I escaped baby duties for a few hours and went into the city to visit the art gallery of NSW. As I exited St James station I was reminded of the beauty and charm of Sydney’s centre, with the original planners having the foresight of placing the domain and Hyde Park in the centre so that there is this generous commons − add the harbour, the bridge, the opera house – as far as city centres go it doesn’t get much better. The people are lively, the sky scrapers remain dwarfed by the perfection of the opera house, the public transport works and the homeless are decorative on the park benches.
The gallery is impeccably managed, the staff efficient, welcoming without fuss, processing us through the covid protocol and obviously happy in their work. In the foyer was an installation made from burnt wood from a recent bush fire: black branches, a coffin, a bell, plaques of flora and fauna wiped out. In the first room three large circles made from threaded pieces of bush fire created charcoal, on the walls song line paintings, evocative and mysterious in their detail. A collage of photographic portraits of Torres Strait Islanders shows extraordinary faces, so different from our air brushed images. This is an edgy country with a violent past and now faced with ecological and climate crisis. Yet contradictions of magnitude can be stimulating.
And then a walk-through of Australian European art history, some Sidney Nolans of course – interesting to compare him with McCahon and to realise the extent that Australian painters have kept to a figurative tradition. My fellow viewers were more articulate and energetic than in New Zealand. And then an Asian section with exquisite pottery and the calmness of a landscape, Finally I sat in the reasonably priced café, once again extremely efficiently run and overheard two young women discuss the communion wine and wafer and whether it might be changed. An unusual conversation.
As I headed back to the suburbs I realised the splendour, democracy and vitality of the city centre is experienced by relatively few of the greater city inhabitants. It is the reserve of the privileged who live in the immediate surrounds or of people like me who seek it out. The rest of the millions are living much narrower lives culturally, with the media, the malls and the league clubs, plus family dominant. It is a life possibly even more limited than that of the provincial city.
Yet the metropolis remains the mecca for those seeking the vibes, the contradictions, the training, the peer culture of the arts. It is why I first came over here, to attend drama school. So, the debate between excellence, access and participation continues. The migrant women who live next door, one Turkish woman (Kurdish perhaps?), the other Lebanese (possibly Palestinian?) but questioning as to origin is impolite – they are probably endlessly asked the question of where they come from − hesitantly knock on the door, at different times, to give Whaea a gift for ‘the new born’. Pre covid, Australia welcomed 200,000 migrants a year, adding a city the size of Wellington annually.
The new born child is an evocative phenomenon in any culture. They’ve noticed this arrival through their window, maybe overheard crying and need to pay homage.
The next morning it is misty and moist, a Blackball sort of day. As I walk the baby around the block, I imagine a local community arts project focused on how different cultures welcome the new born and the associated stories it would produce… I pause to get in touch with the rhythm of the land, sinking down through the layers of alienation which cover this country.