Week 188 – Sydney: a cultural feast!

On Monday Maisie and I went on a guided tour of the primary school that she will be attending next January. It’s at the end of our road and we’ve been to fetes there and often play in the grounds after hours, so we’re already pretty familiar with it. The school principal showed us around – she’s very impressive, flamboyant (she was wearing a purple and green chiffon kaftan) and passionate about the kids, whilst also being practical and down-to-earth. Maisie (who talks about ‘when she goes to school’ most days) was rather over-awed by all the big kids, clutching on to my hand for the whole tour!


Rowena and I tried out a new St Kilda restaurant on Tuesday night – a little Thai fusion cafe that has been getting rave reviews online. We weren’t disappointed – the food was unusual and fantastic. Our fried starters (tempura tofu and chive cake) were light and crispy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth inside. The stand-out was the wonderfully light and aromatic soft-shell crab burger, followed closely by a (perfectly cooked – almost caremelized) pork belly and apple salad. Prettiest and most sophisticated were the desserts – a subtle pandan sponge cake and an inventive banoffee slice.


The service had been so friendly and swift that we had the time to fit in a film too! We decided on ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’, the second of the two recent biopics about the famously awful singer (we had both seen the first – ‘Marguerite’ – a couple of weeks back). Starring a well-padded Meryl Streep, this was a gentler, more straightforward movie. This Florence, whilst determined to sing and oblivious of her vocal failings, wasn’t so utterly isolated – her husband (delightfully played by Hugh Grant), despite his philandering, was devoted to the ailing Florence (she suffered from syphilis) and to protecting her from the harshness of the critics.


On Thursday night I went to see a special preview of the new Miles Davis biopic ‘Miles Ahead’. It was an oddity, entertaining but frustrating. Set in the late 1970s, during Miles’ ‘silent period’ (in his autobiography he claimed that he didn’t pick up his trumpet for 5 years), it played out as a chaotic blaxploitation caper, as Miles (an elegant portrayal by Don Cheadle) and a gonzo music journalist (an abysmal performance by Ewan MacGregor) chase around town, bullets flying, trying to retrieve a stolen session tape. Woven in are a series of interesting (and well acted) flashbacks sketching in earlier career highs, and scenes from Miles’ fiery failed relationship with the dancer Frances Taylor.


On Friday I flew to Sydney to spend the weekend with Louisa and Jeff. I love my Sydney weekend escapes – a chance to enjoy an alternative child-free life involving stunning coastal hikes, relaxed meals out, unhurried rambles round art galleries and long uninterrupted conversations – but they are about to come to an end as Louisa and Jeff are having a baby in July! Happily Louisa is still fit and well, so there’s no change in their lifestyle just yet!


We met after work and headed straight out to one of Sydney’s hippest small bars, the ‘Shady Pines Saloon’. Accessed through an unmarked doorway in a dark alleyway, it was like stepping into an episode of Twin Peaks. Large stuffed deer heads peered down from the rustic log-cabin walls, the lighting was dim and vintage. A huge bar sold a bewildering array of beers and spirits. I tried a couple of house cocktails – a refreshing ginger margarita (with a huge block of ice which never melted!) and a fiery tequila/mescal/chilli bloody mary.


Warmed by the cocktails, we headed down to Circular Quay to see this year’s Vivid Festival light installations. It was the opening night of the festival, and it was busy. After last year’s chaos (no-one here has a clue how to operate in a large crowd!), the police had rigged up strict one-way walking routes, which helped a bit!


The projections on the Opera House sails were designed by young Aboriginal artists – the fractured abstract earth-coloured patterns and snakes, slithering over the roofs, were very striking – much better than last year’s cartoonish efforts.


This year there was a special light trail through the Botanical Gardens. A tall arched corridor of little flowery fairy-lights was very pretty. An animated projection masked onto a great old tree-trunk was one of my favourite pieces – sometimes the trunk was a mass of writhing multi-coloured snakes, other times it was ablaze with orange flames or pulsing psychedelic stripes.


Of the smaller pieces on Circular Quay, one I particularly liked was a cluster of silvery rods sparking with tiny fireflies (sporadic jets of white flame). The projections on the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art are always good – this time they were appropriately themed, with great splashes of paint cascading down, and a massive ‘claymation’.


There were an awful lot of small interactive pieces that seemed to consist primarily of strings of multi-coloured leds in various different formats, or of cartoonish projected computer games. Things got quieter once we’d walked under the Harbour Bridge, and we came across some more creative installations in Walsh Bay. One was a little kinetic silhouette of shipping cranes (the movement triggered by rods connected to floats bobbing in the harbour waters). Another was a series of jagged buoys made of old circuit boards and lit from within.


At the furthest point in the trail was a charming group of massive kaleidoscopes – perspex geometrical shapes rainbow lit in reflective boxes which made wonderful patterns when you spun them round using a giant ship-like steering wheel.


At full light-installation capacity by this point, we headed into a nearby Italian restaurant and enjoyed a hearty meal of (excellent) chicken liver pate toasts, roast courgette flowers oozing mozzarella, and a classic spaghetti carbonara. The restaurant also had an excellent selection of Italian wines, and I enjoyed a very fine glass of Nebbiolo (gosh – I so miss the complexities of a good European wine!).


The weather on Saturday morning was dismal, so we dashed through the rain to a cosy cafe nearby and settled in for a long breakfast. The food was worth lingering over – my poached eggs on toast with smoked trout was delicious and perfectly prepared. Louisa and I crossed our fingers for the weather improving and decided to risk our (mainly outdoor!) afternoon trip to Cockatoo Island. Luckily the clouds lifted as we huddled on the open deck of the old green and yellow ferry that took us under the Harbour Bridge and upstream to the little industrial island (initially a prison camp, later a dry docks, and still full of old warehouses and rusting cranes).


At the moment, the island is one of the main sites of the Sydney Biennale. The over-arching theme of the show this year is ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed’ [a quote by sci-fi author William Gibson]. Each exhibition site is differently themed – this one was entitled ‘Embassy of the Real’. Most of the pieces were large installations – some of them fun, some powerful, some mystifying.


The first huge warehouse space (in the ‘Industrial Precinct’) was haphazardly festooned with great sheets of clear plastic printed with pictures of cranes and hanging amongst them, a great foil zeppelin and a translucent hot-air balloon – it fell under the ‘mystifying but fun’ category! The next room was dominated by a cinema-sized screen showing a raucous video of young Thai teens rampaging round the streets of Bangkok. Mostly filmed using a drone-mounted camera, it was colourful and engaging.


The first piece that captured me was an installation by the New York-based choreographer William Forsythe, who had filled a room with delicate silver pendulums attached to long strings hanging from movable frames mounted on the ceiling. The piece created its own choreography as viewers were invited to weave their way through the sea of constantly swinging pendulums without bumping into them.


We walked up the rocky cliff to the ‘Convict Precinct’, where, instead of dilapidated warehouses, there is an attractive cobbled courtyard surrounded by little golden-stone buildings. One of the interiors had been turned into a chilling hospital ward shrouded in dense cobwebs (intricately woven out of black wool – it must have taken forever to install!). The Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota was referencing dreams and webs of memory. It was very atmospheric.


Another room that appeared empty housed, in fact, a delicate trompe l’oeil piece – what appeared to be a quarry-tiled floor had carefully been constructed from different shades of sand, some of which had been ground from a great incised boulder that had ‘crashed’ into the next room. The Mexican artist Miguel Rojas was referencing Aboriginal and Victorian colonial cultures.


A small cell-like room contained a striking three-screen video piece by Turkish artist Nilbar Gures. Filmed in an impossibly beautiful remote Kurdish hill village, the camera followed several middle-aged women as they walked to the highest pastures in order to get a mobile phone signal, then sat chatting about their almost medieval daily lives to city-based relatives. It was simple and effective.


The last piece that intrigued me was a room of costumes, sets and videos that documented Australian artist Justene William’s part-reconstruction, part-contemporary revision of Kazimir Malevich’s legendary 1913 Russian Futurist (anti-)opera ‘Victory over the sun’. It is still a very strange and unsettling piece – most of the visitors walked in and out very quickly!


We walked out into the late afternoon sunshine and the bustle of a big children’s camping party. An odd feature of the island is the rather grim-looking settlement of drab green army tents which are available to hire by the night! We caught the ferry back to Circular Quay and enjoyed a sundowner (in our anoraks!) at the open air Opera Bar.


We spent the evening in Louisa and Jeff’s lovely 12th-floor apartment, watching this year’s Oscar winner ‘Spotlight’. About the team of Boston journalists who uncovered the massive Catholic Church child abuse scandal, it was pacy and serious. But despite the important and explosive subject matter, it wasn’t very interesting to watch.


On Sunday we woke to clear blue skies. Louisa and I went for a stroll round Paddington, Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo. We covered the full gamut, from seedy strip-joints to multi-million-dollar apartment blocks with huge views out across Elizabeth Bay.


The terrain is steep and we spent our time climbing up and down huge public staircases. The prettiest of those was hidden between two huge art deco housing blocks. It appeared to be only surviving relic of the grand terraced garden of an earlier great mansion – the steps were broad curving stone, and led to a little grotto. The little park by the waterfront was full of fit-looking older men with very small dogs.


Our walk took us past another of the Sydney Biennale sites. This was the ‘Embassy of Non-Participation’, a collection of works by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, on the topics of political power and political protest. A series of printed sheets advised Egyptian activists on the best methods of non-violent protest. An Eton College exam paper asked the student to play the part of the Prime Minister explaining why it was ‘moral’ to kill protestors in a fictional future oil crisis.


We met up with Nicole for an early lunch at a popular Yum Cha restaurant on the top floor of the Westfield shopping centre. The food trolleys trundled by piled high with stodgy treats but we were fairly restrained. A great crab that we had to attack with a pair of nutcrackers, was a highlight, as were a tender duck fillet and all the desserts (mango and sago pudding, mango pancakes with fresh cream and a creamy coconut jelly). We were having such a nice chat about life, love and everything, that we were surprised to find we were sitting in an empty restaurant at 3pm when it closed! Soon afterwards I had to wend my way back home to Melbourne (luckily a hitch-free journey, unlike my 3-hour delay on the journey out!).