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Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
– The Beatles, 1967

“I KNEW IT!” Miss K shrieked. I held the phone away from my ear. “THE FREAKIN’ VALLEY!”

That’s the response I got when I told her we were driving to Tuggeranong.

By a superb alignment of the planets, Miss J (now a resident of Toowoomba) and Miss K (mostly based in Darwin) were both in Canberra last weekend. It’s the first time we’ve all been together since Tamworse, where we bonded over work, dinners and knitting classes some 4 or more years ago. We were looking forward to a reunion. Miss J had her small toddler in tow, so enquired as to whether we’d be happy to head out to where she was staying. Sure. Where?

‘Where’ turned out to be Tuggeranong. Known to Berran locals as ‘Tuggers’, it’s the outermost suburb in the city’s southern growth corridor. Tuggeranong is the notional and emotional equivalent of Dandenong, I thought as I drove the 20 minutes down the Tuggeranong Parkway. Tuggernong – Dandenong: they even sound the same. (The Parkway is actually an oddly-named highway; in fact, ‘Parkway’ would be a better descriptor for the South Eastern Freeway, an arterial which if ever you used it to get to Dandenong at peak hour you’d appreciate is grievously misnamed. But I digress.) I could understand Miss K’s distress – a Berran by birth, she has an instinctive horror of what used to be known as Nappy Valley back in the 80s. But the howling – you’d think Miss J had asked her to travel across the universe, not across town.

I had actually been to Tuggeranong once before, to have the Good Guys extort me for a fridge, but as it was dark I didn’t notice much about the area. I certainly had no idea the place had a lake. But it turned out to be quite picturesque. Miss J was staying right opposite Lake Tuggernong, so we went for a walk in the bright spring afternoon onto the lush green lawn areas at the water’s edge. And there we noticed a revolting outer suburban failing: no-one picks up their dogshit. No-one. The grass was rigid with it. Every step was a hazard. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it; be thankful I decided not to post a photo here. No wonder, despite it being a lovely place on a gorgeous day, there were no families picnicing on the foreshore and letting their rugrats loose. Filthy.

The National Museum foyer, looking out onto Lake Curly-Gherkin

The National Museum foyer, looking out onto Lake Curly-Gherkin

You’ll be pleased to know that I got back on the bike and rode the 14km to the National Museum and home on Sunday. The Berra has some marvellous bike paths which are independent of the road system and therefore take you through areas you’d never see by car. The target was Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The exhibition is remarkable for being a major retrospective of one of Australia’s great artists that may never have been staged – but for Japan. A Japanese art professor, viewing Emily’s work at a Brisbane exhibition, was captivated; cutting a very long story short, after years of wrangling Utopia was featured at Japan’s two premier art spaces in Tokyo and Osaka to rave reviews and mass audiences. They literally went wild for her work. And on viewing this exhibition it’s easy to see why. Emily’s works, impressive in concept and scale, have enormous power. Not all the works featured in Japan were on show here; the Museum space simply wasn’t big enough.

I was very interested in the discussion about how Emily viewed her paintings, and how Japanese and Australian and international art audiences do. I’m sure I don’t understand it fully. For example: if Emily was painting her Dreaming, is what she painted figurative or literal? Is it an illustration, or a narrative? If Emily lived in the desert and remained largely unaware of western or eastern art traditions and history, is it valid to compare her work to other masters, or indeed to give it labels such as abstract or impressionist? One interesting footnote I heard from more than one noted art critic was the belief that at least one of the featured paintings was a fake. But that also begs the question, what is fake? If Emily started the painting, outlined the idea to a relative to do the bulk of the work and then finished it off, is this work now a ‘fake Emily’? Did the use of apprentices render Michelagelo’s frescos ‘fakes’? As I pondered these questions, I considered which work had upset the critics. I think I guessed the one.

This exhibition won’t be travelling, so I humbly recommend you see Emily’s work wherever you can; in particular, next time you’re in Melbourne take the time to visit the National Gallery of Victoria to see Big Yam Dreaming, a painting of overwhelming depth as well as size. And keep an eye out for the Ronin Films doco, working title Emily In Japan, due to air on the ABC later this year. Bald Man and I saw some preview footage at one of the free lectures reflecting on the journey of Emily’s work, and it looks like a good yarn.

The National Museum itself is a very impressive building, designed by Howard Raggart, the bloke who ripped down the old Building 12* at RMIT to make way for the strange green redevelopment of Storey Hall. I like the Museum better; it has a cathedral-like foyer with great pod-shaped glass windows letting in abundant natural light, as well as an enormous loop sculpture several storeys high (part of the Uluru Line), and even giant braille saying all sorts of Australian words and phrases such as “mate” and “she’ll be right”, (plus some unAustralian ones like “Sorry” and “forgive us our genocide”, which have been obscured) on the walls. There’s a lot of very good bike racks outside the main entrances. Even more impressive were the friendly museum staff, who joked with us visitors as well as amongst themselves – hats off to you.

Just goes to show the Berra isn’t all (dog) shit.

* home of excellent student media organisations then known as SRA and RMITV.

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