Such is Life

Another day, another exhibition.

This week we drove up the Calder Highway to land of the Dja Dja Wurrung. The town of Castlemaine, an hour and a half’s drive north west of Melbourne, always brings the folk song The Wild Colonial Boy into my mind:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name

Of poor but honest parents he was born in Castlemaine

Traditional

He comes to a very sticky end. When I was young my parents used to sing folk songs like this on long car drives. I must have been a very tender-hearted child – I used to forbid my parents from singing The Wild Colonial Boy because it upset me so much (history repeats, my children forbid me from playing Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, because I once made the mistake of explaining to them what the song Fourth of July was about).

I guess the Castlemaine referred to in the song was probably intended to be Castlemaine in County Kerry in Ireland, but in my mind and in the mind of most Australians he was born in Castlemaine, Victoria. The Wild Colonial Boy may have been originally based on a historical figure but it has undergone so many revisions over the years that it is now more mythic than historic.

Castlemaine in Victoria is a very beautiful gold-rush era town, with large beautiful churches, town hall and post office. The art gallery is art deco and also very impressive for a town of this size. We had gone to the Castlemaine Art Museum to see the exhibition Janina Green in conversation with the collection. Her hand-coloured photographs hold significant interest for those interested in haiku and related art forms.

First, there are her photographs of domestic interiors named after the Melbourne suburbs where the photos were taken. These recall haiku in their interest in specific localities and their focus on the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. Also in common with haiku each of these pictures seems to give a fragment of a larger story and leaves the viewer (or reader in the case of haiku) to fill in the rest of the story. We are drawn into the artwork and become active participants rather than passive viewers.

Another picture by Janina Green that caught my eye was the photo titled Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988 which is shown on the exhibition page of the gallery website. An ornate teal lamp-base with a beige lamp-shade is contrasted against a spray of yellow wattle in a vase. This contrast, of an artefact made by human hands, with the beauty of nature, recalls many famous haiku. The light catches just a few of the florets of the wattle making them shine.

One other work on display at the Castlemaine Gallery Art Gallery, not part of the Janina Green exhibition, stood out to me. Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) by Robert Hague. Whereas in haiku symbols often work best when they are subtle, when they feel like they evoke a half-remembered associations, the symbols in Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) are “writ large”. The work is a blue-printed china plate. The central image shows Ned Kelly anachronistically shooting at Captain Cook’s long boat, approaching the shore to make first landfall in Australia. The plate has been broken into pieces and then repaired in the Japanese Kintsugi style with golden fault lines. The plate with its clashing symbols and styles is a fair analogy for modern-day Australia, formed of disparate influences, and in the grip of the so called “history wars”.

And as for people who will try to tell you that Ned Kelly’s last words weren’t “such is life“, what can we say? Maybe just that they place too much emphasis on historic detail, and have not enough appreciation of the mythic.

References:

Janina Green in conversation with the collection, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 2019-20.

Paper says Ned Kelly’s final words were not Such is Life, Alison Jess, ABC Goulburn Murray, 17 November, 2014.

Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988, Janina Green, hand-coloured photograph.

Cook’s Landing (after Maccleod), Robert Hague, 2019, porcelain, gold, brass staples, copper hanger.