Newsletter 275

Published February 23, 2019
Perth's latest civc attraction is the Big Yagan

This week I’ve been in Western Australia for my annual installment of the Perth Festival. The Sydney Morning Herald is generally happy to run one art column per year from W.A., and the Festival has a dedicated visual arts program that puts the eastern states to shame. While Perth’s range of theatrical and musical events is just as ambitious I always feel a sense of relief that I don’t have to write about the performing arts. This is largely because I have such grave reservations about most of the things I see on stage. Take for instance, Luke Styles’s new opera, Ned Kelly, which was performed in an old mill, an hour’s drive from Perth. I could see what the composer was trying to do, mixing Berg-like vocal sequences with fragments of old folk songs, but in practice it left a lot to be desired. One chorus in particular has been rolling around in my head like the most banal pop song.

When I think of the sheer effort that goes into such a production, which might be viewed as a major cultural event, I feel almost ashamed that I couldn’t find more to like. At least with art criticism one can be critical of one painting in a show and praising of another. With the Gesammtkunstwerkethat is opera it’s harder to draw such lines.

This week’s column looks at Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, at the Art Gallery of NSW. There’s not much room for criticism with such an exhibition because the NPM’s collection is so vast and stupendous that almost any reasonable selection will be replete with masterpieces. What’s more interesting is whether or not such a show manages to draw the crowds. People always say they’re fascinated by Asian art or indigenous art, but even the best exhibitions can struggle to attract big numbers. Moral of the story? People are fibbers who always like to be seen as more culturally aware, more broad minded than they actually are. But then we all know that, usually from personal experience…

The movie being reviewed is Stan & Ollie, the story of Laurel and Hardy’s 1952 tour of the UK, which proved to be their farewell fling. It’s not a comedy but a film aboutcomedy, featuring monumental performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. This was one of those movies that felt a little hollow immediately upon leaving the cinema, but by the time I sat down to write it had grown on me. I’d try the experiment with the Ned Kellyopera, but I have a terrible feeling that my vaguely negative impressions would only take on more concrete form.