TTS News & Almanac

TTS News & Almanac


23 April 1997

This newletter is written as an update on the progress of the Turn the Soil exhibition for artists and fellow travellers. It will be produced between each venue.

The Melbourne-Gladstone leg



Well, it’s on the road. Well over 4,000 people have seen the show in Melbourne, but now it’s time to pack up the works into the elegantly fitted crates, turn on the ignition and point the truck north.


Julie Copeland gave a lively opening speech. She used the exhibition as an opportunity for castigating the ‘philistines’ currently threatening such institutions as the ABC. It was a prickly moment that contrasted with the relaxed atmosphere around the food photographs.

Thankfully, more than half the artists were able to attend the opening. I hope the rest will be able to see it before long. Since then, there have been big crowds through the gallery. Almost every day there seemed to be a new interest group scrutinising the works. The last of these is the grandly titled ‘Intercultural Projects and Resources Centre’, which is being launched just before the exhibition comes down.


The first ‘Off the Beaten Track’ workshop began auspiciously. Though most participants felt free to engage their imaginations with the challenge of inventing a new history, some were cautious about applying familiar paradigms, such as maps, to the process. This hesitation is emerging as an important question within the exhibition itself. To an extent, the exhibition sets out to take a known structure (the business of nationhood with its flags, anthems, etc.) and invert the relations of power within it: those today on the margins of the Anglo majority are in this scenario placed at the centre. This is different to what happens in academic criticism, such as post-colonial thought. Here, the structures themselves are criticised, not simply the encumbants. The result, sometimes, is that academic thought becomes remote from mainstream culture. As this exhibition is intended to confront a mainstream audience, it seemed wiser to change one element at a time.

One of the odd coincidences that arose from the scenario of Shukkinak is its echo in the Heaven’s Gate tragedy, where cult followers committed mass suicide, believing a comet approaching earth would pluck them from this planet. In a sense, they were following similar mystical beliefs as the Phoenicians in the invented history. However, the Phoenicians in this case found Australia; and it was imagining what might flow from a belief that Australia was heaven that much of the life happened within the story.


The ‘Wog Nation’ forum was well attended and produced an interesting discussion. George Papaellinas presented a hard line on multiculturalism. His quite personal paper attempted to dispell any illusions about ethnic communities fitting together harmoniously into a well-behaved society. He was sceptical of the usefulness of ‘middle class’ services like SBS to migrants. Annette Blonski extended her catalogue essay to talk more about Federation, Australian racism and the dark times ahead. And Neville Assad presented an engaging account of his double-life between Australia and Lebanon.

Perhaps the most challenging moment came when the novelist Christos Tsiolkas (referred to in Annette Blonski’s essay) asked why there were no people of English background in the exhibition. It is true that an Anglo had been asked to participate and take on a fake Chinese identity (in an overt fashion), to help challenge visitors who might slip too easily into seeing Turn the Soil as a ‘multicultural’ exhibition. He refused, perhaps wisely. But still, if even people ask this question of the exhibition, it will have succeeded in extending beyond tokenism to address issues that affect the majority.


The dinner seemed a great success. It didn’t exactly fill the needy exhibition coffers (more likely it depleted them), but it provided a most auspicious launch fof the exhibition tour. Held on Easter Eve (Thursday before Good Friday), the invitation required guests to wear ‘something purple’, a request that almost all responded to (some ‘just happened to be wearing purple’ that night anyway). Guests came from different worlds: luminaries of the food world mixed with the design fraternity, the Lebanese community and naturally, members of Melbourne’s craft scene. The menu was a cause of much delight. Michael Bacash and Greg Malouf combined their talents to produce food that stimulated the mind as well the body. The kibbeh made of raw salmon was particularly memorable.

Much credit to Suzie Attiwill for organising the event to run so smoothly, especially considering the number of people and goods provided free. Meera Freeman, who gave her services as a host freely, took some of the weight from Suzie’s shoulders.

A range of performances entertained guests. A simulated Internet broadcast, including Lonely Planet and CNN coverages of Shukkinak. The Lebanese Dancers for Peace created great energy with their dance and music. A guest singer received such a warm reception that he had to be dragged from the microphone. And the august toast offered by Dr Gilbert Gilbertus (Michael Cathcart) was wonderful composed and delivered (it’s worth a trip to the web site just to read his speech).


Turn the Soil was quickly swamped with media attention, particularly from radio. Julie Copeland from Radio National’s Arts Talk produced a very good feature on the exhibition and it received a decent plug in television’s Express programme. We’re still awaiting the critical verdict. Robert Rooney reviewed the exhibition in The Australian (17 April) but he seemed more interested in arts politics than the exhibition itself. More interesting was the report of The (First &) Last Supper in the Australian Magazine on the following day (18 April). It was a very generous account of the proceedings that night and should serve as good publicity for the show—though it may heighten expectations of feasts to accompany it. So, we’re still waiting a decent critical response to the works and there’s a year and a half to wait. From talking to visitors, I’ve found every work in the exhibition has been someone’s favourite. People speak quite passionately about them.


The web site has grown exponentially since the last newsletter. Additions include a computerised version of the ‘Wheel of Historial Fortune’, a curator’s floor talk (with shots of the RMIT installation), album from the supper, spruced-up artist’s pages, the Shukkinak story and much more.


Gladstone is next. This is the furthest point north in the tour. Gladstone is an aluminium town, having come into existence after a smelter and refinery were built. It also happens to have a large Russian community living in outlying towns (Yarwon in particular). These ‘white’ Russians fled after the revolution in 1917, and lived in Manchuria before escaping to Australia. In Queensland, they helped establish the paw-paw industry. In an otherwise bland supermarket town, they make quite an impression, dressed in long black robes, women in scarves and men in beards.

Given this, naturally, the scenario for Gladstone is Australia as colonised by Russians.

A Russian friend mentioned a book he had read as a young boy about a mythical land called Svambraniye, which was the inverse of the normal world. This seemed like a good start in thinking about how Australia might fit into the Russian imagination, so I decided to follow it up by making enquiries in a Russian newsgroup. I’ve subsequently been deluged with email from Russians all around the world that remember this book very fondly. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult book to find in English translation, but hopefully it will be uncovered before Gladstone.

Joining the exhibition will be a combined education-kit/room brochure that will be distributed free to visitors. Apologies for the late delivery of catalogues. There was a slip-up at the point of distribution. They were intended to be posted much earlier. If you need more copies, please contact Craft Victoria.