Monday, 23 April 2018

Defining Details: Art in the Gardens with Friends

Telopea specioissima by Margaret Steele
Botanical art fascinates me; there is such a high level of detail and the lack of background showcases the specimen in an exemplary manner. The Friends' Botanic Art Groups were holding their 11th Annual Exhibition at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, so I went along to admire their work.

One of the curators explained to me that the Botanic Art Group consists of three groups each of which get together once a month at the gardens to sketch and paint. They are provided with specimens they wouldn't otherwise have access to and they do their initial work here, then augment it later at their leisure. Botanical art requires close attention to detail and each work can often take many weeks to complete.

Of course, there is a form and structure to botanical illustration which pleases me. The images depict the form, colour, and details of plant species and must be scientifically accurate, so the artists must understand plant morphology, but they often also have an artistic component. This marriage of art and science appeals to me, as well as the ability to discover the elements of creativity within a prescriptive framework.

Each BAG member is entitled to submit one work that is an artist’s choice but all other works have to be vetted by a team of judges comprised of botanists from the ANBG and botanical artists to ensure a high standard. Just having work accepted for exhibition is an honour. A commission from the sale of each painting goes to the Friends to support the ANBG, and the annual event has been increasingly successful in raising funds.

The artworks generally vary in price from $150 - $500, although there was an $800 price-tag on Magdalena Dickinson's watercolour Eucalyptus macrocarpa. It is a beautiful large picture with a soft wash rendering the budding flowers a sensual appeal - lush and rich; succulent and bold, they appear almost edible like a ripe juicy fruit. I didn't buy any artwork, but I did purchase a couple of raffle tickets, first prize in which is one of the pictures, so I may yet have something beautiful to hang on my wall (fingers crossed).

Callistemon sieberi by Kristen O'Keeffe
I like the inclusion of aspects that help to inform the narrative, such as a bird or beetles to indicate size and the plant's position in the ecosystem, such as the above image by Kristen O'Keeffe. On her website (which features examples of her work and a blog), she explains that she loves the process of collecting specimens and working up compositions. She continues, "I find the medium of watercolour technically challenging but extremely enjoyable. In the future I would like to explore a more scientific approach in keeping with the traditions of botanical art where all aspects of a specimen are described to form part of a scientific record."

This particular exhibition was made all the more pertinent due to its focus on works featuring threatened and endangered species, many of which are in the Gardens. These fine representations are more than just works of art; if the species should be lost, the pictures will provide a scientific record. This seems to mirror the original use of botanical illustration to register 'new discoveries' as scientists and botanists explored the globe and presented their findings to their financiers.

The artists use a range of materials and methods including watercolours, coloured pencils and graphite, pen and ink, and scrapeboard. Their subjects feature banksia and eucalyptus; tamarind; orchids; waratah; pine nuts; karrajong seed pods. Marjorie Roche's Ephemera is crafted from graphite on pulped paper: the greys, browns and golds showcase the fleeting existence of leaves and seed pods. Meanwhile the entire development of the plant is recognised in Sue Grieves's watercolour, Eucalyptus youngiana. The colours of rich and vivid red to dark green depict the pods at multiple stages including closed, open, dead and empty.

One might have thought that development of photographic plates could make botanical illustration obsolete, but this has not been the case. A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens, and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included in the margins around the image. For example, there are a couple of brown seed pods in the lower left quadrant of Maria Boreham's watercolour, Grevillea fleuosa which otherwise depicts the leaves and flowers in many shades of green. Also, Joan Pukis faithfully records the curved droopy leaves and little gum nuts, some with minor blemishes in greens and browns in her watercolour, Eucalyptus canalicilata while the pencil shadows are like ghost leaves in the background.
Brachychiton sp. Ormeau by Eva Henry
There are some of the more 'showy' specimens on display, such as Jann Ollerenshaw's Caladenia actensis/ Canberra Spider Orchid (a watercolour of the critically-endangered plant rendered very simply with exquisitely fine hatching detail in the fringes) or Vivien Pinder's collection of Sun Orchids (individual circles encompassing the flowers of different colours: gold; purple; pink; mauve and yellow; cream and splattered with russet). I admire them all - I have no artistic talent in this department and shall stick to the Performance Arts while appreciating the Visual Arts from a distance. 

Most of these artists are female and I find it interesting that the art of painting flowers has passed from the predominately female highly-skilled practitioners of still-life paintings during the Renaissance (when women were generally excluded from painting grander subjects such as histories and allegories due to their gender) to the mainly male scientists of the eighteenth-century explorations, and back to the ladies of the Victorian era with their watercolour flower paintings. Confined by social restrictions to the seclusion of their home (and certainly not permitted to study the human figure in a life class), subjects such as still life and flowers were considered particularly suited to women. 

Interest in botanical art is undergoing a resurgence as people like to connect with the natural world, and feel they are documenting plant life not only for art, but also for science and environmental research. Researching and recording that which we have before we lose it is of crucial importance to science and society alike. Painting plants has once again become political. And viewing the exhibition inspired me to look at the plants in a new light when I walked around the gardens taking photographs.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

How Many is Enough?

One Child: Life, Love and Parenthood in Modern China by Mei Fong 
(Oneworld Publications), Pp. 236

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong has spent eight years documenting the effects of the one-child policy across Chinese society. In this critically acclaimed account, she weaves together personal stories and social politics to produce an evocative investigation into how the policy has changed China and why the repercussions will be felt across the world for decades to come.

The one-child policy was introduced in 1979; it was ‘relaxed’ in 2013 and phased out in 2016. Mei Fong argues that it was flawed from the initial concept when it was introduced as a form of population control, and that population growth would have decreased naturally without the need for such draconian measures. Even since the abandonment of the one-child policy, the birth rate in China is not increasing. Polls reveal that although couples would like to have two children, many say “it’s unaffordable, too stressful, and will impinge on their personal goals too much…by having one child, they can better concentrate their resources and have a more successful child.”

As it was, the policy led to many unforeseen issues, including the number of enforced abortions and sterilisations. “In one year alone, 1983, China sterilised over 20 million people, more than the combined population of the three largest US cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.”

During the system of the one-child policy, the law was relaxed to allow people to pay to have a second child. Naturally this benefitted the rich (and arguably led to a more affluent, urban and spoiled population) while providing a source of income for poorer counties where families were charged heavy compensation fees (shehui fuyangfei) for having more than one child. As these fines were the only income that did not have to be handed over to the central government/ national treasury ‘for redistribution’ they were rigidly enforced.

In a society which is geared towards marriage and family, this policy has long-reaching effects on cultural attitudes, such as the creation of the Little Emperor phenomenon, and the shocking treatment of elders. The author uncovered many harrowing instances of elder abuse as the spoiled single offspring no longer see the necessity of caring for their parent. “The one-child policy significantly reduced the number of care-givers for China’s elderly, not just in quantity alone, but also in quality. There are fewer women in China now – and by extension, fewer daughters-in-law, and they’re the ones who really take care of the elderly.”

There are terrible stories of geriatrics being put in pigpens by their children or shunted off to unsanitary nursing homes where they wait to die. If this trend continues there will be insufficient young people to care for the current population. According to academic predictions, “Somewhere in the decade between 2020 and 2030 China’s absolute population will hit is peak and start to decline. By 2100, China’s population could have declined back to 1950 levels of about 500 million.”

Perhaps to Western sensibilities, one of the more obvious side effects is the treatment of women. “With the current gender imbalance, women are certainly more valuable, but not necessarily more valued. In addition to a rising anti-feminist backlash, the female shortage has resulted in increasing commodification of women. Prostitution and sex-trafficking in China have been on the rise for the past decade.” Many women in neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and North Korea, are forced or tricked into being sold as wives for Chinese men.

In the last two decades 120,000 children from China have been adopted internationally. Naturally this has “significantly shaped global attitudes toward race, family, and the ethics of intercountry adoption” but is it all ethical? Mei Fong asks, “Is the wave of Chinese adoptions, as many believe, an altruistic act that rescues hundreds of unwanted, mostly female children from a life of penury and institutionalization – or is it really baby buying on an international scale, sanctioned and even facilitated by the Chinese government?” She discovers multiple incidents of babies being stolen and sold to orphanages.

Ethical questions also arise regarding fertility and consequent eugenics. With the ability to have only one child, many people are using reproductive technologies to have the kind of children they want “This usually means choosing the sex and the number – twins are favoured – and screening out genetic diseases. In cases where an egg donor is desired – and where genetic material is passed on – Chinese parents are also trying to select traits like intelligence, height, looks, blood type, even double eyelids.”

Mei Fong argues that the one-child policy was unnecessary and cruel violating a number of human rights and leading to infinitely more problems than it solved. This is a fairly bleak outlook on the future of China due to a devastating policy that will have far-reaching and unplanned consequences.

Monday, 26 March 2018

First Public Appearance: Canberra Craft Beer and Cider Festival

Last weekend was the Canberra Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Wignall Brewery was making its first public appearance so I went along to help serve customers and document the event. We began by heading to the brewery and picking up the kegs to transport them to the festival. 

It was a beautiful clear morning as everyone was setting up their stalls and the organisers were laying out the tables and chairs and blowing up the balloons. After a quick coffee and a short but informative briefing - there are lots of volunteers who are willing to help - it was time to open the gates to the general public. 


There were 52 exhibitors with plenty of beer and cider to taste. The layout was along Batman Street and in the car-park of the Mercure Hotel. Stalls lined either side of the street with plenty of seating in the middle of the road. There were umbrellas and pine trees providing plenty of shade, and with suncream and water readily available, it was all set up to be a perfect beer-drinking environment.

I walked around early on to take photos of the people and their stalls before they got too busy, and I also sampled one or two beverages. Yes, I'm biased but I do love the Cole Porter from Wignall Brewery - it's deep and rich and chocolatey smooth. It did establish quite a reputation over the day and I heard many good things from customers.


We were next-door to Feral, who have long been a favourite of mine. I began the day with a Biggie Juice, which is so full tropical fruits and stone fruit and a pulpy hazy texture going on, that it totally tastes like a healthy breakfast beer. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


Of course we were sharing the stand with the crew from Pact; they make great beer and they stand out not just for the quality of their brews, but also for their bold colours and striking marketing.

There was a small queue of dedicated drinkers waiting to be let in at 11am and the crowd slowly built up to lunch time, when the street and the stands got really busy.


I had a Passion of the Puss from Wayward early on in the proceedings - the passion fruit and yuzu Berliner Weisse is so fresh and tart and delicious - it's a real sorbet of an amuse bouche and the perfect palate-cleanser.


These lads from Cupitt Craft Brewers make a great smoked porter that has a good depth and a subtle charcoal flavour - very nice indeed.

I'm not usually a fan of 'session IPAs' but there is a time and place for all strengths of beer, and about 2pm at the Canberra Craft Beer and Cider Festival seemed about right to try a Piss-Weak Sauce (Session IPA). For once I appreciated a session IPA that has all the hop flavours without the alcohol strength. Nice.

I also got in a sneaky cider: George the Fox is smooth featuring well-balanced tastes of apple and oak. It's very easy-drinking and makes a refreshing change. 

Drinky Pete is horrified to find himself empty handed.
 As well as Pact and Wignall, Canberra were well represented by Bentspoke, Capital and Zierholz. The latter's porter has a smooth coffee/chocolate richness and that signature berry taste.


The bands added to the atmosphere by supplying a relaxed and entertaining vibe. There were also food options, including burgers, nachos and 'loaded' chips. The food was good but a little tucked away in a back corner; I would have liked it to have been more plentiful and prominent.

Our friends at Willie the Boatman pour some of the finest beers around. The Crazy Ivan has a good malty hop balance, and the Nectar of the Hops is described as 'perfect beer for our warmer months'. It was certainly a festival favourite today with the big and juicy; sweet and fruity hops (tropical fruit flavours; pineapple; mango; lychees) and low bitterness for a smashable session.

Crazy Ivan
Pact Beer Co and Wignall Brewery collaborated on a blend of the Mt Tennet Pale Ale and the Stable Genius IPA. It's quite soft and sessionable with a good hop level coming through while the bitterness has been tamed. An on-line competition resulted in it being called Mount Pale McStable Face, and if you're not impressed with the name, here's the person to blame. 


As the day wore on the crowds kept coming, so we kept serving them beer. Fortunately, other people did too.

The boys from Akasha
Club Brewing are an interesting outfit, describing themselves as a beer subscription service with a difference. They focus on small batch releases designed and brewed in collaboration with some of the best breweries in the world exclusively for their members. I tried their stout (brewed in collaboration with Baird Beer) and their hoppy black ale (brewed in collaboration with Beer Here), both of which were jolly decent. 

It was a big day and at the end of it we were tired but happy, as they used to say in the Famous Five. In terms of getting out and about, talking to and meeting customers and chatting with other brewers about their beers and the general market, it must be considered a great success. Roll on the next one!


Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Hearts and Minds: QED

Ylaria Rogers as Catherine in Proof
Proof by David Auburn
Freefall Productions

The Q, 14 -17 March 2018

A mathematical proof is an argument in support of a statement based on exhaustive logic. It implies a clinical level of control, which David Auburn exploits in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Proof. Catherine (Ylaria Rogers) is the daughter of mathematical genius and professor, Robert (Gerard Carroll), who has recently died after a long mental illness. During his increasing insanity she cared for him mentally and physically as she explains in intimately heartbreaking detail.

Her sister, Claire (Julia Christensen), who has escaped filial duty in New York as a currency trader, returns for the funeral and to sell the house. Her bags may be light but her baggage is not. Meanwhile, Robert’s former student, Hal (Derek Walker), stumbles across a proof in his mentor’s notebooks that he believes will change the future of mathematics.

On one level the play is simplicity itself, pared back to four characters and a single set. Despite the intellectual subject matter, there is no emphasis on chalk-covered blackboards or complicated-looking equations; we never see the experimental scribblings as they are contained in innocuous-seeming notebooks. The action all occurs outside the house, set on an oblique angle across the stage, featuring an array of well-tended pot plants in a sort of conservatory and windows covered with sheets through which lights shine erratically during scene changes.

Against this solid backdrop, however, we are in the world of non-linear narrative and imaginary numbers. Robert, whose death precedes the beginning of the play, makes several appearances and gives Catherine a bottle of birthday bubbles, which she drinks with him. Should we see this as an example of her mental fragility or the time-bending possibilities of quantum physics? She, herself believes she may be following her father’s footsteps both in the cerebral world of prime number theory and the irrational realm of madness.

Scratching the surface further uncovers layers of guilt, fear and anxiety, as is felt in all relationships, whether that be between father and daughter; siblings; tutor and pupil; or lovers. Carefully constructed fa├žades crumble just as we are told the house in which Catherine and her father have lived until now is falling to pieces.

While a proof follows logical steps, it may also include natural language – in a mathematical context, this means a language developed and spoken by humans in an organic manner as opposed to a formal language, such as that used to program a computer. This is accepted to admit some level of ambiguity to the deductions, and this production excels in its ambiguity. Those who didn’t know the plot were shocked at the mid-point revelation, although admitting they should have seen it coming; a true testament to expert storytelling.

Tour director, Tyran Parke, and original director, Derek Walker, trust the actors to carry the narrative, and their belief is well placed as all four handle their character with subtlety and sensitivity. The frequent switches in pace and motivation are demonstrated through tone and expression as well as posture and movement. No one resorts to histrionics or excess; all are entirely believable. The role of Catherine is pivotal to the success or otherwise of this play and Ylaria Rogers imbues it with grace and nuance, highlighting every aspect from stubborn anger to enchanting naivety.

They also credit the audience with enough intelligence to reach their own conclusions about the ‘moral’ of the play rather than enforcing any particular agenda or riding any current hobbyhorse. The programme notes state that Freefall Productions wants to give audiences, ‘stories that they can identify with, theatre that touches our hearts and minds.’ With this superb and thoughtful gift of a production, they have done just that.

Alexander Brown as Hal and Ylaria Rogers as Catherine