Monday, 17 May 2021

Take two: Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class, Robert Lacey

For a fuller review, see my Patreon

I decided to do something different for the cover shot this time, taking a hint from someone on Twitter who uses the handle @LloydLegalist. On 14 May he said, “I think folks should be required to read a book for every 10 selfies they take.” It gave me the idea to put up selfies of my own reads, to accompany my secondary reviews. I wish people would write more reviews on books they read. Selfies are fine as far as they go but what do they tell us about the person inside? What about my loaf? Is it acceptable now I’ve lost 30 kilos?

Dad had this volume in his library and it had sat on a bookshelf in my bedroom, having come from Pyrmont in the January move. I brushed the dust off the tops of the pages before reading. Sotheby’s sold my house and sold me my new place, so I thought that I’d take dad’s posthumous advice and learn more about the company that’d had so much to do, in recent months, with my finances. 

I don’t know how much of the book dad read before he succumbed to dementia (no bookmarks were in place to show me how far he’d got, but something had spilled on some pages so parts of the book had definitely been read) and I thoroughly enjoyed it since it supplemented other knowledge I had, especially about the 18th century, which was when the company was founded by a second-hand bookseller named Baker. 

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Exhibition review: Leah Fraser, ‘Let her go into the darkness,' Arthouse Gallery, Rushcutters Bay

It was early on a Saturday morning in autumn and I was on the bus planning to go to the state gallery but checked my phone because for a couple of weeks I’d seen notices of Fraser’s exhibition in emails. I’d actually received advance notification almost a month earlier, probably because I’d previously bought – critic’s disclosure here – one of the artist’s little ceramic sculptures. I took a shine to Fraser’s work as it was portrayed in a February 2014 email the gallery sent out to its list of patrons, whereupon I bought it and had it shipped to Queensland. I was living there at the time near my mother’s house and kept my eyes peeled for value. 

Now, sitting on the moving bus, I lodged a booking to go to an artist’s talk in the early afternoon. I got off at Central and, instead of walking up by Surry Hills, I entered the train station to use the conveniences, then got on the light rail and took it to the QVB, from where I walked through Hyde Park to get to the AGNSW. Inside the front door a young woman stopped me to ask if I needed assistance and when I asked what was on rattled off a list. These included a talk on Indigenous art – she pointed to a young man waiting in the gallery foyer – which was to start in 10 minutes. I drifted off and poked my head in the bookshop door, picked up a book I thought I might like to read, then sat down on a settee to wait until 11am rolled around.

The talk was interesting and involved some works on the ground floor which the gallery had commissioned from Aboriginal people as well as Tiwi Islanders in the 1950s. I learned a great deal in a short space of time, then we headed downstairs to see some more contemporary works of Indigenous art, this time by a Torres Straight Islands producer. 

A cup of coffee and a short visit to the food exhibition delivered meaning. The waitress had sat me down near a young woman seated at a standalone table wearing a long black shirt and a white woollen sweater. The idea came to me that I should strike up a conversation but I felt old and awkward, so just used my fingers to scroll through social media while I drank a tepid coffee. In the Asian gallery – where the food exhibition was held – I saw a few minutes later a painting (see below) that echoed my recent experience. Titled ‘Southern beauty’ the painting is by Chinese artist Li Jin.

It shows a young woman in a qipao looking awkward at a restaurant table. Done in ink and colour on xuan (rice) paper, it is a whimsical and entertaining portrait of femininity where the subject is not entirely confident in her appeal but where she nevertheless deploys it to best effect. Almost despite her true desires.

I left the gallery and walked through the park near men playing soccer, then went up William Street and over the hill to Rushcutters Bay. It started to rain for a moment, then relented – by the time the event ended it was only windy – but I was very early. It wasn’t 1pm and I mooched about as patrons gathered and at about 1.40pm Ali Yeldham knocked something against a bottle to get people’s attention and started the discussion. 

At home I had placed Leah Fraser’s ceramic statue ‘Full moon rising’ on top of a bookcase, which was free – without charge – and that had been listed on Facebook Marketplace. Along with it went a wooden Japanese stamp and the Chinese box I’d had downstairs on the busy entertainment cabinet. There are also some rocks from my old place in Pyrmont and a flat, basalt roundel the original purpose of which I’m ignorant of; I selected it for inclusion because in its absence the rocks’d only number four. 

Five being more auspicious. The bookcase has a chipboard construction but is sturdy in the old-fashioned 70s style of low-cost household furniture. Since it deprived me of no cash I’d no reason to quibble over such details as the stain in the top – which I covered with an orange dining placemat of mum’s that had been embroidered with a dove at some point in the far distant past. (I’ve got a set of these placemats in the kitchen cupboard ready to use – in Pyrmont they’d been stuffed away in the hall cupboard and were, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible.) 

Before the talk started Fraser had been introduced to me by Will Mansfield. She is glamorous and quite stunning, resembling Keira Knightley – and in fact Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ is in the bookcase in the above photo – and, though not as tall as the British actress, she has poise. When Will mentioned some ideas I’d expressed about her art, Fraser seemed to want to run interference – she smiled and laughed and turned her head to the right as though something witty had been said but avoided commenting – though Yeldham later took up the same theme. I’d thought that Fraser’s paintings exploit conventional ideas about femininity while also challenging them. This was briefly discussed as the two of them stood in front of the small crowd in the gallery, everybody waiting to hear something new that might help them to understand questions raised by the confusing world in which they live and for which Fraser’s work seems to have answers.

Above: The night was heavy but the air was alive

While fey and attractive, Fraser is clearly knowledgeable about that world, and her artworks are titled as though with lines of poetry in a way that Craig Waddell also uses for his paintings. Waddell’s impasto statements are unlike Fraser’s delicate female figures – each of them enclosed (as Fraser mentioned during her talk) in a narrow space – in which the hands are especially prominent. Fraser said that her figures might be about to be hugged or stroked, but in some of the artworks (see image below) the subject is holding something in her long, icon-like fingers.

Above: She flew light night from land to land

The theme of darkness embodied in the name of the show is echoed faithfully in the titles of many of the paintings, which are done in acrylic on polyester canvas. In one of them (‘Let her go into the darkness’) a woman holds in her grip a long spray of stars, the tips of her fingers feather-light but competent for the task – as though holding onto the night itself were a power she resolutely but uniquely commanded. 

Is it a power she wishes to possess? In another painting (see below) the woman holds a knife and uses it to prick her finger, whereupon a drop of blood is visible on the pale skin. In this painting Fraser uses a kind of border around the figure, the paint shimmering with suffused intensity and outlining the figure like a halo.

Above: I was charged with life

In her talk, Fraser mentioned her love of 16th century Italian paintings and named Botticelli as an influence. She said that in such artworks there is always a plethora of objects adding meaning and signification to the whole, and in her own works it is nature that serves this purpose, for example in the work shown below.

Above: Some strange music drew her in

Here, as in other paintings in the show, are birds and flowers. The latter reminding me by the shape of their petals of hydrangea but with the difference that here the blooms are on vines, whereas in real life hydrangea are clearly bushes. And the birds resemble a honeyeater, perhaps such as you might see feeding off and pollinating flowering gum trees around Sydney.

The feminine is not only expressed in Fraser’s work via the subject, but also through the rhythms used to create the composition, as in the painting above where vegetal vines strike up a chorus with the woman’s hair and with the unusual and almost Indigenous white veil in which she is cloaked. As in most of the works the eyes are oddly-coloured (in this case, black) and eerie, as though we were looking at an alien from another planet come to visit Earth and to describe all the ways in which we are abusing Her. The small teeth in the woman’s mouth seem to be about to serve to help form words. The mouth is slightly open, as though in casual speech. What is she wanting to say?

Once I was on my way home I pondered the juxtaposition of the AGNSW talk and Fraser’s show, and how they both contained messages about our society and the ways that we are using the Earth. In one of the bark paintings I’d had explained to me that morning, backburning was depicted by a traditional artist of Arnhem Land. The exercise doesn’t go as planned, however, and the fire spreads out of control. To escape censure, the man who’d been in charge changed himself into a bandicoot. Also visible in the painting was a crocodile with a burnt back, where the flames from trees overhanging the body of water in which the beast was lying had singed its skin.

Fraser’s art goes to similar places in different ways, though there’s also a strong storytelling component to the works on display on Saturday. It’s not clear who has agency in the paintings. Is it the women pictured? What about the darkness? Is there an implicit threat to their safety? Fraser’s early attraction to Wicca is expressed in some printed matter supplied by the gallery, but it’s not evident which form of the religious she cleaves to. If you go – as I did – to the main Wikipedia page, you can read about a wide variety of practices and denominations though they seem to hold in common the idea of a female god. Adherents’ connection to the Earth is also manifest in the account on the website. The movement grew as part of the same postwar counter-culture that spawned the ecology movement and looking at Fraser’s work you quickly pick up reverberations of this, too.

Above: I crushed the fragile white petals in my fingers. The scent was like oblivion, a trance

Yet this is clearly not the whole story (a species behaviour, we seek to make meaning out of what we perceive). Connected with an overtly environmental theme is another one that is also chained to the feminine, and it is here that, for me, the mystique of Fraser’s art most strongly resides. Like most contemporary art, Fraser’s is aware of itself in its context. I’ve already mentioned the method of titling the works, but I also felt ideas about how women live in the world, and one of the women at the show who wore what looked like a 1960s Indian cotton dress – mum used to sell such garments in her gift shop in Vaucluse – with an elaborate pattern printed on it made me think of the many women I’ve known over the years who have gravitated into my orbit like crazy stars. 

Stars perhaps like the ones in the hands stroking the exposed figure in the painting above, the extended title of which is like part of the figure’s accoutrements. Whose hands are those that reach out from the margins to touch the raised knee or to dawdle in the flowers adorning her blue hair? Are they benign or malicious? Would they heal or can they, instead, hurt? 

If the woman seems unhappy perhaps this is also an illusion. What was certain on that Saturday was the cold of the afternoon that closed in as I stood there among my coevals – people I’d never otherwise meet – and again I spoke to none of them, and when Fraser had finished regaling us with some mysteries of her practice I popped out the front door onto the street, scampered quickly up the hill, got on the train, and came home to make my weight-watcher’s dinner: a tomato with a half-fillet of perch baked in the oven and the juice of a lemon from the tree in my garden.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Dream journal: Thirty-seven

This is the thirty-seventh in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

19 June 2020

Dreamt I was working in Tokyo (where I worked IRL from 1992 to 2001) and there was a new social media application that could only be used with a text terminal which looked, in fact, like an old electric typewriter. There were, in the office, one or two of these terminals.

I wanted to get one installed on my desk but I had to convince the manager of my unit – a woman – of the utility of doing so, as there were so many other people interested in using the office terminal that it was hard to find an opportunity to sit down at it. 

A colleague with a spiffy red leather-and-fleece jacket – which somehow I knew was new – was standing, at one stage, in front of where a terminal had been installed, waiting for his turn to use it. I fingered the fleece on the outside of his jacket and said, “I’ve got one like this.” He countered by saying, “Yes, but this is real wool, yours is synthetic.” I couldn’t argue with him as this was true (I had been given my fleecy jacket – made of corduroy and artificial fleece – in around 2003, after returning home from Japan, when I was living in shared accommodation in northern Sydney) but I thought it was mean of him to point out the deficiency in my clothing especially since he was so nattily attired. His jacket had a very high collar at the back: it stood up so tall that it almost reached, at its outermost extent, the level of the top of his head.

I found out that the subscription of the social media service in question was $1.01 (per week or per month, I didn’t, however, learn) and this sum of money could be paid using a credit card. The manager wanted all her staff to be snappy dressers, and the guy with the red jacket and I had a conversation about housing in Sydney and Tokyo, and how inequitable it was. I wanted to say to him, “There’s nothing stopping people moving to where they want. The only thing that gets in the way is the price of the property.” But I was arguing his case by doing so, as he had been complaining about the enclaves that existed in Tokyo separating people along economic lines. In my experience of Sydney I couldn’t find anything to counter his argument, so I let the conversation lapse and contented myself with feeling aggrieved on account of my inability to get the manager to notice my new suit.

I woke up before I worked out if she was going to agree to pay for the new social media service. I could hear, at times, the clackety-clack of the terminal installed in the office as it processed incoming messages and typed them on paper stretched on the device’s platen. The sound was, to me, enticing, promising new pleasures and a way to realise my dreams. I wanted to be the one chosen to be involved with this new technology of the future. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Take two: The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant

For a longer review, see my Patreon site

This cracked paperback fell to pieces while I was reading it, but what a treasure it is! An ancient name by now, but a wonderful read nevertheless. What a shame she’s not widely consumed anymore. Like Miles Franklin’s ‘Old Blastus of Bandicoot’ there’s a major bushfire to spark new events near the ending of this tremendous postwar classic, but it’s the characters that are so memorable. Its humour is incredibly refreshing.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

A free kick given to the CCP by the loony left

It seemed as though people were so intent on overthrowing the government that they’d do without representative democracy, the very thing that allows them to comment so vocally on social media. A fairly toothless response by the Chinese government to the feds’ abrogation of Victoria’s ‘Belt and Road’ agreement with the CCP was greeted by a round of catcalls from the gallery. 

China’s decision to suspend talks that most people on social media never knew existed made the news on Thursday and the crowing was audible across town. But if you were Chinese such behaviour would be simply impossible because the CCP monitors Chinese social media and suppresses activity of which it disapproves. People’s understanding of realities that govern the lives of millions of people are blanketed by a myopic hunger for revenge on an administration whose election – in mid-2019 – is still regretted by a healthy section of the community.

You find all sorts of strange ideas if you spend any amount of time watching what passes for debate these days. The word “debate” must be used loosely as there is no order in the proceedings such as you find, for example, in federal Parliament. One person makes a statement and another person jumps in to rubbish it in a way that makes discussion impossible. Seasoned journalists who engage in this environment occasionally and openly celebrate the ability to block people from seeing what they write.

The Communist Party of China, meanwhile, presses on with its long-term program of shutting down all debate that it itself does not want. It has used its consulates in Australian cities to harass advertisers of local Chinese language newspapers who still pay for ads, when the Party takes exception to a story that runs. Its chosen delegates open up their own newspapers and run the Party line, making sure that the message from Beijing is communicated widely. It makes life difficult for Australian journalists working in China, and sometimes these individuals choose to leave the country rather than risk incarceration. Books full of their thoughts have just been published in Australia. ‘The Truth About China’ by Bill Birtles can be bought now in bookshops and at Amazon. There’s also ‘The Beijing Bureau’ written by a number of foreign correspondents.

So it’s not that there’s no information, it’s just that people refuse to look. Yet they still spout their vague opinions criticising a government that has been forced to negotiate a tortuous path by the CCP. The Belt and Road initiative was just the latest in an ongoing financial relationship that includes the sale of multiple assets to Chinese companies. And remember that each of these concerns must have a senior executive who is a Party member, so that Party discipline is maintained along the entire value chain.

About four years ago I was working on a story that never got published. The story was about Asian investment in Australian agriculture. In the process of researching the article I found a number of different plays that were part of the continuing economic relationship between China and Australia. Here are the non-land plays worth over $100 million.

Here are the land plays worth over $100 million.

The non-land plays worth under $100 million:

The land plays worth under $100 million:

And finally the smaller plays, worth under $20 million:

You can see from looking at these tables that the biggest investor at the time – my research was mainly conducted at the end of 2017 – was China. That might’ve changed in the intervening years but China will still be a major player in Australian agriculture today. What the Twittersphere ignores is the fact that the government here still allows Chinese companies to buy assets in Australia – despite the fact that the reverse is impossible. An Australian company that wanted to buy, say, a shipping port on China’s eastern seaboard, would not be allowed to complete the transaction.

When it comes to China, two sets of rules apply. China wants to profit from the global consensus but it wants to do so on its own terms. For its companies and for its government there is one set of rules. For everyone else there is another set of rules. The loony left supports this settlement because it is solely focused on the small picture. In its eagerness to remove the Morrison government from power it ignores the facts and sticks to a line the Party applauds because it is in its interest to see the Liberal Party – which has so warmly welcomed Chinese ownership of Australian assets – criticised. Twitter is doing the Party’s work for it.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Tweeting better stories, episode five: April 2021

Wanting to find a lighter-hearted way I offer readers this fifth post in a series.

The following appeared at 12.52pm on 2 April.

On 29 April at 6.15am the following appeared.

Famous people

I’ll refer in what follows to Prince Philip’s death simply because it was such a massive event. For a while it seemed as though nothing else in the public sphere was of any consequence. To begin with, a salute from a supporter.

Another relevant tweet appeared on 10 April at 7.17pm. This was also a minimal comment and, like the first one, showed a body at rest.

The duke was leveraged in a range of different ways by people wanting to make rhetorical points, as in the case of this person who, on 22 April at 5.55am, strove to help migrants. It seems as though the prince had powers beyond death, and that, even from the grave, he was able to change things in the real world.

Another famous person appeared with a tweet that also showed a body. This was at 12.32pm on 11 April. Assange, of course, is, like Prince Philip, a talismanic individual, one whose powers of persuasion reside in the mere listing of his name among others. Set beside anu number of disparate facts, the letters of Assange’s name are supposed to move mountains. Or at least to bring those in power, and who abuse it, to justice.


On 25 April at 5.45am the following appeared in my feed. This individual – the person who posted this retweet – is commonly to be found talking about the biological record as it is evident in fossils.

History was also served by this tweet, which appeared in my feed on 28 April at 6.45am.

The following appeared on 25 April at 5.19am.

On 28 April at 8.46am the following two tweets appeared in my feed. They were right next to one another and, even though they comment directly on each other’s concerns, no intentional act by me was involved in this conjunction. It was purely accidental, which speaks to the arbitrary nature of meaning.

Madness and desire

On 24 April at 6.02pm the following appeared in my feed.

The following appeared on 26 April at 5.32am.

This person describes herself as an introvert, but does so with such force and certainty that I very much doubt that it is true.

The poetry itself was terrible but afraid of upsetting the woman’s equilibrium I said nothing to her in this vein.

The following appeared on 30 April at 5.36am. This tweet contained so little in the way of affect, but carried with it such a load of frustrated desire, that I decided to make the clip.

On 28 April at 6.08am the following appeared.

The following appeared on 27 April at 7.17am. It also contained oceans of unfulfilled desire, and spoke of a search for a safe harbour. I wondered what kind of place this might be.

The following drawing appeared on 27 April at 6.13am. There are so many drawings of this kind, which link in with an individual’s desires and wishes in a way that no other kind of commentary can do. Many of these artists are talented, as in this case, though some are not.


I am going to list a few items that have a topical phase simply because there are so many of them. But these tweets are, still, ephemeral and embody transient desires. To start with, on 19 April at 6.56am, I saw the following tweet.

The goal of this comment is clear, though the execution was a little askew. Or perhaps this person was trying to be funny … In any case, the effect is whimsical.

On 4 April at 3.20pm the following appeared.

At 8.55am the same day the following appeared.

On 6 April at 6.11am the following nature-oriented tweet appeared.

On 18 April at 6.17pm the following appeared in my feed. The aim of this person’s remark is entirely obscure due to the consumptive fashion in which the ideas are expressed. This comment was therefore very striking and I thought it warranted inclusion here in my survey.


On 5 April at 10.16am the following appeared.

This tweet reprises the nature theme of an earlier example included in this survey. Here, however, the focus is on the eternal qualities of the natural world, as a refuge and as a source of comfort and of solace amid the cares and trials of communal existence. It’s as though this person were saying, “Time out!”


More funny tweets follow this heading. It makes a change from the previous theme. This one appeared on 4 April at 6.31am.

On 3 April at 6.36am the following appeared.

A rear end also features in the following humorous tweet that appeared on 27 April at 5.53am.

This tweet also serves to complete my survey. Ciao!