Well, its on the road. Well over 4,000 people have seen the show in Melbourne,
but now its 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 Heavens 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
Perhaps the most challenging moment came when the novelist Christos Tsiolkas (referred
to in Annette Blonskis 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 didnt 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 Melbournes 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 Suzies 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 (its 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 Nationals Arts Talk produced a
very good feature on the exhibition and it received a decent plug in televisions Express
programme. Were 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 showthough it may heighten expectations of feasts to
accompany it. So, were still waiting a decent critical response to the works and
theres a year and a half to wait. From talking to visitors, Ive found every
work in the exhibition has been someones favourite. People speak quite passionately
The web site has grown exponentially since the last newsletter.
Additions include a computerised version of the Wheel of Historial Fortune, a
curators floor talk (with shots of the RMIT installation), album from the supper,
spruced-up artists 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
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. Ive subsequently been
deluged with email from Russians all around the world that remember this book very fondly.
Unfortunately, its 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.