In galleries, on the stage and even clinging to motorway underpasses, art and creative talent have found a thriving metropolis in Brisbane, writes Kylie Lang.
If the purpose of art is, as Pablo Picasso said, “washing the dust of daily life off our souls”, then I’m feeling pretty cleansed right about now. A little unsteady on my feet, too.
Brook Andrew’s installation for the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8), the flagship exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), is as hypnotic as it is refreshing.
The gallery’s established collection of Australian art – colonial classics in sumptuous gold frames – no longer hangs on bland, cream walls.
The backdrop is a maze of stripes in black, red and green, a reference to the carved trees of Andrew’s Wiradjuri nation in New South Wales.
Interspersed among the rehung collection are curious Nepalese and Indian works, as well as Andrew’s own six-part Time, which includes a powerful image of an Aboriginal man with a Union Jack painted on his chest.
The contrast between the Anglo-European and the Aboriginal is startling. It’s meant to be. Andrew is challenging our notions of country, tradition, and how we see the world.
Isn’t art grand? It calls into question cherished ideals, accepted norms, and wrongs to be righted. It encourages us to think outside the box: to imagine, to dream.
The APT, which began in 1993, is the world’s only major recurring exhibition of art from Australia, Asia and the Pacific. That it happens in Brisbane is a reflection of how ambitious and committed the cultural force is here.
On its November 2015 opening weekend, more than 32,000 people streamed through the doors, and when it wrapped up in April this year – having drawn more than 600,000 visitors to enjoy works by 80 artists from 30 countries – critics hailed it as exceptional and a feat of “staggering diversity”.
APT is a homegrown original and, for a sport-loving city that draws crowds of up to 52,000 to football matches, its success speaks volumes.
Brisbane has a voracious appetite for the arts.
Since the 1985 opening of the Robin Gibson-designed Queensland Performing Arts Centre (qpac.com.au), and the vibrancy of World Expo ’88, which transformed the southern banks of the river into a global stage, the city has soared to ever-greater heights.
Take the transformation of a disused 1920s power station on the banks of the river in 2000. The once-derelict space is now the Brisbane Powerhouse, a mecca for performing arts, festivals and free community events.
Upwards of 700,000 visitors a year flock to 1250 performances within its Art Deco industrial walls.
The 2006 unveiling of the $290-million Gallery of Modern Art – a triumph of contemporary architecture by Lindsay and Kerry Clare – has heralded a flurry of cultural activity, including an exclusive Andy Warhol exhibition, a Valentino Retrospective and performances by the magnificent Paris Opera Ballet.
In 2012, the year Queensland scored Mao’s last dancer Li Cunxin as its ballet’s artistic director, Brisbane scored a hat trick with Hamburg’s ballet, philharmonic orchestra and state opera companies all taking part in the Brisbane Festival, a fabulous series of events held every September culminating in the fireworks and light-show spectacle, Riverfire.
Over three weeks, the city hums and pulses with creative energy as up to one million people scurry out of the woodwork to dose up on culture.
Attracting acts that range from debaucherous to hilarious, from music to circus and cabaret, this year, the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White will be cut three ways: told through theatre, ballet, and the once-thought-lost silent action film with musical accompaniment.
Of course, it is not only extravaganzas that weave texture into a city’s cultural fabric.
For all the superstars – Taylor Swift, Oprah, Madonna and the late Sir Peter Ustinov among them – and the musicals, such as Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables in 2015–16, the grassroots scene is what gives Brisbane its je ne sais quoi.
Community-based groups like Elements Collective provide a platform for local hip-hop talent, such as internationally acclaimed beatboxer Tom Thum, while boutique art specialists such as Edwina Corlette Gallery, Red Hill Gallery and Jan Murphy Gallery follow along the trail blazed by iconic art dealer Philip Bacon in showcasing emerging artists.
There are fringe festivals, comedy festivals and film festivals, as well as Bigsound – Australia’s premier festival of new music, featuring 150 artists on 15 stages in Fortitude Valley – with the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts as its beating heart.
Even the opera is cool: in Brisbane you can enjoy it underground, in the 145-year-old Spring Hill Reservoir on Wickham Terrace (see undergroundopera.com.au).
Street art is now also part of the cultural melange in this once-conservative town.
Some of the finest examples can be seen at the Trafalgar Lane residential development in Woolloongabba, at the skate park at Red Hill on the corner of Enoggera Terrace and Musgrave Road, and on the 10 pillars under the South Brisbane Railway Underpass.
Take in the massive works by foot, including Fintan Magee’s mural of a man in rising floodwaters, holding a child afloat on a boogie board.
The mural is a replica of one that was removed, deemed graffiti, and then reinstated in 2014 ahead of the convergence of world leaders that was the G20 Summit.
It stands as a reminder of the floods that devastated the city in the summer of 2011, and as a symbol of hope.
One man who is particularly impressed by the change of heart of governments, businesses and residents when it comes to art and culture, is David Don.
The 29-year-old fine-arts student co-directed the inaugural Brisbane Street Art Festival, which saw 50 artists transform 25 suburban walls in February this year.
“Many of our best artists – like Sofles, Guido van Helten, Fintan Magee and Mik Shida – used to have to travel overseas for events like Art Basel, or to Melbourne to get work or do $100,000 commissions, but now they can make a living here,” he says.
“Brisbane is an exciting place to be; the growth in the city’s cultural assets is phenomenal.”
This is a sentiment shared by many who call the city home or come to visit, and whose souls are, as Picasso would have it, cleansed of the dust of daily life.