Melbourne is loaded with art. The city has many galleries and local art fairs (such as the below-discussed Rose Street Art Fair and St. Kilda Esplanade Market). It also has a large collection of museums in the city’s Cultural Precinct, each of which hosts different exhibitions. Although we would have loved to visit a number of them we were especially intrigued by two: a National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) exhibition of the works of David Hockney; and a less formal exhibition of more than 100 works by the street artist, Banksy.
The Art of Banksy
This exhibit contains more than 100 pieces produced by “Banksy” that was compiled and presented by the international street artist phenomenon’s former agent. It begins with the question whether the mysterious hooded figure who began as a prankster creating illegal graffiti in 1990s Bristol England, and has since evolved into a still mysterious international artistic icon is indeed a vandal and criminal, or an artistic genius for the new era. He has almost single-handedly transformed “street art” from being a crime for which people are prosecuted, into a recognized art form that is commissioned by property owners, encouraged (in some cases and areas, such as Melbourne’s Hozier Lane) by cities and bought for enormous prices by collectors.
Although the exhibit certainly didn’t answer the question, it portrayed the evolution of his work from freeform to stencils to his controversial decoration of cows and elephants; and the difference between his street art (which is created with the intention of being temporary) and inside art (which is intended to be permanent and displayed in homes, offices or museums). It provided examples of all types of work, from those such as ”Girl with Balloon”, “Kids on Guns” and “Flower Thrower” to less known images of a tank and a platoon of storm troopers wearing happy faces, to “Trolley Hunters” in which a band of prehistoric hunters are shown stalking a couple of shopping carts. From an image of the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy’s basket being searched by security police, to a stature that resembles Michelangelo’s “David” as a suicide bomber. Most apply some form of irony to a deadly serious issue. All deliver an underlying political or social message.
David Hockney: Current
This exhibit is a large, 1,000+-piece survey of Hockney’s works. The 79-year-old master, who is England’s most renowned current artist, has gone though many iterations over his long career. Although we were most familiar with his Southern California poolside paintings, his work has been totally redefined by computers over the last couple of decades. Since we arrived just in time for a tour of the exhibit, we joined in and were rewarded with an excellent introduction to Hockney and his recent work.
The exhibit begins by showing how the artist initially began using experimenting with, and gradually perfecting the use of iPhones and iPads as substitutes for the sketch pad he always used to carry with him and how he used the replay feature of his application to watch and better understand the process by which he actually sketched images—and by showing a comparison between displaying the resulting image on paper and a display screen, the improved vibrancy and luminescence of the image. This, as we saw through the exhibition, led him to create more and more of his finished work explicitly for displays on computer displays.
We then entered the first of several full-room installations that were created specifically for the exhibit. These included the evocative “Bigger Trees on the Water” that evokes an immersive experience that almost makes one feel they are in the middle of a forest; and “Four Seasons” a magical (especially the winter scene) four-display video sequence of walking along the same, lovely forested dirt road in each of the four seasons—and the critical role that computers play in the creation and management of each of these complex processes.
A series documenting his return to Yosemite Valley helped to demonstrate both his use and the value of computers in his creative process and his debt to Matisse in the evocative and provocative use of vivid colors and combinations. His fog-shrouded representation of the Merced Valley is especially engaging.
Our guide then explained the traumas the artist endured in the 1990s after suffering a small stroke, the loss of a growing number of friends from AIDs and the tragic and legally complicated drug/alcohol-induced death of particularly lose friend and these events led to the therapeutic process of creating two series—one on “Country Roads” and another “82 Portraits and 1 Still Life” in which he painted “dress and pose as you wish” portraits of 82 friends and relatives—each in the same chair and each over a three-day setting in which he attempted to portray the true personalities of each.
We then explored a couple of his fascinating experimental pieces, such as “The Card Players” where he took multiple photos of each individual element of the painting and assembled them in a way that simultaneously mixes very different perspectives, but still, despite its visual incongruities, seems to come together into a unified whole. Then there is the multi-panel video piece, “Jugglers” (that we have actually seen once before at the Guggenheim) which uses 18 different, independent screens to show a progression of jugglers, each performing different routines with different props, moving in front of, behind and beside each other from screen to screen. The exhibit, and the incredibly informative tour ended at the wonderful, previously discussed “Four Seasons” video art presentation.
The National Gallery of Victoria Collection
After exploring the Hockney exhibition, we toured the rest of the museum, which provides a high-level overview of European (especially British and Northern European), and to a lesser extent Asian art, over the centuries. The European collection is strongest in its portrayal of 18th- and early 19th-century European art. Combining multiple fine art media, as well as decorative arts, it provides a credible overview with some nice representations of British masters like Turner and Constable, and some unexpected decorative arts pieces including furniture, a Tiffany vase, ceramics and a very unusual cradle.
We were especially intrigued by one gallery that was specifically laid-out in the format of a 19th-century “Salon” show, in which hundreds of works are displayed in virtually random order, in multiple rows that stretch practically from floor to ceiling. Although we have often read and heard how such displays were presented, this was the first time we experienced the actual visual impact. (We will take today’s more restrained, more curated approach.)
The late 19th– through mid-20th-century collection is much more limited, but does provide roughly one work apiece from most of the leading Impressionists and small, typically five- to ten-work overviews of 20th-century movements including surrealism, cubism, fauvism, modernism, expressionism, Art Nouveau and the Bauhus movement. Not much depth or explanation, but some lovely pieces and fun surrealist film clips.
The rather small Asian section of the museum, attempts to cover 18 countries, from Persia through Japan, has a couple of particularly nJapanese exhibits. These include:
- RealTime, a series of mind-bending videos from contemporary video artist Miyanaya Akira; and
- Celebration of Bamboo, which portrays a number of bamboo pieces from the last couple centuries, including some wonderfully whimsical abstracts.
Melbourne is filled with some wonderful, and very crowded, restaurants. Our hotel did an excellent job is steering us towards many that we enjoyed
- Cumulus, Inc. is one of the perpetually crowded new-era restaurants by Flinders Street. After scoring the last available table before a long wait, we had three dishes. We particularly enjoyed the foie gras parfait with toasted brioche and a larger dish of ocean trout with mashed avocado, broad beans and crab. The daily charcuterie selection consisted of chicken and tarragon terrine, smoked pork, brisket, pamplona (a form of chorizo) and our favorites, prosciutto and Iberico ham. To accompany these, we had a nice bottle of 2014 Mahana “Gravity” pinot from Nelson, N.Z.’s Moutre Hills region.
- Supernormal, another super-popular Flinders Street restaurant, where we had lunch. We began with an addictive small commentary dish of roasted pumpkin seeds. We ordered three dishes, beginning with kingfish crudo with small cubes of dashi jelly, pureed celeleric and fresh horseradish. We then had two types of dumplings: prawn and chicken with chili vinegar sauce and pan-fried pot stickers with pork and cabbage and black vinegar. All three dishes (especially the dumplings) were very good as was the friendly, knowledgeable service. After sampling a few wines (and rejecting a Mornington pinot noir (2016 Allies’ Assemblage) as having too light a body and diluted tastes), we enjoyed two others: 2016 Gold Sounds Riesling (Clare Valley) and an especially good (restrained oak and little Malolactic) 2016 Giant Steps Chardnonnay from Yarra Valley.
- MoVida, another super-popular Flinders-area restaurant (this one right on Hozier Lane) that specializes on Spanish tapas. Although it was tough to choose among many intriguing dishes, we restrained ourselves to three: mushroom and blue cheese croquettes, butterflied quail with broccolini and anchovy-horseradish sauce, and the best of the evening, lamb meatballs with chickpeas and the Moorish spices that made the dish. After a pre-dinner glass of Amontillalado sherry (from Romate) we selected one of the wines in which the restaurant specializes—a Rioja tempranillo. Ours was a 2011 Lupez de Haro Reserve.
- Coda, yet another immensely popular and wonderful restaurant just off Flinder Lane’s Restaurant Row. Four dishes and four hits. We began with three small dishes: crispy prawn and tapioca on betel leaf; quail lettuce cup with lap cheong, shitake mushrooms, coriander and water chestnuts; and fried rice paper roll with crab, prawn, lemongrass and nuoc cham. We followed these with one equally impressive main: a sizzling (very) plate of Moreton Bay bugs with mussels, XO sauce and garlic. Our wine was from Adelaide Hills—a 2016 Cobethal Pinot Gris. And our server was very helpful and engaging.
- Chin Chin has a Chinese-influenced menu from which we had four dishes. The best were the chicken and shitake spring roll lettuce wraps with green chili and mushroom soy; and BBQ baby back pork ribs with sriracha peanut caramel and banana blossom salad (even though they were pretty stingy with only four small ribs). Two other dishes were fine, although less interesting: stir fry of bug and chopped prawns with egg noodles and hellfire chili (which had sufficient prawns but only two small pieces of bug meat); and red curry with braised duck, thai basil, “son in law egg” and coconut rice. The mixologist at the bar at which we were sitting recommended a 2015 Rocking Gully Franklin River Gwertzteminer from Western Australia that nicely complemented the dishes. Although as popular and back as the other Flinders Lane restaurants we tried, we found the food to be, although quite good, not quite as unusual or intriguing.A number of our central City meals were smaller, innovative, casual, extraordinarily popular and, for the quality and quantity of food, relatively inexpensive restaurants along Flinders Lane’s Restaurant Row. The other half were along an even larger collection of restaurants spread across two complexes on the south bank of the Yarra River. Although these restaurants were almost as packed as those on Flinders, they tend to serve more traditional fare, and generally, have somewhat higher prices. Those at which we ate were:
- Rockpool Bar & Grill, a high-end and very popular steak house in Crown complex. We began by splitting a quite good (but slightly too mustardy for our tastes) steak tartare and chips (the first time we have had French Fries with steak tartare). Joyce followed this with a very good (although not as hot as it should have been) king prawns with goat cheese tortellini, burnt butter with raison sauce and pine nuts. Tom stuck with beef, selecting a bone-in rib-eye from a young (36 month old) grass-fed steer that was dry-aged in the restaurants coolers for 28 days that was cut against the grain for tenderness. He was pleased with his main dish (although less so with our side of onion rings) and especially with the wonderful Coonawarra Cabernet (2012 Balnaves) that the sommelier recommended. But while we were happy with the atmosphere, the food, the wine and the somm, we were much less impressed with our server who didn’t seem capable of handling all his tables.
- The Atlantic, is a more formal restaurant in the Crown Complex on the south bank of the Yarra River. Dinner consisted of three dishes. We enjoyed the Moreton Bug spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, chili and parsley, as well as the mild white whole-roasted Whiting (although the garlic in the olive oil, garlic, chili and anchovy sauce was so overpowering as to be virtually inedible—even by us, who like garlic). We were less impressed by the tempura softshell crab, which lacked taste, even with jalepeno and ponzu sauce. We were also less than impressed by the service, even though the sommelier did steer us to a wine that was exactly as we said we were looking for—an mildly-oaked Australian chardonnay with little ML. That wine happened to be a 2015 chardonnay from Ten Minutes by Tractor, a Mornington Peninsula Vineyard that we had planned to visit, but did not make.
- Teatro, where we took advantage of a special price ($2 each) to continue our experimentation with Australian oysters. Since the Coffin Bay oysters we previously had were too creamy and flappy for our tastes, we asked for recommendations of the most minerally and briny of the five types of oysters that were offered. We tried two of these: the Pipe Clays (from Tazmania’s Clay Lagoon) were huge (three to four bites to down one oyster). While they were slightly more minerally than the Coffin Bay, they were still to creamy for our tastes. Donneley oysters, by contrast, are smaller and somewhat more to our taste, although they can’t compare with some of our favorite Northern Hemisphere oysters. The 2016 Angel Cove sauvignon blanc (NZ) wasn’t especially complex, but did complement the oysters.
- Waterfront is a straight-forward seafood restaurant at which we planned to feast on Moreton Bay bugs. They, however, were out, as was another nearby restaurant that we checked before ordering. Given the difficulty we had even finding reservation for Saturday evening, we decided to make the best of Waterfront. Tom had an entrée of pan-fried prawns (slightly underdone) with what he thought was to be a straightforward garlic and white wine with jasmine rice, but turned to be more of a cream sauce (which was pretty good if not memorable). Joyce’s linguini with a panoply of seafood, olive oil, chili and cherry tomato was tasty, although the crab, clams and mussels were a bit overcooked. We were, however, flabbergasted at how the meals at the packed restaurant were delivered, almost before we finished ordering them (actually within ten minutes). Our wine, a 2015, Nelson, NZ Trout Valley pinot gris was a bit fruity for our taste, but okay.
Although our South River complex restaurant experiences ranged from fair to very good, we greatly preferred the atmosphere, the casual environment, the knowledge and reasonableness of the staffs and especially the inventiveness of the food at the hot Flinders Lane restaurants at which we ate. We thoroughly enjoyed every one of them and would recommend each without hesitation. The only drawback was the almost impossible task of scoring reservations at reasonable dining hours. Every one of them was packed. This being said, we managed to get into every one we wanted by getting there early enough (or at just the right time) to get a walk-in seat or by going for lunch, which is somewhat easier to get into than at dinner—especially during the pre-holiday season when we were in Melbourne.
We stayed at the Westin Melbourne. It was a little confusing to find the turn into the hotel initially, but once we found it, it was fine. The staff makes this place shine. No question was too small, no ask went unanswered. All were great. A special thank you to James and Paul at the concierge desk. Great recommendations for restaurants and very patient in answering questions and giving directions. Front desk staff also very helpful. The room was very comfortable as one would expect for this level of a hotel. The bed was too soft for us on the first night so they changed it for a firmer one. When we returned a few days later, they had already changed out the bed to our liking. Wifi was free for members and worked well. Locations was central. Room had normal hot water pot, robes, slippers etc. Very comfortable and well worth the money.
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