Bay watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

THE to­pog­ra­phy of a city has an in­dis­putable, though im­pon­der­able re­la­tion to its char­ac­ter and that of its in­hab­i­tants: the hills of Syd­ney, for ex­am­ple, and the flat­ness of Melbourne seem some­how em­blem­atic of the very dif­fer­ent mood and sen­si­bil­ity of the two cities.

Syd­ney is full of breaks and in­ter­rup­tions and tran­si­tions be­tween quar­ters of the city, largely based on the suc­ces­sion of high and low ground, the al­ter­na­tion of open views and en­closed hol­lows, of east­ern and western slopes, of good and bad as­pects.

Melbourne, on the con­trary, is al­most com­pletely flat. This has al­lowed the city to be laid out in a vast grid of pri­mary and sec­ondary streets with a net­work of al­ley­ways, a far more ra­tio­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion than Syd­ney, which is squeezed into a rel­a­tively ex­igu­ous area be­tween nat­u­ral boundaries.

Ev­ery­thing seems more spa­cious in Melbourne — vis­i­tors to both cities will have no­ticed that cafes in Melbourne are large and com­fort­able whereas in Syd­ney a cafe can hardly be con­sid­ered chic if it has more than half a dozen ta­bles and prefer­ably some hard lit­tle stools foot­path.

But the most dis­tinc­tive and in­trigu­ing thing about Melbourne, es­pe­cially from the per­spec­tive of a Syd­neysider, is the lack of any boundary be­tween dif­fer­ent quar­ters. If you go for a walk through the long grid streets of Melbourne, whether through com­mer­cial or res­i­den­tial ar­eas, you will pass in­sen­si­bly from wealthy to poorer sec­tions, from well-main­tained houses with cared-for gar­dens to run­down places with gar­dens that have gone to seed, or from busy and lively shop­ping streets to seedy stretches with empty win­dows — and then a lit­tle fur­ther on, back again to pros­per­ity.

One gets the im­pres­sion of a city that is more dis­creet and pri­vate than Syd­ney, where dif­fer­ences are more nu­anced and per­haps also more fluid. The rich don’t have

or

even

milk

crates

on

the bet­ter views, since there are no views to speak of; they sim­ply have big­ger and more el­e­gant res­i­dences. The dif­fer­ences are in­side rather than out­side. And all of this sug­gests, at least to the fla­neur who has noth­ing to do but pon­der the mood of the city he is walk­ing through, the con­di­tions for a greater in­ner life than one ex­pects in ex­tro­verted Syd­ney.

Of course the hilli­ness and flat­ness are in­dis­so­cia­ble from the most con­spic­u­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween the re­spec­tive to­pogra­phies of the two places: Melbourne is a river city, while Syd­ney is built around a har­bour. Or at least that is the im­pres­sion one has of Melbourne un­til one sees the city from the air, and then it is sur­pris­ing to find how close to the sea it re­ally is. But what is un­de­ni­able is that the sea has, for all its prox­im­ity, vir­tu­ally no pres­ence in the shape of Melbourne, while it is ubiq­ui­tous in Syd­ney and de­ter­mines the mor­phol­ogy of the whole in­ner city and many of the sub­ur­ban ar­eas.

Nonethe­less, Melbourne is in­deed built on the sea, or rather in the enor­mous bay of Port Phillip, and it is the pur­pose of Sea of Dreams, at the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula Re­gional Gallery, to re­dis­cover this fact and al­most to pro­pose a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about the city and its en­vi­ron­ment. Per­haps the first part of the task is to con­sti­tute Port Phillip it­self as a sin­gle ob­ject of the imag­i­na­tion, for it is so vast that we tend to think of its parts — such as Gee­long or the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula — as dif­fer­ent and sep­a­rate en­ti­ties, when in fact they are part of the same ge­og­ra­phy, and of course part of a com­mon his­tory as well.

Sea of Dreams, cu­rated by Jane Alexan­der, who is the di­rec­tor of the MPRG, be­gan as a rel­a­tively sim­ple idea, to doc­u­ment the bay through its rep­re­sen­ta­tion by artists over the past cou­ple of cen­turies. It soon be­came ap­par­ent, how­ever, that there was an over­whelm­ing amount of ma­te­rial avail­able, and of out­stand­ing his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est. So the present show cov­ers the pe­riod 1830-1914, and a sec­ond in­stal­ment in a cou­ple of years’ time will deal with the se­quel from 1914 to the present.

The ex­hi­bi­tion opens with a work that fit­tingly evokes its sub­ject and sev­eral of its themes: James Howe Carse’s 1871 paint­ing of Dro­mana em­pha­sises what must al­ways have been the town’s dis­tinc­tive fea­ture, an ex­tremely long pier — much longer than it is to­day — stretch­ing out into the com­par­a­tively shal­low bay to where the water was

Charles Con­der’s Rick­ett’s Point, Beau­maris 1890

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