Thursday, November 28, 2013

Reflections on Canberra

I was in Canberra for a few days in late November. I was interested to see the city for the first time and visit some of the political and cultural institutions.

In a couple of days we visited the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, The National Library of Australia's Mapping our World exhibit, Questacon, Parliament House, Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House), National Archives, National Museum and the inside of the 100 bus. Rather busy. I am not going to chronicle all of that but I do have a few reflections and photos.

The Australian War Memorial was well worth the visit and we spent a couple of hours but it needs repeated visits over many days and seasons - as do all worthwhile cultural places. The view shown above is looking out from the resonating and movingly simple Hall of Memory (resting place of the unknown soldier) across the breadth of the city to Parliament. It is a striking use of landscape in the design.

The red poppies on the Roll of Honour are visually striking; red on slate grey. We found the name of my uncle who had perished in the second world war near Singapore with the intention of placing a poppy. As it turns out the poppies are forced into a gap between the panels, not a feature of the original design! and there was no gap near his name. I took a photo and kept the poppy.

The National Gallery was excellent. I had recently watched Edmond Capon's The Art of Australia series and was well prepared to appreciate the collection. I eavesdropped (as you do) on a tour guide talking about Blue Poles and that was an added bonus. If I lived in Canberra I would visit often. However the unexpected bonus was a Skyspace construction by James Turrell called Within without, 2010. I can't even begin to describe it except to say it used walls and water and light in the most remarkable way. The photo above doesn't even begin to do it justice. This short ABC Art Nation video about it and James Turrell is worth a look. This is a must see if you are Canberra.

The architecture of the National Museum was striking and the photo above shows The Garden of Australian Dreams a visual, tactile interpretation of the Australian landscape.

Parliament House was very interesting, though not surprisingly Old Parliament House is more accessible and has a stronger sense of history. The portraits of past Prime Minsters was as you might expect, except for the Clifton Pugh portrait of Gough Whitlam which was strikingly less traditional but somehow appropriate.

Unlike Old Parliament House the blood of democratic contest still runs through new Parliament House even when the house is not sitting and I captured this Christine Milne press conference happening below on the lawns. I think education funding was the main topic.

My overall impression of Canberra is one of art and culture, buses and bikes and striking public installations. Perhaps another hundred years will see a little more texture and less sense of artificial construction.

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