Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Amsterdam

So I'm in Amsterdam. Both before I came and now I've arrived people have asked 'Why Amsterdam?'and the only answer I can give is 'because I like Amsterdam'. That begs the question of what it is about Amsterdam that I like. Amsterdam's not a large city - either in area or population - but it has the attributes that I like in a larger city, such as wonderful museums, good music, great design, original fashion and, more generally, cosmopolitanism. Because it's small it's relatively easy to get around. The trams function well and take me most places I wish to go. And because it's small and flat it's a very walkable city. The Netherlands itself isn't renowned for its cuisine but there's an emphasis on food freshness and lots of restaurants highlighting the cuisine of its immigrants.

Beyond all these sensible reasons for liking Amsterdam there's something less tangible. I just like the way it looks. Of course, any city that is built around canals has a head start in the beauty stakes.

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam seems to have a wonderful geometry and regularity, but once you look a little deeper, there are all sorts of variations and eccentricities within this regularity. The city's not neatly laid out in a grid pattern - like Sydney it follows the paths set out by past inhabitants - so I think the appeal is about scale. The houses line up neatly along the streets and are roughly the same heights and proportions as each other.

Amsterdam - Langestraat

Then you look closely and discover differences - of window size and arrangement, of colour and finish, of age, and even of function when the houses are interspersed with warehouses

Amsterdam - Kerkstraat

Even when there is a need for infill building that inserts modern structures with the old, the proportions are retained. I love these surprises:

Amsterdam Kerkstraat - old and new

I haven't been doing anything particularly touristy - apart from popping in to reacquaint myself with the lovely Begijnhof which you can approach through an arched doorway and small tunnel from busy Spui. It's magical as you pass from crowded streets to the green square where the oldest houses date from the fifteenth century. The Square originally housed an order of lay Catholic nuns and even today, when it is administered by the city, the Beguinhof is home only to single women.

Amsterdam - Begijnhof

All the photographs I've taken have just been what I've encountered as I've gone about daily tasks - organising my tram ticket, finding some knitting needles because I'd brought the wrong size, buying a ticket for Bach's St Matthew Passion on Sunday. One of the pleasures of Amsterdam is that so much of it is photogenic. However, I would advise any visitor to move beyond the city centre with its fast-food and souvenir shops, its litter and its fun-fair attractions. Awful, and so easy to escape by walking just a few blocks.

As I was buying my concert ticket I walked through the Museumplein and was attracted by crowds of people around the Rijksmuseum, which has been largely closed for several years for extensive renovations. Fortunately for me, the grand reopening is on 14 April so I'll have the opportunity to see this grand museum and its collection in all its restored splendour. But back to the crowds of people. The star of the Rijksmuseum's collection, Rembrandt's enormous The Night Watch, was being moved to its new location in the building. Because of its size it could not be moved internally, so the painting in its climate controlled crate was moved outside the building through a specially enlarged door, lifted down with a crane, and then walked around on a trolley to its new location where the crane operation was repeated.

Moving the Night WatchMoving the Night Watch 2Moving the Night Watch 3Moving the NIght Watch 4

There were crowds of police and Museum staff and even groups of school-children cheering as the air-conditioned crate moved past. A great happenstance event.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

One day in Singapore

I'm travelling again. I've just made my way to Amsterdam via Singapore. For readers of my blog I'm sure it's now very clear that I love to travel. I'm not sure why this is. I used to assume that everybody loved to travel and that it was lack of opportunity that prevented some people from doing so. But over time I've discovered that not everybody likes to be 'elsewhere' as much as I do. I like the way you can't take things - customs, ways of doing things - for granted when you're not at home. I like speculating on why things are the way they are and what impact that has on people's lives. And I like just looking at places - at the patterns and colours and and the way they are brought together in the natural or cultivated landscape.

So, I've just arrived in Amsterdam, where I've swapped houses for month or so. When I booked my air ticket I was unsure how well I'd cope with a long flight after my hip replacement, so I organised a one-day stop-over in Singapore. Over the years I've been very rude about Singapore, describing it as boring and too clean. Really, I should have known better. One of my implicit travel rules is that almost any experience can be interesting for the traveller - you just have to look and wonder.

I had only a long day to spend in Singapore and was unsure how much I would be able to manage with my more limited mobility. Many years ago I had visited the Botanic Gardens in Singapore and had memories of the wonders of the orchids there. So, relatively early because of the heat, I went to the Gardens. They were already buzzing with activity. People out for early morning walks, joggers, parents with children with bikes and tricycles, families already setting out picnics under shady trees and tai chi practitioners. When space is at a premium, as it is in Singapore, such gardens are greatly valued and, in this case, beautifully cultivated and maintained.

The orchid garden within the Botanic Gardens is exquisite. The display of the orchids against densely arranged, varied tropical plantings, as well as the blooms themselves, is wondrous.

Singapore Orchid Garden - 

The paths meander and at every corner there seems to be a new bank of unexpected colour and patterns. Some of the paths had arches of tiny yellow and brown orchids, and there were periodic bowers of dense vegetation for shelter from the sun.

Singapore Orchid Gardem archways

I took many photographs. I've chosen those below almost at random because all of the orchids were so lovely. Some orchids were tiny - others (not my favourites) were fleshily huge and gaudy. Orchids know how to combine colours unexpectedly. I was particularly struck by the mauve and brown combinations - perhaps inspiration for a striped shawl?

Singapore Orchid Garden 7Singpore Orchid Garden 4Singapore Orchid Garden 5Singapore Orchid Garden 6

By about 11.00am it was too hot to continue in the Gardens. After a rest I took a trip on a 'hop-on hop-off' bus to have an air-conditioned sit-down glimpse of other Singapore sights. I hopped off in Chinatown and spent a leisurely afternoon exploring its streets. I thought it was odd that Singapore would have a 'Chinatown', given that more than 70% of the country's population is Chinese. But a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre explained that oddity and provided lots of food for thought. Singapore's rapid development over the last fifty years or so brought equally rapid destruction of old streets and buildings for new offices, improved housing and commercial buildings. About twenty years ago it was realised that there was merit - commercial and cultural - in the preservation of some of Singapore's past. Today's Chinatown preserves some of the streetscapes of the past.

Singapore Chinatown

The Heritage Centre is one of those museums that tries to give a sense of the past through replicas of past living conditions and through the recorded testimonies of individuals who lived and worked in what is today's Chinatown. Singapore is a city of immigrants and their descendants. In the late nineteenth century desperately poor Chinese people risked the little they had and severed their family connections to travel from southern China to then Nanyang where it was believed colonial development offered opportunities for work and improvement. Work was mainly hard and physical and living conditions were dire. One of the more touching testimonies was from an old woman who, even in the 1950's, worked long days as a construction labourer, carrying construction materials and rubble in baskets. The Centre recreates the conditions of people living and working in the old shophouses of the city around the 1950s. The building in which the Centre is housed had businesses on the ground floor, and up to twenty families crammed into small spaces on the two floors above. The Heritage Centre presents the conditions of 'cubicle' living in painstaking detail - the kitchen and single pan toilet

Singapore Chinatown Heritage Museum - kitchen

the combined living / sleeping spaces

Singapore Heritage Centre - bedroom

and the dark, cramped hallway that also served as storage space

Singapore Chinatown Heritage Museum

One of the businesses housed in the building was a tailor, and the shop and cramped working quarters of the 1950s were faithfully depicted. Again, the delight was in the detail:

Singapore Chinese Heritage Museum - tailor's shopSingapore Chinese Heritage Museum - sewing machineSingapore Chinatown Heritage Museum - threads

I spent ages in the Heritage Centre. It's reminded me that the Singapore of high rise developments, international label shopping and law-abiding cleanliness is a recent phenomenon and is the result of hard, often exploited work by many immigrants who are now its citizens. As recently as sixty years ago things were very different. My visit to the Centre was topped off by eating in the small traditional restaurant at its entrance - rich sweet/spicy/soy noodles with prawns and vegetables. Yum.

Singapore cafe

I suspect and hope that I won't be repeating my glib, dismissive statements about boring Singapore.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


My grand-daughter is in need of a new winter cardigan. I guess that if you live in Brisbane, as she does, then 'need' is a relative term. But even in Brisbane the evenings and mornings in winter can be quite chilly, so a not too heavy weight cardigan is just about what is needed.

Ana Maria's flutterbies

I chose the colour (which in reality is a bit more eggplant-ish than these photos show) because it won't show stains and dirt too quickly and Ana Maria chose the chartreuse colour for the pocket linings. I think she's showing great colour sense already!

The yarn is Grignasco Merino Gold DK which is 100% wool but, fortunately, washable. The pattern is Georgie Hallam's Little Butterflies and it comes with lots of instructions for various modifications - sleeve lengths, contrast borders - and with excellent advice for yarn substitution. The pattern is named for the wrapped stitches mainly around the yoke that create a butterfly effect. The buttons, by the way, are much, much brighter than my photos show and a great match for the pocket linings.

Ana Maria's flutterbyes 2

I posted the cardigan off to my grand-daughter yesterday, hoping she'll like it. Maybe I'll have some photos of her wearing it - much more interesting than my hasty pics before I posted it off.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Everything old is....?

I'm very surprised that I've made this:

Crochet scarf 1

It's a crochet scarf made up of flower medallions. I'd say they are granny square type motifs except that they're round, not square, and I refuse to use the words 'granny' or 'nana' in any way that might imply that being older is to have bad or unfashionable taste. Anyway, I've made this crochet scarf. I don't really like crochet very much. I find that crochet fabrics are often stiff and don't have the drape I appreciate in most knitting. And, until the recent availability of Japanese or Japanese-influenced patterns in Australia, many of the designs for crochet have not appealed to me.

My venture into crochet is really all down to my friend Jane who is an ardent crocheter. Last year she gave me some crochet necklaces and I'd really like to be able to replicate them and construct similar thread jewellery. And I must admit that I'm sometimes delighted by the riot of colour you can achieve with repetitive crochet motifs. So I went to one of Jane's excellent crochet classes to revise my long-unused crochet skills.

Crochet scarf 2

The first half-hour of the class was torture. Simultaneously, I seemed to have too many fingers and too few to follow the instructions. But I gradually remembered the techniques and felt less clumsy. I'm glad I persisted after the class and finished the scarf as I now feel confident to undertake other projects - perhaps the necklaces?

Heaven knows if I'll ever wear my scarf.

Crochet scarf 3

I like the vibrant mix of colours and it scrunches up well if you wind it round your neck. But the yarn's a bit scratchy (it's Morris and Son's Estate 8 ply) and it's very lairy. We'll see....

Crochet scarf 4

And thanks again to Margarita, my wonderful photographer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Our part of the world revisited

It's a couple of weeks since I visited the seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7) in Brisbane. I'm not sure why I've delayed blogging about my visit. Laziness maybe? Or possibly the realisation that blogging now seems to be rather unfashionable and I'm no longer sure that what I'm writing about is interesting to others. But then, I've always seen my blog as a personal record as much as it is a communication with others. It's an aide memoire. I use it to remind me of experiences and responses that otherwise might drop from the edges of my unreliable memory.

The APT7 is a collection of works from 75 artists drawn from 27 different Asian and Pacific countries. If you live in Sydney I think you are naturally aware of Australia's Asian connection - through food, architecture, the appearance of people in the street. But whenever I visit Brisbane I am much more aware of our Pacific connection, which is somehow less evident in Sydney. The APT7 emphasised the art of the Pacific. The curators had the specific objective of revisiting the themes of the initial APT when Papua New Guinea featured extensively. I greatly enjoyed this focus of the exhibition. In my past - maybe the 1970s and early 1980s - New Guinea arts and artifacts seemed to be more common (fashionable?) than they are today. There were galleries exhibiting and selling such art and its aesthetic was appreciated and valued. So I was delighted to see some wonderful, exuberant structures and art works from Papua New Guinea, such as the enormous carved and decorated pillars and roof for a Sepik Haus Tamburan that you pass through to view other works

APT7 Haus Tamburan

and I was fascinated by a very tactile and slightly menacing group of life-size figures from the Asmat Artists of West Papua - now part of Indonesia - though this work is a vivid reminder of its cultural links to Melanesia:

APT7 Asmat Artists, Papua

These works by Tongan / New Zealand artist Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi appealed to my love of thread and of textiles more generally. They build on the centrality of 'Lalava', or 'lashing' in Polynesian life - the way that the ubiquitous use of thread to lash together housing, rigging on boats, or furniture can become both decorative and part of the identity of a group or clan. These are particularly intricate lashing patterns, some made of knitting yarn

APT7 Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi 'Lalava'

and this detailed three-dimensional work in a waxed flax-like thread:

APT7 Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi

There were wonderful modern works by indigenous Australians. I spent ages looking at these works by Wiradjuri artist Lorraine Connelly-Northy:

APT7 Lorraine Connelly-Northy collection

She has taken narbongs (string bags) traditionally made from string or other yarns and rendered them in giant form from the hard, metallic materials such as barbed wire, corrugated iron and baling wire that were introduced by white settlers:

APT7 Lorraine Connelly-Northy barbed-wire narbong

Of course the APT7 doesn't limit its visitors' experiences to visual arts. More is always more. The day I visited there was a performance of traditional music from Iran (Persia) in a room exquisitely painted in elements of Farsi script by Parastou Forouhar. I'd managed to appropriate a folding stool (such a great idea!) that I carried with me through the exhibition and loved sitting, listening and being able to gaze at these patterns:

APT7 Parastou Forouhar

I'm somewhat surprised to find it's already three years since I last wrote about this great event at the Queensland Art Gallery. I'm already re-visiting experiences with my grand-daughter - building up traditions and customs that will become part of our history together. One of the many appealing things about this gallery is its constant provision for children. The APT7 was no exception. Many of the installations and works are innately appealing to children anyway. They're often colourful, and sometimes the scale is vast and you can walk through or around the works. But there are also interactive experiences for children. For example, the beautiful calligraphy of Parastou Forouhar became the basis for a computer game in which children could use the Farsi words to outline and define animal shapes which could then be animated and emailed to friends. A Japanese company, Paramodel, had covered the walls and ceiling of a room with model railway elements and provided boxes of pieces that children could use to construct their own patterns.

APT7- Ana Maria

There was so much to see. Even though we spent hours at the gallery there were many artists whose work I missed. I enjoy the big blockbusters of famous European art we see from time to time in Australia, but an exhibition such as the APT is fresh, confronting, amusing, engaging, and tells us so much about our part of the world.