Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Mt Warning in the Tweed hinterland

On visiting the Tweed River Art Gallery, Murwillumbah, northern New South Wales, Australia

It was a sunny, warm Saturday. As we journeyed along the new slick and fast - 110k - highway carved into the hills south of Tweed Heads, in gliding, air conditioned comfort, it was a pleasure to admire the bright sky, the puffy clouds and the rolling countryside that has been opened up by this revision: for re-vision it is.

One soon becomes aware that our interest must be another’s frustration. The once secluded places that enjoyed the green valley hideaway with mountain views, now became locations on public display with motorway views and all the discomforts that this poor association entails. Yet, in spite of this awkwardness - or is it because of this? - there appeared to be a flush of new building along this motorway strip. Hilltops were being claimed along with any other slope that might give some prominence to appearance or vista. These places were varied in their identity, but mainly appeared to sit in or on their hill or hillside, usually with a certain awkwardness, but without too much screaming. Vegetation always helps in these situations, both for the viewed and the viewer.
We left the new super strip at the sign that pointed to Mooball. The arrow seemed to suggest a turn to the left, but it felt that Mooball might be on the right. When the second main sign along the left road failed to mention our planned destination, we chose to assume that the sign, which held a certain degree of uncertainty and lacked the simple ability to imbue confidence, was in error. We turned and drove off into once-secret areas. New and old places scattered on hills and in forest glades became our context. Was this virgin land getting just too crowded? Too spoilt? Has the road opened up a Pandora’s box of development?

It was when the road split, with the left, sealed surface being declared a dead-end road and the other option becoming a narrow, rocky, gravelled strip, that we were forced to acknowledge the accuracy of the first unassuming message that so nonchalantly suggested the left turn. It was with more certainty that we returned and travelled on over high hills. We passed a surprisingly huge quarry and equally unexpected ocean views before arriving at the rail crossing beside the old highway at spotted Mooball. We were there but in a void. It was a wide-open road stretching left and right, north and south, cliché-like, as in the Wild West, with a facade of shops and older buildings on the opposite side of the fenced track.

Mooball, NSW

Mooball is a quiet strip now that the business of traffic has been relocated. The collection of places along the road declared this difference: closed shops and galleries; big signs offering pizza and coke specials; space for vehicles to stop anywhere and everywhere. The effort to claim iconic significance with the blotchy black and white Friesian markings embellishing nearly every available surface, only highlighted the near despair with the current circumstances that refused to be forced. The beautiful hills nearby and behind gave the place a special feel of intimacy and solitude that was more positive than that promoted by the appearance of the shops. These looming prominences that had not yet been settled by man, were relatively untouched, used only for communication masts. After driving the loop up and down the town as local hoons might, but slower, we set off north for nearby Burringbar. We knew of a place there that once sold plants. Was it still there? Caution - 60kph - this was a favourite place for speed cameras! I wonder if they bother now that the traffic has been calmed, well, relocted?

Burringbah road

Yes! The plants remained, still moist and green. Choices were made and prices paid. We moved off home taking the old, high road home north. It was a new pleasure to use this winding mountain track without the hassle of fast and vast numbers. This laziness encouraged us to detour to Stokers Siding to again check on pleasurable past experiences. Were they still available? Stokers Siding once had a good potters gallery; and the drive followed a beautiful, cool and shady country creek. What has happened there now?

Two kilometres and we were there, like arriving nowhere - a positive side of ‘nowhere’ that was something, somewhere else in this reclusive quiet. The sight of the small wonder that was once the rail station thrilled. It is an exquisite example of scale, function and identity - and pride. We parked under a generous, shady tree nearby. What stories can this tree tell? What had Stokers Siding been? The gallery was still there but he adjacent vehicle repair shop was closed - up for sale. It was a grandly polite street. The structures held a significance and humility that one could relax with - feel happy about; feel inspired by. This is a pleasant place, a strip parallel to the railway - like Mooball but more intimate. There were large trees opposite the shops, not a line of truck-parking areas.

Stokers Siding Pottery

Yes. The gallery still had the nice selection of pots we remembered, and the wide variety of knickknacks. It was very enjoyable to know that something of quality remained in so quiet a retreat. After resisting purchasing the many lovely things, we returned to our journey. A thing of beauty is a joy forever even if you do not own it. The creek appeared as glimpses of reflections of dark in deep, dappled, dancing light in cool shade. It was just as attractive as ever; more so for being familiar as Ruskin noted of his family holidays. We should have taken a picnic!

Creek near Stokers Siding

This comment only highlighted the fact that lunch had been missed. Where should we eat? We thought of Griffiths, the furniture manufacturer with an art gallery and that Bunya-high timbered terrace in the bird-filled sky with good food and wine just outside of Condon. Was it still there? We aimed for it as we moved faster along the winding, narrow road back to the old highway with a new ambition and direction.

 What’s that? A house. No. Then what? An institution?

 The sign answered as we drove by - Tweed River Art Gallery. This stark ‘Mon Oncle’ image startled with its cantilevering glory screaming out in high, boxed glass and tin: high art? It held all the startle that the flash house in Tati’s ‘Mon Oncle’ had displayed, leaving one astonished, amazed, almost speechless with its drama. Was this art? Artifice? Overdone?

As the road switched back to join with the highway that leads into Murwillumbah, the question arose: does the gallery have a café? Could we eat there? After all, it would already be a late lunch. Accepting the response that allowed for all options - if nothing, see the gallery; if coffee, have a drink; if a meal was available, eat - we turned around and entered, driving up the steepness of the hill that had been cut for access. This was a hilltop development that stood well above the approach - grandiose. The entry changed from a welcome into a direction - drop off point only: car parking below. As we looped down into the cool shelter of a cathedral-like cavern, we were shocked by the number of vehicles. This is a popular place!

We found a car park space and then took the lift up to another surprise: we arrived outside the main entrance we had just driven past. Why did the lift not deliver us into the main foyer area, to perhaps a better welcome? We had just gone from outside, to under, to outside.

One speculated that it had something to do with equity of entrance to placate disability concerns and moved on to the large sheet of glass that was one of a pair of pivot entry doors. Can Ronchamp be blamed for this? Finger-biting concern always arises with these guillotines! What is wrong with hinges other than they are not like Corb’s grand door? ‘Enter this side’ signed a clarfying instruction to grasp this mass of transparency and move into more height clad with battened slats. The shop - that mainstay of all public museums and galleries - framed the entry. One felt safe at last, having been given the excuse to pause and browse while sorting out the sense in the planning arrangement and general organisation of this place without appearing lost. The question, ‘Was there a café?’, became the aim of the searching eye seeking an answer. In the grand void that was the foyer space - big enough for temporary exhibitions? - there was a distant gap that opened up to a view. This must be the café. The sign confirmed this assumption as we appraoched.

Gallery foyer space - cafe to the right

A coffee shop – there was no beer or wine to celebrate this occasion or place, just fruit juice and caffeine. This is Australia: not even a simple coffee shop in France would treat customers like this!

We ordered meals only to be amazed again - the kitchen closed at three. I was about to express my shock when I recalled the time difference. It was indeed 3:30pm not the 2:30pm Queensland time of my watch: Australia! So coffee and cakes thanks, all to be enjoyed in the 270 degree vista of river, grass and mountain. It is indeed a very special site to be well enjoyed from the height of a cantilever gliding unbelievably high above the cavernous car park. At least the handrail allowed one to feel safe as the eye was inevitably drawn to peer over it into the distance of this deep void.

View of Tweed River and border mountains from cafe balcony 

 After this easy delight, the gallery; but this was only accessible through the emptiness of the foyer that was edged with the mandatory shop. The void felt hollow, lonely, but held a strange personal touch with its wonderful panoramic images of distant landscape framed by windows that are long, low, horizontal slots. At least they had considered pleasing the friendly eye.

Glimpse of landscape from foyer

Western display corridor

 Further along, these slits change to vertical, wedged light recesses that shelter the west of the gallery from low, late-afternoon glare. Vertical slashes loom at the dark end of this southern vista that becomes a linear display and circulation space. And the gallery itself? One is led from space to space as a series of pockets - and pocket-sized this gallery really is. It is a shame that the sense of play with viewings is not explored. One finds it hard to see an artwork from different places and angles. They are just there, to be seen as one passes by. There is little variation possible to allow for a surprise in these tight spaces. This opportunity for viewing is serial, segmented and singular, managed and organised by linear location and juxtaposition alone. There is a sadness for the missed possibilities of play, the enrichment of the ad hoc.

Typical gallery display space

The works are there: standing or hung. Portraits and boxes of stuff and nothing are all arranged for pondering at differing levels and opportunities - of difference itself perhaps? - all on a smart, polished concrete floor. The opportunity for looking out has been strictly controlled. There is not even a tiny hole for a surprising glimpse east. Only the southern and western slots and the grand void of the foyer offer relief. There is no little place for one - no intimacy. The themed slatted screens and surfaces, differing in size and spacing as is fashionable, with some that can slide and disappear adjacent to the toilets behind the shop display, decorate the entry spaces.

One is amazed that the gallery is so small - or is it that the remainder of the building is so spacious? There is an odd imbalance here.

The gallery display space seems to occupy only about half of the building, with the office, toilets, shop and café and foyer, filling the remainder with what seems to be unequal claims. Perhaps the travelling, temporary opportunities might help modify this perception? But more gallery space is needed.

Sheep sculptures

After the gallery promenades, there are the required shopping perusals, the ‘bye’s and ‘thank you’s and the departure. We went back to the cathedral car park with the rock sheep grazing on green slopes - stainless steel pipe legs and horns - but this time we chose the stairs that overdo the disability bumps. This route has a naked, service-stair feel that opens like a fire exit directly into the rawness of the car park that is too grand to be so mundane - a wasteful but apparently a necessary ‘evil’?

Then off - home is the aim now we have paused to relax, eat and drink. Planting has to be completed; but we do pick up that vagrant hour.

Murwillumbah train station

Through Murwillumbah, off past a nice train station, then the flow of 110km/hr. It is a speed that allows for reflection. Why do some buildings sit comfortably in the landscape and why do others glare and blare? The surprise of the Tweed Gallery is recalled as a unique event, yet it was not the surprise of the wonder of beauty. It was too loud an event for this in spite of - because of? - the slickly defined, self-conscious tin and glass.

I think of those buildings on the Brisbane-Laidley road that we often drove as children with the family, to share the annual celebrations with the extended family. The simple, square houses with pyramidal roofs and surrounding verandahs - is the answer geometry?; the tiny four-roomed rectangular boxes with simple gables extended to become a front verandah, with the open central passage surprisingly framing distant light; the pink of one place that glowed in the seasonal colouring of the straw grass making both look at home; the old tin shed, grey and rusting leaning with an ease that surprised and pleased. These places did not boast a scream. Why does the tin box at Tweed yell with an arrogant surprise? Could it be otherwise?

Then, suddenly, we pass a real surprise on the river on our way home, just before the Tumblegum turn: what a wonderful name! A fairytale image of grandeur appears, perched on top of a hill that is so extremely steeply alone, that the question is asked about its native qualities: has this river-hill been made by man too, the man that made the bold house balancing on top? Is it a flood protection device? There is an equivalent quality of super-grand, grandiose, in both that annoys just too much. Then it is gone, as though it were a dream. But those images of older times that are richly and gently modest and silent in their exclamations remain so powerfully beautiful that one does seek an answer to the possibility of things being otherwise now.

Lloyd Wright did speak about building on top of hills, advocating that the hill should be respected, with the building becoming more of the eyebrow and the hilltop the eye - for hills do catch the eye. Do hills now get used so that the buildings might catch the eye? Is this our problem - too much self-promotion? ME! Nearly all the hills on our journey south of Tweed Heads seem to have become targets for development if they have so far missed having become a part of this chaos already.

Gallery approach

The Tweed Art Gallery shows that we are certainly aware of the beauty of the land, but it also highlights the fact that we do not know much about working with this wonder to let it inspire our efforts. We can sit and admire the world, but this is the same attitude that is adopted when looking at the big, high homes - we are happy to be amazed. How do we regain in our outputs, the quality that allows us to make places that do not scream to be noticed? How can we learn to leave hills be, to let places become what they want to be, not what we want them to be? Do we need to take up Kahn’s love for geometry to regain wonder for place, its space and its peace?

This is the question. We need answers quickly, because, if we turn everything into things that declare themselves only to be admired, noticed, then we will have no repose: no place to do nothing but ponder the richness of open possibility that is embroidered into this world. We are getting only the rude, assured ‘yes’ of screamed responses. We need more questions; more humility; more love and gentle awareness; more uncertainty. We do not need smart self-assurance. An understanding of scale, size and detail becomes part of the remedy that we need to pursue with an extreme sensitivity. Perving at the big and beautiful only makes endless demands on us. We are yet learn that this has limits that are not useful for our futures. We need to be in the picture, and not just participate in the framing of it for outsiders to admire.

Spence Jamieson
7 February 2005
on the trip south on Saturday 5th February 2005

Now, over seven year’s later on 22nd August 2012 - oh, how time flies! - the gallery has been extended, shrubs have grown and flowered, and wines and beers are now available at the café. The alarm of the startling ‘Mon Oncle’ experience is still remembered, such was its unique drama, but the revelation has now been softened. Has it to do with familiarity or time? Both? The balcony balustrade has been raised, now making one look through it - workplace, health and safety seems to have had its review; and the awning over the narrow deck has been sheeted over. This little, carefully detailed, architectural statement was never going to offer sufficient shelter. It is a shame that the deck has not been extended for it is a mean, narrow ledge that opens up to a broad vista of a grand, green valley. There is a disproportionate relationship here that does not get excused or explained by any intimacy. It is just awkward. The new extension repeats more of the same pattern of external treatments and internal spatial arrangements, but with a broader blandness - perhaps it has had to be built cheaper? The lower cavern is larger than ever but now has fenced service zones that detract from the quiet enjoyment of the light and the green slopes on the west.

Cafe balcony

Olley studio

Various shows that draw crowds make more sense of the entrance foyer void. The muddled milling of folk make this an interesting space and takes the messy noise of random people clutter away from the display areas. The Margaret Olley bequest will further add display space to this gallery that can only improve the building. Her workspace is to be recreated/relocated in a new extension funded by the money she left to the gallery. One hopes that this room does not become too much of an exhibit - too self-consciously presented for public perusal as a relic. It is a real shame that it has to be taken from its context into a newer than new declaration that knows little of mess. This studio had a relationship with garden and light that will be extremely difficult to recreate. Margaret Olley often spoke of how the light changed with time of day and seasons, and modified the way in which she worked. Perhaps the challenge is to add a true mess to this gallery, to humanise it; to let it get ‘dirty;’ to give it that wonderful chaos and mystery of marvel in the accidents of circumstance and discovery that Margeret Olley had around her as she painted. As Joseph Heller noted in Catch 22, she ‘knew how to use a mess.’ Her spirit may yet invigorate this place. One would not like to see the opposite occur.

Margaret Olley in studio with garden vista

As for the cool and shady drive along the creek on the way to and from Stokers Siding: this has now become a war zone. Council has declared war on the invasive camphor laurel trees that provided the dappled light and dark, damp recesses that were much enjoyed. The landscape is now like a Paul Nash painting of a death and desecration. One can only hope that time will remedy this appearance of disaster. It cannot happen fast enough.

And Griffiths has now closed. Sadly, this furniture factory, gallery, restaurant, environmental retreat just east of Condon has closed its doors. Its beautiful, Possum- chair inspired furniture will be missed. Was it just too rigorous and gorgeous for Australia? Has the ‘cheap-as-chips’ preference for a bargain-everything killed any commitment to an ideal? Is this what we have gained from our Internet and ebay experiences that carry the hype of quantity that encourages the expectation of more and more for less, and the converse: that expensive quality is always a rip off?

The quaint and delicately detailed, extended and upgraded train station at Murwillumbah is now no longer used. Trains go to Grafton and transfer folk to buses for the trip north into Queensland. A lot can happen in seven years, but is it ‘progress’ - improvement? One fears and feels loss rather than any gain. Let’s hope things improve soon.

P.S. added 12 January 2014
The gallery has been revisited:
see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/quilty-harding-and-accents.html

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