Blake Prize and Sydney Life

I spent the day visiting two of my favourite annual art exhibitions in Sydney “Sydney Life” and “The Blake Prize“. “Sydney Life” is a photographic competition and exhibition held each year in Hyde Park. “The Blake Prize” is a spiritual/religious themed art competition and exhibition held each year at the National Art School. They’re exhibitions I enjoy because they both challenge and entertain.

The Blake Prize, in particular, is a favourite. It began as an art prize for “religious art” in a fairly strictly Christian sense (I think) but has developed over the years to become a more general exploration of spirituality in art. Just about every year I’ve been, there have been a couple of works which I’ve found truly moving.

My favourite this year is a an untitled bust by Tim Silver, though I think it’s the beautiful craftwork involved more than the concept which fascinated me most. Sadly it’s not for sale. Also for the craft, there’s also a wonderful piece where a skeleton has been covered in plasticine and located in the cosmos, with lots of plasticine balls representing planets. And there’s a terrific work by Adam Cullen who has focussed his attention this year on Mary Mackillop.

As for Sydney Life? There’s a lot of terrific works this year, though I wasn’t as impressed as I’ve been in previous years.

The most delightful work is – head and shoulders above the rest – the photograph of the pig at the Royal Easter Show. It’s a great moment in time, it’s well composed, and it has a great sense of fun about it. There’s also a wonderful photograph of a storm front coming over the harbour which is visually spectacular.

My favourite, though, was the image of two Sydney taxi drivers enjoying a meal in the back of a cab at night. I really like it, because it offers an insight into a really significant part of Sydney life (taxi drivers), but also because it’s so beautifully shot, with Henson-like night-time darkness. It’s a warm, lovely shot.

St Patrick’s Day

Statue of St Patrick - Hill of Slane, Ireland
Statue of St Patrick - Hill of Slane, Ireland

Let me first of all wish my sister, Pat, a very happy birthday. Although she wasn’t born and christened “Pat” that’s what we’ve always called her. In fact, we call her “Patsy” a lot of the time and “Pat” on other occasions. The only time anyone ever uses her real name is on an official letter of some type.

And why not? I come from a family with strong Irish Catholic roots. We may not have been regular church-goers, but we’ve always identified as Catholic, and we’ve always identified as Irish, even though of course, like most Australians, we’re descended from a combination of Irish, English and Scottish ancestry.

On the Irish side of things, though, we’re descended from names like Hoare, O’Brien, Smith (yes, Irish really), Lynch, Moynihan, Fitzgerald, Noonan, Lynch, Dunn and O’Brien.

My ancestry on the O’Brien side actually comes from a place called Knockerk (located near Slane) where St Patrick began his mission to bring Christianity to Ireland. Damo and I visited and stayed in the area in 1999. It was interesting to go the cemetery on the top of the Hill of Slane where St Patrick is said to have “kindled the Paschal fire”.

Arguably, it’s thanks to the big black brewery that St Patrick’s Day continues to live on when so many people around the world no longer identify as Christian.

Earth Hour
Guessing there will be no concession or victory speeches in the NSW Election between 8.30 and 9.30pm on March 26

And as we walked through the city this afternoon, my friend Sue and I couldn’t help but notice St Patrick’s Day seems more about the beer and less about St Patrick or even any sense of Irishness. Even with my solid Irish-Catholic credentials I neglected to wear any green today.

Sue was in town for work for the day, by the way, and so we caught up for a dinner at one of my current favourite restaurants, Red Chilli in Chinatown. A lovely way to spend a couple of hours with a good friend, enjoying good food.

A bus trip home, and here am sitting in front of the computer, and thinking I must catch up on some of the many hours of television I’ve recorded this week but haven’t yet watched.

On the way home I noticed an interesting connection between Earth Hour and the NSW Election. Ordinarily in an election, the concession and victory speeches would be held sometime between 8.30 and 10.00. As the result is likely a little earlier this time – it’s likely to be landslide – I’m guessing the concession and victory speeches could be as early as 8.00 and 9.00. I’m wondering which of our two leaders is likely to make their speech by candelight?

Talkin’ about God

Duncan Young, Pamela Jikiemi and Robert Alexander
Duncan Young, Pamela Jikiemi and Robert Alexander

Colin, Peter and I crossed the bridge tonight to see “The God Committee” at The Ensemble which was a really enjoyable, interesting play.

The setting for the play is a hospital meeting room in an American city somewhere, where a committee must make decisions about candidates for transplant surgery.

They have a set of “independant criteria” such as the candidates not being drug users, having a good support network and so on.

But the play demonstrates the apparent greyness of these criteria. On the issue of drug use, for example, I learned from the play amoxicillin can provide a false test positive for cocaine. On the issue of “support networks”, the argument explored is whether someone with a large family is necessarily more supported than someone with just one friend, or someone with a rich family. Who is the more supported?

Thus, at the heart of the play there is argument that even “facts” and “independant criteria” can be valued laden and open to many different interpretations.

A timely play for a few reasons, as the issue of God’s existence (or at least the existence of a creator) has come up a lot in various conversations I’ve had in the last twenty four hours. At the pub last night, a colleague mentioned growing up in a household where his father was an atheist and his mother was a pagan. Today at work we discussed the forthcoming canonisation of Mary McKillop.

And then tonight I tweeted what I thought was a rather amusing comment that, “Atheists are quite strong in their belief eh? Wondering if they appreciate the irony?”. The stone-faced response from someone I’ve never heard of was.. ” nope – atheism isnt a belief system. Instead its the position where one states the evidence for any god just isnt enough. And by a huge margin ;)”

Strictly speaking that’s not correct: atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of God or gods. If you think there’s a possibility of the existence of God if there’s enough evidence, you’re not an atheist. You need to find another word for what you believe because atheist isn’t the right one.

And frankly I think atheism IS a belief system. It’s a belief-system based around a notion that things like “science” and “facts” are somehow non-subjective interpretations of reality.

The first virus was only found 100 years ago. Prior to that science offered a different explanation for a range of medical conditions. In 100 years time, many of the conditions we currently face we may well come to understand as the cause by something else we do not know or understand.

I’m willing to accept that if 99 people look at a car and say it’s a car, and 1 person says it’s an elephant, that it’s probably a car. But we’re dealing with far more complex matters. Matters which have fascinated humans for, presumably, as long we’ve existed.

When it comes to the creation story, I lack the absolute certainty of both the fundamentalist and the atheist. Obviously either one or the other position is correct, that’s logical. I just don’t accept the evidence-based so-called scientific approach will you give you answer, as much as the absolutism of literal biblical interpretation. Both “searches for meaning” are based around a set of assumptions.

And that, I guess gets back to the heart of “The God Committee” as a play: that so-called reality is subjective.

It reminds me of a quote from a book by Caroline Jones which I read years ago, and which I often quote. She said, “More many years people have argued that seeing is believing. Now, many others are saying that believing is seeing”.

Lieber Gott

Lieber Gott
Lieber Gott

With all this Copenhagen stuff going on, I thought this was an interesting contribution to the discussion.

It’s a song by Frida from ABBA (of course) which is a “prayer” about peace, the environment and everything.

Here’s the translation that’s on Youtube.

Shout out to Matt for the music :)

English Translation (courtesy of Matt):
“Dear God”
Tell me, dear God,
do you hear me?
This prayer is for you
Oh, do not let the world go down
Let us be responsible for each other
Why do we have to be at war with one another?
Why is it so hard for us to give love?
Why are we so full of hatred and envy
and never have time for others?
(Why do we have to?)
How many people still have to die without reason?
How many hearts still have to be broken?
How much do we still have to suffer?
Tell me, what sense does it all make?
I will not be alone
Tell me, dear God,
do you hear me?
This prayer is for you
Oh, do not let the world go down
Let us be responsible for each other
Who are we passing judgement on justice
while we destroy the world?
Who on earth are we?
We are killing nature, our native soil.
(Why do we have to?)
Frida speaks the Lords Prayer in swedish …
Fader vår som är i himmelen.
Helgat varde ditt namn.
Tillkomme ditt rike.
Ske din vilja, såsom i himmelen så ock på jorden.
Vårt dagliga bröd giv oss idag,
och förlåt oss våra skulder, såsom ock vi förlåta dem oss skyldiga äro,
och inled oss icke i frestelse utan fräls oss ifrån ondo.
Ty riket är ditt och makten och härligheten i evighet.
Tell me, dear God,
do you hear me?
This prayer is for you ..

Thematically, the notion of Christianity and the environment also fits in with an interesting discussion I listened back to via a Radio National podcast the other day.

Holy Pictures

As a child our house was full of “holy pictures” (as my mum called them).

In fact, aside from my sister’s wedding photographs, and my ABBA posters, the only pieces of art that adorned our walls were pieces of Catholic iconography.

“The Crucifixion”, “The Last Supper”, “Mary’s Assumption into Heaven”: that kind of thing.

While some Christians really freak out at this kind of iconography – equating it to idol worship, seeing it as something which gets in the way of a relationship with God – it’s something I’m quite happy with.

Blake Prize 2009
Blake Prize 2009

And it’s soemthing I quite like, Last year, for example, when I was travelling around I spent a fair amount of time in both Catholic and Orthodox Churches marvelling at the works.,

And certainly tonight, attending the “Blake Prize” at the National Art School, there were elements of the iconography which I grew up with.

The prize started in 1951 as a religious art prize, though more recently it’s become a prize centred around “spirituality, religion and cultural diversity”.

As I’ve attended the prize over the last few years it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the works involved. Each year, there appears to be fewer and fewer overtly religious works, though the theme remains.

My favourite work, this year, for example was of a life-sized statue of a black woman holding a loaf of bread. As I walked through the crowded exhibition, I thought at first she was someone who was blocking my way. But then when I realised, I too, found myself firm-footed, unable to move, as I took in the work. Beautiful craft, and wonderful conceptually.

Another favourite was a piece called “Ladders” (in its broadest sense it could be a ladder to heaven, to spiritual enlightenment etc). For me it was probably the craft more than the idea which appealed.

Blake Prize 2009
Blake Prize 2009

I would have taken more notes, except the exhibition opening was incredibly crowded with a surprisingly – and encouragingly – large number of young people. I’ll revisit the exhibition over the weekend to take it in with a greater depth.

And besides, I’m feeling a bit tired tonight. This is my third night in a row where I’ve felt tired, actually. And I can’t decide if it’s because I’m coming down with something – I’ve been sneezing a bit too – or if I’m just feeling tired from working too hard.

So, after spending 45 minutes or so wandering around the exhibition, I’ve grabbed a bite to eat, and have come home to relax.

Over the next few days I’ve got a few things planned including (hopefully) lunch with Yvette tomorrow (though she was sick today), seeing a cabaret show tomorrow night, catching up with The Other Andrew for his birthday, and going with Grant to see “Sounds Like Teen Spirit”, a documentary about the Junior Eurovision Song Contest.

In the midst of all this, I have Swedish homework to catch up on, and I’m hoping for a few hours of relaxing on the couch doing nothing much at all.

And hopefully getting back to see those “Holy Pictures” in a less crowded environment.


As I walked through the streets of Glebe last night I wondered how many people would recognise my tie. Was I from the CIA or the FBI or was I a member of another unknown unit in Sydney for just a couple of weeks. As I sat down in a small cocktail bar on Glebe Point Road and drank a glass of Pinot Grigio, I wondered if people would look at me as if I was a member of the Federal Police. In case you hadn’t recognised it, it’s the official APEC tie.

I was in Glebe last night to see Bishop John Shelby Spong speak at Gleebooks. I read one of his books, Sins of Scripture few years ago, and was quite interested in what he had to say, especially as his new book is called “Jesus For The Non-Religious”.

His view of Jesus is complex. Although he believes in God the creator, he doesn’t believe in the human-like supernatural being which he believes we, as human beings, have created. “You ask a horse what God looks like and he’ll describe a horse”, he told us.

As a follower of Christ, Spong argues against the notion of Jesus as a supernatural being. Rather, he argues Jesus was more than just an enlightened human being, he was “fully human”. Although I can’t articulate this myself, I think I understand what he means.

The central thesis of last night’s talk was that, because the Bible was written decades after the death of Jesus, there was a degree of embelishment in what was written. Subsequently, he believes Jesus the man became Jesus the supernatural.

That said, he said he acknowledges the contradictions in his own belief system. Despite this apparent denial of the supernatural, he says he believes in God running through all of us. He also believes in the afterlife, though he doesn’t accept the idea of heaven and hell, and he says he find its difficult to articulate what he does believe the afterlife means.

So yes, an interesting evening, and not what most people would be doing on a Friday night.

Otherwise, the last few days have been busy both with work and social life. Socially, there was Wednesday night drinks at the Lewisham, and Fruits In Suits at Slide. So yeah, an interesting couple of days.

Saint Patrick

Statue of St Patrick

Here it is, St Patrick’s Day 2007, and my thoughts have gone back to my visit to Slane, County Meath in Ireland in 1999.

The reason is simple: it’s believed that it was at Slane that St Patrick had a “spiritual standoff” in support of his plan to convert Ireland to Christianity. St Patrick is also said to have built his first church there.

The statue of St Patrick is located on the Hill of Slane (about ten minutes drive from the town centre), which, co-incidentally, is also the area where my O’Brien ancestors came from. Specifically, James O’Brien and Mary Smith who lived at the nearby village of Knockerk, before they came to Australia in 1864.

But if you think for a moment my trip to Ireland was a spiritual/genealogical journey only, think again…

PS. Happy Birthday to my sister, Pat.