Settling into another European Winter has been both familiar and a little odd as it has been many years since my last. Locations, faces, places, gestures, and flavours reconnect me to this small and very cosy city of Amsterdam. It is the festive season and that means presents, songs, sweet biscuits, family gatherings, chocolate alphabet letters, drinks with friends, assorted traditions, costumes, frantic shopping and general excitement which helps to deflect the fact that the weather is rather dull and non descript.
Two exhibitions in Amsterdam have kept me active the past weeks, the first at The Woodshed in North Amsterdam organized by Dirk Devos was titled - Where are you going? This one night show included the launch of 'Fresh Orange' a concept, website and booklet that hopes to instigate innovative and positive ways to re-think Dutch culture. Where are you going? also included live performances from Parne Gadge a gypsy flavoured band and an improvised piece performed by Big Low ( Dan Tuffy and Steve Heather.) I displayed a recent body of work completed in the Cambodia studio so the evening was a multi-media type event that coincided with the arrival of frosty winter temperatures.
The second exhibition was held at Suzanne Biederberg Gallery in the lovely Jordaan area. This show continues my TRAVAILOGUE series of works that have been made on the road the past 4 years and are now being show on the road under this title. The opening was a good one as if I have difficulty riding one kilometre home on a bicycle that usually means fun was had.
New Years eve was spent in Berlin watching fireworks light up the chilly sky from a rooftop. I was entertained for five days by a handful of the cosmopolitan population who seem very un-shy of bars and cafes and other cultural activities. A small reunion occurred by arranging to meet three artists I met at TAV (Taipei Artists Village) when I was there early 2004. Art was looked at in Berlin but the festive spirit swamped our usual artistic activities. On my way back to Amsterdam from the inter-city train window I watched a grey sky get darker, a European winter settling in. Giant wind turbines spun slowly collecting power while German and Dutch cows made milk below these huge white towers. They reminded me of the wind turbines recently installed at Mawson Station in Antarctica and also the fact that in four weeks I shall return to the Southern continent but this time to the western side.
I meet more and more friends across the planet that have not surprisingly moved into family mode. This usually consists of two kids, a nice home, car, piles of stuff, hard work, a lot of compromise and ample love to keep the family running smoothly. I also run into those that are single, mobile and almost as nomadic as I am. A form of domestic phobia I detect in myself and possibly also in some of these wanderers that I meet. Home certainly is not scary nor is it unattainable for me as I do have various options as to where I could plant myself but the confusion of possibilities, my habitual determination to continue the journey, my addiction to change, exotic stimulus and displacement all make stability rather unappetising for me.
Domestic phobia also means I have problems with possessions or should I say excess baggage? Everyone has baggage some more than others. To some it amounts to tons of stuff, to others its emotional, to some it is only a few trinkets. If baggage is in excess it's absolutely no fun but how much is too much? Twenty kilos? Forty kilos? War wounds? A broken heart? A full cargo container? I have no idea. As a rather nomadic person I dream of an empty bag. Zero belongings that weigh less than nothing would be fine for me. Ideally my luggage would be a small bag with a nice handle stuffed full of clouds, crammed with void and almost floating. No drama, no possessions, no sorrow, no souvenirs, no bloodshed not even a bottle of duty free booze! It is a silly dream as to achieve such a state I would also have to discard experience and ultimately life, which is certainly made up of a lot of unpleasantness but also bags and bags of fun.
I left the kingdom of Cambodia as the dragon boat festival was about to begin and a new king was being installed on the throne. The country paddles its way into the future slowly but surely. The coronation involved a lot of bowing and chanting during various Buddhist ceremonies, speeches, formal processions, the display of shiny golden objects and fireworks. Thousands of rural Khmer came to the city to get a glimpse of their new king and to liven up the celebrations.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh electrical storms adorned the night skies and as I packed my bags to leave man-made lightening flooded the sky. Fireworks remind me of war, which is not surprising. Smoke, bangs, rockets; bright lights and explosions often mean violence. This is indeed the history of fireworks but what I watched over Phnom Penh was the beauty of celebration. I have been in many places where pyrotechnical skills have been displayed often at enormous costs. In the west people love the spectacle, the big loud and bright night- time event in the sky as a backdrop to a party. This is true in the east but in addition people require the smoke, noise and flashes for the continuation of a tradition. The excellent tradition of frightening evil ghosts and spirits away.
Before I flew out of Cambodia I hung up my sixth TRAVAILOGUE exhibition at the F.C.C. Angkor in Siem Reap. This new Bar/restaurant/hotel is located a few kilometres from the magnificent ancient city of Angkor. This immense Khmer capital city existed between the 9th and 12th centuries with over a million people living and working around this stone city. Now millions of tourists visit each year to take millions of photographs.
I now find myself in another ancient stone city this one in southern Jordan. The Nabataeans built Petra over two thousand years ago. It truly is a spectacular complex carved out of red rock. Two days wandering around the ruins is not enough to see it all but this is all I can manage. This visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is really only a week long stopover on my way to Europe. Jordan is constructed from layer upon layer of religion, trade and warfare. A great deal has happened here over the centuries all helping to construct the present culture and landscape. It's a fascinating place with the usual Middle East flavours and problems all swirling about. Sandstone buildings seem to climb out of sandy desert soil and urban dust looking more like bunkers or domestic castles certainly at war against the hot, dry climate.
It is Ramadan so things slow down a little, so slow that I floated in the Dead Sea for hours and hours waiting sundown when the consumption of food and drink is permitted within Islamic tradition. Beautiful mosques some modernized by megaphones praise Allah all over the land. Everyone is tired and hungry this month but it is still very easy to find polite, hospitable and generous people ready to help the lost, thirsty traveller. Amman the capital city rather modern with the usual clogged roads, smog and a lack of water but life goes on with either sweet tea or thick cardamon flavoured coffee.
The fifth of my TRAVAILOGUE exhibition is up and running, this one held at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. I will transfer a smaller version of the show to the FCC Angkor in Siem Reap for the month of October. Hopefully the shows have and will amuse the many expats, tourists and locals who have little opportunity here to see contemporary art that is not primarily created for the tourist dollar.
My current abode is an apartment that overlooks three rivers, the Mekong, the Bassac and the incredible Tonle Sap which changes its direction of flow twice a year due to the massive difference between the amount of water in the Tonle Sap Lake during the wet season and the dry season. The color of these waterways ranges from dusty metal to brown to orange, blue and blends of all of these shades. Electrical storms adorn the night skies as I work away in the studio on new paintings with the flavors of Arctic melt lakes, tropical rivers and patterns born from the lineage of my line making over the years as an artist. The tiny geckos I co-habitat with bark at the work so I presumptuously take that as a positive response from these cute creatures who are obviously very keen on contemporary art.
Time not spent painting is spent mostly under overhead fans at the popular FCC bar, where it is not too difficult to bump into people you know. A friend whom I used to live with in Darwin back in 1984 found me at the bar as did a man I last saw on the Yamal heading to the North Pole. Another watering hole directly below my flat at street level is run by the charming owner named Hurley. He can be often found watching the always hypnotic and always very real life of Phnom Penh busy itself on the riverfront. Land-mine casualties, large and small boats, children selling books and flowers, thousands of motor bikes, monks, back-packers, NGO 4 wheel drives, trucks, locals and the odd elephant all plod or zoom past. Above the river promenade are international flags which make me feel sort of at home in the world. These colorful emblems billow in the winds and seem to symbolize Cambodia's desire to also be at home in the global world rather than the lost geographical soul it has been in the past.
These rich views that I am lucky enough to devour are woven together with scars from the bloody Khmer Rouge period and spanking new money from abroad. Corruption and hope. The very good and the very bad all float by just like anywhere really…
The PACKING exhibition opening was held on a very hot and humid Hong Kong evening, nevertheless plenty of people managed the steep climb through the thick, sticky air to John Batten Gallery. I hung four large works and two dozen smaller pieces all with an Asian , Antarctic, Australian flavour. (Whatever that means?) The feedback and press were both excellent especially the half page article in the South China Morning Post.
Outside the gallery at night the skyscrapers performed gaudy light shows. Showing off with neon pulses impressively designed heights of steel and cement. During the day opposite the gallery sits the umbrella repair man in his tiny one metre square shop busy mending thousands and thousands of bent and broken brollies. These pop-up portable rooftops protect us from both chilly rains and the burning sun. This time of the year it is typhoon season so tropical storms come and go, making umbrellas a must. August is the time to avoid these downpours, avoid the heat and high humidity and definitely avoid the vile smog. Too many mouthfuls and you are not feeling so good. This month saw me busy with the exhibition and also it was a good time for drinking with ex-pat friends and others.
Hong Kong is a money making machine with a blade runner skyline, pretty islands, delicious food and a non-stop hyperactive manner. It can be extremely attractive for many reasons but there is a vulgar side to the city displayed by its minimal interest in culture (excluding food and mah jong.) and a kind of rudeness that must form when you cram millions of people into a small area. Government TV advertisements even remind people to be more considerate and helpful. My dealings with Hong Kong folk have always been good and I do enjoy the buzz of this incredible mega-city, as long as the buzz is not the neighbours constantly drilling holes in walls while jack hammers rip up cement roads. This is when I try to locate a cheap and cheerful restaurant, sit down and order some steamed dumplings or roast duck on rice and watch the visual cacophony swirl around and around.
I have now been to the North Pole twice but there was no intense physical training, no sleds, no skiing, no dogs dragged me there, I did not get frost bitten nor even frost nipped. I simply boarded the powerful Yamal icebreaker and set up my studio in cabin 78 on the crews deck. Depending on the ice, from Murmansk in Russia it is about a six day sail to 90 degrees north. The Yamal cruised along at 20 knots but often much slower when it rammed through sea ice sometimes 4 metres thick. It was a bumpy and noisy ride through the heavy ice and pressure ridges, smooth in the polynyas or open waters and all too easy to get there I often thought.
In my bunk when I was half asleep the ships movement seemed to me like I was in a light aircraft flying through turbulence with the added bumps, groans, splits and cracking noises just outside the porthole. At times icebreaking sounded like thunder other times it was a soft grind with sea spray. It was continuously impressive and mesmerizing to watch and listen to especially out on the deck at the bow right beside the action.
To relax some evenings I would occasionally sit in the sauna and sweat in + 80 C. Just below me were two small KLT-40 nuclear reactors into which the Russian technicians shovelled 200 grams of uranium isotopes each day for our fuel (Actually the Yamal is refuelled only once every four years.) Outside the sauna was summer in the high Arctic, meaning plenty of fog, the temperature hovering around zero and the sun totally failing to set. Sleeping was a little erratic due to this total lack of night and the ships pounding actions required to split pack ice. Outside as well were Polar bears, seals, whales, walrus, and plenty of birdlife. The large red Yamal did scare off creatures but some were spotted. I sadly saw more polar bear footprints that bears.
As on most Polar voyages the crossing into Arctic or Antarctic water is celebrated with a traditional "Neptune Party". This usually involves costumes, music, games, food, drinks and general laughs. During one Polar party the sky was adorned with a dense and unusual white fog rainbow. I would see more during July as well as Fata morgana the strange Polar mirage. It was an amusing night especially when some Russian friends offered around a drink called "security mix" which was not unlike helicopter fuel flavoured with plums. For breakfast the next morning I had very strong coffee and caviar. This was a most successful cure for my fuzzy head.
The North Pole itself is a frozen and drifting collection of old and new ice. Beautiful for its remoteness and elegant icy formations. Some sunny hours were spent there contemplating this blue and white cool minimal world. Thick fog eventually shut down the view and southwards we headed. No other way was possible except upwards. Occasionally I did travel vertically off the ship in a tough Russian helicopter for some scenic flights and numerous landings on Franz Josef Land. Made up of 191 islands this archipelago is extremely rugged and fascinating. I enjoyed the trips to Buchta Tichaja on Hooker Island which is a Russian Arctic ghost town also seeing the odd spherical boulders on Champ Island and the gorgeous bright red and green moss beds that somehow survive foul weather most of their very long lives.
I made a lot of art onboard as this is what artists in residence should do. Two TRAVAILOGUE exhibitions were hung both consisting of about 80 small works produced on the Yamal as well as a selection of Antarctic works. These Polar art shows at 80 degrees north latitude were attended by most of the passengers, some of the crew, staff and captain Alexander Lembrik who has sailed or should I say rammed his way to the North Pole more than a dozen times.
I turned 44 with the help of some new friends in my cabin, German beer, an enormous tray of Swedish pickled herrings and Russian Vodka. The sea was calm as was my party. The staff all weary from a month onboard or going a little nutty with cabin fever. When I turned in I tried to remember how many ships I had been on. (Not many.) How many planes I had flown in. (Many.) I certainly cant remember all the towns I have visited but for some reason I always remember to carry a toothbrush and a Finnish hunting knife wherever I travel. My rucksack falls apart so I have to sew it together once again. I wonder if it will survive another lap of the globe? I wonder if I will?
I do get tired on the road but I have convinced myself that more travel will rejuvenate me, replenish my minimal needs and satiate my hungry eyes. Travel certainly does this again and again. Should I still be hunting the unfamiliar, chasing travail, and having wild affairs with landscapes? Is this normal behaviour? This birthday shouldn't I wish for a slice of stability as I blow out the candles on my cake? It seems not as I will disembark in Murmansk eat some cloudberries, fly to Helsinki eat some blueberries and reindeer sandwiches, visit the excellent Kiasma Contemporary Art Gallery then fly over Moscow, Kazakstan, Tadzikistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and finally land in Hong Kong for my PACKING exhibition.
I was woken up by an earthquake one morning at 4 am which was unusual for me but not most Taiwanese as this island lies on a wobbly bit of the globe. The building shook and groaned as it did on four occasions while I was in Taipei. One tremor was 6.5 on the Richter scale but the epicentre was many kilometres away. In mid. May I managed to escape the studio and climb Yushan or Jade Mountain with five Taiwanese artists. We spent tree days on and around the 3952 metre high mountain which is the highest peak in N. E. Asia. It was a stunning walk with plenty of wild flowers, bamboo groves, Hemlock and conifer forests, alpine herbs and finally nude rock. The bones of the earth. The treat after all the exercise was a natural hot spring spa in a small hotel. It was magnificent to cleanse and wallow outside watching the misty mountains nearby. Taiwan has many of these thermal baths mostly pumped into neat hotels but some are in a more natural settings. The most impressive is! on Green Island where you find a natural salt water hot spring on a beach. To lie in this for a few hours listening to the waves is a very fine form of behaviour. At the end of May it was time to pack the bags and do the farewells.
Over the years I have survived many farewells involving many drinks. During the three months in Taipei I befriended a lot of interesting people and as usual I packed the bags and delivered my typical bye byes. "I must go." "May see you in the future." "Good luck with all" and the "Stay in touch if you wish." exit speech. Years of practice leaving towns, cities, countries, and continents has made it far too smooth and easy to say "See ya." I see this as a ruthless trait in my character but also acknowledge that after each farewell there are new greetings. I just hope I don't get the two things confused. If I do mix up hi and bye this could be called Farewelcome fever. The constant flow of hello and goodbye, farewell toasts and welcome drinks on ice with spicy snacks, hot drinks with feasts and the odd dance. It is all fuel for movement to me. Around and around. Moving around a very big circle. Bye Taiwan. Hello Hong Kong.
I dropped some bags in Central HK then headed south to Bangkok for the wedding of Josie and Perry who managed to create a brilliant weekend at the Baan Talay Dao resort in Hua Hin. Guests came from many lands and smiles were abundant. Wine guzzling in a warm soup that is called the Gulf of Thailand with old and new friends watching stars above, starfish below and eating star fruit was absolutely all good. Tropical electrical storms were about as I bustled through the thick and very wet air or swam through the artificial, crisp air-conditioned micro climates of Bangkok. An invitation arrived from a friend Mick who is wintering at Casey Station in Antarctica. Mid-Winter celebrations in Antarctica are a major cultural event as the constant darkness will soon turn to constant light. This is well worth a party as everyone on the continent is waiting for the sun. Sadly I cannot get to the function as I fly North. A lot North in fact.
Back to Hong Kong, on to Helsinki then to Murmansk where I shall board the Yamal. The flagship of the Russian icebreaking fleet which is 150 metres long, 30 metres breadth and 23,000 tons of hi-tech. ship that can crunch through 4 metres of sea ice with the greatest of ease. The Yamal is soon heading to the North Pole via Franz Josef Land which is an archipelago of 191 Arctic islands. This journey will keep me busy and out of email communication range for all of July. As artist in residence onboard I will continue my Travailogue series of work, collect new visual information and spend hours in awe of the beauty of the Polar environment. First I need to pack once again and find my socks...
My breakfast of passion fruit flavoured green tea and a few little steamed dumplings this morning was made pleasant due to the lovely sunny day without the usual smog.
I have now been in Taipei for eight weeks, mostly at the T.A.V working hard in the studio. Four large paintings and almost 120 small Travailogue works are completed. Plenty of art activity has gone on around me in various studios and outside the building the Taipei art world seems very busy and healthy.
The 17-18th April was an Open Studio event here at the Artists village. I along with the other resident artists exposed to the public the toils of our creative time. Over 600 people passed through the T.A.V all eager to see assorted and strange artists in their natural habitats. It was a pleasant weekend chatting to a lot of inquisitive people about my artistic methods and meanders. Students, Grandmas, poets, locals from the neighborhood, a philosopher and many folks involved with the Taiwanese art world wandered about the studio mostly making pleasant noises when investigating my paintings.
I have finally tried the demanding stinky tofu after being somewhat scared by the odor. I have been intrigued each time I visited a night market to see and smell all the excellent food then the evil smell of this particular tofu arrives and begins to attack your olfactory organs. I was told this food is the Chinese equivalent of very pungent smelling European cheese. It is not in fact. There is minimal taste so the tofu is served with pickled cabbage and a chili sauce. Actually a great snack with a not so great smell.
The Australian Commerce and Industry Office or pseudo embassy asked me to give some short artists talks at a few primary schools here which involved chatting to about 1000 young students about Art, artists and Australia. Tiring but interesting to see how the school system operates in Taiwan.
I also attended a function arranged by the ACIO where Colin Offord an Australasian musician spoke about his work to a select group of guests in a lovely old building now called SPOT which functions now as a film art house. The gorgeous Pao-an Taoist Temple which was built in 1765 had a festival the other week which I managed to fall into. It is the oldest temple in Taipei and to see it packed with people, fire breathing dragons, gongs, three meter high walking puppet dolls and a traditional Chinese percussion band was hugely colorful and a lot of fun. Embellished with firecrackers and food stalls it was a brilliant afternoon activity.
My Travailogue exhibition in the T.A.V gallery space is up and open to the public for the next month. The show is comprised of over 100 works completed in studio 401 here as well as some Antarctic Travailogues. My Hong Kong art dealer John Batten flew over for the opening and many people dropped in for the evening making it all good. This show is on until the 6th June. During May I also have half a dozen large Antarctic paintings from Davis station on display at the Parliament House in Canberra as part of the celebrations for the 50 years that Mawson station has been operational in Antarctica. Antarctica is hard to imagine in this city but it will not be too long before I find myself on a Russian icebreaker somewhere in the Arctic Ocean watching expanses of ice.
The odd elephant can still be spotted wandering about some Bangkok streets in the evenings which is both exotic and sad. I am certain it is not a fun location for such an animal. Bangkok is Thailand turned very modern. I always find it chaotically pleasant as I move about the city via the Skytrain or on the back of a motor-bike taxi through the thick layers of humid, smoggy air and the tantalising food fumes. I shared a room in an apartment with a small but elaborate kumarnthong shrine that housed a number of spirit children. The children live somewhere in an ethereal world but enjoy physical gifts of eggs, red cordial, snacks and small toys. After play and food they bring good luck to their hosts if they are looked after well.
My passion for tropical fruit was appeased with fresh jackfruit, guava, mango, paw paw, mangosteen and the totally delicious lumud (sapodilla) all available outside on the Bangkok streets. Large amounts of heart shaped kitch were also on sale one week which prompted a friend to propose to his girlfriend so I may return to Bangkok for a wedding later in the year.
My bed now lies north of Thailand in a studio at the Taipei Artists Village where I shall spend the next three months working on new Travailogue paintings and getting to know a little about Taiwan.
Taipei is the home of this week’s largest building on the planet. The 506 metre tall 101 building is the rather attractive square-ish bamboo design of architect C. Y. Lee. A likable skyscraper that cost 1.64 billion US$ to pierce the clouds. Within its flashy and massive mall area I observed two shoppers with blow up corgi dogs on leashes. Floating pets that are dragged about in public confuse me a little. I just hope it was some form of humour.
Another sad display here are the current elections, which involve the shooting of the president, massive rallies, flags, firecrackers, numerous scuffles, demands for a re-count and general organized chaos for some weeks. It seems Chen Shui-bian has won the role of president again.
Taipei with a population of 2.7 million has bits of Beijing, bits of Hong Kong and bits of Japan all glued together with something Formosan or Taiwanese or should I say something Republic of Chinese?
This is a fine part of the world with generally a very polite and friendly population sadly the land suffers from bad smaze. (A smog and haze blend) The beautiful mountain-scapes, bamboo forests, natural hot springs and pretty islands help to counter-act the population density and pollution but really a good spring cleaning is needed.
It is a worry when you see many people wearing cloth masks over their mouths and noses and hear radio announcers suggesting that you should not breath some days in some parts of Taiwan.
An Australia-China Council (www.dfat.gov.au/acc) residence award has situated me in studio 401 in the Taipei Artists Village (www.artistvillage.org) It is a large, neat and comfortable working space centrally located and nearby is the main train station. Not far away are numerous art and culture museums. In particular the National Palace Museum which houses the largest and finest collection of Chinese art on the planet. As a working space the T.A.V. is excellent with a most helpful staff and good facilities. I feel that my three months here will be highly productive.
Besides one very rare incident involving a rabid, betel nut chewing, stick wielding taxi driver Taipei has been receptive to me and I have responded by producing new work with a Antarctic Chinoiseries flavour. I have visited many galleries, meet artists and was part of a ‘Blood-blending’ art performance by Lu Shien Fu. Besides studio time I have made a long and interesting loop trip around Taiwan, which included visits to Taichung, Chiayi, Alee Mountain (a great journey from pineapple plantations to conifer forests via train.) Kuohsiung, Taidong, Natural hot springs and the relaxed Green Island. Best get back to the studio now to rearrange the experiences into paintings.
The long Australian summer has been excellent, as I have been wandering through and enjoying the festive BBQ "silly season." down here. Family, friends, functions, food, fun and frolicking about the east coast of this continent have kept me highly amused. I will leave with the usual thoughts of "why not stay in this excellent country? It is a good question and I can only answer it with the fact that I must commute to work. My next studio/workspace happens to be located in Taiwan so off I fly. Asia beckons me back for a few projects. First a short stop in Bangkok then I relocate to the Taipei Artists Village for three months of serious studio time.
Planned trips to China, Mongolia, Cambodia, the Arctic and a return to Europe at the end of the year now become more real. As usual juggling this with that, dates, places, and funds to achieve everything is an ongoing and very tricky procedure. In the end after much organization and planning it really is a matter of crossing ones fingers and hoping that things actually happen. The Melbourne Unmapping exhibition of late last year went well and the new work done over summer has sorted and prepared me for what I shall be busy with in Taiwan. Directly after I complete the Australia-China Council studio residency there I shall move to Hong Kong to exhibit the second Travailogue show at John Batten Gallery.
After much socializing over the southern summer I now look forward to a little bit of anonymity as well as the opportunity to concentrate on new work in the Taipei Artists Village. I believe the studio is very functional, Taiwan sounds fascinating and totally foreign to me…. exactly what I desire!