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February 23, 2008: "Ground-breaking technology" is being used to aid the performance of Australian swimmers, according to a recent outbreak of clichés and mixed metaphors. This is in the run-up (no pun intended) to the Summer Olympics. I have been using ground-breaking technology (a shovel) in the back yard, though few have noticed.

Australia always does really well in the Olympics ("punching above its weight" is an oft-heard cliché), befitting a country that's competition-crazy with a culture that values winning above everything. Prizes and competitions dominate most events, from Best Scone in country baking fairs to annual poetry awards. Winners get noticed -- it's much less about participation or "playing the game" here than in, say, Canada.

This week saw the delivery of entries for the 3 greatest art prizes in Australia, the Archibald for portraiture, the Wynne for landscape painting and the Sulman for genre painting. There is a circus atmosphere surrounding the prizes, especially the Archibald, which has been running for 85 years; with its cash award of $50,000 (winner take all) it is probably the largest art competition in the southern hemisphere. There is nothing like it anywhere I've seen: there's the cachet of celebrity for many of the sitters and the winners, huge crowds turn out, and it generates the kind of buzz art-marketers elsewhere can only dream of.

Archibald himself was a newspaper publisher: he left a bequest in his 1916 will establishing the prize. It was a stroke of genius: it anticipated the modern cult of celebrity by a half-century, yet the vast majority of entries are in a 600-year-old medium -- oil paints on canvas or linen, painted from life. The sitter has to sign a form stating that he sat at least once with the artist (and, of course, that he agrees to the picture being painted; accordingly, you don't get 20 entries of the prime minister or whoever).

So of course I had to enter. What's to lose? The sole criterion for the artist is residency in Australasia for at least a year. No worries there. My secret weapon is my subject, Ken Tribe -- Christine's stepfather -- who's just turned 94 and is a revered figure in chamber music and symphonic circles. He has had a wonderful career, including first chair of Sydney College of the Arts, board membership of the ABC and leadership of all kinds of organizations concerned with the arts, adult deafness and medical research. And besides, he has a very recognizable head. Ergo, I painted "Kenneth Tribe at 93" and submitted it on Wednesday, midway through the entry period, with the $30 fee. He/it/I was given a number, A201, probably a lucky one, right? (There's a larger version of the painting on my Oz paintings page.)

On the TV news last night (on a commercial station, not on the artsy ABC) there was a story about the last-minute entries for the Archibald. Over 700 paintings! The camera panned across rooms of canvases leaning against walls, lingering on a 2 metre wide photorealist triple-portrait of recently deceased Aussie icon actor Heath Ledger. Then they sought out the nutbars, like the guy with hair down to his waist who'd brought in a manic self-portrait. But the point is, it's mainstream news -- not the sort of arts report delivered in hushed tones on a station nobody listens to. How about: Australian Penis Artist bids for Top Prize?

The 30 or 40 paintings chosen to be hung will be published in the national newspaper next Friday, then they ramp up the tension for another week before announcing the winner. The trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales are the jury, but the guys in the packing room also announce their favorite and, of course, there's a People's Choice Award. Bragging rights only for the last two. The art gallery's website will also carry the results.

So, about 30 or 40 out of 700+ get in, yet the exhibition occupies 2 or 3 huge rooms in the enormous gallery. "Go big or go home" should be the slogan for the prize. I've never painted large, mainly because I was effectively doing book illustrations and didn't want my images to lose their brushwork by being reduced by factors of 10 or more, also because my buyers were people with normal-sized houses and walls. But I had to paint something biggish this time, so bought a box of 40 x 40 inch (metre-square) stretched-linen canvases. That was about as big as I thought I could do, and it only barely fitted into our Toyota Echo.

But my picture is only one-ninth the maximum allowable size! There will be some entries by the big-name artists that will be about 9 square metres, soaking up a huge amount of wallspace, reducing the number of works that can be shown. Given that the human maxes out at about 2 metres high by a metre wide, some of these are utterly Stalinist, almost creepy in their scale. But then, there's the Salon des Réfusés of the best of the rejectees at the National Trust Gallery nearby.

Stay tuned ....
February 19, 2008: "What does the leader of the opposition have in common with the mortgage rate?" Answer: they're both at 9%. Yes, mortgage rates are way higher here than in North America, due to the inflation from the booming economy (exports, mainly coal and minerals to China). But it's the collapse of the Coalition's support, in the wake of the leader's equivocal support of the "Sorry Day" mentioned below, that's making the news today.

Maybe this was the leader of the opposition? Or the guy's English teacher? Our neighbour, artist Roland Hemmert, snapped this near the historic mining town of Sofala, 100 km or so to the west of us.

Nobody's pitched Australia as well as Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan from the early '80s, it seems. Somehow we completely missed this campaign when we were still in Canada. We might have thought twice about migrating.

February 15, 2008: Today was the monthly walk with the Bushwalking Club. Wentworth Falls was the destination -- the falls themselves are below the eponymous town, about 10 km from our home. It was a classic Blue Mountains hike of stunning scenery on the edge of the national park.

We walked first along a relatively level trail at the top of the escarpment to the Wentworth Falls, then descended about 200 thigh-trembling metres (about a 60 storey building) to the mid-point on the escarpment where there's a narrow shelf that is itself about 200 metres above the valley floor. Along the shelf runs the National Pass -- the trail we returned on before climbing up 200 thigh-screaming metres to the Conservation Hut where we began. It was only 5 km, but one of our group's pedometers said we did 13,000 steps.

There was a lot of undercliff walking ....

Christine snaps a photo while on the descent to the mid-point of the falls, where we stopped for lunch ....

Looking up at the falls from its midpoint -- the level of the National Pass

... and a view of both stages of the falls, as we proceeded on our return trip along the National Pass

Hiking along the National Pass ...

... and, another beautiful waterfall near the end of the walk.

February 13, 2008: The Aboriginal flag was flying everywhere in Australia today, as millions of people stopped what they were doing at 9 am to listen to and watch the formal apology, delivered by new PM Kevin Rudd, to the Stolen Generation of aborigines -- the thousands of children forcibly removed from their families in the first 7 decades of the last century. His was a very moving speech, delivered flawlessly, reflecting on individual cases while addressing such broad philosophical issues as inter-generational responsibility. One of his statements stuck in my memory: that settler cultures which trumpet the advantages they brought must also acknowledge the burdens they created.

The occasion was marred somewhat by the response by the leader of the opposition, whose party steadfastly refused to apologize during its 11 years of government that ended last November. He basically said, "yeah, we're sorry, but everybody had it pretty hard back then and we were fighting wars and stuff and, not only that, let me remind you of all the failures of your society" -- he then went on to detail grog, child abuse, social breakdown and even mentioned a notorious gang rape in the Northern Territory of a young aboriginal girl. Hardly statesmanlike. During his speech, about two-thirds of the thousands of people gathered outside parliament house in Canberra turned their backs on the building and the large televisions carrying the speech.

The government has "wrong-footed" the opposition by insisting that the ongoing aboriginal problems be addressed by a bi-partisan committee: a "war cabinet," as one commentator put it. So the Sorry Day ended on a nearly unanimous note of good feeling and optimism for the future. And at least it puts behind it a certain mentality of Australia, a chest-thumping male (and female) attitude that says, 'I didn't do anything so don't ask me to apologize or feel guilty, mate' -- an attitude that the State isn't anything more than the present-tense agglomeration of a bunch of individuals. I hope the prime minister's speech gets some coverage overseas. It was a great moment of reconciliation, hopefully providing some momentum to change the appalling conditions in many aboriginal settlements, where the life expectancy is 17 years less than it is for non-indigenous Australians.

Here's a link to the ABC feed of the speech -- it's worth watching and listening. It's been a long time since I heard a speech so powerful on a day so significant to a country's sense of itself.

Part 2:

Part 3:

I hope these links work. I searched with Rudd+apology on the site to get them.

February 12, 2008:  I haven't done any blogging for a couple of weeks because ... well, read on.

We were all told to have junk out at the curb last Monday for the free "Council pickup." So the scene here, of our detritus, was repeated in front of nearly every house in Katoomba, which created an enormous and ongoing scavenger hunt with everybody picking through everybody else's stuff! Utes (pickup trucks) and cars towing trailers prowled the streets. Our pile was reduced by about two-thirds over the week. A wooden dresser with drawers so bad that even the Salvos (Salvation Army) wouldn't take it disappeared before I could take this picture. The brown metal objects on the right -- flueless lpg heaters that will probably disappear in a wall of flame if anybody tries to use them -- went within a couple of days. Even the old red curtains were gone. The much-reduced pile is still sitting out there, waiting for the Council truck.

We took a trip out west 150 km or so to the town of Orange, once famous for its apples (I'm not making this up), to visit with our friends Piers and Patricia and attend a fundraising concert for the Botanical Garden (photo above). Everybody brought their picnic baskets for an early evening performance by the big band from the local music conservatory. Below: the Orange market on Saturday morning.

Orange is a very appealing town of about 40,000. Its climate reminds me a lot of the Okanagan, with the summer heat and dry winter cold, except with winter minimums of about minus 5. Hmmm ...., we said to ourselves as we made our way back to the Blue Mountains.

From the dividing range (near us) east to the coast at Sydney, the "Big Wet" continues. The woman who presents the morning program on ABC Radio remarked yesterday that she hadn't smelled any smoke -- bush fire smoke -- all summer for the first time in years. Not much possibility of anything burning around here this year. And the monsoons are continuing in Queensland and along the tourist-resort coastline, flooding huge tracts and erasing any memory of the recent drought. But in spite of the weather, I was finally able to harvest the first broccoli the other day! It didn't taste like much because the soil here is beach-like, but it was a notable agricultural moment for me. Long-time blog readers will recall the planting way back in the middle of October, so it's taken about 120 days to mature. In Canada, I planted in April and harvested in July -- 90 days. Something tells me that, irrespective of the weather, I've planted in the wrong season here.

And finally, I loved the quotes in the article above. The new Oz PM, Kevin Rudd, has been a huge hit in China ever since he gave a speech during the APEC conference here to the Chinese leadership in Mandarin and conversed freely with them afterwards. So far he's pretty much of a hit here, too, and will be legendary for what happens tomorrow morning: the formal apology to the "Stolen Generation" of aborigines taken from their families into residential schools and white families. This will sound familiar to anybody in western Canada.


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