Monday, December 21, 2015

From the sublime to the dull in a weekend.

Here is a list

  • Hayao Miyazaki
  • Monocle
  • Brian Eno
  • National Gallery of Australia
  • Star Wars: The Awakening

It is a list in time, equal parts of wonder and puzzlement, a weekend spent in the capital of middle ranking wealthy nation of white privilege, a settler society culture with a history of savage dispossession, luck and a social notion of itself that is slipping toward neo-liberal hardheartedness.

We still have publicly funded broadcasters and cultural institutions but decades of conservative governments have chipped away at their purpose however they are still capable of throwing up treasures. I spent some of Friday evening watching Miyazaki's Spirited away on SBS - I'm in turn astonished and moved by something as profound and artistically whole as Mitazaki's animated films. Spirited away and Howl's moving Castle are both an embodiment of Solnit's notion of hope, where a character makes choices Buddhistic in their seeming simplicity and virtue. Weaving together folk traditions, Shinto and animistic beliefs, critiques of contemporary Japan and perhaps even neo-liberal late capitalism, these are examples of the achieve of the thing - animated film at its most excellent.

The morning after browsing in a local newsagent up swam 'Monocle'. Their Urbanist program is broadcast by Radio National but I hadn't seen the magazine before and so forked out a ridiculous amount of hard earned curiosity. What a strange and inelegant beast, almost one of Miyakazi's spellbound fools, shapeshifted into something not quite solid, not quite recognizable. 

Part The Economist, part National Geographic for those of a designery bent, it seems to be the playsheet for the rich urbane, the wunderkinds of our digital lives, all foreign traders, entrepreneurs, start up czars, the middle children of Russian oligarchs. The notion of design, the designed object as an end in itself, revered in its branded glory is given top billing here - a guide to aesthetics for the fuckwitted. Buy this, desire that, wear our definition of your uniqueness. The pinnacle of its narcissism lay in a list of 50 World Wonders which did not take its readers into the real world at all, but was entirely bound by the chimera of endless travel, movement. the next craved destination as airports, train systems, accommodation, the planes themselves, the paper you should carry on board, everything to ensure the perfect experience of pure disenlightenment. So many Aetos Kaukasios who daintily eat our planet, three Michelin starred mouthfuls after another after another after another.

I was thrown by Monocle and its lifeless promises wrapped in self-serving authority, so retreated to the workshop to grind half an inch or so from a plane blade abandoned in a garden shed by previous neighbours (lovely folk but not very tool savvy). Then up galloped Andrew Ford on his charger, Music Show, waving the pennant of sanity as he played Brian Eno's John Peel Lecture from earlier this year. Antidotes are rarely so powerful but Eno's lecture is everything Monocle will never be. I did wonder by the end whether Eno has read Morris's News from Nowhere but for a pure shot of Yes making art and stuff and craft and art and things is important for very good reasons, well it doesn't get much better. As Andrew Ford says in his introduction, Eno comes as close as he has ever heard anyone come to describing what art is, why it matters and how it works. God bless you Mr Eno.

As the day's temperature rose and rose, the air-conditioned quiet of the National Gallery called with its hum of chilled promise. The current blockbuster is a Tom Roberts retrospective which I am as interested in as learning how to knit shredded cheese. I gather by the tumbleweeds blowing through the exhibition's entrance, not many other folk were interested either.

But the NGA has just had what is probably its biggest rehang since opening in its Madigan concrete dolls house. Ostralan art is now downstairs, contemporary everything else upstairs, but there are themes also running through the refit. Asian art remains in the outer kingdoms on the northern ramps, filled with some beautiful objects asking the incessant question of where was I stolen from? Whose gods are now missing as I sit here unworshipped and silenced? 

There is always something that prods its way into the log of possibles, something that will nag and rub its way into a sketch or marquette but my overwhelming response was one of sadness as the collection just seemed parochial, dully safe and irrelevant. Vapid concrete halls filled with the nation's treasures. Two hour old toast. There are new acquisitions sitting near the upstairs entrance, very new works, works with labels boldly proclaiming in red that they are new but it feels like a struggling sideshow adding adjectives to its roadside banners in the hope of luring back its long departed audiences. 

There are fascinating, interesting, brilliant, daft and bonkers works piled upon piles in the NGA, but what is on show is a thin smear, a Year 8 trip through art over the ages, Alice in Unwonderland. Dragged to the NGA, thousands of Australian school kids will be turned off art for life. It looks like a response to the pants down hoolah of MONA in Hobart or the gleaming of GOMA in Brisbane but it ends up appearing as undignified as a balding paunchy middle aged man skateboarding down the Pitt Street mall.

The last thing on the list is one of those films I've gone to with my son over the years - not really my taste but he's not particularly keen on Von Trotter either. The family movies. the blockbuster most of which are fork in head awful, some coming back around crap and meeting up with entertainingly dreadful. 

When I first began working full time, I worked for a venerable bookshop which had numerous manifestations including Australia's first SF and fantasy bookshop where I did a half day shift once a week. This was in the early 1980s, and geek and nerd were yet to enter the lexicon of social acceptance. The kids who grew up on choose your own adventures had done just that and decided that somewhere in a galaxy far far away, they were in fact a Jedi knight, not a payroll clerk for the Water Board and their portal to their true self was somewhere in the aisles of Galaxy Bookshop.

This was in the heady days of the first three films of the Star Wars franchise, leading to chronic overexposure to the madness and an equally strong intent not to engage at all. Until last night, I hadn't seen any of the Star War films. but even so the references and images have so saturated our culture that yes Princess Leia and the rest of the team were all terribly familiar. Overwhelmingly so, so overwhelmingly so that I found Star Wars: The Force Awakens boring, derivative, predictable, hammed up (the ending was just Miss Piggy in a robe)  and well, boring. And yet again, I read the reviews afterward and wondered if I'd accidentally seen the wrong movie. It wasn't awful, but it was pretty bland; Disney sanitised and rather like the NGA. Except this blockbuster will have no shortage of willing eyeballs. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wooden planes in a summer climate

Some things in the workshop are simply too much fun. Making tools in particular. Especially when they work better than expected.

I did a bit of tool making with Ian Percival, polymath and inventor extraordinaire while at CSA, plus turned a mallet with Richard Raffan (and an extremely ugly lidded container I seem to recall) and have fiddled about since with the various things that you have to make or modify.

A couple of months ago, I picked up a Hock Krenov style block plane kit which has sat acclimitising in the tool cabinet. But this week with free time as the rock maple side table is done and dusted, I have time to spend a couple of days faffing about.

The kit components were a bit rough but I wasn't expecting to end up with a Holtey so it was more about the process. Pretty straightforward and a quick introduction to how they go together and what needs to be prepped better.

It's actually quite petite, very sweetly balanced, sits nicely in my hands and works single or double handed. And cuts a very fine and consistent shaving.

I had to go to Krenov's Fine Art of Cabinetmaking where he covers plane making in some detail as I wasn't quite sure from the instructions as to the final height of the wedge relative to the blade top. As always with Krenov, the text is not simply a how-to but a why and what for which means that because I've had so much fun with this one, I've now hauled out the carcase of something I started at CSA at least fifteen years ago.

Comrade Stafenbiehl and I were intent on building a fleet of specialist planes such as shoulder rebate with brass soles. I'm not quite sure why I ended up the body of walnut and jarrah that I have and the fleet didn't eventuate either.

I also have no idea why the gap between the two blocks is so large, nor why I cut the bedding pitch block at 20 degrees. If I drew anything or made plans, they've long since been lost in one house move or another. Mysteries one and all, but it means I can treat this an exercise in let's see if this will work, and not shed a tear if it doesn't.

I haven't a blade that's suitable either, so I'll make do with a Sorby blade that was part of an infilled smoother bought, unwisely once again, from a tool swap. It's a nice hefty 3/16th but for the purposes of this exercise, I'll leave the chipbreaker off and use it up bevel up.

However the blade is not flat. Lord knows what happened to the poor bloody smoother at some point in its past - there are two cracks in the casting that someone has tried to repair with brass brazing, and putting a twist in a blade of this thickness takes talent. So will I wander over to the engineering workshop in Mitchell and see if they can squeeze it flat with one of their boofy vices or muck about with the wedge instead?

To be pondered, along with my crazy idea to fit the cross pin with a slip on triangular body. And of course I now need a brass hammer to tap the blade, so I've also dug out some brass pieces I turned up for some other project long forgotten and am eyeing off some sassafras cylinders as likely hammer heads. Two ounce heads seem to be the size of choice, and I'm looking forward to shaping up a drop style handle.

And after the play with the walnut body, there's a large pile of ash waiting for my attention, and oohhh look Lee Valley have blades without chipbreakers plus there are the Hock short blade sets to play with as well. This will be fun.

And here's the wee plane adjusting hammer with a brass face glued in using CA glue which I suspect won't last for long at all. Sassafras head and an ash handle.