of love letters. In actuality the exhibition is more made up of mementoes, souveniers, and photographs and paintings. There are wedding dresses, one of which a bride went on to loan to a number of other wartime brides. There are handmade keepsakes, amateur cartoons, even some very early photoshop work from World War I!

Given the way colloquial language ebbs and flows over time I was really interested to see the ways people spoke and wrote about love (and lust!) over different decades. Some of the language of love and yearning is obviously eternal; other phrases seem dated and stiff. The rather chaste wishes of a soldier to lie with his sweetheart in a quiet bush hideaway and "let my hands roam about your face, arms and hair" seems adorably quaint.

Small acts of quiet romanticism now preserved behind glass now seem all the more remarkable for the stoicness of the men who were inspired to commit them. My favourite story was of Robert Towers who had a brooch made from the Australian coat of arms in the centre of a shiny florin. He gave the brooch to his sweetheart, Lois, and wore the outer part of the coin on a chain around his neck. When the two pieces were joined after he returned from Malaya, he said, they'd be together forever. It was 1945 before Lois heard anything of Robert; caring for freed prisoners of war, a patient told her Robert had died of illness in 1943 after being captured by the Japanese. His part of the florin was returned to her with his belongings.

So sad, you can barely imagine how excruicating it must have been for her not hearing from him for years, holding on to hope that he would come home ok. His token of his love for her was so simple and thoughtful. Makes you think, every love is so unique.

It's not all sad stories. There are beautiful romances that lasted through and beyond the wars, tear-jerking reunions, happy endings. I liked the inclusion of same-sex couples. And then there's funny stories like a young woman who ended up with dozens of penpals after her photo ran in a troop magazine. There are bawdy pin-ups, crass cartoons, and creepy propaganda posters.

Sunday (March 6) is the last day you can catch Love & War, on level 2 at the State Library of Queensland. You can have a sneak peek via the Australian War Memorial's website. It's well worth a look and, just quietly, the air-con in there is phenomenal.

Plus, if you've been feeling sorry for yourself for something as paltry as missing your long distance lover, reading the stories of people who lost their sweethearts and husbands to conflicts in distant lands will promptly put your woes into perspective.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bicycle rights!

This kinda says it all about militant fixie hipsters... From Portlandia. Don't look the show up on YouTube if you're predisposed to wasting endless amounts of time laughing at hipsters. But just so you know, the funniest clips are "Did You Read...", "Dream of the 90s" and the adult hide-and-seek league.