Monday, September 26, 2011
In its 26-year history the Fringe Furniture Exhibition has proven to be an accurate barometer of emerging talent, trends and ideas in interior design and architecture.
So much so that it now has iconic status as a central part of Melbourne's annual Fringe Festival, a showcase of innovative and cutting-edge art across a range of genres.
The theme for this year's exhibition, 'Dancing in the dark', fittingly deals with the elephant in the room when it comes to the future of design, and indeed Life As We Know It - sustainability. Forty-five up-and-coming furniture designers have responded to what seems like an overwhelming environmental challenge with a tiny 'dance step' towards a greener future. Their work is showing in an industrially themed space fittingly located in the picturesque Abbotsford Convent.
There were plenty of enthusiastic visitors when I popped along last Saturday afternoon. Some of the works opted for a homely aesthetic that privileged function over form. But a number of works delighted the eye as well as the conscience.
David Davenport's square table with diagonal legs, made from recycled Australian hardwoods, was an example of classic elegance melded with contemporary design. Christopher Shaw's 'Maeva' cabinet, made from Sydney bluegum, and Ryan Straford's 'Red Hill' seat, made from oak wine barrels, both used shape and texture to create warmly pleasing furniture. MacGregor Knox's 'Rosa' (pictured below) a bold curvilinear lounge chair made from salvaged sequoia wood and reclaimed soft urethene, created visual impact through exaggerated form.
The lightshades in particular shone - pun intended. Who knew recycled champagne bottles could be so attractive? Ashley Allen, that's who. Then there was Sally-Anne Mill's flamboyant chandelier collection, 'Spring collection II', made from salvaged springs. This collection deservedly won the Best Design Addressing the 2011 Fringe Furniture Theme award, as well as the Lighting Design award.
But the highlight for me was the collection of 'Mr.Cooper' pendant lights by Kate Stokes (pictured above). Inspired by the old tin can telephone, the lights are made from spun copper and combine modern simplicity with a charming retro feel.
The exhibition is on at the Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers St Collingwood, in the Industrial School building in the Sacred Heart Courtyard. It runs until 8 October, from Thursday to Sunday, from 11 am to 5 pm. Entry is free.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
When a woman writes about love, it’s romance. When a man does, it’s literature. That may be the case, but in his gripping new novel Craig Sherborne applies emotional intensity and seemingly effortless originality to a theme neither gender ever tires of.
Sherborne has already impressed the entire spectrum of Australian literature with two stunning novelistic memoirs, Hoi Polloi and Muck. Now he has written The Amateur Science of Love, a memoir-like novel about a brittle, mutually destructive relationship that travels an unpredictable path to a devastating crisis.
Twenty-one year-old Colin, green around the gills and emotionally isolated, flees the family farm in New Zealand to seek fame as an actor in London. In a grotty youth hostel he meets the tall and beautiful Tilda, an opinionated, highly strung artist who is older than him.
They fall passionately in love – ‘in sickness’ as Colin describes it – and return to Australia to set up house in a decrepit former bank in a small wheat town in rural Victoria. As Tilda paints full time in her studio Colin tentatively pursues a career as a journalist. Then Tilda discovers a cancerous lump in her breast, an event that necessitates urgent surgery and alters the dynamics of the relationship forever.
The novel form gives Sherborne free rein to explore aspects of character and relationship without sticking strictly to the facts, but The Amateur Science of Love owes much to memoir (fans of the two memoirs will find many similarities between their narrator and the voice and character of Colin).
The progress of the relationship isn’t a simple trajectory from functional to dysfunctional; there are peaks and troughs, truces and stand-offs, moments of profound intimacy, and crises. Some of the rough edges of reality are retained in a way that lends both rawness and occasional dissonance – shouldn’t life as portrayed in a novel be less untidy? – but this is dealt with by the device of making Colin’s account an actual memoir that he writes in secret. Eventually Colin falls out of love for good, and at this point the novel is at its most confronting and ruthlessly honest.
A master of voice and pacing
Sherborne is a master when it comes to both voice and pacing. Every paragraph of this book offers small poetic morsels of text that seem to provide intimate access not only to Colin’s state of mind but to his unique view of the world. Key moments are chosen carefully to advance the action, and then conveyed with a level of forensic detail that is both highly visual and emotionally riveting: ‘She star-jumped straight down and strode off and skipped some more, her plait swinging with flicky pendulum energy’. It's a combination of technical finetuning and conversational ease that marks Sherborne as a significant talent.
The result is a portrait of a poorly parented young man struggling to grow up within the confines of a stifling relationship. It’s often wryly funny as the older Colin looks back on a pompous, self-aggrandising younger self who adopts a version of manhood that hails from the past but is somehow suited to the timewarped ambience of Scintilla.
Tilda’s cancer both attacks her body and affects her mental state, and Colin’s reactions to the caring role that he must adopt in the aftermath are bald in their moments of revulsion: ‘The trick was to be involved in the task without betraying a sense of duty, without sighing or appearing bored or put upon’. But to characterise this novel as an expose of ‘the way men think’, as Helen Garner has done, is a mistake. This is not a treatise on evolutionary biology and the mercenary nature of the male gender. Rather, the challenging subject matter allows the author and his readers to explore the intricacies of human relationships in a painfully honest and open-ended way. Tilda and Colin both behave appallingly at different times, and the reader is free to interpret their behaviour as he or she will, and even take sides. (Ironically, the frankness of this book, and its honesty about the visceral and destructive effects of love, owes not a little to Garner’s groundbreaking first novel, Monkey Grip.)
I interpreted this novel as a story of growing up, advancing mental illness and a relationship that gradually devolves into the abusive. It’s distressing to witness the pathology that seems to engulf Tilda after her surgery, but that the novel signals has been there from the very beginning. Sherborne has said in an interview that Tilda stops developing as a person when she meets Colin; certainly she grows steadily more self-deluded, narcissistic and domineering in the hothouse small-town atmosphere and as a result of her illness. Yet what is also an intimate portrait of a complex and deeply troubled young woman never turns monstrous even when the physical ravages of illness supervene.
There is much going on in the book thematically. As well as offering powerful writing about the mutual obsession of early love (‘being in love is a kind of being famous. Famous on a small scale to just one person’), the novel explores the complex and ever-changing power dynamics that occur in long-term relationships; the excessive need for control that love can sometimes produce, which destroys what it most wants to preserve; the myth of mental illness creating great art; the psychology of illness; and the fallout when love leaves forever. It also provides a sombre expose of the ways in which the world leaves the domestic carer existentially as well as practically alone, and what this might mean for both parties when the marrow of the relationship has disappeared for good.
Throughout the unfolding drama, Sherborne fearlessly examines the place where emotions and thoughts meet bodily experience. In doing so he provides a shorthand of the self and its interactions with the world that is as idiosyncratic as it is mesmerising.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
This new Australian film, lush and big-budgeted compared to most, features luminaries at every turn. Directed by veteran Fred Schepisi and based on the 1973 novel by Patrick White, it costars Judy Davis in a welcome return to the Australian screen, Geoffrey Rush and screen legend Charlotte Rampling. The film doubles as a reunion of a host of familiar faces of Australian film and theatre, with veterans Helen Morse, Robyn Nevin and Colin Friels all included in the supporting cast.
It is the dawn of a new era in Australia, the election of a Labor government imminent. Basil (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy (Judy Davis) return to their stately home in Centennial Park, Sydney, to farewell dying matriarch Elizabeth Hunter. Basil and Dorothy are both at turning points in their lives: he tired of his philandering ways as a successful actor in London and she genteelly poor following divorce from her French 'frog prince'.
Confident of claiming their inheritance, they return to a society in flux and a household where the traditional boundaries between support staff and mistress no longer apply. Schepisi's daughter Alexandra plays Flora, one of the nurses who gives Elizabeth round-the-clock care. As her health deteriorates, vivid flashbacks of Elizabeth's philandering past begin to explain the attitudes of her children. Basil and Dorothy must both come to terms with the emotional damage that the flamboyant, sexually promiscuous Elizabeth has burdened them with.
Filming in Australia for the first time since Evil Angels in 1988, Schepisi seems to have decided that this story, conventionally dated as it is, was never going to work as a naturalistic tale in the contemporary sense. Instead, he's chosen to create a richly theatrical, sumptuous world and an old-fashioned naturalism that suggest the fantasy in which its main characters live. The result is a lush work of art, with heightened colour, texture, imagery and performance, yet speaking to contemporary concerns: the need to not only come to terms with the past, but also the limitations of oneself and others.
In some ways The Eye of the Storm resembles a film adapted from a play, but with the greater range that a novel-based story allows. Images abound of sexual efflorescence and the transience of youth and life. Young nurse Flora is almost too transparent as a symbol of youth and beauty, but also the paganistic, sexually liberated world of 1970s Sydney. This world provides the backdrop for a forensic examination of Australia's alienated upper classes, emotionally attached to Europe and aliens in their own country. In a nostalgic journey that Dorothy and Basil make to the old family farm, the film dramatises the clash of these two versions of Australia. It's clear which class White believes represents the 'real' Australia: a kind of generic lower-middle class, irredeemably separate from the dissolute gentry.
The Eye of the Storm is a character-driven tour de force. The setting coincides beautifully with the performative attributes of the Hunter family. The actors perform performance, and this is one reason why Judy Davis is riveting: her mannered, sometimes overwrought style is perfect for the melodramatic, insecure Dorothy (it's on show in a couple of spicy scenes shared with real-life husband Colin Friels) and her sleek Parisian bob and classic couture could start a fashion.
Rampling manages a great Australian accent, although it's a bit uneven, and doesn't take into account that someone in her class at the time would probably have sounded plummier. Geoffrey Rush is believable as Basil, but nothing about his performance stands out. Merciless close-ups dramatise how all the main characters, but particularly Dorothy and her mother Elizabeth, confront the difficulties of advancing age.
Shot on location at Ripponlea in Elsternwick, The Eye of the Storm nevertheless manages to bring to life the sybaritic culture of Sydney. Intricately structured and fairly long, this film is a curious yet worthwhile experience, one that evokes nostalgia for an Australia that never existed while dramatising timeless dilemmas about the burdens of self, past and family.