Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dining with the Sumos

This years Grand Sumo Tournament was back again in Osaka and Jules and I found ourselves in the fortunate position of being invited by one of the sponsors to come along to view the big event. We had attended a couple of years ago but had found ourselves quite a way back in the upper seats, toward the back of the stadium. This time we would be viewing from what is referred to as a private box, but is in actual fact a small, tatami matted area with cushions to sit on. In any case these were very sought after cushions indeed, as they would be quite a bit closer to the action. However, the biggest bonus of the invitation was the opportunity for us to attend a post tournament dinner hosted by the Sumos themselves. This was a customary event held by the various Sumo ‘stables’ as a way of thanking sponsors and supporters, while also allowing them to meet some of Japan’s most revered sportsman in an informal setting.

It was mid afternoon on the final day of competition when we took up our positions in the box. The tournament had been running for two weeks and it was now approaching the final events that would decide the ultimate grand champion and the all important rankings. While our seats were very much sought after, it was still quite a tight squeeze, leaving little room for leg adjustment when the pins and needles eventually began to set in. However, the position was terrific; close to the action, but not too close as to have a Sumo land in your lap after being tossed off the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). Being a sponsors box, we were being well looked after too, with drinks and a generous supply of bentos to keep us nourished between bouts. As is tradition, we were also presented with gift bags containing several nicely wrapped presents as a mark of appreciation of our support for the event…at this point Jules and I were beginning to feel a little guilty, but of course graciously accepted them rather than offend.

With the final bout having been fought and the grand champion decided (Kakuryu, with 14 victories and only one loss) it was time to head off to the Sumo dinner, but with absolutely no idea what to expect. We imagined sitting in a traditional wooden building steeped in the traditions of this ancient sport, but what we found was a surprisingly modern high rise environment, much like you would find for any corporate organisation. Sumo is after all a very professional business these days and so, much like any other corporatised sport, they too have moved with the times. We were however, pleased to be greeted by several Sumo, complete with the traditional ‘chonmage’ styled hair and dressed in their post-tournament robes. These gentle giants looked slightly out of place in this contemporary environment, but they were more than happy to act as hosts by leading us to the elevators and eventually to our seats at the front of a large conference-like room.

The formalities and award giving were about to begin, where each Sumo in the stable would be presented with an envelope of varying size, commensurate with their achievements during the tournament. With the speeches well underway, bowls of noodles, cold meats and sushi began to be served by the Sumos who, despite their size, worked their way around the tables with the graceful ease of a ballet dancer. With the formalities soon over it was time for some fun. There was passionate singing, some impersonations of famous Sumos and several rounds of audience games, all adding to a very relaxed atmosphere. The drinks and conversation flowed while small groups took their turn in having their photographs taken alongside a sizable Sumo.

Clearly the sponsors and supporters who had been especially invited to the event were all very highly regarded by this particular stable of Sumo wrestlers. They had expressed their appreciation with good humor and through the generosity of their hospitality that night. As visitors to the country and as invited guests, we too felt very special for being there. As we stood to leave, they presented us with framed signatures and other momentoes as a reminder of the evening. It had been a remarkable night and yet another one of those unforgettable experiences that Jules and I will cherish from our time here in Japan.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Anime Comes Alive in the Streets of Osaka

While the traditional and historical aspects of Japanese culture still remain the central focus for ceremony and celebration, increasingly modern culture is beginning to establish its own traditions and events. This phenomenon has been primarily driven by the increasing popularity of Japanese animation (known as anime) and also through a wide range of ‘Marvel’ comic superheroes that have invaded the country through numerous action packed movies from the US. As a result, there are many anime/comic stores throughout the country where you can also buy an extensive range of books, videos, memorabilia and costumes. Here the youth of Japan often spend a small fortune on their collections and enjoy nothing more than actually dressing up and parading as their favorite characters. They certainly need little encouragement to take to the streets for the annual Nipponbashi Street Festa, which is a particularly popular annual event in Osaka. This is an anime-themed festival that his held in an area called Den Den Town, which is the electronics centre of Osaka and home to all things manga or anime.

Although the weather was cold and overcast (being March), Jules and I decided to head downtown to see what it was all about. Coming up from the underground, it was clear that this was a very popular event, with large crowds streaming into the area. Increasingly, the sight of coloured hair and strange looking costumes gave us a pretty good guide that we were heading in the right direction. Yet with temperatures plunging and the clouds quickly building, we weren’t quite sure whether festivities might soon be called off by the time we got there. We should have realized that such devoted fans are made of sterner stuff than that and even when a slight bit of snow did eventually fall they remained there in force.

With the normally busy streets closed off from traffic, a wide range of fascinating characters could be seen, each striking well practiced poses for groups of excited amateur photographers. For everyday people, dressing up in such extravagant costumes certainly generated the sort of frenzied attention that would normally be reserved for pop stars and movie idols. There were no inhibitions here, with plenty of cross-dressing and a proliferation of skimpy costumes despite the chilly weather. No one was camera shy either; they seemed to love acting out their characters and appeared to thrive on all the attention. In the parking lot, highly decorated cars adorned with popular anime graphics were also very much the centre of attention. Their owners could be seen vigorously wiping down their pride and joy once the brief burst of snow had passed and as the sun re-emerged, their shiny cars became the backdrop for even more photographs.

There was certainly no denying the energy and excitement of both the crowds and its participants at this years Nipponbashi Street Festa. The day was a celebration of youth culture and the unique way of experiencing a sample of the visual aesthetic that has emerged through the popularity of anime. Despite the weather, the tremendous sense of fun was evident, providing a positive contrast to how many from other parts of the world might perceive modern Japanese life. It was an opportunity for ordinary people to openly express their sense of fantasy amongst a crowd who clearly where in admiration of their passion for anime, manga and the world of comic book characters.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Higashiyama by Lantern Light

Higashiyama is one of the most traditional and prettiest areas of Kyoto, providing a buffer between bustling downtown and lush green mountain forests beyond. It is a great place to experience old Kyoto with many traditional wooden buildings and shrines as well as a myriad of food and craft shops that cater to its constant stream of visitors. The area is particularly popular in mid-March when its picturesque narrow lanes are adorned with small lanterns for 10 days of evening illuminations. While officially this is one of the many local events that signals the start of Spring, the temperature is still a bit brisk at that time of year, particularly when the sun goes down. However, Jules and I decided to brave the chilly evening in order to experience a very different perspective of this wonderfully historic part of town.

 We arrived there late in the afternoon and noticed that despite the cool temperature, the area was particularly busy in anticipation of the lights going on around 6.30pm. One thing you can say about the Japanese is that they organize such events with passion and efficiency. There are always plenty of people to direct you, delicious food stalls and extra decorations. In response such festivities are always well patronized, with crowds of all ages filing in with cameras in hand. In Kyoto the wearing of traditional dress is also very popular with many women wearing the kimono, adding to the visual spectacle set against of the traditional buildings of Higashiyama.

This area is one of our favorites at any time of the year, but it was wonderful to see pavilions such as the Yasaka Shrine lit with traditional lanterns, while the nearby pagoda was illuminated with golden lighting. Here, professional and amateur photographers queued in anticipation of the setting sun and the chance to get a once a year shot of this magnificent historic spire under lights. Having skirted around the major attractions, Jules and I then wandered into some of the quieter laneways, which we found to be just as appealing as the little lanterns beautifully set off the traditional architecture. We were also able to discover a few hidden restaurants whose simple wooden entrances might have been quite easily missed during the day.

Having spent plenty of time exploring, we were both starting to feel a little frozen and in need of a warming drink. Thankfully Jules had heard about a place that was not too far away, so after a quick taxi ride we found ourselves walking down an inconspicuous street looking for what is regarded as one of Kyoto’s most secretive bars. Eventually we came across a magnificent old Buddhist temple and true to the theme of the night, we were led along a lantern-lined pathway to its doors, where we discovered something quite special. With no signage to be seen anywhere, it was inconceivable to imagine that just to the side of the main temple was a small, yet classy 10 seater bar. Established by the enterprising monks in 2008, this tastefully designed watering hole, set amongst a beautifully manicured Japanese garden is only now beginning to be discovered by visitors to Kyoto. I must say that sitting there with a warming glass of Yamazaki whisky in hand and looking out of the floor to ceiling windows toward a lantern lit courtyard garden was all a little bit surreal. However, it was clearly the perfect way to end an illuminating evening of sights and discoveries.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Night in a Capsule Hotel

If you ever fancied living on a space station, the closest thing that you might find here on earth would be to stay at a Japanese ‘capsule’ hotel. This unique and popular form of accommodation (also referred to as ‘pod’ hotels) requires guests to sleep communally in individual capsules that are stacked on top of each other, much like those seen in many sci-fi movies. It was certainly one of those novel things that Jules and I had on our ‘to do’ list whilst living here in Japan, but until now had never got around to it. So on a wintery long weekend we headed to Kyoto with friends to enjoy some of many attractions of this great city and to experience this somewhat futuristic form of accommodation.

Jules had done some initial research on what was available and while she found the choice a little limited in Kyoto, there was a popular one called ‘9 hours’ that was right in the heart of the city and offered very modern facilities. Being a long weekend, she was lucky to arrange a booking at the bargain price of approximately $25AU a head; this capsule hotel was no doubt the most affordable form of accommodation in town. Contrary to what the name of the hotel might have suggested, here guests were provided with 24 hours of accommodation so our plan was to check in early before venturing out to enjoy the sights and eventually the city nightlife.

Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted at reception by friendly young attendants who all spoke very good English. It was clear that they were used to all manner of visitors from around the world, keen to experience this very different form of hotel. The stark white interior with minimal styling provided our first indication to the modernist d├ęcor we would experience on the floors above. With check in complete, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to further explore the facilities and made our way to the elevators. The first thing we noticed is that there was one elevator for males and another for females. Here there is a strict demarcation of areas accessible to each of the sexes, so those interested in activities other than sleeping were clearly in the wrong place. Going are own separate way, I headed to the sleeping area to find a dark room with dimly lit streamlined plastic molded sleeping ‘pods’ arranged on two levels. While each capsule was very private, it reminded me of the old bunk bed arrangement and as I climbed up to test my mattress on the upper level, memories of high school camps strangely drifted back. The sleeping pod was small, but certainly not claustrophobic. The coziness was enhanced by a privacy blind that rolled down to cover the opening rather than a solid door, which might have felt a little too hemmed in. On the floor above we were provided with our storage lockers and access to a highly functional bathroom. With everything looking so white and clean, it was as if this hotel had taken a line from the architect Le Corbusier by creating the ultimate ‘machine for living in’.

After a very indulgent evening sampling the nightlife of Kyoto, it was well past midnight by the time we made our way back to our hotel. Around this time of night the capsule hotel really comes into its own, as the cost of a stay over is far less than catching a taxi home. Subsequently, by the time we had changed into our pyjamas (also supplied) and headed to the sleeping quarters, it was clear that all of the pods were now occupied and most of its occupants were tucked away for the night. Despite the closeness of the arrangement, it was all very quiet, as it remained throughout the night, with just the occasional sound of people rousing out of their pod in the early hours of the morning. At this point I wondered whether this form of accommodation could actually work in any other country other than Japan, as the people here are for the most part so considerate of others around them. There was no conversation, no coughing or any other of the usual sounds of the morning.

So after a warm and comfortable night, I eventually rolled up my blind and emerged from my upper level capsule. Stepping tentatively backwards down the steps, I must have looked like some sort of middle aged Neil Armstrong about to step foot on the moon. It was certainly difficult not to make space-age comparisons here! This form of accommodation could well be the way of the future, but for now a stay in a capsule hotel was simply a very cool and affordable way to enjoy a night in Kyoto, Japan.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Adelaide’s New Field of Dreams

Back in Adelaide for Christmas and our hometown is definitely changing. After years of languishing in its own financial crisis (commonly referred to by locals as ‘The State Bank Disaster’) during the 1980’s, the old town is finally beginning to claw its way back and is starting to provide tangible evidence of a more prosperous future. One of the most significant signs has been the return of construction cranes across the city skyline with some major government funded building projects beginning to take shape. One of the most notable has been the recent re-construction of one of the city’s most famous landmarks, The Adelaide Oval. This has also been one of the most controversial developments ever undertaken in the city, as the old cricket ground has long been considered one of the most beautiful sports grounds in the world. Here in Australia this is truly hallowed turf, where history has been made, sporting dramas unfolded and where players became legends. With a proud history that dates back to 1871, this is Australia’s very own ‘field of dreams’!

In past years, many South Australians like us spent lazy summer days laying back on its grassy mounds or sitting in the shade of its elegant old grandstands watching cricket much like the early pioneers had done a century before. Apart from the occasional concert, cricket was just about all that occurred there, with Aussie Rules football departing to suburban grounds in the 1970’s. However, the grounds prime position within easy walking distance from the city centre had long been recognized as the ideal location for a much larger sporting arena similar to the famed MCG in Melbourne. So after years of public debate, negotiations between the various sporting codes and with government financial support, the deal was finally done. By 2014 Adelaide would have its own world-class stadium at a cost of $535 million and the old ground, as generations had known it, would be no more.

By the end of 2013 the new facility had already hosted its first international cricket match and with a Rolling Stones concert planned for March, the new Adelaide Oval was now almost complete, so we decided to take a walk around the complex to see it for ourselves close-up. This was a very strange experience for Jules and myself, as when we left Adelaide in 2009 the old oval was still very much in tack. Now, as we looked toward the ground from the statue of Colonel Light (the city’s original town planner) in its elevated position on Montefore Hill, the scene was almost unrecognizable. The most notable reminder of the old days was the traditional wooden scoreboard that still remains at the northern end, but it was dwarfed by the concrete and steel structures that now surround much of the ground. Having taken a tour through this Edwardian tin and wood structure many years ago, and having viewed firsthand the antiquated mechanisms and the conditions that scorekeepers endure during a game, it now appeared not surprisingly out of place, particularly set alongside the large digital screen right next door. Being a heritage building we felt reassured by the knowledge that it would be preserved in some way, but we couldn’t help think that its tenure at the new ground was now limited.

As we walked around the ground and entered through the new gates to view a brief video about the ovals great history, we continued to debate the wisdom of the decision to re-invent this beautiful old ground. I had visited Wrigley Field in Chicago several years ago and had very much respected the way this bastion of baseball had been lovingly preserved, yet on the other hand we had also seen the ‘Birds Nest’ Olympic stadium in Beijing and noted what a significant landmark it had become. After all it wasn’t just the viewing of sport that had instigated such a major decision, but rather the broader ramifications of such a development upon the mindset of the city as a whole. Such a major economic, social and cultural landmark would certainly have huge implications for the future of Adelaide that were simply too great to ignore. While Jules largely remained unconvinced, preferring the elegance of the old ground, the new stadium was beginning to win me over. Although, I too am a traditionalist at heart, I acknowledge that modern sport is very much big business these days requiring state of the art facilities and while a brand new stadium may have been a more desirable option, it always remained an economical pipe dream. So in this case progress had defeated tradition and while the initial signs are positive and the stadium itself impressive, only time will tell whether it was indeed the right decision.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Thinking Out of the Box at the Kobe Biennale

Coming hot on the heals after our visit to the Venice Biennale several months ago, Jules and I thought that we would tackle the local version with the Kobe Biennale. Kobe is probably our favorite major city in Japan, being sandwiched between water on one side and mountains on the other and this event is just one of the many festivals that regularly occur in this scenic location. Having suffered the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, the city has over the years done remarkably well to rebuild itself not only structurally, but also more importantly as a community. Today it is once again a major tourist destination competing admirably with both Osaka and Kyoto and being essentially a seaport, it remains the starting point for many cruise ships visiting the Kansai region. In fact it would be the dockland area that would be the starting point for the Kobe Biennale, but the event would become a magical mystery tour that would take us through much of the city.

The Biennale was one of the more positive things that emerged following the 1995 earthquake, when art was recognized by the community as a means of healing both the heart and the mind. Art was seen as a way of bringing vitality back to the city by promoting its cultural connections with the past and to provide a creative vision of its contemporary future. So from humble beginnings, the event continued to grow to become quite a significant event on the Biennale calendar, of which there are now around 150 across the globe. However, what makes the Kobe Biennale particularly unique is that a large part of it is displayed in and around shipping containers, of which there are many in this huge port area. So this is where Jules and I began, by moving systematically from one container to another to experience a myriad of works including installation pieces, paintings by featured artists, examples of traditional Japanese calligraphy as well as displays and workshops from various local art schools.

While the exhibition was now in its last week (it runs from October 1 – December 1), it was good to see that it was still attracting a sizable local crowd who were certainly entering into the spirit of the event and finding it to be a positive uplifting experience. While our experience at the Venice Biennale represented the serious side of the modern art world, here it was far more relaxed. Maybe it was the novelty of using shipping containers as miniature galleries that often forced us to be at close quarters with other patrons or simply the open-air venue that promoted a level of conversation and laughter that is rarely seen in more austere traditional galleries. No matter what the reason, everyone appeared to be enjoying the creative endeavors of the mostly Japanese artists whose works were on display and clearly the original mission of the event was being fulfilled.

Having spent a couple of hours moving in and out of shipping containers, Jules and I eventually hit the streets with map in hand to head out to find some of the other venues. There remained much to see with locations spread throughout Kobe. You could even board a boat that would take you along the coastline to view sculptural works from the water, however with time pressing, we opted to tackle much of the remaining exhibits by foot and initially headed over to one of the main shopping areas that follows the railway line through the heart of the city from Motomachi to Sannomiya. Here nestled between antique shops, trendy boutiques, cafes and old vinyl records shops were small temporary galleries housing several or sometimes just one significant work of art. While the works at each venue were interesting, I must confess it was just as much fun finding them. From there we made our way to more traditional venues such as the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and the Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art.

It was getting dark by the time we emerged from the last gallery and a blister was forming on my toe from all the walking we had done throughout the day. The event had been much bigger than we had imagined when we began and we had by no means seen it all. However, we had seen enough to be impressed. As an art event, it certainly couldn’t be compared to the Venice Biennale, but what it had lacked in international representation or status, it had made up through its energy and enthusiasm. There was a justifiable pride in what the event had to offer and it was clear that it is going to be around for a good many years to come. The city of Kobe had certainly embraced its artistic heritage and through their Biennale, it had ensured its commitment to all forms of visionary and creative expression.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gigantor…Alive and Well and Living in the Suburbs

If you were a television kid like me in Australia in the late 1960’s, you would well remember the introduction of the first animated cartoons that arrived from Japan. Of course we didn’t realise that they were from Japan at the time, only that the characters looked unusual (typically portrayed with large wide doe eyes) and the overall style of the animation was distinctively different from anything eminating from America. Little did we know that these animated shows would become the forerunner of what we now recognise as the ‘Japanese anima’ phenomenon. For me the standout series at the time was ‘Gigantor’ (debuting in Adelaide, South Australia on October 28 1968), which told of the adventures of a 12 year old boy who was able to control a somewhat portly looking 50 foot jet propelled robot in a fight against evil throughout the world. My friends and I just loved this series and couldn’t wait to catch each episode. Although the series only lasted for several months, there were plenty of re-runs to keep us entertained, until eventually the show disappeared from our screens.

I had almost totally forgotten about Gigantor until reading about the existence of a life size statue of the animated character somewhere in the suburbs of Kobe. It seems that Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the artist who had created ‘Gigantor’ (or ‘Tetsujin-28’ as he was originally known in Japan), had grown up in Kobe and had remained somewhat of a local hero due to his efforts in breaking into the American market and eventually worldwide with his popular animated cartoons. The statue had been built to honor him and his most famous animated character in 2009, and coincided with the 15th anniversary of the great Hanshin earthquake (1995). It was hoped that the Gigantor statue would act as a protector against such disasters in the future, while also providing a means of revitalizing interest in the local region.

So after Jules had done the necessary research, we headed out of central Kobe on the local train to the suburb of Nagata in a kind of pilgrimage to the TV memories of my childhood. When we arrived, we could see that while ‘Gigantor’ might be a very distant animated memory in other parts of the world, here he remained very much alive and a respected attraction to this region. Posters, stickers and billboards could be seen throughout the railway station with signage directing us to Wakamatsu Park where the metallic mega-hero could be found. He was in fact pretty hard to miss standing a full-scale 18 metres or 59 feet tall and in full action pose. Amazingly enough and despite his vintage as a super hero, he was still attracting some interest, with small groups of visitors keen to have their photo taken posing beneath his giant robotic legs…so of course, I had to as well!

While Jules had little recollection of the animated adventures of Gigantor, for me seeing him once again brought back plenty of happy childhood memories. It was good to see that the character was being appreciated within Japan as a significant aspect of their emerging post war culture. Television shows like Gigantor, The Samurai, Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Marine Boy certainly enabled generations of the 50’s and 60’s to gain a new appreciation for Japanese aesthetic through the medium of television and in some way, programs such as these possibly helped to heal some of the old wounds of the past. I was interested to read that Twentieth Century Fox had bought the rights to the Gigantor franchaise and that a script for a movie had been developed before Yokayama’s death in 2004. Since then the project has remained shelved, but maybe one day Gigantor will once again take to the skies and a new generation will be able to follow his exploits. If so, you can expect an avalanche of visitors to see the big metal man of Nagata and I guess that’s exactly what the local businesses are hoping for.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Exploring Himeji Castle Undercover

While enjoying an overnight stay in Kobe, Jules and I finally decided to visit famed Himeji Castle. We had been meaning to explore this historic landmark for quite some time but with the castle currently going through a massive five-year restoration project and covered in scaffolding, we weren’t quite sure what we might actually see. I had seen the castle from a distance in all its glory just a few months after our arrival in Japan while passing through on the bullet train and in hindsight we probably should have visited then before the work had begun. Still, the opportunity to view one of the truly great historic buildings of Japan could not be missed and so on a delightfully sunny autumn day, we took a comfortable 40 minute local train ride from Kobe to Himeji to see it close up.

Also known as ‘The White Heron Castle’ because of its distinctive white walls and a roofline that resembles the spreading wings of the heron bird, Himeji Castle remains quite a remarkable example of fourteenth century architecture. Although the building has undergone a number of major restorations during its long life, it has successfully managed to survive wars, fires, bombing and earthquakes and unlike other castles in Japan, remains almost perfectly preserved. Not surprisingly, the castle was designated a national treasure in 1931 and granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993 (the first landmark in the country to do so). It remains the most visited castle in Japan and has provided the setting for a number of major movies including the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' (1967) and 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

As Jules and I exited the train station, we could see a huge box like structure on a nearby hill, which we knew was Himeji Castle because of the painted representation on the outside of the scaffolding cover. Memories of our visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany flashed back, where we were also prevented from viewing an historic castle due to renovations. As we got closer, the sheer scale of the restoration work became increasingly evident although what also became clear was that the scale of the grounds would still provide plenty for us to see. Also there was the added bonus of tourist numbers having been greatly reduced, which would make our tour around the castle far more leisurely than what would normally be the case.

As it turned out, our Japanese hosts had also made every effort to compensate for all of the restoration work by providing a very unique perspective on the castle exterior. They had sensibly installed a glass sided exterior elevator to take visitors to the top of the building from which you could descend by stairs while viewing architectural details at close quarters as the restoration was continuing. This allowed us to see the meticulous work that was proceeding by artisans who were using traditional building methods to repair plaster walls, woodwork and thousands of ancient roof tiles. While much of the exterior work appeared to be coming to an end, there would still be at least two more years of work to be done as attention now turned to the interior.

While Jules and I would have loved to have seen Himeji Castle without the encumbrance of scaffolding and coverings, we certainly did not leave disappointed. We had been provided with a unique close-up perspective of the exterior of the main building that others would not normally experience. The grounds were magnificent and we were able to venture inside several outer buildings to gain an insight into the lifestyle of those who lived there during ancient times. We admired the sheer scale of the stonework that had been pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on top of which ancient builders had created one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Likewise, we knew that with all of the work that is currently being undertaken, this piece of Japanese heritage would soon be uncovered to once again be admired by visitors for many centuries to come.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Power of a Big Rubber Duck

The world of fine art is very often regarded as a very serious business these days, with works being carefully analysed for their aesthetic qualities or metaphorically peeled back like an onion in an effort to interpret their deep conceptual meaning. However, occasionally an artwork comes along that defies the temptation to enter into intellectual hyperbole and instead simply makes the viewer smile. Such is the case of the ‘Rubber Duck’ installation sculpture project by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman that has bobbed up in many of the world’s harbours and waterways, creating great interest and excitement in its wake. Having read about the arrival of the forty foot yellow duck in Osaka, Jules and I felt duty bound to head down to the Aji River where the work was on display for the Aqua Metropolis Festival.

When this fun, over scaled floating sculpture was conceived, the artist set about to achieve the goal of "spreading joy around the world" by tapping into this highly recognizable symbol of childhood memory. Since its creation in 2007, several scaled versions of the design have visited 14 major cities of the world and been enjoyed by millions of spectators. It’s now regarded by the artist as somewhat of an endearing global ambassador, stating that “the world is our global bathtub” and that we all have a responsibility to “take care of each other in this bathtub of the rubber duck”. A bold sentiment indeed, but if any man-made object had the capacity to achieve that goal, it would certainly be the disarming nature of this giant Rubber Duck.

By the time Jules and I arrived at the Osaka docks, the mighty Rubber Duck was working its magic by luring thousands of locals out of their apartments to view the piece. I couldn’t imagine many other artworks that would have quite the capacity to generate such a crowd on a Sunday afternoon. Nor would such a work have anywhere near the same impact in a traditional gallery setting. This is what public art is all about … generating public interest by engaging viewers with a common sense of enjoyment, if only for a fleeting moment.

One of the elements that allow this piece to work so successfully is its scale. While it is nowhere near as large as a building, it somehow manages to rival a city skyline in a way that we humans are unable to do. Maybe because it’s a small object enlarged, that it somehow appears even bigger than it actually is? Certainly its colour and smooth form are in stark contrast to the grey tones and sharp edges of our man-made world. Like all other significant Pop Art pieces, the ‘Rubber Duck’ is highly familiar yet upon first viewing we are suddenly thrown by the completely different context in which it is presented. Much like the ‘Mouse that Roared’, it demands attention and it certainly gets it! For the Japanese there is also one other major factor that allows the ‘Rubber Duck’ to have such public appeal … it’s cute!

It’s appearance in Osaka had certainly set a happy tone amongst the crowd who also enjoyed some of the other public art works on display, each possessing their own particular sense of humor. Jules and I were particularly amused by a piece devised as a public toilet with an enlarged replica of the famous ‘Peeing Boy’ statue of Brussels (‘Manneken Pis’) placed on its roof. Crowds would wait patiently until a patron entered the toilet, inevitably causing large jets of water to spray from the statue into the river and at that point the cameras would click to great amusement all round. However the day belonged to the big ‘Rubber Duck’ who had once again proved the power of its presence and that in the world of public art, size does indeed matter.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Life's a Beach at 'The Lido'

Having visited Venice only a year ago, Jules and I were keen to venture a little wider in our exploration of the island as well as other popular spots close by across the water. On our previous trip we had skirted a number of intriguing looking islands on the way from the airport and were keen to take a closer look this time around. One such place was Lido (more often referred to as ‘The Lido’), the largest of the islands that surround the main island of Venice and one that is so easily accessible by Vaperetto (local waterbus). The island itself is actually a very long thin sandbar that acts like a protective buffer between Venice and the Adriatic Sea, but over the years it has grown into a substantial town that has forged it’s own unique identity. So in mid-August and with 35+ degree temperatures, it didn’t take too much to convince us that a trip on the water to what is essentially a beach resort, would be a very good idea.

After a short boat trip we walked through the most modern Vaperetto Terminal in the Venice area to step into a world that was substantially different than the place we had departed from. No longer were there old crumbling buildings and narrow canals, but rather well kept homes, wide streets and cars! This might not seem particularly unusual, but when you compare it to Venice it was. While traffic had been imported via the ferry from the mainland, it seemed that the preferred mode of transport here was actually bicycles. This gave the town a nice relaxed feel, as they were clearly suited to an island of this size. We however, chose to use foot-power to make our way across to the opposite side of the island to inspect its celebrated white sandy beach (quite unusual for Europe). Here swimming and sunbathing had been taken to a highly organized and business-like level, reminiscent of the shores of Positano. While neat rows of colour matched umbrellas and sunbeds lined one side of the beach, the other side had rows of huts of varying sizes and luxury that were all available for hire. This was totally different from the laise-fare style of beach bathing we were used to in Australia. Obviously Italian sun worshippers were not merely satisfied with the clear waters and sandy beaches, but also desired resort style creature comforts to accompany them and were more than happy to pay for the privilege.

While the water was certainly tempting, we decided to bypass the beach in an effort to seek out one of Venice’s hidden secrets … The Lido Market. Jules had on a previous day asked a local whether there was a regular street market in Venice, only to be assured that there was none to be found. However, this didn’t deter her and she eventually discovered that Lido was the place to go. So after a bit of searching we finally managed to find it on the north-western bank of the island, set quite a distance away from the main part of the town. It was almost as if its location and the lack of information about the market was a cunning ploy to keep the tourists at bay, as there seemed to be very few foreigners to be found. Yet, what they were missing was one of the biggest and best street markets Jules and I had ever seen in Europe. The location was so picturesque and it had a terrific atmosphere, with excited locals stocking shopping bags full with all manner of produce and goods. We too picked up a few things, but in the end we simply couldn’t resist the smell of the spit-roasted chickens. So when the market was all but over, we sat contentedly on the bank that faced back toward Venice happily devouring our chicken accompanied with fresh baked bread … hard to imagine a better lunch!

As we headed away back toward the town, we couldn’t help but notice some of the impressive villas set back from the streets. Lido was certainly a grand old town and it reminded us very much of some of the places we had visited along the French Riviera. Not surprisingly it is often referred to as ‘The Golden Island’ and has over the years developed into a much preferred holiday spot for those who are happy to remain at arms length from the crowds and commercialism of central Venice. It does however attract it’s own audience toward the end of August when film buffs invade Lido for the annual Venice Film Festival, which remains the longest running and one of the most prestigious in the world. In a couple of weeks the festivities would all start again with George Clooney in town to launch his latest movie, so no doubt Jules would have liked to have stayed a whole lot longer!

Lido had proved to be quite a surprise in many ways; such a contrast to the familiar scenes of Venice, to be found just a kilometer or so across the water. We thought that if we ever returned to this part of the world again we would certainly consider staying here, as it seemed to offer something just that little bit different. Enjoying yet another day of glorious summer weather, it had certainly been the perfect place to spend our last full day in Italy and it had provided us with yet another truly memorable experience. It is not surprising that the term ‘Lido’ had become a byword for the relaxed lifestyle of a watery resort, but as Jules and I found out, it turns out ‘The Lido’ is a whole lot more than that!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Palace of Creativity at the Venice Biennale

Given the decision of whether to spend our final few days in Italy in either Rome or Venice, the choice wasn’t difficult. Having avoided Venice previously because we believed it was a tourist trap, we had recently become enthusiastic converts having finally discovered it just a year ago. It turned out that Venice actually was a tourist trap after all, but oh what a trap! This city is so wonderfully unique that it simply can’t be resisted and so once again we were more than happy to take the bait. There was also another important reason for visiting once again and that was because this was the year of the renowned ‘Venice Biennale’. Occurring on every odd numbered year, this major exhibition attracts the world’s foremost contemporary artists and in the world of visual art it simply doesn’t get much bigger than this. As an art teacher, the Biennale is something that is generally read about but seldom experienced first hand, so the opportunity for me to visit would certainly be an added bonus.

With its origins dating back to 1895, the Venice Biennale has continued to evolve and now involves numerous countries from throughout the world presenting works based upon a selected theme. The theme of this years Biennale was ‘Palazzo Enciclopedico’ (The Encyclopedic Palace) ... “the desire to know and understand everything, a desire that recurs throughout the history of art” and not surprisingly the interpretation of that theme would vary enormously as we were to discover. With each country displaying their contribution in either the central exhibition halls or in their own purpose built pavilions spread over two sites, the exhibition would take many hours to view. So Jules and I prepared ourselves for a very big day and joined one of the queues that form early each day throughout the duration the Biennale (June to November), resulting in an attendance that regularly tops 300,000.

We began in The Giardini (The Gardens), which provided a leafy environment quite unlike anywhere else in Venice. Here, set amongst the trees is the large Central Pavilion as well as 30 other permanent national pavilions, each different in size and design. The grounds were spacious and on a warm summers day Jules and I enjoyed just wandering between venues in anticipation of what the next country might have to offer. Of course we patriotically sought out the Australian pavilion and while being a little confused about the work on display, we were particularly impressed by the contemporary nature of the exhibition space itself, complete with a retractable roof. We were also interested in the way each country chose to mount their exhibition. Some presented several artists who each interpreted the theme, while others simply chose to display only one large-scale work. Several other pieces combined elements of performance, with other works encouraging the interactivity of the viewer. Jules became involved with an installation by Russian artist Vadim Zakharov that consisted of a shower of gold coins falling three storeys high through the floors of the pavilion to the basement below to form a large pile of money on the ground. From here, only woman viewers (this is were Jules comes in) were invited to pick up a handful of the coins and place them into a bucket to be manually cranked back up by a man to the top so that the coins could shower down once again. Fortunately an umbrella was provided so that Jules could avoid being stoned to death by the force of the falling coins but otherwise it was all good fun, visually interesting and somehow managed to combine a vaguely cryptic social message.

Later we would head over to the second major site at The Arsenale (the original Venetian arsenal built in the 12th century) where the creative output continued. Here the works on display were even more adventurous with several exhibits combining film and audiovisual elements that often jarred our senses. While many of these were popular, we much preferred the more contemplative pieces such as those displayed in the Indonesian pavilion (their first ever contribution to the Biennale) that included a mystical piece by Albert Yonathan Setyawan entitled ‘Cosmic Labyrinth: The Silent Path’. Here under subdued lighting, a simple ceramic form had been repeated then positioned on the floor to create a visually evocative sculptural installation that perfectly reflected both its culture of origin and the title of the piece. Jules on the other hand was drawn to the sight and aroma of the floor installation of Sonia Falcona in the Latin American pavilion entitled ‘Campo de Color’, that consisted of hundreds of clay pots filled with colourful spices. I also particularly enjoyed viewing all 50 chapters of the ‘The Book of Genesis’ by Robert Crumb (one of my illustrative heroes) and I had to admire the way in which he tackled such an unlikely subject matter, taking him four years to complete the illustrations.

We had begun the day at 10.00am and walked out of the final pavilion at 6.00pm … it had been a marathon day, but one that was quite unforgettable. Like most art exhibitions, you are not expected to like all of the works that you encounter. Each has its own individual resonance and that’s what makes viewing contemporary art such a fascinating experience. The art works that we had viewed throughout the day had impressed us, inspired us, amused us, unsettled us, shocked us, entertained us and confused us, but they certainly didn’t disappoint. I had written copious notes on a small pad and had taken many photographs (it’s wonderful that the Biennale allows you to do that), so there was plenty for me to take away from the experience and eventually share with my students. The Venice Biennale had been a celebration of creativity that I was thankful to have experienced at least once.