Saturday, October 27, 2012

Canadian Artist Brian Fisher.Memories of Rome

Enigma 1966 Queen's University, Kingston.

A few weeks ago, I learnt of the untimely death of my very dear friend Brian Fisher. We first meet some fifty odd years ago at the Accademia di Belli Arti, in Rome. Brian had arrived with a Canada Council grant in his pocket, and had decided to study the Renaissance masters at their source. Over the next year or so we got to know each other very well, spending days exploring the some eighteen hundred sites worth viewing in Rome. Eating together in some rather run down and questionable restaurants in the back streets of the city. We would walked up and down narrow streets, and across piazzas discussing everything under the sun as young men are prone to do, we would often make up free form poetry about the city as we went, of particular interest was the activity of the Roman dogs.It was an exciting time to be in Europe, the full impact of abstraction was making itself felt. Galleries held exhibitions of Tapies, de Stael Wols, Karel Appel, Fontana, Burri to name just a few, all within walking distance of our front door. Mark Rothko held a major exhibition down at the British School in Rome, that for young artists from the "new' world took our breath away.

Our mornings were taken up drawing various over weight models in the life drawing class, and then apart from excellent lectures in the afternoon the days were ours. We were fortunate to have a philosopher in the form of Prof. Reviasici who had been a close friend of Benedetto Croce during the 1930s.  He was very distressed at the direction the world was taking, the urban development, electrical wires clouding out the Roman sky.The Academy was full of students from all over the world, Americans, Germans, even Iceland was represented, so there was a wide range of viewpoints from which to draw.

Detail . Transfixion. Dept. of External Affairs.

Brian ,as I remember him was a very methodical person, who thought problems from a somewhat mathematical perspective. Looking back it was a quality he remained faithful too for most of his life. At the time he was a great fan of Mark Tobey, and his calligraphic impulses, reference to Chinese brush painting. like many young people at the time we were both influenced by Zen and its simplicity of form. The exhibition we held together in 1963 at Il Bilico, exemplifies his approach at the time. He would talk a lot about his teachers in Vancouver who had influenced him, Roy Kiyooka and Ron  Bloore's white paintings ,that he felt spelt out the future. of art. During my second year in Rome I saw a lot less of him, as his partner Carol Itter arrived from Canada intending to study stage and costume design at the Academy.

                                                             Early work Rome 1962.

The following year we meet up again in London, were I was studying stained glass, and he offered to sponsor my immigration to Canada. This was very kind, as it gave me the opportunity to settle in Canada. It so happened that , Toronto Cathedral was being built, and an SOS had been sent out for stained glass artist. After a short stay in Vancouver, my wife and I returned to Australia. , to visit her family.

It was only when we met up again in Tasmania, that I learnt of his successful career in the Canadian art world. His major commissions for postage stamps, murals at Montreal International Airport, various other venues. His work had sold well, and had been purchased by all the major galleries in Canada. But it was not to last, after we renewed our friendship, he was struck down by some bone disorder that resulted in the loss of a leg. Brian never seemed to be able to come to terms with his new physical condition, somethingg I can fully understands, who wants to lose their leg. Then recently he developed a tumor on his brain, that in the end carried him off. Unfortunately, I was in Laos when this happened, so was unable to say a proper goodbye. He leaves behind his lovely wife Joy, and devoted daughter and son. . Brian Fisher has left the world a richer place than he found it, I am sure in generations to come people will remember Brian Fisher through his paintings.

"Wheel" !988. Personal collection.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

FairTrade & Village Handcrafts of Laos

Rolled Paper Mats.



Fair Trade and Village Crafts of Lao.

Lao PDF is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. One positive bye product of this bombing was the emergence of Kommaly Chanthavong, a farmer’s wife who abandon her village after it was bombed, and went on to establish the Mulberries Silk Farm in Phonsavan. Her establishment is a fair trade business,  attempts to retrain Lao women in the art of silkworm farming, spinning, and weaving silk cloth. There are many such free trade businesses in Lao. A retail gallery Saoban a busness with  socialprinciples  in Vientiane ,only sells products from rural villages to create employment for villagers, particularly women , in an attempt to reduce poverty. They stock a wide range of crafts items, silk, wooden sculptures, spoons made in aluminium scrap recovered from bomb and plane parts.
Bomb Spoons
Raw Material.

Recycled paper items, like the one illustrated above are created by the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre. There are unfortunately   many disabled people in Lao, injured each year from unexploded bombs. The villagers of Ban Napia  make spoons and jewellery from bomb parts, hopefully to encourage the world to make every day utensils, rather than destructive bombs. This collection work is highly dangerous, but an economic necessity in a poor province. Collectors receive some 8000 kip per kilo [$1], considered by the locals as a profitable enterprise. Naturally, many are killed or injured each year, and one only hopes that eventually the world will start to take serious action on this unexploded ordnance problem.   

The major tradition Lao craft however is silk weaving, which is why Kommaly effort in establishing her Mulberries farm is so important. The farm acts as both teacher and mentor , allowing village women to develop their skills to the fullest. The mulberry trees are approached along a path lined with planting of different flowers and shrubs used to make the various coloured dyes. The trees are pruned very hard every four years or so, to make harvesting the leaves easier, worms eat some one ton of green matter every day. The orchard is organically managed , with a mulch weed control. A propagation shed houses several million silk worms, hard at work producing cocoons. When complete some are retained for stock replacement, while the remained are boiled before extracting the silken thread. One cacoon will produce some thirty metres thread. These are then dyed in the natural coloured dyes extracted from the farm flowers, and plants.

Finally, I moved to the weaving studio, were several women were busy over their looms. Highly skilled weavers over see the work, making suggestions were appropriate about colour, and design. Many of the designs take months to produce twenty centimetres of cloth. The weavers are fully trained in all aspects of silk worm farming, and the production of silk, so when they return to their villages they may act as mentors to other village women. The Mulberry Farm does not abandon them, but continues to act in a advisory role in helping with sales and technical matters.

It is little wonder that Kommaly was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 2005, and was awarded the UNESCO  award for advancing the lives of women in Lao. The world needs many more Kommalys .

Monday, October 22, 2012

Demise of Aesthetics in 20th cent. Australian Art.


The Demise of Aesthetics in 20th cent. Australian Art.

The extent to which meaning has transcended aesthetics in the fine art of painting, may be traced to some extent to the incorporation of Art Schools into the University system. Universities by their very nature are not concerned with the teaching of technical skill, such activities  historically have been the task of Technical Colleges. Universities by their nature, place primary importance on theoretical and hidden meaning. Fine art over the centuries has attempted to amalgamate the two, originally through a master’s workshop, and later through the technical school.

Over the last few decades the emphasis has been on theoretical meaning of a piece of art work, regardless of any aesthetic content. Walk through any contemporary exhibition, and you are confronted with an array mechanical, brutal, and/or computerized imagery with little or no aesthetic appeal. It is little wonder that the general public has turned its back on contemporary work. I am not suggesting that fine art must be solely decorative, but art works should be meaningful in their own right, have appeal and not necessarily require written explanations for a viewer to have any understanding of the message. It seems to me, that western art schools have swamped the world with theorists, who more often than not, have little aesthetic talent, but somehow have taken control world art. Much of this discourse amount to little more than a constant stream of meaningless drivel, leaving the listener or reader, wondering what on earth the author was trying to say.

Questions needs to be asked , how can  individuals express themselves without mastery of the language required to do so. Art schools today place too much emphases on doing your own thing, and little on technic and aesthetic appeal. Many writers have suggested that this decline into the meaningless began with the advent of Pop Art of Andy Warhol, and the gaudy commercial imagery of western materialism, that this unleashed. Unfortunately many of these artists have moved through the system, and now find themselves teaching the next generation of artists. Although they themselves may possess the technical skills and aesthetic discipline required, many have failed to pass on these skills, instead giving their students  a free hand to do what they will, resulting in the current crop of either meaningless work, or images seemingly untouched by human hands. In fact, they have turned the fine art of painting into an industrial production line .Commercial technology has replaced human skill, resulting in very slick images of an impersonal nature.

Walk through any grants, or competition exhibition  and most work on display has little personal idiosyncrasy,  no defiant brush strokes, no sense of struggle, just  impersonal art work , often of an industrial nature with its obligatory statement about meaning. Where the visual art of painting goes from here is anyones  guess, but the current direction does not offer much hope.

Friday, October 19, 2012

World of Chendel--Ice of Life

I first became aware of Chendel on a very hot 38degree afternoon in Melacca. Dish after dish of this delight,  a volcano like desert was being rushed to eager customers as they waited anxiously in the slip stream of a whirling. fan. My table companion assured me this was the most popular cooling agent in Malaysia. This delight turned out to be a pile shredded ice flakes, cleverly produced by a Taiwanese ice shaver. This devise has a number rotating blades that shaves ice flakes from a securered  bloke of ice.

These ice shards are piled up into a volcano like shape, that is then transformed by generous additions of coconut mike, condense milk, and several ladles of equally satisfying raw sugar syrup. Then topped with sweet red beans along with a quantity of jelly like fruit mix, and in some establishments nuts. The quality of this dish greatly depends like most things in life, on the skill and attention to detail of the maker. Something I found out to my great disappointment.

The delight in placing this substance into your mouth magically reduces your heat fatigue considerably.Next time you feel like a cold shower to cool off, try a Chendel, you will feel so good afterwards. I only wish someonewould import a manhine into Tasmania, but then prehaps it does not get hot enough.

Buddha Park

Looking towards the river, Buddha Park.


Buddha Park.

Sometimes you find yourself caught up in a series of events without  control . My bus ride to the Buddha Park outside Vientiane was one . Arriving at the bus station ,simply to enquire about the time table, I was suddenly bundled through a crowd  of Tuk-Tuk drivers and bus passengers onto a bus marked Thadena  Road. Before being able to explain why we were there, we found ourselves on a bus heading out of town. The bus had been hailed by our helper as it was pulling out of the station. Anxiously, I asked the conductor to let us off on arrival at the Buddha Park, she assured me everything would be fine.

Eventually, we arrived at the Friendship Bridge, a road link across the Mekong to Thailand. On alighting, we were whisked once more by a friendly Lao to a very old bus that had seen better days. Our assistant this time told me not to pay more than 12000 kip. This may sound  a lot, but in fact was only $1.50. During the next twenty minutes ,we were treated to a display of pot hole avoidance The dirt road was used by many heavy trucks, and had deep pits and gullies every few metres. The springs of our old bus also were in need of urgent attention, we spent a greater part of the time air born above its torn and battered seats, hanging on as best we could.

I have always had a fascination with what is often called Fantasy Parks, no doubt my interest in using recycled materials in my work  helped .Luang Phu Bouneua Soulilat, a Lao sculptor of considerable note, created this collection of sculptures on the banks’ of the Mekong a number of years ago. He claimed his imagery was inspired by the teachings of a Hindu holy man he had meet in a cave in Vietnam. Regardless of the origins, this park is the result, and it is quite over whelming. In all such situations, is difficult to convey the overall feel of this imaginative undertaking. Dozens of Hindu and Buddhist images , demons and animals all  standing in an open field .Luang Phu  fell out with the Government in 1975, left the country , and  some  how  found the energy to recreat another similar park on the Thai side of the river.

The first image a visitor meets when arriving at the park, is a large spherical Stupa like structure. You enter through the large gaping mouth of a demon. Once inside you follow the circular path around and around to the top. On the way up you may view an internal chamber through openings to see  the  independent  diorama within. Each level tells a different story, starting with hell, then earth, and finally heaven were you emerge onto the domed roof .Great care is required as you walk around this dome as several areas are fairly slippery, and the ground seems a long way down. The low concrete rail wall running around the edge does not give great confidence.

Despite my vertigo, I decided to make a number of drawings of the park from the roof, some of which I have included here. Most sculptures were of Buddha, and various Hindu Ramayana characters .The whole collection is extraordinary, even with the assistance of amateur artists under Soulilates’ direction the park must have taken many years to build. This eclectic collection, also includes elephants, crocodiles, enormous  insects, along with vestal virgins dancing on giant coiled cobras. Most of these sculptures have been constructed with an internal brick core, then rendered with concrete and  have tool  textured surfaces. Others have been built over metal armature, that is also rendered with concrete. Unfortunately, many works have not been well maintained resulting in missing arms, legs, and serious fractures in the concrete.

                                                                     View from dome top.

When I first read about this park, I imaged Luang Phu had created a critical vision of Buddhist and Hindu belief, but in fact the park has a strong religious feel, and many locals pay religious respect to the various images. At the far end of the meadow, past a large reclining Buddha running down one side of the park, there is a small cafe that serves lunches. The day we were there a young musician was playing plaintive music on his flute under a banyan tree. Both visitors and the contented cows grazing at the river’s edge much appreciated  his efforts. It seemed to create an atmosphere of a harmonious and peaceful world.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Night arrival in Kuala Lumpur


Night Impression of Kuala Lumpur.


Arriving in a new city in the middle of the night, often engenders a sense of excitement. An  unknown, hidden behind  walls of darkness, broken only by the random cry of brilliant lights. All the colours of a rainbow, spreading out, twinkling in a tapestry of patterns. Speeding through the dark from airport to hotel, your eye and mind only see the brilliant floral display of colour without the distracting presence of any ugly sight. Kuala Lumpur seems dressed for some great occasion, its’ public parks and streets dressed in Sunday best. Trees combed with bright coloured lights lead the eye from one delightful vista to the next. Iconic building clothed in a coloured light show, that travels down walls and across  streets. My driver informs me it is all for Independence Day later in the week.


The unforgiving light of dawn draws back this wondrous curtain, revealing the underbelly of reality. Still first impressions remain strong, fixing themselves in mind and soul, prompting further exploration of this new world. The urban landscape offers up an extraordinary contrast of old and new. Adventurous architecture stands shoulder to shoulder like sentries guarding the past. Buildings with stained tropical cement walls, support rows of air conditioners that piece their rooftops. Trees and greenery somehow survive in their elevated position among solar panels, and assorted roofline additions. All cities from an elevated height offer this exciting canvas to the eye, and inspire new ways of looking at the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ohi Night & Ioannis Metaxas

Ohi [No]  night 28th Oct is with us again. I am always left wondering what sort of man was Ioannis Mataxas, the Greek Prime Minister who in 1940 by saying no, took Greece into the Second World War, when he refused Mussolini's demand for occupation rights to certain Greek sites. The paradox of this man revolves around his political ideology. Mataxas portrayed himself as"Saviour of the Nation" when declaring a state of emergency in 1936, while suspending parliament indefinitely, banning political parties, prohibiting strikes and censoring the press. His government was very authoritarian, he modeled his rule on the fascist regimes then current in Europe. He even held his own book burnings and re-wrote all school text books!

The question that always puzzeled me is why do Greeks today celebrate this event? When
 the man whose action in 1940 resulted in Greece's entry into the second world war and the eventual German invasion of the country in 1941. Are they monarchists, fascists or simply see Metaxas' action as restoring pride in themselves and the country. There is no question that "The National Father" was a military dictator who's constitutional claim to office was only legitimate for a few months. Yet despite this he is considered in some quarters as a national hero.

Greek politics has always been divided by extreme positions on both right and left. A divide that lead to a civil war and again to the coup of the Generals during the 70's. I only hope that our volatile Greek friends are not today eembarking on yet another installment of violent decent into anarchy. Still as I sit here with my friends in Hobart's Greek Club , eating, drinking, talking, dancing these political considerations are drowned by the sounds of  loud Greek music and the feeling of camaraderie

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Plain of Jars, Laos

                                                 Stone Jar one metre high.

No one seems to know what these 2500 year old jars were used for, the 450 odd stone containers scattered across hills and plain have puzzled archaeologists since the French first became aware of them in the 1930s. Situated some 30 minutes from Phonsavan are 331 jars spread across a hilly plain, while further out are another 93 on a woody hillside at Hai Hin Phu Salato. Local folklore claims they were the ancient wine cups of the mythical King Khun Cheum. Research has discovered human bones inside some suggesting they were funerary urns. Bones removed from a jar may be viewed in Lao National Museum in Vientiane. The jars vary in size from 3m to 50cm in height, some with lids, while others have sculptural relief on the outside. Other jars had examples of Chinese ceramics inside, so this area must have engaged in trade with the outside world at the time of their carving. Another mystery puzzling researchers is method by which they were moved here, as the stone source is some forty or so kms awa

The jars are situated in an area subjected to heavy bombing during the Vietnam War. Fortunately there are seven sites cleared UXO [Unexploded Ordnance], and are quite safe for visitors. I was lucky enough to meet up with an ex-British soldier in Vientiane who is employed in bomb clearing on Lao wages. I must say he was in quite a state, twitchy, nervous, and generally in a state of high agitation. I felt quite sorry for him, as I do for all these brave souls carrying out this dirty work. In addition to the bombing, the Phonsavan area was sprayed with agent orange resulting in very sparse vegetation. Each year the local people plant trees, but they rarely grow for more than a year or so before dying. This area was apparently forested according to photos I viewed in Vientiane National Museum, hillsides covered in rain forest. It must dishearten the children who plant them young trees ever year to see then die..

                                                                         On a more positive note, many local residences have used the empty shell cases to build their houses. When stood on end they make excellent rot proof piers for their buildings. Many people collect old shells for metal scrap, often with deadly results. This scrap is sold for the manufacture of spoons and an array of objects for the tourist trade.

Distance jars

Collection of jars