Friday, August 21, 2015

The Right To Know

This week I sat in front of 20 Preps studying Journeys and told them the story of our family's migration to Australia from Poland when I was precisely their age. I had their rapt attention. It's that kind of story, which includes our family separated across continents, my father's trip by boat to Africa, my mother's escape from Poland with four small children over the mountains in an unreliable car and our eventual reunion in Vienna before the long journey by plane to Australia. 

My own background as a refugee was one of the reasons I was so glad to participate in Red Cross' exhibition, The Right To Know, which tells eight stories of family separation and reunion thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross Tracing Service. It's difficult not to be moved by the stories of sadness, longing and loss told so achingly concisely. 

Designer Cate Hall and I worked on the project out of her backyard studio calling out measurements to each other against a background of children's voices, and Cate's large, doleful black rabbit hopping silently around the yard.

It was the beginning of winter. There was a birth – beautiful Nina in Adelaide – and the shock of Otto's diagnosis of diabetes to contend with the week the artwork was due at the printers. To be honest I was grateful for the chance to lose myself in meaningful work. I laid out photographs of Emmanuel – his warm, positive and dignified face – alongside quotes that were horrifying in their meaning. His story begins: "I was only 14 years old when my family members were killed, when I witnessed that mass killing." 

Moving graphic elements around millimetre by millimetre in Illustrator and changing pixels sizes in Photoshop, I felt fate's cruel hand: good and bad fortune, historical and geographical forces. What choice do we have but to keep moving forward one foot in front of the other? 

Immigration Museum
400 Flinders Street, Melbourne
Until 25 October 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Can you believe it? Five years of posts. That's a milestone to celebrate and an opportunity to give thanks, dear readers, to you for checking back here for the next instalment. Come along.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Outline by Rachel Cusk

When people ask me how the school holidays are going I usually say, great. It's restful not doing the school run. The kids have a chance to unwind. We stay in our pyjamas until we feel like going somewhere, build lolly dispenser machines using cardboard boxes, kick the soccer ball around the backyard, head out for spring rolls on Victoria street, you know, knit together as a family. 

But that's only part of the story. At this point of the  holidays I am also a shadow of my former self. By former self, I mean me, two weeks ago. It's as though through the process of tending to my offspring my contours have become blurred. I exist in the service of others. The monkeys have no interest in my inner life, other than to check in with me when they become concerned or suspicious that I am "phoning it in." It's true, every now and again a powerful sense of hostility and aggression erupts inside of me about the demands of motherhood and the difficulty of securing one fricken' hour to myself during the daytime (after a solo trip to the milk bar for a can of beans I am unrecognisable like I've just returned from a month long Vipasnia retreat. Present. Radiant. Energetic. Calm).  On weekends Stevie's loving gaze carries a heartbreaking amount of sympathy. But to his offers of hugs, I can only yell: Don't come near me, I'm hungry.

I think professionals call it "self-managing".

Because I need to be here, I fantasise about being there. There, being anywhere. Only a few things keep me sane on this tour of duty: a night out on the turps with friends, brisk walks in parkland's and reading fiction. I am ridiculously grateful for authors, especially good ones. (Not you Kirsty Clements of Vogue editorship fame, your novel was so lame, so tedious I read it only with the thought it might be useful one day if I write anything that requires a working knowledge of magazines and/or eating disorders). Good novels, on the other hand, are my salvation. Outline by Rachel Cusk was superb. Formally inventive – a series of recounted conversations – it is so insightful, elegant and provocative, that I felt genuine wonder for how it achieves both a sense of melancholy and gentle satire. The story is simple. It follows its middle aged protagonist, a  recently separated professional writer as she travels to Athens to run writing workshops. The book is a moving meditation on the value and role of relationships in culture and the catastrophe of divorce, while revealing almost nothing about its narrator. It's as though she simply exists. This week, that struck a real chord.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Winter Solstice

It must be the steely grey mornings that have me longing for colour. I know Melbourne is not Siberia but I am a complete winter sook. I want to be warm, snug and within an arms reach of hot chocolate at all times. But I try and remind myself that winter has an upside which is an effortless introspectiveness that at other times of year, as an excitable Gemini, I have to really strive to connect with. That introspectiveness slows my thinking to just a pip above hibernation speed. I feel able to undertake slower projects, projects like weaving that demand patience and stamina. 

The last time I tried my hand at weaving was 1993 in the Silesia region of Poland. Outside the manor in which I was staying smoke stacks dirtied the air (remember acid rain?). Inside its four walls I was trying to evoke a cheerier landscape. It wasn't a success. But I'm willing to have another crack at the art and craft of weaving next month and put my inexperienced hands in the hands of Victorian Tapestry Workshop founder Sara Lindsay. She'll be running a two day workshop, over consecutive Saturdays in July at Pop craft

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano

In the early 1990s I was in my most magazine reading intensive period. This was before the internet when monthly titles actually brought news. Poorer than a church mouse I still forked out a whack of coin for my favourite, the US Harpers Bazaar. Under the editorship of the British Liz Tilberis it was  truly something special. It occupied a special space in my still largely un-lived and undefined life, one that did not yet include children or a husband. I was transfixed by its imaginative fashion spreads photographed by largely up and coming photographers like Mario Sorrenti and Craig Dean featuring super (and less well known models) Naomi Campbell, Helena Christiansen, Linda Evangalista, Karmen Kass, Nadia Auermann, Claudia Schiffer, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow, Kate Moss and Stella Tennant. As a cultural moment I remember that five year period as being both highly romantic and grunge. The designers and fashion houses represented between its pages - editorial and advertising - were largely European: John Galliano for Givenchy and Dior, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. In addition to them Tom Ford at Gucci and Gianni Versace were pushing a sleazy disco glamour.

Coming of age during that period, it's been interesting reading Dana Thomas' Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, a book that documents the nineties and noughties in global fashion through the prism of two of its uber designers and their rise and subsequent fall (McQueen by suicide, Galliano through disgrace). Not familiar with Thomas' previous work I was persuaded by the fact that she'd written for the New Yorker, the benchmark for quality journalism these days (though truth be told it's closer to Who Weekly than that venerable magazine). Thomas details Galliano and McQueen's working class upbringings and then settles in for a detailed description of their careers, show by show. She contextualises their ascendancy alongside the growth of the luxury market. I'm guessing that was the subject of her previous book, Deluxe. I enjoyed the behind the scenes machinations of major fashion houses and developed a good appreciation of what made McQueen such as remarkable designer: precise tailoring, a sense of the macabre and an interest in working closely with collaborators – jewellers, milliners – on unique, strange accessories. Her heart belongs to him.

Of all weeks I was glad to have it beside me this week, one in which I spent three nights on a fold out armchair at the hospital beside my beautiful boy. When we were sad and overwhelmed by his diagnosis of chronic illness, or trying to stave off frightening thoughts of the future and what it would require of us – thoughts that would rouse us in the dead of night – we'd turn on the night lights and read together until the dread passed.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Story of Us

Five years ago I was holding an infant Hazel and had a whirling dervish of a son who was crazy about Lego. I think it was Stevie who came home one day with something to show us – a blog titled Leo’s Lego Lab. It was a delightful document of creativity; Leo, aged five at the time, posted various Lego creations with the help of his mum. I remember liking this little kid, and the world captured in his blog. I felt an immediate sense of kinship with his mum. When I read that Leo had taken a break from blogging with the arrival of his little sister Hazel – who not only shared the same name but was the same age as mine – I just knew we were fated for friendship. Other than a vague sense that this crew were Melbourne based I really had nothing to go on. We continued to read Leo’s blog. Hazel learned to crawl.

At the tail end of summer we celebrated a friend’s sixth birthday in the Edinburgh Gardens. The playground was a mangle of kids when Otto found himself in a confusing disagreement with a mum about Hazel. I've got a Hazel, he said. I've got a Hazel, she replied. There were two Hazels. That mum turned out to be the tough, smart, creative and highly original Emma G.

In the years since Otto and Leo have developed a strong friendship. The Hazel's, not so much. Emma and I have drunk our fair share of tea mostly over her kitchen table. Of all of his friends Leo's home is the one in which Otto feels most comfortable. I sometimes wonder whether Otto senses the common thread between us; a life that revolves around art, music, books and family.

Driving down Sydney Road after a play at Leo's last weekend Otto and Hazel asked me to tell them once again the story of how we came to meet Leo and his family, the one recounted here. We started at the beginning. They love to tell it, hear it and add to it. We think of it as the story of us.

Photo of my feet and Emma's shoes by Emma Byrnes. She belongs in this story too. It was her daughter's birthday that we were attending that fateful day in the Ed Gardens.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Open the door: Noah Baumbach's When We're Young

Noah Baumbach's new feature, When We're Young, opens with a quote from one of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's plays from turn of the century – that would be the 20th century. It carries the age-old sentiment of a middle aged generation not understanding the one that follows it. In it the sceptic is urged to "Open the door" on the young. I was left wondering about this piece of advice after leaving the cinema. Was it a really such a good idea? Judging by the film – a wry intergenerational satire – I wasn't so sure. It starts out promisingly. Josh, a documentary filmmaker is approached by the twenty-something Jamie (Girls' Adam Driver) after delivering a lecture on documentary film and quickly initiates a friendship based on his admiration for Josh's rarely screened documentary. Jamie introduces Josh to his wife, the ravishing Amanda Seyfried, and along with Josh's wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) they become inseparable. Baumbach captures the romance of new friendships as the pairs borrow mannerisms, style tips and ideas from one another. There's no doubt Josh and Cornelia are enlivened by the relationship. It comes at a critical juncture; Cornelia is making peace with being childless as their best friend's adjust to life with a newborn. Josh is at a creative impasse after a decade working on his documentary about war and the American "system". His rough cut sits at six hours. He's not sure he can cut anything out. But what do newlyweds Jamie and Darcy get from the arrangement? While the older couple envy the young pairs energy and openness, Jamie most certainly covets Josh's ready-made life that includes a well connected film producer wife. I don't think its any kind of spoiler to say it ends in tears. Adam Driver is a terrific foil for Ben Stiller, the difference in height, already comedic. Driver brings a physical expansiveness to the role that sits well beside Stiller's contained presence. The film belongs to them. It's not simply a matter of performance. Baumbach fleshes these characters out. The climax – played out at a swanky award ceremony overlooking Manhattan – is between these two and about the nature of documentary. When it comes down to it Josh and Jamie are fundamentally different. Baumbach you feel sides with the principled Josh while making it clear that success comes to the Jamie's of this world. When We're Young finishes on a cute upbeat note. I was thankful for it but it was not enough to offset the swirl of conflicted emotions inside of me or the sense that middle age is a shit sandwich and, all things considered, I would still prefer to be young and feckless than old and weary.