Review: Syria – Ancient History Modern Conflict

The Ian Potter Gallery at the University of Melbourne is displaying Syria – Ancient History Modern Conflict until the end of August. I took a look because (no surprise at all) I’m fascinated by old things. But also because of a sense of a need to bear witness to archaeological and preservation work that can no longer happen, and to the destruction and/or illegal sale of Syria’s antiquities.

Detail of a horse’s head.

The passage of time and all it entails has reduced many physical items from the past to tiny bits of almost nothing, unless there is an expert eye to sift stones from potsherds and soil from personal adornments and present them here. It doesn’t seem like much, but how much will be left of places like Aleppo once this war is over? These items survived, and that is something.

Bits and pieces.

The University of Melbourne hasn’t been back to Syria since 2010 to do this work because of the war and they have no way of tracing the whereabouts of items they had discovered and sent to a university in Aleppo. This is unfortunately the very least of Aleppo’s current concerns.

Somethings survive 2000 years intact.

Since 2010, the deliberate targeting of Palmyra reduced it to rubble in minutes. I remember the murder of its defending historian in the news. I know, therefore, no matter the sophistication of the digital recreation featured in this exhibit and the good intentions behind it, something has been lost forever. Yes, the buildings, but also decades of scholarship and understanding – a human relationship to the past. This is cultural theft from Syria, but it makes us all the poorer for it.

Ancient Syrian lamps under the warm spot light on a wintry Melbourne day.

A major (large) feature ‘work’ is a bust of a woman dating to 150 BCE and it is indeed impressive. See below:

Yes, sorry that is a tiny reflected exit sign just below her mouth. Take it as symbolic.

For more about the exhibit and an upcoming symposium on it from the source, here is a link to it. As for me? Well, it is not a ‘blockbuster’ exhibit of overwhelming proportions. It is a poignant survey of how much was saved.

More lamps & the view for scale.

What is emphasised to me is that archaeologists spend an inordinate amount of effort on uncovering the tiniest signs of the past. These potsherds and oil lamps, and tiny bits of metal, and those like them in museums and collections around the world could be all that is physically left of Syria’s ancient history. It is yet another shame heaped upon the wanton deaths and pain of so many. Instead of knowledge there is a wasteland.

Think I’ll use the words investigative & forensic here.

However, it is not of ancient peoples sitting by lamp light, nor of high-born women with pots of  unguents, nor of warriors with their spear tips and arrow heads that I am left thinking about. No, it leads me to consider the work of the digs themselves, which is entirely appropriate, as even the ephemera of this archaeological exhibit is probably worth its own display.

Meticulous measurements of matiere.

What is here of the record of the dig is also historic and captivating. It makes the work of archaeology concrete, and physical, rather than (at least to an outsider like me) romantic or visionary.

These are historical items too.

With the tools used accompanying the artifacts they measured and pieced together, there is both the ancient story and the modern one. Adding to this is the paper work, obsolete visas and passports and other documents from those who undertook the digs, made redundant by the passage of time and war. They are stark reminders (as if we needed them) of the transience of such seemingly certain concepts such as peace, academic pursuits, and the rule of law that enables international research to occur at all.

Even the paperwork is made haunting by current events.

So there is wonder here, and sadness. Yet to visit these items is an acknowledgement that without effort and will (personal, social, political, academic, diplomatic) the past can too easily escape us for ever.

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Nightswimming (classes)

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.

I made a decision when I was sick some months ago. Simple as sending an email when I couldn’t sleep to change, put things in reverse. And learn. Now in my second term, the water seems more welcoming. Still. It’s so much clearer. Each evening I leave my stuff at the water’s edge. And climb in slow.

I’m beginning to feel the difference between the deep and the shallow. Watching the ceiling through my backstroke, I’m moving through. Yes. I’m nightswimming.

I get tired. Then I mistake the glowing sign next door and think the moon is low tonight, but there is no moon at all. Time to rest.

When the moon is a sign

Being new at this, I’m not sure all these people understand.
It’s not like years ago as a kid playing a game and failing. The fear of getting caught out, diving in, despite not really being taught. That was
recklessness in water. Or summers at the beach, sinking into the sand, watching the blue ringed octopus and getting burnt. Recklessness in sunshine.

Now I’m trusted. In the middle lane, watching the waves and the splashing as I kick. Fears: these things they go away, replaced by every day new achievements: making it to the end: completing a lap or more; setting my direction and reaching out. Not stopping. Not drowning. Just swimming.

The term keeps going even if September’s coming soon. Every week I long for the water and laugh at that sign, which gets me so I’m pining for the moon. While the bright tide forever drawn, could not describe nightswimming, in a high school pool, every Wednesday after the little kids watched on by their parents. Making memories. While it’s just me alone in my lane, night learning.

The expectation of water and warmth. My teachers are helping, as I start to find my rhythm. I’m breathing hard, but laughing quietly, underneath my breath,  as I struggle yet improve.  All due to these quiet times, night swimming.

With thanks to REM🙂

Driving through the rain, to water

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Review: Dreamland Japan

The National Gallery of Victoria is currently exhibiting more than 150 works of art (prints, books, manga, cloth items etc) by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Even if you haven’t heard of him, you may know one of his pictures, because it is now one of the most famous and reproduced scenes in the world: The Wave, or as it is also known, The great wave off Kanagawa. And it is not just one picture. In this exhibit it is two of a kind.

Big wave, big show.

It is nice to stop and to watch people swaying and nodding between both images, comparing and contrasting them like a newspaper spot the difference puzzle. But beyond this area, there are different sections, some dedicated to his views of Mount Fuji, others to his illustrations of ghost stories, and depictions of flora and fauna, and the seasons. There is a kind of serenity to them, even when the woodblock prints show wind-tossed people losing their documents and hats.

Draw the wind.

This artist knew about silence, and absence and I find myself staring at the areas he leaves blank. Some of these indicate air, the horizon, or mountains, ocean or a combination, where you can’t be sure. Sometimes the colours fade, and only a boat or a leaf indicates it is a lake or river, or trees full of cherry blossoms. This self-styled ‘old man mad about drawing‘ knew what to leave out and my eyes are grateful for the rest even as they take in his complete views.

See what I mean? Active rest.

The exhibit is at pains to demonstrate the influence of Hokusai on the likes of Vincent van Gogh, and yes, I can detect Japonisme in some of his ‘flatter’ works, but van Gogh doesn’t do absence. Each and every one of his paintings and drawings are noisy, riotous even with colour, line, emotion and enthusiasm, even if none of his faceless characters communicate with each other.

Partial view of one wave.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Yellow Wallpaper there is little at ease in van Gogh’s roiling yellows, framed by tumultuous cypresses below dizzying clouds. Although, I am looking forward to seeing this movement interpreted in the film Loving Vincent, showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival soon.

Van Gogh, Japonisme

Anyway, while Van Gogh’s brush races to the landscape and makes it loud and busy. Hokusai is a welcome contrast. He seems to takes in a view, not rush to capture it before the season or his mood, changes.

Hokusai at his own pace.

Or else, all of the impressions are mine. Hokusai was not still, his art stills me. Van Gogh’s works (just for a recent example) elicits all sorts of whirling feelings and associations (and remember, bad teen poetry). And yet I have written a story inspired by Hokusai’s wave. It was even published in 2013 and you can go read it for free here, if you want. My narrator was wrong though. The picture wasn’t anonymous, just ubiquitous. However, with Hokusai there are less feelings and confusion and more clarity, and dreamy wonderment amid the fine detail. Then you look closer and his characters are sailing or riding or walking. They almost always seem to be on their way, or reflecting on how far they have gone.

One artist, many waves in front of Mt Fuji.

Speaking about writing, it used to be that I was confounded by it, and how little squiggles could mean words that could be read back and understood to indicate a shared meaning. Yet the more I think about and look at art, the more I’m bemused and befuddled. Reading pictures is harder work and none at all. Hokusai has shown me, or else I have relearned through his art that looking is always inter-textual. He brought his phenomenal skills interpret his culture, and its poetry as well as nature in his works. Now I am reminded it could take a life time to properly see a single image, and yet one could still arrive at a different meaning to the person who sees it next to you, or 50,000 people who see it afterwards. And that’s before any of us start talking about the art to arrive at different conclusions.

Limited palette, unlimited vision.

I imagine there are valuable sociological and historical readings being made about Hokusai and his myriad images, beyond just measuring his influence on the aesthetics of European artists. They are interesting ways of seeing his work. They highlight his preoccupation in depicting the many facets of an array of Japanese people in their various natural and urban environments, they indicate how people lived and how people imagined, and how some have imagined Japan in the many years since he flourished….

Titled The Bridge. He had a sense of humour.

As for me though, I’m still, reposing, immersed in my dream of Hokusai’s Japan…the rest is history.

























































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Doctor Who: Suspension of relief?

It’s been a momentous couple of weeks in Doctor Who news. The announcement of the 13th Doctor kept me smiling all the way to work (or at least until I began to read responses), while the preview for the Christmas episode looks like it could be pleasing (or infuriating) to old school fans and newer ones alike. Both updates are an unexpected joy.

I remain surprised at my own response to the 13th Doctor, and how important this decision could be as a kind of cultural marker (and yes, I watched Vice Admiral Janeway in Star Trek).  I’m not suggesting a casting decision for a long running British TV show will put a stop to sexism in entertainment or prevent FGM, or give women driving rights in Saudi Arabia….

…and yet. It seems to have made some people so angry that it must indicate something. Why else plaster nude stills of Jodie Whittaker from old productions in papers? The logic seems to be women are inferior and making a male character female thus renders The Doctor inferior. If this is so, then this argument should be countered everywhere. And, if that’s not the argument then why the virulence? Why such fear? And why try to make women (especially) feel inferior for defending this casting decision?

Once every few years, The Doctor is regenerated into another man, because a bunch of writers who died years ago made up that rule. They were powerful… but writers now say they can change the rule. They say his power… can be her power. This year, the writers of Doctor Who will channel the essence of their creativity to change The Doctor’s destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be want to play at being The Doctor, can be The Doctor. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, can stand up, will stand up. Doctors… every one of us…with thanks to Buffy’s writers:)

Man as the measure? 

What I’ve been thinking about since the announcement, is what many (most maybe?) girls learn early by way of a trick of the imagination. To see themselves as heroic in many of their games, their stories, in their reading and classrooms, they identify with the male figure. They cast themselves as Aragorn, or Iron Man or Spider Man or The Doctor, or Spock, or any one of thousands of characters who get to do the active rescuing, adventuring, fighting, and running around. It was that way when I was a kid and imagined myself as Monkey, or The Doctor or as Indiana Jones, or one of the Three Investigators. I couldn’t be me and the hero. Of late, there are more options for girls to identify with heroic exploits without this psychological leap. They can lead and fight like Buffy, or Wonder Woman, or the Rey in Star Wars, or Lara Croft. Maybe even Black Widow can get her own film. But now, and perhaps best of all, girls don’t have to be the companions, they have the authority to be The Doctor – as themselves.

Something, something enigmatic identity debated for centuries

I think some men don’t get this. They see leading avatars of themselves everywhere in all situations. In sport all the time, in politics, in art, and stories everywhere. I’m not saying what they are presented with is always realistic, positive, or healthy, and is certainly not diverse enough (as the #starringJohnCho campaign demonstrates), but they don’t have to do the work of imagining being male first, to then see themselves as the hero. Suddenly, with one change to one TV program, some might have to do this imaginative leaping. I say: take a parachute and learn a new skill.

Neither cruel, nor cowardly

In the Day of the Doctor the big defining promise during this episode wasn’t to remain masculine, or powerful, or blokey. No, they promised: Neither cruelnor cowardly. Never give up, never give in. If the 13th Doctor lives this credo, then she is The Doctor.

The Doctor was never about machismo, not even with Venusian martial arts. This character has always been about a code, an ethos, beyond any single physical incarnation. It is about helping, without fear or favour; it is about overcoming personal burdens to demonstrate kindness and to make difficult decisions in worse situations, and it is about surviving. These concepts don’t belong to men any more than they belong to women. It would be nice if more fans espoused the virtues demonstrated by the character they admire.


The Doctor is a shape shifting time traveler who exists because the BBC wanted a family program to teach kids about history. It was designed as social engineering from the outset. It’s also a program where the premise is to fix history from weird intrusions, one of which would be how like most of history is presented through the eyes of male (colonialist etc) perspectives. Such wow!

Anyway, writers added monsters as slightly more arcane lessons about the dangers of Nazism and group think. The Doctor defends emotion and individuality over reason devoid of empathy, and fascism absent of humanity. So, if you are raging to keep everything in stasis you will almost always be on the opposing side of The Doctor. Check your records.

 A Time Lord is a physical manifestation of the passage of time, representing survival through change. Exposure to the ‘untempered schism’ doesn’t make you a man or a woman, it remakes a perspective.

Perhaps the signals were missed: Romana, The Master changing to Missy, River’s changes, nanny-dalek-teacher Clara calling herself The Doctor, the General’s regeneration; Robot Nardole’s return as just Nardole. And the big indicator when The Doctor recently explained how Gallifreyan society went beyond gender even if it kept the language.

If you are sad you can’t fancy The Doctor like you used to, you’ve still got 50 years plus of back catalogue episodes, this new Christmas episode with not one but two male Doctors, and who knows, any amount of future ones too beyond this generation.

Male is not the default setting on the universe

Here are my suggestions for acclimatising to a program that has always been about flux:

  1. Read (or watch the excellent film version of) Orlando.
  2. Read about the Buddha’s female incarnations (such as Tara), or cognate as Kwan Yin.
  3. Look at tricksters in mythology. Loki gets pregnant, can’t wait for that to happen in the Marvel films. Imagine the scenes when he births the foal Sleipnir!
  4. Review the career of David Bowie.
  5. Watch Shakespeare in Love. Watch or read Shakespeare’s plays where the women’s roles were played by adolescent boys, like in Twelfth Night. Or Google productions of Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Richard III where the leads are played by women. Or read this 2013 article about embodying Shakespearean characters.
  6. Watch the Japanese TV adaption of the Chinese classic Monkey Magic dubbed into English, featuring a female actor playing a male monk and a bunch of humans embodying an immortal stone flying monkey, a pig, a tonsured fish demon with a necklace of skulls, and a river monster who becomes a horse but is also a bloke with a pony tail. Oh, and Buddha is played by a middle-aged woman the size of a high-rise compared to the other characters.
  7. Finally, if nothing can prepare you for diversity take a look at this video:



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Doctor Who: Falling

Spoilers ok?

The sky is still blue

And so it has come to pass The Doctor Falls and our perception filters have been lifted and we can see the great event happen on the horizon, and like anything in a black hole, we are crushed, and perhaps, made anew. And, because time dilation means The Doctor’s end has been strung out to Christmas, we must wait and go the long way around, while he is already there, meeting his previous self and becoming his future too.

The clouds come and go

The Master/Missy will come and go and I fully expect the Doctor to again encounter his best friend in some form. I loved the tension between Missy and the Master – of course as a destructive being she/he is also self-destructive. She was always in two minds, even without her previous self around. And, of course they are about vengeance, especially against themselves, even as I believe Missy had evolved. And I say that in the awareness that change could mean a willingness to help others even while remaining capable of self murder or is it suicide or something else? Never mind. Even though there was never enough Missy in this series, this was good.

That laughter too was apposite. If The Doctor is dying crying no, well then the Master will go laughing. It balances the force. Imagine if Missy and The Doctor had ended this episode travelling the universe together actually being kind. No. I can’t and that is a good thing.

A map of the universe The Doctor and Missy won’t travel together.

Yet something is different

Well that was a surprise. The Pilot/Heather returned. Wasn’t expecting that and it wasn’t presaged so very clearly, except for the comments about Bill’s tears. Yet cyber beings have cried before (see Doomsday with Yvonne Hartman doing her duty) so I was waiting for something without knowing what.

Yet I suppose the fate of the ship, and perhaps of Bill was laid out in the first episode by The Doctor himself, except replace city with Mondasian ship stuck in front of a black hole.

The Doctor: Every moment of your life laid out around you… like a city. Streets full of buildings made of days. The day you were born. The day you die. The day you fall in love. The day that love ends. A whole city built from triumph and heartbreak and boredom and laughter and cutting your toenails. It’s the best place you will ever be. Time is a structure relative to ourselves. Time is the space made by our lives. Where we stand together forever. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, it means “life”.

If the ship is a structure that is also time relative to Bill’s life then Heather was and is a part of it, since she was a part of Bill’s time line. Even though it was brief as The Pilot followed her everywhere, Heather became more of a ‘what might have been’ – a path not taken. But in an infinite universe all paths exist. Now, Bill gets to take that path and live an alternative life. Why not. She couldn’t go back to chips could she?

Speaking of the ship…

Are we falling in love? 

What an unexpectedly poignant joy Nardole became. He was transformed from an irritated and irritating clunky back story narrative device complete with loose screws, to an actual character with anecdotes, humour, and touches of his own history. If this was his farewell, then it’s a fairly satisfying one. I mean, I know it is a very Russell T Davies white picket fence ending, but Nardole actually resisted it and never asked for it.  Furthermore, it’s on a space ship parked in front of a black hole that yet could be attacked by surviving cybers. Yet I embrace this contrast with a bucolic stewardship of a bunch of kids, and a burgeoning love story neither he nor we expected.

If his story ends on a note demonstrating and living the kindness The Doctor always talks about then that’s ok by me.

The stars still shine bright

We got past companions, and old quotes, jelly babies, a present The Doctor can’t really fix, his best enemies and greatest friends and a wish for an end beneath real stars that wheel across a real sky and tell the passing of the ages. Yes. After eons in the Confession Dial I would want an end beneath real stars too.

But it’s not quite the end.

May it never be the end.

River said it best: Everyone knows that everyone dies. And nobody knows it like the doctor. But I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark, if he ever accepts it.

Don’t let yourself be hurt this time

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor may be the most visceral we’ve seen for a while. He gets hurt and hurts others. He looks hurt. He might be a grinning idiot, but there is pain. For all his guile and planning he punched himself out of an alternate world/prison made by the Time Lords. He became blind and had to hurt himself to see for a while. He watches his companion get shot and transformed (previous episode) and he too is electrocuted, and shot. But his ‘real’ hurt isn’t physical. Well yes he is heading towards a regeneration and knows it, but it is his own resistance to this process that hurts him (and me) the most. It is futile too. It piles personal anguish on top of the death and destruction around him. But I can’t blame this Doctor.

As I noted in an earlier post, this series has been about barriers and how we overcome them. Bill has transcended her final barrier, her physical transformation from human to cyber. She held on to herself, as Clara did as a Dalek, and she rediscovered herself and Heather/The Pilot, for doing so. The Doctor’s lesson in overcoming his final barrier to changing himself (yet again) is the stuff of the next episode.

Then I saw your smile

With sadness and yet much expectation, I don’t want to wait. But the physics of time and all the stars, and TV production and programming, bid that I must.

Til then, Doctor, my Doctor, till then.

With thanks to Falling by Julee Cruise. I didn’t know I would quote it until I began writing.

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Imperfect articles

If you’ve been visiting a while then you may recall me wittering on about a sketchbook. Well, my latest effort has been uploaded for perusal online at The Sketchbook Project. Some of the pencil sketches haven’t come up so clearly, but hey, my little book of pictures is in the world.

Self explanatory

And it turns out my this book is not just staying home on a shelf at the Brooklyn Art Library, no sirree, it is touring the USA. If however, like me, you are not in the US, you can see my efforts here online. Each page contrasts water-colour or pen and ink efforts I produced when I was a kid, with sketches I completed over last spring and summer when I undertook my season of sketching. Hence the title, Past Imperfect, Present Tense. I didn’t know at the time what I was working towards. It turned out it was this.

Work in progress, last summer. It didn’t make the cut for the sketch book.

I longed to recapture the contentment, sitting in my Nan’s tiny cottage over a hot and mosquito filled January or several, listening to the steady too-ing and fro-ing thocks of the tennis while I painted, and painted. Instead, I found a new contentment, looking for views and angles as I wandered Melbourne’s CBD and lying on the parquet floor of the NGV, pencil in hand.

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Doctor Who: a Time Lord’s winged chariot

You’ll got the Andrew Marvell reference To His Coy Mistress for the episode titled World Enough and Time yeah?  It’s apt. Not just this episode with its portents of doom, and accurate time dilation Black Hole physics. No. The entire series has indeed felt time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Most episodes have felt overtly rushed or truncated, except for the triple hander Monk episodes and they felt like a big richly decorated introduction for a small and inexplicably slap dash and inconsequency pay off. The joke is with this episode it is both fast and slow.

World enough for ya?

…the last age should show your heart

This poem is about youth and is advice on what to do with it, it’s YOLO girl, ye olde style. This is also a perennial theme of Doctor Who: it is a guide to making the most of the precious hopeful, passionate, energetic years, before they are consumed by the usual day the day-ness Rose complained about (like working in a shop). Thus, The Doctor doesn’t just pick companions who happen to be young because they are visually TV friendly, uh uh. He says it himself: he needs their perspective, since the universe is his backyard humans can see things he can’t. He also needs their young enthusiasms and drives and emotions, because this ancient, lonely man-god is less dangerous to others when he is with them. Or as he says of Clara: she cares so he doesn’t have to. And the young care more.

But he also in his didactic fashion warns this latest companion that his lifestyle demands as a Time Lord burn them out. Or, as in this episode, literally burns their hearts out. There is a price for humans adventuring through space and time, (which is of course just a metaphor for life) and thus it comes to pass all too quickly that Bill’s bill is drawn up. And  surviving the loss of her heart gets her a lesson in waiting those long years for help. Foreshadowing much everyone?

Slow-chapt power

Speaking of which: John Simm’s Master. Again this felt like a prelude to the main feature ahead, but his disguise as Razor was entertaining, if recognisable. His character did in indeed feel like he languished in his slow-chapt power of time, hiding disguised on a ship for an eternity. Again, it is a deliberate choice to make his disguise old.

His character with its jokes about good and bad tea reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, with its characters making jokes about the horror ahead for Idris as her soul is replaced by that of the TARDIS.

To his coy Mistress

If this episode is being didactic, then this could be a farewell to Missy, because Marvell’s poem is addressed To His Coy Mistress to get a hurry on before she dies (my interpretation). Granted, she has been rehabilitated a bit but Missy’s not so much coy as preoccupied. And she is definitely will be making much of time, being in one place, two bodies, and two-time zones at once. In hindsight the series has been a lament for the times lost between the Doctor and his best friend.

Though we cannot make our sun stand still

I loved how this episode used actual physics. There are no instant sonic solutions because of the Black Hole. It was a neat device too, to get the explanation to us by putting the power in the hands of the janitor who thusly didn’t understand what was happening 400 miles on the other part of the ship. Bill and Razor’s response to the Doctor’s role in explaining this is also gold.

And yonder before us lie…

I can see why many consider this the best episode of the season, but I’m willing to tack on a ‘so far’ because I can’t see how Bill’s getting un-cyberfied in this twin Earth ship Mondasian mechanical nightmare and because the episode began with the regeneration process. I don’t want either to be true, but I don’t want a typical Steven Moffat “let’s undead the dead” solution either. It was shocking that Bill was shot. Her transformation was similarly shocking. I don’t know how this can be undone and even if either should. This episode is all about change over time. From Master to Missy, from human to cyber, from  young to old, from one Doctor to the next, from living to dead. So, is Bill’s passage through the iron gates of life one way? And if it is there is a solution through physics, physics, physics, then ok, but why shock us at all?

So we will roll up our strength and all our sweetness into one ball, and watch time devour the days to see what becomes of Mistresses and Masters, Mondasian Bills and our Lord of Time.

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