wave to draw visitors to Sydney isn't surfing - it's art
Text and Images by Toby Saltzman
|Sculpture at the
water's edge overlooking Bondi Beach.
Watching surfers ride the waves from the terrace of Icebergs, a
hip restaurant overlooking Bondi Beach, it seems incredible that
Sydney's tropical environment - known for its laid-back surfer culture
- would also nurture a serious arts scene. Yet, looking down to
the coastal path that winds from Bondi to the Beach at Tamarama
then up the rugged cliff to Bronte Beach, the series of artists'
sculptures scattered along the water's edge speaks volumes about
the city's growing sophistication in the arts.
For an arts buff, it seemed like auspicious timing to be in Sydney
as it celebrated its annual Sculpture by the Sea Festival (www.sculpturebythesea.com).
Throughout the three-week event, viewers can stroll a scenic coastal
path and discover more than 100 different sculptural installations.
The festival's 10th anniversary this past November included monumental
works by Aussie sculptors Jarrod Taylor and Angus Adameitis, as
well as intriguing offerings by renowned and emerging artists from
around the world.
John Colquhoun, represents artists at Bandigan Gallery in Sydney.
Having decided on this, my fifth visit to Sydney, to focus entirely
on its art scene, I enlisted the expert help of Russell Storer,
curator at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art (140 George Street,
The Rocks, Sydney; www.mca.com.au),
and Leo Schofield, a leading figure in the arts in Australia.
Over drinks at the cheerful Lotus Bar & Bistro, the energetic septuagenarian
Schofield - who has organized several international arts festivals
in Melbourne and Sydney, including the 2000 Sydney Olympic Arts
Festival, and has written weekly columns in the Sydney Morning Herald
and later the Sunday Telegraph - regaled me with stories of how
he'd watched Sydney "grow from a dull place in the '60s to a nice
parochial town to a glowing metropolis…a most curious city with
an intensity of life that almost parallels Rio as a major metropolis
that is a huge centre for business and commerce, yet at the same
time, a beach resort."
Joking that typical young business types sport a briefcase in one
hand and a Speedo swimsuit in the other, Schofield says, "Sydney
is a dichotomous city, but it has a buzz, a vibe that has become
a magnet for creative people from around the world."
Russell Storer echoed this thought later, as he explained that international
attention for Sydney's art scene started growing with the city's
first Biennale (a bi-annual art fair) in 1973. "Prior to that, international
art wasn't that available in Sydney, and there was little appreciation
for work on a distant island separated by oceans," he told me.
|Sculpture By The
Sea is an annual arts festival in Sydney
"But each successive Biennale, driven each time by an international
curator with a singular vision, encouraged a strong interest in
contemporary art here and brought critical acclaim from art critics
around the world for our own artists as well."
Internationally recognized today, Sydney's contemporary art scene
is dynamic and covers a range of different types of art, with a
wave of interesting Australian artists appearing over the last 10
years, Storer explained. For example, in the avant-garde world,
video artist Shaun Gladwell has gained international acclaim, and
the Kingpins - a collective of four women who typically dress in
men's outfits to make video and performance art - were invited to
exhibit in England.
Storer believes that the visual arts scene is rich with wonderful
talent worth seeking out. He points to Dale Frank, who "paints in
a grunge post-pop style with a playful political edge."
Interestingly, like Griggs, many of Australia's most influential
artists produce works with a political edge. Chilean-born Juan Davila,
who moved to Australia in 1974 and whose work is represented in
major collections across Australia as well as New York's Metropolitan
Museum of Art, produces complex painting with social commentaries.
Recently, for example, Davila produced a critically acclaimed series
of nightmarish landscapes that addressed the treatment of refugees
in Australian detention centres.
|A scene of The Dreamings
depicted on an animal horn.
LAND OF DREAMINGS
Of course, one cannot discuss Sydney's art scene without acknowledging
the significance of its Aboriginal artists. Now in his early '80s,
Paddy Bedford is one of Australia's most respected Aboriginal artists
and one of only eight indigenous artists selected to create a site-specific
work for the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Bedford paints stories
symbolic of the "Dreamings" of his life.
As Storer took the time to explain to me, on order to appreciate
Aboriginal art as a rich and complex narrative that is integrated
with the artist's relationship to the land, it's essential to understand
the concept of Dreaming.
Dreaming is how Australia's Aborigines perceive the spiritual,
natural and moral order of the cosmos. For instance, there are Dreamings
that recount how Rainbow Serpents and Lightning Men traversed the
globe, creating everything in it and establishing the laws of society.
According to Aboriginal belief, the continent of Australia is laced
with Dreamings, some linked to a specific place and some that travel
from place to place.
Storer points out that the Aborigines only began painting on a
canvas in the 1970s. While Aboriginal art in Australia dates back
at least 50 millennia, the ephemeral nature of the earliest works
- mostly engraved or painted on rocks scattered across the country
- makes it tricky to calculate just how long ago such works were
produced. Experts figure that paintings in the Arnhem Land escarpment,
in Australia's tropical north, are 50,000 years old, pre-dating
the Paleolithic rock paintings in Europe. The engravings found in
South Australia likely date back 30,000 years.
One fact is certain: the artistic flair cultivated over time served
utilitarian, didactic and socio-political purposes for an isolated
people. Art is how the Aborigines expressed their individual and
group identities, their joys and hardships and their relationships
to the land, as well as their Dreamings.
With Storer's remarkable insight, I proceeded to visit several
of Sydney's outstanding public galleries. The Art Gallery of New
South Wales (Art Gallery road, The Domain, Sydney; www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au)
is well respected for its significant collections of Asian art,
Australian art from the colonial era to the mid-20th century, and
remarkable ethnographic and archeological artifacts.
To find the most interesting private galleries, I explored the
district of Paddington, about a 15-minute bus or cab ride from Circular
Quay. Home to some 50 art galleries, Paddington itself is a beautiful
Victorian enclave where many of its distinct terrace houses decorated
with lacy wrought iron have been turned into boutiques and galleries.
Galleries not to be missed include the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (8
Soudan Lane; tel:011-61-2-9331-1919; www.roslynoxley9.com.au),
Kaliman Gallery (56 Sutherland Street; tel:011-61-2-2273; www.kalimangallery.com),
Sherman Galleries (16-20 Goodhope Street; tel:011-61-2-9331-1112;
and Utopia Art Sydney (2 Dank Street; tel:001-61-2-9699-2900;),
which has excellent Aboriginal art.
At Darling Harbour, I browsed through the Gavala Aboriginal Art
& Cultural Centre (www.gavala.com.au),
Sydney's only Aboriginal-owned and - operated cultural centre. It
has a fine art gallery as well as a retail shop and is a good spot
to look for authentic, reasonably-priced souvenirs.
Many visitors to Australia want a piece of Aboriginal crafts to
call their own, but aren't able to bring home museum-quality works.
On Saturdays and Sundays in the Rocks district - which is chock-a-block
with craft stores, galleries, pubs and eateries - the Rocks Market
overflows with 145 stalls. Scattered among the touristy kitsch are
good Aboriginal artists selling hand-painted canvases as well as
didgeridoos (instruments made from hollowed trees). Among the best
is John Colquhoun, artist/owner of Bandigan Art (www.bandigan.com),
based in Woollahra. His spectacular canvases, culled from Aborigines
across Australia, run from $90 to around $1800.
After days of looking at the myriad works of art - particularly
examining the Aboriginal paintings, with their brilliant strokes,
dots and shapes meandering across canvases - I began to see each
piece as a magic carpet that links the individual artist's present
with his past or future, and his human spirit to the supernatural.
And I became captivated by Dreaming.
Art and About
A backstage tour of the Sydney Opera House (www.sydneyoperahouse.com)
gives spectacular insight into the globally recognized icon by Danish
architect John Utzon. Not for the physically challenged, this intimate
guide tour takes you into the concert halls, the conductor's private
suites, the ballet rehearsal hall, and up and down stairs, as you
explore the stage, the lighting rafters, scenery docks and orchestra
pit. The tour ends in the Green Room with a full breakfast just
as the musicians, actors and dancers arrive for their morning sustenance.
$130 including breakfast.
After an insider's look, get a romantic view of the opera house
and the Sydney bridge by reserving a spot at Aqua Dining (www.aquadining.com.au).
For art lovers, the art- and antique-filled Observatory Hotel (tel:011-61-2-9256-2222;
situated on a quiet street in the historic Rocks District, is a
treat. Luxury and impeccable service abounds in this Orient-Express
establishment, which has an indoor swimming pool and full-service
spa. For a culinary and wine experience surrounded by original art,
head to Galileo, their multi-award-winning restaurant.
Art Almanac (www.art-almanac.com.au)
is an essential guide to Australia's art galleries. Published monthly,
it's illustrated with current exhibitions of contemporary and Aboriginal
works and is available at galleries and bookstores for $3. Aboriginal
Art by Wally Caruna, in the "World of Art" series by
W.W. Norton, is a magnificently illustrated book that gives a comprehensive
understanding of the aboriginal art scene. It is available at most
For the least amount of stops and transfers en route to Australia,
fly Air Tahiti Nui (tel:877-824-4846; www.airtahitinui-usa.com)
non-stop from New York to Tahiti, and then on to Sydney.