Ever known someone who’s said: “I’m coming to Australia. What do I see?” You, being an educated, sophisticated but good humoured and unpretentious Daily Review reader, panics and Googles maniacally for “Must-See Australian cultural icons that will explain our nation in a becomingly charismatic way, but also reflect well on our quirky, outside the box, frame of reference”.
If a friend asks us about our recent sojourn to Buenos Aires, Capetown or Stockholm we can rattle off a list of must-dos. We enthusiastically provide an expertly curated list of web-derived tips, cool bars from Wallpaper, warnings from Tripadvisor, all filtered through intimate conversations with Uber drivers and our own somehow spot-on instinct for finding the one extraordinary hidden locals-only café with no social media profile.
But at home — What to include? What to leave out?
Suggestions to outsiders with regard to our own wondrous, culturally rich but charmingly modest homeland are harder to refine. How to throw together a list that eclipses the visitor’s own Uber-interrogation? How to include both the absolutely obligatory big-ticket choices (Sydney Opera House) but mix ‘em up with some that verge on the outlandish – not just to be whimsical, but to be accurate?
A cultural icon should express something about the place in which it sits – Australia – beyond its own artistic value and aspiration.
By “Cultural Australia”, we do not (in this instance) include circumnavigations of Uluru or snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef—although there’s nothing wrong with either of those. Our foreign pals don’t need any tips related to the natural drama of our Great Southern Land – the only thing they already know about us is that our crocodiles eat Europeans. So for culturally –savvy tourists what man-made cultural endeavours will add up to the real deal?
In our (arguably wrong) estimation, a true cultural icon does not need to be a “ten” in artistic merit (and whose standards would we use anyway?). A cultural icon should express something about the place in which it sits – Australia – beyond its own artistic value and aspiration.
Icons transcend their own outline and take on a symbolic meaning that is partly social history, partly responsive to nature, partly reflective of a personal narrative or aspiration. It’s a work of art, loosely defined, that we would all be poorer without. And it’s a hard-core mainline super-snack of Australian identity for the foreigner.
For some of us the iconic Australian artistic expression might be a Henry Lawson short story, a Judith Wright poem or a Christos Tsolkias novel, a Fred Williams landscape, a Jenny Watson horse or a Rick Amor waiter, a Chunky Move dance piece, Queensland new circus Circa, Nick Cave, the Easy Beats, ACDC or Our Livvy, Clare Bowditch or Joan Sutherland.
Maybe it’s David Williamson’s Don’s Party, or Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. It could be any one of the many great cultural institutions across the country from the State Library of Victoria’s domed reading room to the National Portrait Gallery. What makes us feel Australian is a complicated combination of generation and psychology – the triggers are not necessarily those things we admire.
But Daily Review wanted a list of icons that are available now and which viewed in context with one another might yield a broad vision of the Australian spirit. Here’s what we have come up with so far (and in no particular order). Post comments of outrage below but also feel free to add what we should have included or failed to. No dwarf-throwing enthusiasts please.
And a message for overseas readers: it’s only 24 hours on a plane! Toughen up. It’s worth it.
MUSEUM OF OLD AND NEW ART (MONA): HOBART
David Walsh is regarded by some as a lunatic, a deviant, a genius and the saviour of Tasmanian tourism. Chances are, he’s all those things. Having made his fortune in esoteric gambling, Walsh built MONA just outside Tasmania’s charming capital city, Hobart, for $75 million in 2011, riding on the back of the defunct Moorilla Museum of Antiquities. An underground labyrinth of galleries within a windowless, elegant, brutally modern stone monolith is best approached by ferry along the Derwent River. Once descended into, modern works inspired by sex and death extend the sense of sinister requested by Walsh of his architect, Nonda Katsilidis and enhanced by expertly theatrical lighting.
Instead of an art collection composed over centuries and by committee, MONA is a vast, humorous entertainment.
The overall experience is not a must-see for the art itself (Walsh’s permanent private collection is enhanced by temporary shows) but for the provocation of the enterprise and the pleasure of a museum built from human idiosyncrasy. Instead of a collection composed over centuries and by committee, MONA is a vast, humorous entertainment initated by the generous imagination of one man that feeds from and feeds the artists and viewers who contribute to it.
NOTABLE: Australian icon Sidney Nolan’s Snake (1970-72), a giant Rainbow Serpent mural made of 1,620 paintings; Wim Delvoye’s giant poo-making machine Cloaca Professional, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary.
ADD-ONS: The annual outdoor MOFO festival, and the wintertime Dark Mofo, which showcases live music, performances, art shows, catering and a convivial party atmosphere.
‘LOST’ by FREDERICK McCUBBIN, NGV MELBOURNE
There are many reasons to visit the Federation Square location of Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, not least for its collection of Indigenous art, but for a specific understanding of Australia’s white history, this 1886 oil exemplifies the trepidation of early society in a bewilderingly strange nature.
McCubbins’ rendering of the lost European child in the alien landscape has come to symbolise the internal conflict of White Australia.
McCubbin was one of the Heidelberg School movement in the late 19th century, most often described as Australian Impressionism for its characteristic en plein air painting on the fringes of Melbourne, where camps of artists, influenced by European Impressionism, were intent on capturing the peculiar light and idiosyncratic Australian bush.
His rendering of the lost European child in the alien landscape has come to symbolise the internal conflict of White Australia, physically but not psychologically removed from “the old country”. McCubbin’s bush is a hostile maze, both seductive and threatening.
Reputed to be inspired by the 1885 cause celebre when Clara Crosbie, a young girl was miraculously rescued after three weeks in the bush, this work powerfully evokes the challenge of adaptation to a new continent for its early settlers and a fundamental divider between white and indigenous Australia.
ADD-ONS: The works of the other Heidelberg School artists including Tom Roberts, Walter Withers, Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton. The Indigenous collection on the ground floor is magnificent.
THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
Artists who have worked beneath Jorn Utzon’s legendary white sails which form the roof of the Sydney Opera House may sometimes question the pragmatism of the seven playing spaces within, but no one denies the majesty, courage and sheer beauty of this building. The result of a 1956 competition, it was rejected by three of the judges but hailed by a fourth – a man no stranger to design genius: Eero Saarinen, who saw Utzon’s vision as a gift not just to its harbour-side city, but potentially to the world.
The Opera House made its Danish architect neither rich nor happy. He was paid 5000 pounds for his design and resigned in 1966 when the NSW government ceased paying him. Despite public protests at his treatment, Utzon abandoned ship and returned to Denmark until he was retained as a consultant on the building in the 1990s.
Perhaps Paul Robeson sprinkled the foundations of the Opera House with the magic of raw talent.
Poised on the harbourside edge of the city, a show at the Opera House is a particular thrill for artists and audiences alike. It’s impossible to visit the building without feeling that the artistry and originality of its conception has summoned the perfect challenge to all the creators lucky enough to take up temporary residency within its walls.
Arguably, the most moving concert to take place on site was during its complex and lengthy build (over a decade). On November 9, 1960, the building union asked visiting American singer Paul Robeson to sing for the workers during their lunch-break. As famous for his political activism as for his extraordinary voice, Robeson sang Ol’ Man River and Joe Hill in the open air as the workers sat astride the scaffolding and listened with rapt attention.
Perhaps Robeson sprinkled the foundations with the magic of raw talent because the building emerged from the controversies of its creation to become one of the most admired venues for the arts in the world.
ADD ONS: The whole of Sydney as at your feet, including the historic Rocks district and the Art Gallery of NSW and Museum of Contemporary Art. But if it’s a nice day, take an easy walk from the Opera House to Woolloomoolloo, through the Royal Botanic Gardens, past Mrs Macquarie’s Seat (offering brilliant views of the Opera House) and on to Andrew (Boy) Charleton’s outdoor public pool where you can take a dip before climbing the steps up to eat at Fratelli Fresh in Potts Point.
THE BIG PINEAPPLE (SUNSHINE COAST)
Jeff Koons owes quite a debt to Bill and Lyn Taylor, owners of a 23 hectare pineapple farm in the Florida of Australia who first understood the high-impact artistic algebra of super-sized banality. It’s not every day you get to see a heritage listed Big Pineapple. A Queensland Sunshine Coast tourist attraction, this 16 metre fruity architectural phenomenon has survived fire, reconstruction, mini-tornados and near liquidation (not the juicing kind). but has survived to inspire station-wagon loads of young Australians and a raft of other Big Edibles since 1971.
Many Australian intellectuals have cut their teeth, so to speak, on examining why Australians like big food icons that don’t do anything.
The Big Mango at Bowen certainly owes a debt, as does the Big Prawn in Ballina and The Big Orange at Berri. Coff’s Harbour’s Big Banana predates the exquisite fibreglass Pineapple but does not steal its thunder. In spatial terms, the deeper volumetric complexity of a pineapple will always overshadow the predictable bendy arc of the less glamorous banana.
Many Australian intellectuals have probably cut their teeth, so to speak, on examining why Australians like big food icons that don’t do anything. Is it a chip on the shoulder response to the high art of Europe? Is it rooted in our historical connection to the integrity of agriculture or a White Australia response to the indigenous “dreaming”. Whatever, we’re glad they exist as exemplars of Australia’s irrepressible talent and affection for kitsch.
You can climb the Big Pineapple (a useful conversation topper when others relate climbing the Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower and so on), explore pineapple farming with a train ride and observation deck, or you can just park and take a selfie on your phone.
KIMBERLEY ROCK ART (WA)
Amongst the oldest rock art in the world, from possibly up to 60,000 years ago, the indigenous art of the Kimberley is an unofficial wonder of the world. Explorer Sir George Grey (who later became Governor of South Australia) discovered the art now known as Wanjina in 1838, which he detailed in his published journals in 1841. In the 1890s, English pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw is widely believed to be the first European to find and record the paintings subsequently known as the Bradshaw rock paintings, in the north-west, initiating a long tradition of cultural scholarship including that of amateur archaeologist Grahame Walsh, whose work in the Kimberly from 1977 until his death in 2007 created a database of rock art images. The Bradshaw collection of paintings, primarily of elegant human figures wearing headdresses, sashes and bags has in many cases retained its vivid colouring due to the protecti.ve presence of certain bacteria and fungi.
It is more than a cultural education, but offers a profoundly moving and existential meditation.
If you’ve never seen ancient rock art, the discovery of art in situ that has lasted thousands of years is hard to fathom. It is more than a cultural education, but offers a profoundly moving and existential meditation on time, mortality and national identity.
ADD ONS: The landscape of the Kimberley, alone, can add weeks of unadulterated joy to any pilgrimage, including Kunanurra, the Bungle-Bungles and the Dampier Peninsula. But at the very least leave time to explore Broome (the Kimberley’s closest airport), a charming town with its own fascinating history of Chinese pearlers. Take a camel ride on the justly famous Cable Beach and take in 130 million year old dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point. See next icon!
SUN PICTURES: BROOME OUTDOOR CINEMA
The town that was once the pearling centre of the world hosts the world’s oldest outdoor cinema still operating (with multiple films per night). Established in China Town by the Yamsaki family, whose love of film inspired them to diversify their general store in the “Noh” theatre. In 1913, Pearler Ted Hunter bought the building and converted it into “Sun Pictures”, premiering its first film, a racing drama called Kissing Cup in 1916. In 1933, under different ownership, the cinema was adapted for sound.
This beautiful cinema experience draws popular culture together with the natural world and the multi-cultural and political-social history of Australia.
While an outdoor cinema may be cute enough, in Australia’s endlessly challenging physical landscape it meant the venue was flooded nightly (rectified in 1974), but up until then some maintained you could catch your fish dinner during a screening).
The history of Sun Pictures draws on many elements of Australia’s past, including its abandonment during the wartime evacuation of Broome in 1942 and endemic racism. In 1967, a boycott lead to the desegregation of Europeans, Asians and “coloured people’, the last of whom were made to enter through a different door.
Now accorded ‘Heritage; status, this beautiful cinema experience draws popular culture together with the natural world and the multi-cultural and political-social history of Australia. Under giant skies, you slink down in your deck-chairs as overhead, airplanes take off and land – seemingly barely missing the screen
BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE
Its repertoire of works is deeply engaged in the land and its Indigenous culture.
Under the esteemed artistic leadership of Stephen Page (who also choreographs many of its works) since 1991, this life-enhancing Indigenous contemporary dance company stirs the soul. With pieces such as Skin, Bush and Ochres, Bangarra has earned a place for itself amongst the best contemporary dance companies in the world. Named for the Wiradjuri word “to make fire”, the dancers of Bangarra have ignited audiences throughout Australia and in the UK and USA. All dancers are connected to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the repertoire of works is deeply engaged in the land and its Indigenous culture. Page, who has collaborated with the Australian Ballet with his choreography of Rites – to Stravinsky’s score and incorporating Bangarra dances – has a sophisticated understanding of the complex layers of what it is to be “Australian”. The result is a company built on a deeply felt cultural heritage. Bangarra is a jumping, leaping, ecstatic expression of modern Australia.
Bangarra tour frequently nationally and regionally and perform often at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Arts Centre.