Tuesday, March 25, 2014

unsettling beauty and death

I saw in the distance a doorway.  Draped across it was ragged black velvet with black tulle and lace.  I walked over, curious, and slowly pulled back the material to look inside.  I had seen many photos online of the contents.  I froze, realising what lay before me.  I was finally amongst Julia deVille's exhibition at Melbourne Now.  The walls were adorned with lush black damask wallpaper, and a sparkling crystal chandelier hung in the center of the room.  I was not alone.

In front of me lay a fawn, curled up on a dinner plate.  It looked serene as though it were sleeping.  On its ribs, a sparkly red patch glistened in the light.  To it's left a lamb sat on a sliver serving tray.  In front of it a group of tiny birds lay on more silverware.  Everywhere I looked there were animals and birds frozen in the moment.  An ostrich chick with a small head piece and saddle sat gently on a side table.  A kitten curled up in a copper pot.   A piglet lay 'sleeping' in a kitchen scale.  From a distance it looked brindle, but as I stepped closer I saw it was pristine white with black lace patches.  Towards the back of the room a black and white calf was curled up.  It shimmered with delicate glitter.  To it's left, another fawn, this time standing on a silver platter.  As I looked closer I noticed the delicate strings of red jewels cascading from a cut in it's throat.  On a pedestal, more silverware.  Laying in yin and yang formation were two tiny puppies.  Pinned to their sides were feathers forming angelic wings.  Each of them were the size of my palm.

On a table a small kitten is decorated with a feathered headpiece.  Harnessed, it pulls a glass sided hearse with a tiny black coffin inside.  Looking up, clutching the side of a large elegant mirror, a crow spreads it wings surveying everything.  Looking back towards the front of the room, a lamb stands on a platter with a silver ornate handle in the middle of it's woolen back.  Eyes wide open and more red strung jewels dripping from a cut throat.  Around the tables were carving sets in glass boxes.  Both the knife and fork glistened with red glitter along their edges.  Death was everywhere.

On the walls hung large paintings.  One side of the room, in bright colours contrasting with the black walls, were two plump cherubs.  On the far wall opposite, an older woman, white haired with white fur stoles surrounding her and hanging off her chair arm.  The other paintings in the room are almost black.  When looking closer, you can just make out the paintings subjects.  Cows mooing, human bodies moving and what looks like a naked angel with long black wings.  The title of this exhibition is 'Degustation'.

On seeing images online from this exhibition, I had felt unsettled.  As a long time vegetarian and animal lover I was uncomfortable seeing dead animals.  I had expected to be really distressed by the visit.  But I was mesmerised.  Julia is a vegan and all the animals died of natural causes.  Each of them look serene and at peace.  Or for those with eyes open, you expect them to move, breath and walk around.  They have been preserved so masterfully it show's each animal and bird in it's natural beauty, adorned with jewels and glitter.  I really wanted to stroke the animals, to feel the gentle folds of skin.

There are hints in the room highlighting how humans have long treated animals as commodities.  Under the main table in the room lays a zebra skin rug.  On the back table an ornate ostrich egg is under glass.  A curio.  You hardly notice these amongst the 'living' decorations on each table and pedestal.  We have long treated animals as 'things' rather than beings in their own right. It is this attitude that has brought us to the horror of industrial farming in the 21st century.  Comfort is forsaken for hormones, confinement and a short tortured life to enable the planet to be fed.

This exhibition pushes people's buttons.  When confronted with death most people feel scared or repulsed.  Seeing the dead animals upsets them.  Some of these people will go home and eat meat for dinner.  It's curious that seeing animals, like fawns and kittens seem so horrific to them.  What is the difference to what is on their plate at home?   But perhaps that is the amazing thing about this exhibition.  I saw people walk in with their young children.  A mother whispered to her son, 'it's ok, they're not real'.  The father gestured to say something, but was shot down with one glare from his partner.

Western culture does not discuss death very well.  We don't see it apart from our television screens and only in edited form on the news or stylized for drama.  We choose to look away or shield ourselves from the reality of life...and death.  Julia's work is so startling in it's beauty.  Death is everywhere in the room, but it kept my gaze.  I didn't look away.  In fact as the exhibition has been extended for a few more weeks I hope to visit the room again.  If you want to be challenged, and think more deeply about death and the role of animals in our lives, I suggest you visit the 3rd floor of the Ian Potter Gallery at the NGV.  Dare yourself to look at death and see it's beauty.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Learning to cook

I was listening to the radio (3RRR) the other morning.  The Breakfasters were talking about how old they were when they learnt to cook.  Was it as a child or when they moved into their first share house?  It made me think back.  I think the very first thing I learnt to make was cinnamon toast.  Which not surprisingly consisted of toast and lashings of butter, which was then sprinkled liberally with a mix of castor sugar and cinnamon.  I think my parents got this for Mother's or Father's day many times.

A few days later, when looking in the back of a cupboard, I found my very first cookbook...'Cooking for fun: recipes for young cooks'.  It brought back more memories, as I saw the bite marks along the spine, which were put there by one of my curious guinea pigs!  It was published in 1980, so I must have been 10 when I got it.  Even though it's filled with recipes for pizza and macaroni cheese, I lingered mostly on the pages at the back - baking and desserts.  I remember making pancakes which we ate with lemon and sugar.  I can still make pancakes and pikelets at the drop of a hat with no recipe required.

I then began a dessert odyssey which in many ways is still with me today.  I remember making pavlova (using a Pav Magic egg - remember those?) and marvelling at the triumph.  I then moved onto chilled cheesecakes.  Mum had a recipe using Carnation evaporated skim milk from a tin.  I'm sure there was a packet of lemon jelly mixed in it too.  I was probably around twelve when I was commissioned to make two cheesecakes for my cousins backyard 21st.  I made the old faithful lemon cheesecake, and another which required pineapple rings cut in half and coated in chocolate.  These formed the outside wall of the cheesecake.  Pretty sophisticated for 1982.  I had the job of making sunday night dessert for the family, which gave my greed a chance to flourish.

There is something that sets me apart from most people I know.  As you can tell from the skim milk, my Mum was always counting her calories.  I used to look at her rock hard Ryvita's smothered in cottage cheese in curiosity.  Under her influence I learnt that Condensed Milk was evil.  While everyone else was sucking it from the tube or licking out the tin - I was taught it was the devil.  And even to this day I avoid all recipes with this ingredient, like it still has a pox on it.  It's moments like this you realise how those early influences shape your relationship with food.  But more about this another time.

I fell in love with cooking and my folks even began investigating cooking schools in case I hoped to end up with a career in the culinary arts.  I then turned vegetarian at 14 which threw those plans in the bin.  If only we'd realised about Patisserie chefs, my life could be so different now!  I had to learn to make lentil burgers to feed myself.  My Mum and I would make batches to freeze, as this was years before the supermarket abundance of tofu and soysages.  Mum was great and we got cookbooks to learn about my new dietary ethics.  I have to thank her for supporting me, even though I know she was concerned I'd be anemic suffer for my beliefs.

I was timid and reluctant when it came to vegies growing up.  I have a terrible memory of sitting at the dinner table crying, with a piece of cold broccoli on my plate.  Dad wouldn't let me leave until I ate it.  It was a mexican standoff between me and the slightly soggy steamed green.  It took Mum to figure out that I didn't like the feel of it, but if she stir fried the stalk she could get me to eat it.

Cooking has evolved so much since the 70s and 80s and the multicultural influence has changed how and what people cook in their homes.  We have so much choice at our fingertips it saddens me to think that some people still don't really know how to feed themselves.  It really is a life skill I'm glad I picked up early.  Watching TV show's where Jamie Oliver asks a bunch of kids to identify vegetables (which they can't) is so sad.  And also why I think Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden program is so great. The earlier we learn these skills the better off we are.  So, when did you learn to cook?  What was your specialty dish?  Are you on a culinary journey or simply watching celebrity chefs and reality TV cooking programs from the couch while eating take-away?  Do you experiment or just eat the same old favourites every week?  I think so many people have complex and long-standing issues with food.  It's interesting to think of how it all began.

But now I've typed this, my tummy is rumbling and it's time to make dinner.  Hmmm....a stir-fry on brown rice I think...with extra broccli!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Just a girl

I am the third child in my family.  I have two older brothers.  Even though I do like to dress up and wear lipstick when I go out, I have always felt like a tom-boy at heart.  I don't mind getting dirt under my short misshapened (and bitten) fingernails.  I don't like feeling incapable of doing something.  I'm stubborn like that.

I didn't grow up with a sense of empowerment.  My Mum, as a role model was nurturing and loving.  But she never stood up to my Dad.  She always judged herself by her weight.  She never told me that 'I could do anything'.  But perhaps more importantly, she never told me I wasn't capable.  She just wanted me to try...and to be happy. That is still her wish for me today.  Happiness.

I've spent a large part of my life being shy and awkward.  Critical of myself and wishing I was different.  Girl power missed me completely.  The perk of getting older is not caring so much.  I have learnt to be nicer to myself.  Life can be hard enough without me being my own worst enemy.

I identify myself as a feminist.  I'm saddened that some girls are afraid of this title.  I'm equally saddened by women who use this label to set themselves apart from men.  At it's heart (and mine) I think feminism is about equality and inclusivity.  I do find it difficult to comprehend the treatment of women globally.  I'm horrified at India's violence and rape culture (watch this video).  Baby daughters are not celebrated, and in extreme cases abandoned.   Girls are disfigured with acid for merely not accepting the advances of a boy.  And gang rape is an all too common theme on our news feeds.

I watched a documentary last night called 'I am a girl'.  It shows the issues faced by many teenage girls around the world.  Three girls in particular were so compelling.  Kimsey, from Cambodia who was forced to sell her virginity at 12 for $400 so she could help feed her family.  She is a reluctant sex worker with a young daughter who lives with her abusive family.  Her ex-boyfriend tells her of her worthlessness and had sold one of the babies they had together.  She is only 16 years old.  Her life seems without hope and I have no ideal how someone breaks out of this cycle.

Aziza, 17, from Afghanistan tells how her father was happy to have daughters, unlike many other families.  He was killed, along with many other men in the war.  He wasn't a soldier, but was taken from their village and executed.  Aziza goes to school, even though the Taliban threaten to stone girls for trying to get an education.  She dreams of going to university and being the first female President.

Katie from Sydney, seems to have everything all the other girls would dream of.  A safe and loving home with enough money to be comfortable.  However, her depression and anxiety (which she hid from her family) escalated to suicidal thoughts and actions.  I just wanted to give these girls a hug.

By watching these documentaries and reading about girls like Malala Yousafzai, I realise how lucky I am.  Being part of the 'sisterhood' is important.  I know many amazing and inspiring women.  I work in a largely female dominated industry (Libraries) and only have to prove my worth as a person...rather than fight for my gender.  I believe women should wear whatever they want and be safe on the streets.  They should speak their minds and always aim higher than they think they're capable of.  We should be diverse.  Be ourselves.  We should help and support each other.  We should be amazing.  Because we are lucky enough to have the option.

So to the dear, lovely, wonderful and amazing ladies in my life...Happy International Women's Day.  You rock.  To celebrate (and after much deliberating about the most appropriate song) here's some Amanda Palmer for you.  Sing along.  OMG.  Fuck it!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Boss lady

Late last year I was given an opportunity.  Our Team Leader left and someone else in the team has been acting in her position ever since.  This move left another position vacant, so I was asked to step up.  I've gone from being in the middle of the team, to helping co-ordinate our Service Team.  I've been in my acting role since October.  I'm using the opportunity to get experience and try this position on for size.  It's been busy, as we're still missing a position in the team.  But I think overall it's been 'good busy'.

I went to some training last week (about our performance development framework - exciting stuff, eh?!) and there were new staff from all over campus there.  We were talking about where we worked and our roles.  When I said I was there to focus on discussing PD with the team, someone said 'well you'd be speaking to them differently now you're a supervisor'.  My face must have said it all.  Quizzical disbelief.  I answered, explaining that I couldn't be anyone but myself.  And this means talking and acting like me no matter what position I held.  I couldn't suddenly start talking 'like a boss'.

I respond to people I respect and admire.  This, in my eyes, does not always follow hierarchy.  I have always learnt from the people sitting beside me or in other teams.  Some people in higher positions have inspired me, but I find overall it's about the individual...not the job title.  As part of my degree I had to do a human resources subject.  I was pleasantly surprised that it focussed a lot on the 'human' element.  To manage people you need to understand people.  You can't treat them as a single entity.  We're all different, complex beings.  That certainly makes it a challenge.

I explained in the training session, that I really just talk to everyone the same.  Even to the University Librarian, or if it was to happen, the Vice Chancellor of the Uni.  Well, I'm sure I'd swear less...but I would still be me.  I would prefer to be approachable and have people come talk to me about issues or problems.  And really, when it comes down to it...I'm only acting in the role.  It may all be over soon, as the Team Leader job has finally been advertised.  The domino effect of acting roles may all change soon.  I may get the chance to apply for the role I'm in, depending on the way the cards fall.

I'm good either way.  A few more bucks wouldn't hurt, and I'd really miss being involved with some of the groups I've gotten to know through this role.  It would be nice to have a little less stress and have more time and brain space.  But I am zen and hopefully people at work have seen me in a new light.  Seen what I'm capable of, and the contribution I can make.  I've developed different relationships with people in the team, and I think this is a positive thing regardless of what happens.  I keep joking at work that no-one's died, so it's been a success so far!  Let's just see where the next few months take me.

I had to steal the title for this post from the great Detroit Cobras song. Oh how it makes me laugh.  It's not how I'd ever see myself, but it sums up my attitude.  You have to smile your way through life, and perhaps rock out every now and then.  So enjoy this one on me.  Hit PLAY.