I’m honestly not sure what it reveals about the degree to which Australians welcome or resist the boldest forms of cultural expression, which was one of the questions I raised last week. This seems to be something that Australians themselves, separate from me, continue to debate.
On Twitter in particular, there was some resistance to the idea that there might be Australian constrictions on creativity, the idea that some element of “tall poppy syndrome” might undermine the expression and celebration of bold creativity that breaks with convention. But in our inbox, we also found several emails from creators of all kinds who said they either left Australia because of this issue, or had been forced to confront it in their own lives here.
This newsletter is not the forum to continue that discussion (though we will keep discussing it in our subscriber Facebook group). Today, we’re all about joy, rounding up your great suggestions for the world to see. And it’s especially timely because we’re also announcing a new name for this newsletter.
It shall now be called the Australia Letter, not NYT Australia.
Our goal is to clarify what we’re up to here — providing a casual, conversational weekly missive from me, the bureau chief — and to move away from the use of NYT, which our branding experts are eager to bury.
So in honor of our revamp, I’m turning this week’s newsletter over to all of you. Well, almost. First I want to highlight two stories we did this week: A deep look at Australia’s response to sexual assault, harassment and misogyny on university campuses, and a visual artistic take on Australians’ dark view the world.
Now over to all of you … and don’t forget to share this so everyone can enjoy all the great suggestions. Forward this if you get it by email; share the web version if that’s easier.
Our readers really had a lot to share about what they love to hear, in traffic and life — both music and serious conversation.
1. Courtney Barnett
If you’re not familiar, she’s a young, Tasmanian visual artist-cum-musician who turns her poetry into funny, trenchant and deceptively simple songs. Her voice is *very* Australian and I think that’s part of what complicates her for us Aussies. Oddly, she’s a bit like Mick “Crocodile” Dundee or Steve Irwin in this way, because she did O.K. here but then took (indie) America by storm before we’d decided if we were sticking with her.
She didn’t even win the Hottest 100 before cracking the States! Unheard of.
Recently the Slate Culture Gabfest gang were in Australia and had Courtney Barnett on the bill, mostly because host Stephen Metcalf is a superfan. You can hear the episode, including Courtney’s performance and interview here.
— Andrew Hedge
Editor’s note: Here’s our review of her 2015 album, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.”
You may know him as the dude who played the flaming guitar in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Music nerds know him as an indie/prog rock stalwart. A Sydney queer icon, he was the first to bring us a stage version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I guess he’s most known for his incredible hard rock cabaret, “Smoke and Mirrors.”
The show is a few years old now and is still one of the most moving, bizarre, tingly experiences of my life. Most recently he had a glam rock opera at the Opera House called “B-Girl.” I don’t think it reached the same audience as “Smoke and Mirrors” but it was a stunning and fantastical exploration of an abusive relationship/domestic violence. I really dug it and am really excited to see what he does next.
— Becca Johnstone
My most recent encounter with Australian culture was at a bar called Wolfe Lane in Perth, Western Australia. There the Aussie hip-hop group Thundamentals has an exhibition on. They had commissioned custom artwork for each one of their songs on their new album, which were set up around the room in a circle. At each art piece there were headphones so you could listen to the song as you experienced the artwork.
It was spectacular. The added depth from staring at a visual completely changed the meaning of the song. And I’m sure that meaning relied solely on your personal bias, so it was fascinating watching other people listen as well.
— Shelby Bassett
4. Royal Headache
I saw Royal Headache at the Corner Hotel, a fantastic band who are unashamedly Australian playing in a very Australian pub-rock venue. I rarely love Australian music to the extent that I love Royal Headache. Something very Australian about the band was that they were constantly self-effacing — perhaps trying to pre-empt the tall poppy syndrome that comes with success?
— Alex Greggery
5. Richard Fidler’s “Conversations”
The episode about the guy who got lost looking for gold in the desert — the guy trolleyed out of his head insisting to a cop — from inside his kerb-crunched car — that he was “waiting for a mate.” Every video of someone finding a snake found indoors and staying totally, implausibly laconic. “Anointed with Gravy,” a delightful episode of story club in which our hero becomes embroiled in an inheritance dispute with Aunty Margaret, a gold-toothed Hyacinth Bucket who owns a ferret and once tried to scam an insurance agency posing as the victim of an audacious steak robbery.
I think what these things have in common is their gleeful daftness. We’ve a good taste for the ridiculous. What’s weird is that that joyful irreverance that I think of as so definitive of our national character is nowhere in our “official” cultural ouputs, except if you count the we-were-all-in-sydney-university-drama-society-together-in-1973 wigged impressions of politicians.
— Eleanor Gordon-Smith
“The Castle,” of course, was the most common reader suggestion for what to watch, but readers also shared a fondness for bold new offerings, and old gems.
1. The Staging Post, by Jolyon Hoff, and Muzafar Ali and Khadim Dai
Tonight I saw a wonderful documentary, “The Staging Post,” which was screened at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne as part of the Refugee Council of Australia’s Refugee Week Film Festival.
The film is essentially a collaboration between Australian film maker Jolyon Hoff and Muzafar Ali and Khadim Dai, two Afghan Hazara refugees who set up a learning centre for refugees in the town of Cisarua in Indonesia.
It is a really uplifting story, although it highlights the plight of Hazara refugees and asylum seekers in limbo in Indonesia, having fled persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
— Kate Jeffery
2. Please Like Me
A critically acclaimed television series by comedian Josh Thomas, exploring his sexuality, relationships, and friendships. It received particular praise for its depiction of mental health. The show has been distributed through the US, too.
— David Lewis
3. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” is a 1920s TV series made in Australia, complete with Aussie settings and slang. Really fun, and an expression of Aussie egalitarian spirit for women with interesting views of Australia after World War I.
— Nancy Mize
Something a little left field — a short four episode comedy series called “Problems.” The series stars and was created by internationally acclaimed Australian Sam Simmons and does have the unique, odd, slightly obscure Australian humour on show in all its glory. It doesn’t really showcase culture but I do feel it is an insightful view into everyday Australiana.
— Matt Inman
5. The Family Law
“The Family Law” on SBS by writer Benjamin Law. It looks at growing up as the son of Chinese migrants in Queensland’s overwhelmingly white Sunshine Coast.
— David Lewis
Get Your Festival On
Many readers shared stories about their love for festivals, and the way these events create a social experience around art — and not just in major cities.
1. Rediscover Bunbury
I live in a southwest town called Bunbury. It’s a nice town but there wasn’t much creativity happening until a local artist Andrew Frazer started a street art festival a few years ago. The festival is Rediscover Bunbury. Andrew got some of literally the world’s best street artists to come to Bunbury and paint the town. Maps were given out to the public so they could watch the artists paint if they wanted, and at the end of the festival there’s a walking tour where people could be guided from place to place and hear from the artists. Later in the night there’s a closing party at the town art gallery.
Rediscover Bunbury happened in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and this year there was a thing called Outside the Box. For Outside the Box, 20 electrical boxes around town got painted and transformed into different creatures and monsters. Because of Andrew’s organisation, the town centre is now colourful and every lane and street has something interesting and intriguing to look at.
— Anja Ho
2. Jacaranda Festival, Grafton
I realize this is not a traditional “cultural” event, but given the importance of nature in the Australian psyche, the planting of these trees in Grafton was a work of public art. And Grafton has that wonderful Aussie country-town feel: slow and open and spread wide. Big enough to accommodate a steady stream of camera-wielding tree lovers.
I stayed in an old pub by the river, with long verandahs, tiny rooms, no air conditioning, and great bartenders. There was a new Indian restaurant in town and a Thai place, a change from the usual Chinese country-town fare. A health food store. A bakery with a single gluten-free offering. Little tricklings of urban change. Definitely a cultural experience.
— Rose Vines
3. Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals
Winter film festivals fill me with a great love for Melbourne (and, having just been in Sydney for the film festival, this feeling is transferrable across cities). As the rain pitter-patters down, hundreds of film-goers (probably shrouded in black) line the streets and twist around corners. Alongside the Comedy Theatre on Exhibition Street, patient punters watch lobsters squirm in the glass cages of the Chinese restaurant. The mood is hushed and expectant; and as we file into the sticky seats of the Comedy Theatre there is a thrilling anticipation burbling in the air.
I love to clap at the end of the film: in celebration of this great work that fills your heart and tingles to the ends of your fingers. To clap and cheer with a full cinema (but with no particular director or star present) is a wonderful and, I think, quite exhilarating thing.
— Erin Rosenberg
4. Vivid Festival
There is a such a buzz just being in the streets on that ostensibly-winter night. Vivid is everything I love about Sydney — at one level it’s surface and showy and a total waste of money for a transient/ephemeral idea but at another level it’s real and vital and nourishes the soul and makes you hopeful to dream out loud.
— Simon Kozlina
5. Tarnathi Festival
A festival for contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Islander Art.
— Karen Lobban
Fine Art All Around
Who doesn’t love a good walk through a great museum?
1. Museum of Old and New Art (and Dark Mofo), Hobart
My first visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in the pretty town of Hobart, Tasmania “knocked my socks off” as we Aussies are wont to say in our non-snobby way. It was the end of a warm autumn day and I was lulled into a wonderful day of visual delight and brain-sparking challenge.
— Adriana Palamara
2. Van Gogh Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
We went to the show this morning and loved it. It had a theme that was based on his paintings during the four seasons of the year, and we saw some paintings we had never seen before. But more than that, the exhibit was beautifully done, the descriptions accompanying the paintings were terrific, and it was displayed in the gallery in such a way that it flowed beautifully from start to finish, despite the crowds. It has been a particularly full year for us seeing good art exhibits, two in San Francisco this spring and one in Boston. This one was much better done in terms of the way the paintings were exhibited and the show was curated, and we were very impressed — it was the best we’ve been to this year.
— Betsey Cheitlin
3. Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney
I recently visited the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney, an institution that embraces local and global community art. It is located at the city outskirts, an hour and a half train ride from the central business district. I was there on a Saturday morning and was the sole patron for all forty-five minutes of my visit. The space embraces all kinds of contradictions — cold but intimate, remote yet accessible, incomprehensive yet inclusive. Most of the art was refreshingly unmarketable.
I walked out feeling confused and proudly Australian.
— George Onisiforou
4. Valentino Exhibition, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Growing up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, I was used to living near a city that was not renowned for its cultural scene. Brisbane has long been considered “a big country town,” full of backwards thinking, corrupt politicians and conservative ways. This gradually started to change (my parents say after the World Expo in 1988) but I noticed it most in the early to mid 2000s. In 2010, The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) displayed the gowns and fantastical fashion creations of the famed couture house, Valentino.
It was a watershed moment for Brisbane as a city. I remember feeling that my little city had finally made it. I went down to Sydney while the exhibition was on and saw signs in Sydney advertising for Sydneysiders to fly to Brisbane for the Valentino exhibition — I couldn’t believe the reversal!
— Georgia Sands
5. Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Cairns
Sitting in the shade of the fig tree, sewing fish scales made from collected ghost nets, with the female elders from the Torres Strait: The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.
— Annie Tennant
Live and Up Close!
A good show can console, confound or command (or all three!). Readers wrote in with stories of performances in theatre, dance or comedy that moved them.
1. “Carmen” outside the Sydney Opera House
It was a great performance, and the backdrop of the Opera House and bridge (and being outdoors) made it extra special. But it was odd being in a crowd that included men and women dressed to the nines as you’d expect at the opera, sitting next to families wearing shorts and thongs. I don’t mean to sound snobby — I hadn’t seen an opera before the harbor performances started. Maybe we need more events like this, where a range of people can feel comfortable getting involved?
— Adam Dowsett
2. “Broken” by Mary Anne Butler
It’s aesthetically daring and a gorgeous love story. Also, she lives in Darwin, a city most people ignore when they think “culture.” The play swept the Victorian Premier’s Awards last year, taking both best play AND best overall work — a first for a play.
— Christine Evans
3. Bangarra Dance Theatre
I am a Scot who has lived in Melbourne since 2006. My most memorable experiences with Australian Culture have been watching Bangarra Dance Theatre perform. For me, their performances embody the true Spirit of Australia: they are emotive, mesmerising and immerse the audience in stories and culture that span thousands of years. The 2016 production “OUR Land People Stories” was particularly moving as it explored stories of Indigenous Art and the Artists, the early history of Sydney and the family ties that bind us all.
— Linda Herd
Editor’s note: You can read a New York Times profile of the company’s director, Stephen Page, here.
4. “Orb” by Sydney Dance Company
Simply a masterpiece of modern dance. I can’t remember having been ever so absorbed in such a perfect mixture of sound, light, and dance.
— Christian Zentner
5. Sammy J
Quick, don’t over think. Those were the instructions and immediately I envisaged the face of Sammy J, the hilarious comic my husband and I recently saw during the Melbourne Comedy Festival. If you don’t know Sammy J and his work, try watching a few of his “Play School” inspired political skits.
— Lara Whitehead
Off the Beaten Track
Some cultural experiences cross boundaries and are hard to categorize.
1. Silo Art, Rural Victoria
One artist paints on huge silos in rural Victoria. Here’s a short film about the town of Brim in Victoria and how the commissioning of a silo painting has boosted the economy.
— Ray Andrews
2. Robin Boyd’s House, Melbourne
What the Robin Boyd house always reminds me of is the great sense of calm I always felt when visiting. Everything in the house had one or more uses and a garden separates the front section from the back where his children’s rooms were. The feeling of calm was only matched with the feeling of walking through the Treasury Gardens in Melbourne. I never knew good design could influence the senses in that way, though as I learnt while volunteering at the Boyd house “good design must be experienced in the flesh.” Melbourne is known for good design, but its sanctuaries amidst the busy city are not appreciated, which is a shame.
— Hannah Joyner
3. Bankstown, Sydney
I’m not from Sydney originally and I’ve spent all of my time here in a bit of an inner-city bubble, being fed certain (negative) tropes about what the western suburbs are like. But Bankstown was such a lively and bustling place, and everyone seemed to be out in the sun having a chat and a coffee and browsing all of the amazing food and produce. It really changed my perspective on which parts of the city truly live the “good life.”
— Niklas van den Vlekkert
4. The State of Origin
My most recent memorable Australian cultural experience was seeing New South Wales thrash Queensland in game one of State of Origin 2017.
I believe traditional institutions that impart “culture” such as symphony orchestras or art galleries need to start thinking outside the box rather than staying in their traditional box of old tricks … like playing Beethoven Symphony 6 for the hundredth time to a hall of pretentious old farts. Community engagement and education is the key to cultural enrichment in this country.
— Michael Webb
5. South Bank, Brisbane
One thing that has always intrigued me about Brisbane is the public graffiti-like art that covers wall spaces in and around the city, especially near South Bank. Though when looking at it through the lens of the “tall poppy,” something strikes me, which is — a good chunk of this art — on support posts under bridges, on supporting walls that separate a lower road from a higher/hillier residential property or telephone switch boxes are very Australian — as in, the art may shout, it’s graphic, it’s bold, it’s even provocative. BUT it’s always UNDER something or receding into the larger landscape.
While there are plenty of public sculpture examples of art living out in the open — it’s interesting that the most visually arresting art pieces are in quiet spaces — you could be on top of them (on the bridge) and never know what’s underneath.
— Ann Strini
Hungry for More?
In a country where Masterchef reigns supreme, some readers shared experiences of meals from a merging of cultures in an immigrant nation.
1. Billy Kwong, Sydney
Kylie Kwong’s incredible restaurant that fuses Chinese food with Australian native ingredients — a genius combination!
A Chinese-Australian of Cantonese heritage, Kylie Kwong, and her restaurant Billy Kwong — a Sydney institution — are surely no better icons of Australian multiculturalism. I first went to Billy Kwong for a birthday dinner, convinced I was finally going to convince my sister to eat tofu! At the original Surry Hills location, seated around a small circular table in the Chinese tradition of shared dining, we tucked into a feast that was not only the best Chinese food I had tasted outside of China, but also a phenomenal use of Australian “native” ingredients.
— Georgia Sands
2. Con’s Super Deli, Melbourne
A classic fish and chips/takeaway spot run by an older Greek-Australian couple. As I ate, it struck me as something quintessentially Australian — a Greek couple serving fish and chips (English), burgers (American), dim sims (Chinese), and soft drinks to droves of hungry schoolchildren. It all felt very genuine and earnest, which I think is lacking in modern Australian food culture — more often than not it feels like the food is an afterthought at whatever new hip American-style place has opened.
— Alex Greggery
And Did You Know…
How about these two Australian-pioneered creations?
1. Beer Snake
According to Wikipedia, “a beer snake, super snake, or cup snake is the stacking of numerous plastic beer cups to form a “snake.” Beer snakes are most commonly found at sporting events that are played out over many hours, such as cricket. Some snakes have been reported in the media as being up to 175 m long. They are typically formed during breaks in play: for example, when the fourth Test of the Pakistani cricket team in England in 2006 tour at The Oval was halted after ball tampering allegations, a large beer snake was constructed in the OCS stand.
— Kel Medbury
A chocolate flavoring straw apparently invented in Australia
— Alex Holcombe
Got something else Australian you want to highlight? Share your stories and experiences in the comments, or if you’re a subscriber, in our Australia Facebook group.
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