We flew Tiger to Sydney, Qantas being in a state. It was a Constant Gardener idea to cheer us up: the last few weeks have been a very sad farewell to a friend who passed away (When did Australians begin referring to it as “passing”? Is death an American inflected experience now?).

Friday night: It’s wonderful what being shook up by geography does to your head — having your nostrils assailed by suspicious odorants. We landed and headed straight to Surry Hills where the new eateries bloom. The first choice was the original Longrain, but the wait time was 1.5 hours… We met at  Bar H where the lovely L_ was bookended at the table by her companions J_ an d M_. Bar H is a newish, happening little place; darkly atmospheric with what turned out to be very nice Asian food designed by a man called Hamish. Yummy fish in chilli oil, pictured; and there was a very delicious salad of raw calamari — each rather more refined than what you might encounter at a regional Chinese restaurant in Melbourne, like Hu Tong in Prahran. The table at the end was a birthday party of very raucous, young Asians who supplied all the ambient good cheer a restaurant could pay for. M_ turned out to be Irish with a buoyant line of blarney in brogue — a passing remark about his “hairy arse”, why one shouldn’t trust Terry Durack’s food criticism — all that weight loss; he kept ordering bottles, and they were drinking before we got there. It was like an instant dose of Sydney. ($100 bucks each for five — for oh seven share plates and three, or four?, bottles.)

We then cabbed to our hotel in Potts Point. Checked in and headed out again around the corner to Velluto, a very nice and quiet (!) bar, to meet a couple of old friends, N_ and C_, jetsetting academics who were about to decamp from Sydney to the center of the world, Adelaide. It must have been a good offer. Sydney has so much on tap; maybe you have to turn it off before you start drinking, or cooking your own thing. Around the corner on Macleay Street, the seamy colours of the Cross were running; here at the Fountain, it was bedtime.

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Saturday: breakfast was at the busy busy Zinc, white and hard-edged. Their bircher muesli was respectable; ditto their cafe latte. (Melbourne does not have better food or coffee than Sydney.) Our friend O_ joined us to stroll over to the AGNSW where Weimar period art, The Mad Square, is in its last three weeks.

Art 1, Berlin: It’s worth the trouble — unlike the recent Vienna show in Melbourne, of a slightly earlier period, where the homewares took the cake, Mad Square had many more pictures of quality. That early 20th century German modernism — experimental, expressionist, bauhaus, dada — the movements the Nazis labelled decadent. Looking closely at the work remind you what precision and craft the artists brought to their avant-garde. Meticulously made, the works have that timeless look that very well made things have which persuade you they will persist into the future. The celebrated self-portrait by Christan Schad is stunning, New Objectivity’s pinnacle, and no reproductions can do it justice. I don’t think painting has obviously improved since the pioneering Femish painters of the 15th century; this Schad painting (face detail, left) could stand up proud in that company.

I denied myself in the exhibition shop after, that de riguer test of  temptation (should have bought that DADA mug? the Bauhaus keyring? the Neue Sachlichkeit neugier?) settling for cards and the catalogue — why is it that Australian art catalogues are so consistently poor in their colour reproduction?; isn’t it a significant criteria? I refused to buy the Vienna catalogue because of its colour failings.) We had coffee on the Gallery terrace among the wandering ibises overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay. Is there a more prettily sited and delightful state gallery in the world? I think not. Melburnian O_ who is working in Sydney at the moment was saying how when you are working hard you don’t get to go out all that much; which seems funny as she lives in Potts Point. And it’s expensive, she said. Rents around town: 2K/month for a one-bedroom apartment.

We skipped lunch, walking through the park into Martin’s Place where a very desultory group of dreadlocks were playing their melancholy drums — where there is a social protest group there will be bongos — who were surrounded by TV crew with cameras and mics on booms. Ridiculous. Turning down leaflets to Take Action Against World Capitalism we looked for a taxi: none. Hello!? Is this Sydney, or Melbourne! Back at the hotel (on weary foot) we had a brief kip.

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Tea: Out again to Glebe to meet K_ who awaits us at Black Wattle cafe, gorgeously nestled at the end of Glebe Point looking across the ANZAC Bridge. Closed, at four. Duh. We walked around the bay back up to Glebe Point Road: amazing to think this was all glebe, for the benefit of the local clergy rentier. I used to live here — it feels more or less the same except for the highly built up apartments around the water’s edge. Otherwise the main street has the same slightly run down daggy feel of a less than desirable suburb, despite the boom era Victorian terraces. There is no good coffee in Glebe. Nor vanilla slices, I dare say. We ended up at my favourite bookshop in the country, Gleebooks (sorry, Readings). It’s heaven among the aisles. They have order, and they have jumble, and they have scale — and their selection, their editing of their wares is sensational. Plus, they have the critical virtue of showing all the latest Australian writing too, indie to commercial, so you always feel up to date after a visit. (Pictured, the upstairs: art and design and biography? etc, and which they also use for book launches; I remember a few jolly times up there.)

Dinner: We dined en famille with friends C_ and J_, newsfolk around town. Excellent cooks and hosts they shooed us into that ineffable sticky aroma of roasting meat. (No more chicken, J_ had promised.) She served lamb, shredded, bejewelled with pomegranate and slicked with juices — divine. Did we talk about media? We must have; but we ended up talking about Paris and Rome. (And no chat about property either.)

A mad cab ride back across town. The driver was a gun and manically impatient with the rather busy city streets, pumping hard at midnight, chocked with youth. We screeched up city lanes at 90k with his non-stop commentary. Really should have tipped him a tenner for the adrenalin nightcap.

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Sunday: After another wearyingly groovy cafe breakfast we checked out and made for 810 George Street in the city. This is a good address to know if you ever need to leave your luggage for a bit while you walk around — now that the train and bus stations have killed their locker service (terrorists!), it’s a pain. Wanderers Travel deserves a pat on the back, cheap at $10 bag parking, and close to Chinatown.

Speaking of which, Constant Gardener, who has a nose for these things, led us on a mystery tour though the back streets to find a gallery he had heard about. We toured the back lanes of Chippendale to find this joint and eventually came upon a schmickly renovated warehouse — the White Rabbit Gallery (see their slightly mad website). We entered a calming, bright space. It’s free and the vibes are totally welcoming and not too cool at all. (The staff wear vaguely Chinese peasant inspired aprons in black with floral trim. We bought two.) The art is very fresh and not much like the contemporary Chinese art we’ve become (over-)familiar with. Pretty much all the works here over the three floors have long moved on from Mao fetish; their angst is all now. There are paintings and photos, sculpture and video. Indeed it’s showing a video that stopped me in a way that pretty much all video does not: Wang Junjieh’s Project Rrose: Love and Death. It has all the mystery and lyrical intensity of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, only, at four minutes it’s a lot more digestible than 2.5 hours. Not to mention that Wang clearly has a sense of humour. (Middle panel shows a dildo vibrating in long green grass.)

If you want big name glamour, the current show ‘Beyond’ includes Ai Wei Wei’s large oil puddle drops on the floor made out of ceramic, but the pleasure of this gallery is about discovery — the quality is consistent and high. There are Liu Di‘s nutty and startling pictures of animals surreally looming among and over Chinese buildings; a very funny wooden sculpture of a table with a meal of duck and wine running away (forgot to note artist’s name, but beat that, Ricky Swallow), another very funny and wicked sculpture, The Well, by Li Zhanyang in high gloss polychrome, about 6 foot high of a tableau depicting an updated version of an old folk tale with a conversation inscribed on its plinth. Goes something like this: Wife: Help! The thief is fucking me (See here. She stands at the handpump as the masked thief takes her from behind.) Husband, who is in the bucket in the well — shown through a cut awa yin the tubular plinth: Whatever you do, don’t let go or I’ll die! The wife can either defend herself, or save her husband. Twistedly hilarious; the coded joke is no doubt even more painfully funny to a Chinese audience. Anyway, there are lots more like this: beautiful, innovative, pointed.

The teahouse next to reception is also a Good Thing, with tea and dumplings served in a lovely light, birdcages sans birds hanging overhead. The shop as such is reduced to a shelf in the corner which is an excellent sign of focus, and they have good inexpensive publications apart from the big house catalogue. It turns out the collection belongs to a couple, Kerr and Judith Neilson. Husband is a very rich financier, said to wife, if you want to start something I’ll fund it. (More here.) They bought and renovated the building, which they then gifted back to the city of Sydney. The art on display proves what a great eye Judith N possesses. Is there a better story, a better ‘private’ gallery in Australia? Again, I think not. It’s fabulous, and you’ll see stuff you’ll not see anywhere else in the country.

Lunch at old favourite Golden Century in Chinatown to meet D_ and R_. What a disappointment: lobster at $148 a kilo?! The service was, of course, terrible. The XO pippies were tasteless and the sauce thickened to snot glueyness. The live oysters were small and tired and similarly tasteless (Steamed oysters were $7 for medium size and $9 each for large). The steamed baramundi was nice, the brocolli with crab sauce goodish. But no, teh old Golden C has hit a bad, expensive patch.

Ciao: A quick walk around the extravagance of QV building (no retail allure) then across the road tomuch better upmarket shops with groove outlets like Incu, and then up the escalators to the bookmall Kinokuniya. Pick up bags, hop in cab, to Virgin and flying south again. (Must add, the Tiger staff I like, and the pilot gave great pilot talk and backed it up with a superb landing.) A bowl of pho on the way home, and the weekend was done.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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