Archive for June, 2010

On Contemporary Art

Saturday, 26 June, 2010

We went to the Museum of Contemporary Art this afternoon on the recommendation of a friend to check out the 2010 Biennale of Sydney exhibitions there. The Biennale is one of the premier regular art exhibitions in the world, so it was a nice way to spend a warm winter day and soak up some culture. It was interesting, and I’d recommend anyone with the chance go see some of the Biennale exhibits while they’re still around (until 1 August). There are also exhibits at other venues, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and on Cockatoo Island, for which there are free ferries departing regularly from Circular Quay.

There are two things I wanted to comment on, about art in general. Firstly, as seems to be moderately common in exhibitions of contemporary art, some of the artworks were quite provoking. Children were allowed into the exhibition, but a sign at the entrance stated that some of the artworks were provocative, including imagery of highly sexual and violent natures, and that accompanying adults should supervise and guide any children in their exposure to and understanding of the works.

Now one of my (many) working definitions that forms the complex and fluid entity of my understanding of what “art” is, is “something that provokes a reaction”. Under this definition, there were some things in the gallery that I’m perfectly happy to call “art”. My problem is that some of them were things that I didn’t enjoy seeing. They provoked a reaction of repulsion in me. And this led me to wonder: Is something that makes you feel repulsed and wish that you’d never seen it, art?

I prefer art that makes me feel good when I see it. I like art that shows workmanship and makes me admire the skill needed to achieve it. I like art that looks nice and is pretty. I like art that I’d be happy to display in my home. I like art that makes me look twice and think, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or, “Hmm, that’s weird,” or even, “What on Earth is that?” But there was some art here that made me think, “Euughgh! Take it away!” I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to spend enough time looking at it to appreciate the work that went into it.

So it certainly provoked a reaction. But is it the right sort of reaction that art should be trying to provoke? Or is it just something that some people might appreciate and that I didn’t care for? I find it extremely hard to say that it shouldn’t be there in an art exhibition. I’m just wondering what the artist was actually trying to do. I can see provoking a reaction of disgust when trying to get across a message that something is bad (such as one item which was a bunch of statues with classical Dutch portrait features, smothered in crude oil – obviously a message about industrial pollution). But is the goal of provoking revulsion, merely to provoke revulsion and for no other reason, a valid goal for art?

Again, I think I have to say that it is valid. I can’t sanction telling people that what they’re creating isn’t art just because I don’t like it. I think it does have what it takes to be “art”. But I can’t avoid the sneaking suspicion that that’s not what art is supposed to be about. There should be more to it than just making people feel disgusted. Perhaps in these cases there was, but it was hard for me to see it. And look, if there was, then no problem. But… what if there wasn’t?

The second thing I wanted to talk about was video installation art. We saw a very cool piece by German artist Christian Jankowski, titled Tableaux Vivant TV. I won’t describe what it’s about, because anyone planning to see it should just see it. But the problem was it’s about 30 minutes long, and we came in about 2 minutes from the end. That was sort of okay, since we didn’t have to wait long to see it from the beginning, but unfortunately it spoiled the ending a bit, and it’s an ending that would have benefited from being unknown at the beginning.

I noticed that several of the artworks at the exhibition are videos. This is natural and to be expected, since we live in an age where video is a common medium for both documentary and artistic expression. But the medium of video is fundamentally different to the traditional static art media, and that, as I see it, is a serious problem. Because a video has a certain running time. Ideally you’d want viewers to see a video from the beginning, and stay to the end. But in an exhibition, the videos are usually on loops, and it’s far too easy to walk into the display room partway through the video. This spoils the experience of the artwork.

There are some solutions. You can make a video for which it doesn’t really matter if you come in partway through, or only stay for a fraction of the entire running time. There were some videos like this in the exhibition, and they worked reasonably well. But there were also some videos that told a definite story and that would really be best seen from start to finish. Jankowski’s was one of these. One solution would be to put a running timer on the door to the exhibition room, showing when the loop will restart. But none of the videos included this helpful device, so people were constantly wandering in and out, seeing part of this half-hour video, and not really understanding what was going on or getting the point of it. This seems an awful waste.

The other thing about video installations like this is that they demand a certain block of your time and attention. Art in a traditional static medium can be examined at any time, at your leisure, for as long or as little as you want. You are not being forced by the medium of the artwork to interact with it in a temporally constrained way. This is a powerful advantage, because you can spend half an hour studying a painting, or you can whisk by absorbing impressions rapidly. You can’t do that with a video – if you give it a minute of attention, you can come away with nothing whatsoever but bewilderment and a feeling that you’ve wasted your time because you couldn’t spend long enough there to properly get it.

I don’t have any answers for this. I just wanted to point out that I think these are serious problems for video art, and apparently there still don’t seem to be any good solutions in general for them.

Maxwell Spiced Mead

Monday, 21 June, 2010

Maxwell Spiced MeadMead is fermented wine-like drink made of honey. I’ve had it once before, at a friend’s birthday party some years ago, and all I remember is how deliciously sweet it was. I’d never seen it for sale anywhere, until the weekend recently when I went up to the Blue Mountains and happened on a wine shop in Katoomba. Of course I had to buy some.

Checking the company’s website when I got home, I discovered that they make three types of mead: honey mead, spiced mead, and liqueur mead. The only one I saw in the shop was the spiced mead, so that’s what we’re trying first. I plan to give the company’s distributor a call and see where I can find a place locally that sells the other two varieties.

Anyway, the spiced mead comes with a recommendation on the bottle that it be served hot, at around 70°C. Just the perfect thing for relaxing on a cold winter’s evening, snuggled under a blanket in front of the TV. So for my first taste, I heated up a mug of the golden liquid in the microwave, taking care not to boil it. Sounds like some sort of sacrilege for wine, but then this is no ordinary wine.

When hot, the aroma drifts about and fills the room with Christmassy smells of spiced puddings. Unfortunately it makes it hard to get a close sniff of the aroma, since it immediately makes you choke with the alcohol fumes. The taste is warm and sweet, with a bit of a tang, like a hot honey and lemon toddy with a good hit of brandy. That was about as much as I got from the hot version.

Later I tried a glass at room temperature. This was much nicer. The colour is rich and deep, a golden amber that just looks gorgeous in the glass. It is thick and sticks to the inside of the glass when swirled. It’s beautiful just to look at this stuff. The aroma is strong and heady, reminiscent of fruitcake, rich with brandy and spices – the cinnamon and cloves added to make it spiced come through firmly, but not overpoweringly. The taste is like raisins, sweet and delicious, before the spice begins to dominate. There’s a tang, a little like orange marmalade, spiced with those cloves, and it lingers on the back of the tongue.

It’s nice, but I really want to try the non-spiced version, and especially the liqueur version. I suspect I’ll like those even more.

Kalari 2008 Late-Picked Verdelho

Friday, 18 June, 2010

Kalari 2008 Late-Picked VerdelhoOne thing about wine culture in Australia that is unusual compared to many places in the world, and that I was reminded of by a reader, is that here it’s very common to buy your wine at a liquor shop, then take the bottle with you to a restaurant to have it with a meal. Restaurants that allow this advertise as “BYO”, standing for “Bring Your Own”, and most restaurants here support it. It will only be a very fancy and expensive restaurant that won’t let you bring your own wine, expecting you to buy something off their wine list instead.

This custom arose because of our liquor licensing laws, which constitute a significant cost for a restaurant wanting to sell alcohol. But there’s no law against allowing diners to bring their own pre-purchased alcohol to a restaurant, so many restaurants began to allow it as a way of letting customers drink with their meal without having to bother getting a liquor licence. Nowadays many restaurants offer both BYO and a wine list, for wider options.

Anyway, today’s wine we bought at a wine shop in Katoomba last weekend, on our day driving trip. I spotted the “late-picked” label and picked it up to have a look. It’s from Kalari, a winery based near Cowra, in the Central West of New South Wales – a town still better known for the breakout of over 500 Japanese POWs during World War II than for wine. The back label described it as semi-sweet, and a good match for spicy Asian food. Having had success with the delicious Gewürztraminer last week which was described in similar terms, I decided to buy it. Tonight we took it up to Khacha Thai, a short walk up the hill from our place. I had a spicy stir-fried duck finished with a red curry sauce, while M. chose a grilled salmon with apple salsa.

M.’s first reaction on sniffing the wine was “apples!” I agreed, definitely fresh green apples, with a hint of lime. The first taste was similar, green apple and lime, very fruity and a bit sweeter than last week’s Gewürztraminer. It developed into an orange marmalade flavour and aftertaste, almost candied orange peel. I also thought I could detect a touch of peach. It was nice, though slightly less interesting and with no real notes of spice like the traminer.

After deciding on these flavours, we checked the back label of the wine, which described it as having apricot and pineapple, followed by mandarin peel. Well, apricot isn’t too far from peach, but I’m pretty adamant the dominant notes were green apple and lime, not pineapple. The mandarin peel matches the orange marmalade pretty well though. So a decent hit on the label notes there.

The food was excellent, as usual for Khacha, and the wine matched it nicely, the sweetness and acidity balancing the Thai spices. All up, a positive experience with this wine.

Blue Mountains Day Trip

Monday, 14 June, 2010

Megalong Valley PanoramaWe went for a day driving trip up to the Blue Mountains yesterday. This is a World Heritage Area right on Sydney’s doorstep and contains some beautiful scenery.

There are just two roads out of Sydney to the west. We took the lesser travelled Bells Line of Road and turned off to the tiny village of Mount Wilson, where I’d never been before. It turned out to be tiny indeed, with just a few residential properties, a small church, and a Bush Fire Brigade building. No shops, no post office, nothing. The main reason for going there is to admire the beautiful gardens that many of the residents keep, and let open for public viewing. We dropped in at one, Windy Ridge, but being winter it wasn’t at its best. There were a few flowers out, but most of it was just various shades of green and brown. It was still interesting and would clearly be a wonder in spring.

We also stopped in at the Cathedral of Ferns for the short walk through luscious rainforest populated by enormous tree ferns, and then at Wynne’s Lookout for a view over part of the National Park.

From there we drove over to the Great Western Highway (the other route west from Sydney) and grabbed some pies for lunch at Mount Victoria, before heading out to Hargrave’s Lookout on the Shipley Plateau, south of Blackheath. The view from there is shown in the panorama at the top of this post. I’d not visited this spot before, but I’ll definitely be going back. It has possibly the best view of the Megalong Valley and Blue Mountains National Park regions that I’ve ever seen from any lookout spot.

On the way home, we popped in at Katoomba for some afternoon tea. I spotted a wine shop there and found some interesting regional NSW stuff. I bought 4 bottles: a late-picked Verdelho from Cowra, an ice wine from Orange, a bottle of spiced mead(!), and a bottle of hot chili wine – no grapes involved, it’s made entirely from chilis! The woman behind the counter saw me looking bemusedly at the bottle and offered me a taste. Wow… I had to buy a bottle after that. More details later when I give it a proper tasting.

Stonecroft 2006 Hawkes Bay Gewürztraminer

Friday, 11 June, 2010

Stonecroft 2006 Hawkes Bay Gewürztraminer
I’ve never had a Gewürztraminer before, so I was keen to see what this was like. It’s from Stonecroft in Hawkes Bay on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. A note by the bottles when we bought it said that it was good with fatty fish. So we booked a table at Garfish tonight and had a nice relaxing Friday evening dinner. M. and I both chose the grilled salmon with chips, after a starter of buttery garlic bread. So lots of oily food!

From the first sniff I could tell this was a very different type of wine to anything I’d had before. It was citrusy, with strong lemon-lime notes. There was also something else very distinctive present, but it took me halfway through dinner to start identifying the other components. After the first glass I finally nailed part of it down as floral aroma, something like a cross between jasmine and rose. And there was also a hint of musk as well… sweet and a tiny bit cloying. A very interesting mix of smells.

In the mouth, the initial burst was a slightly sweet lemon-lime flavour, matching the aroma. There was some fermentation prickle. After sitting in the mouth a bit the flavour mellowed out into something very mild and almost creamy, with those hints of floral aroma. Like Turkish delight, now I come to think of it – yes, that was definitely it. It wasn’t anywhere near that sweet – it was just a touch of sweetness that made it very different from a dry, tart wine like a sauvignon blanc. And then the most astonishing thing happened. The creamy texture starting developing a distinct spiciness – cloves perhaps, and then peppery flavours. Subtle at first, but on swallowing there was a mild peppery sensation all the way down the throat.

It was really complex, with lots going on, and very interesting and enjoyable. I feared M. might not like it, but she really got into it, and said it was great. It complemented the fish and chips beautifully.

Even liking it so much, there’s no way the two of us can finish off an entire bottle of wine over dinner. I have no idea what other people do in this situation. (Tell me!) We take our vacuum sealing pump to the restaurant (it fits into the wine chiller bag with a bottle) and seal it up once we know we’re not pouring any more, then take the remainder home again. It’s a little conspicuous pumping air out of a wine bottle at the table, but nobody’s ever looked twice at us doing it, yet.

Anyway, this wine was a fantastic experience. I’ve just now looked up some more information on Gewürztraminer, and see that it’s known for a bouquet of lychees – which, now that I think about it, matches very well to the lemon-lime thing I was trying to put a better name to. Lychee – I must remember that. Furthermore, Stonecroft’s tasting notes on its 2009 Gewürztraminer says that it has notes of – wait for it – jasmine and rose petals! I’m now feeling very pleased with myself and my slowly developing wine tasting skills.


Thursday, 10 June, 2010

Someone at work was talking about the 2012 total solar eclipse, which will be visible from Cairns in northern Queensland. Of course eclipse enthusiasts are already planning their trips, and Cairns has a tourism site devoted to it. I said it would be cool to go see it, but organising a trip is such a hassle, especially when the place will be crammed with thousands of people going there at exactly the same time for the same reason. (In fact, we’ll see a roughly 65% partial eclipse from here in Sydney, so that’ll be moderately cool.)

Then someone said we could just wait until 2028

The total solar eclipse of 22 July, 2028 will be visible from Sydney. Not just as a partial eclipse either – the path of totality crosses the city. And not just scrapes across an edge of the city – the path of totality completely covers the entire city. Check NASA’s page which has a Google map with the path of totality marked on it, and zoom into Sydney. Yeah, keep zooming in.

Everywhere from Wyong to Wollongong will see totality. The centre of the path of totality passes less than 5km from my house! It passes within a few hundred metres of the astronomy department of the University of Sydney, where I studied astronomy! It passes right over one of my favourite restaurants!

I’m sure I’ve heard of this eclipse before, but previously it was always “too far in the future” to really think about, and I’d never had such a detailed look at the eclipse track before. I’m stunned. Only 18 years before the world will fall all over itself to come to Sydney and the entire city will experience over 4 minutes of eclipse totality. Suddenly it doesn’t seem all that far away.

I can’t wait.

Kitchen gadgets

Monday, 7 June, 2010

I decided for no apparent reason to make a list of our kitchen gadgets, and how often we use them. Begin pointless infodump!

Electric gadgets:

  • Blender – We made smoothies and stuff with this for about a year after we got it, but that ended suddenly. Has been used maybe once or twice in the past couple of years.
  • Food processor – Used once a week or so for things like pureeing pumpkin or potato for soup, chopping nuts, pureeing fruit, etc.
  • Microwave oven – Used a few times a week, mainly to reheat food, but also sometimes to melt butter, or cook vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli.
  • Electric wok – We used to use this a lot for stir fries, but it’s large and stored inconveniently so we’ve moved away from it. Gets pulled out maybe once a month or two.
  • Ice cream maker – Used to make a batch of ice cream every few weeks. We’ve got a lot of use out of this!
  • Electric hand mixer – Used frequently for beating ice cream mixture (see above), cake batters, pancakes, whipping cream, etc.
  • Sandwich press – Used two or three times a week for hot sandwiches, mostly on weekends.
  • Toaster – Used nearly every day to make toast.
  • Electric kettle – Used daily to make tea and coffee.
  • Electric scales – Battery operated. Used to measure ingredients when baking cakes and stuff.

Non-electric gadgets:

  • Garlic press – Used this a couple of times, years ago. It’s impossibly fiddly to clean, so we gave up using it.
  • Apple corer – I use this occasionally to core apples or pears for baking.
  • Tea balls – Used regularly for loose leaf tea.
  • Citrus reamer – Used occasionally for extracting lemon juice.
  • Wine bottle pump – Used a few times a month to keep half-drunk bottles of wine sealed and oxygen-free.
  • Bamboo steamer – Used a few times a year to steam Chinese dumplings.
  • Pizza pan – Used frequently to bake pizzas.
  • Various cake and muffin tins – Used a couple of times a month for baking.
  • Cooling racks – As above.
  • Potato masher – Not used much; we never have mashed potatoes. Occasionally used to mash pumpkin for soup.
  • Egg rings – Occasional use for making neat fried eggs to put on hamburgers.
  • Wooden trivets – A few times a year for presenting hot food dishes on the dining table when guests are over.
  • Hotplate heat dispersers – Used frequently to avoid the gas flame from over-heating saucepans.
  • Cookie cutters – Never used as far as I can remember.
  • Corkscrew – Used on wine corks, which is only about 20% of the bottles these days.
  • Corn holders – Used when we have corn on the cob, a few times a year.
  • Pastry brush – Used rarely, it’s so evil to clean that I hate using it.
  • Chopsticks – Never use these at home.
  • Meat tenderiser – Used maybe once, ever.
  • Teapot – Almost never used; we usually make tea one cup at a time.
  • Coffee percolator – Used once or twice years ago; I don’t drink coffee and M. prefers instant to percolated.

The usual suspects, used fairly frequently:
Cutting knives, eating knives, spoons, forks, wooden spoons, serving spoons, slotted spoons, tongs, vegetable peeler, can opener, oven mitts, colander, spatulas, egg-flips, cheese grater, ice cream scoop, cheese knife, various pots and pans, cutting boards, casserole dishes, pie dishes.

Some more-or-less common gadgets we don’t have:
Rolling pin, mortar & pestle, bread maker, rice cooker, lemon zester, deep fryer, egg cups, blow torch, pressure cooker.

Not listed:
Crockery and glassware – that’s a whole ‘nother post (except it would be even more boring).


Sunday, 6 June, 2010

Orange-lime cheesecake
So I decided to make a cheesecake, of the chilled, non-baked variety. I’ve never made one before, but I saw a great looking cheesecake recipe book while browsing around in Borders the other week. I was tempted to buy it at the time, but decided against. And then a week later we received some Borders book club coupons, one of which was 40% off a cookbook! So it was duly acquired.

The book is split half-half between baked cheesecakes (my favourite type), and non-baked. I thought I’d start by trying a classic non-baked cheesecake, before moving on to some of the more exotic types in the book.

Being my first time, I tried to follow the recipe as closely as I could. After making a reasonably successful biscuit-crumb base, I turned to the filling. The recipe said to start by dissolving a teaspoon of gelatine in a tablespoon of water, by using a heatproof cup in a saucepan of simmering water to heat it gently. That worked fine. The recipe said to set it aside for 5 minutes to cool, while mixing the rest of the filling.

Fine… I got the rest of the filling mixed up. Cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, some orange zest, lime juice. It looked fine and tasted right. Then it was time to add the dissolved gelatine. Only the cup which had the gelatine and water in it now held a solid, rubbery plug of jelly. It was no longer liquid at all! I tried mixing it through the filling mixture, but it was like trying to mix a lump of rubber through it. I had to fish it out and make an entirely new batch of dissolved gelatine. This time I mixed it into the filling before it had a chance to cool down and solidify. Hopefully it will turn out okay and the filling will set properly.

Vineyard Cottage Twin Trees 2001 Shiraz

Wednesday, 2 June, 2010

Vineyard Cottage Twin Trees 2001 Shiraz
The wedding we went to last month was in the Hunter Valley, a few hours drive from Sydney. So we drove up on Friday and stayed the Friday night before the wedding and the Saturday night afterwards, before heading home on Sunday. We stayed at Twin Trees Country Cottages, which was nice. The property had a small vineyard on it, and they make their own wine. We were given this bottle as a complimentary when we checked in.

South Australia is better known for shiraz than is the Hunter Valley, plus this was a freebie, so I wasn’t expecting any great things from it. Although the 2001 vintage could be taken as a good sign, because (as far as my still rudimentary knowledge goes) shiraz tends to age well and improve as it gets older, so 9 years old should theoretically be better than a vintage from just 2 or 3 years ago.

I’m also a bit reticent about shiraz as so far I’ve consistently found it to have a distinct “petrochemical” smell, which also translates across into the taste. Strong and a bit like (what I imagine it would be like) drinking kerosene.

This one, however, was pleasant on the nose, without that sharp, pungent smell. I couldn’t pick anything particularly identifiable in the odour, but I noticed it didn’t smell like what I’ve come to think of as “typically shiraz”. And the taste was amazing. It was smooth and light, with a very distinct flavour of fresh raspberries. Totally not what I was expecting. After a bit of development in the mouth, the distinctive shiraz spiciness came through, though not with the power of some others I’ve tried. I was looking for black pepper, but it wasn’t that – it was more like cinnamon and aniseed.

I have no idea if this would be considered a good shiraz or not, but I really liked it, which is a first for me and shiraz.

Fan vitriol

Tuesday, 1 June, 2010

Being one of the creators of Darths & Droids, I take some time every now and then to trawl forums and blogs for new comments and reviews of the comic. The comments are generally good, although there are the odd few people who say, “I looked at it, it sucks.” But we can live with those.

One interesting trend I’ve noticed is just how much people seem to hate the Star Wars prequels. I mean not just dislike but actively hate. As in they think George Lucas went back in time and raped their childhood and shot their dog and the prequel films should be burnt, stabbed through the heart with a stake, and buried at a crossroads.

The slightly disturbing thing about this (besides that these people should try directing their passion into something positive for a change) is that it’s instantly leapt to when Darths & Droids is mentioned. A typical mention goes something like this:

Hey, check out this webcomic. It’s hilarious and it actually makes the prequels entertaining. This is the only possible justification for the existence of the prequels. Ha ha! look at the fun they’re poking of the stupid prequels! Hilarious!

Now, while it’s nice to have a reason why people like our comic, this actually worries me a bit. Because another thing that many of these posts seem to do is assume that we’re making fun of the prequels. As in just the prequels. I fear that many people haven’t read the FAQ, in which we state that we have a storyline plotted for all six movies.

What’s going to happen when we reach the end of Episode III, and start on Episode IV? Are people suddenly going to think we’ve stopped poking fun at the hated prequels and are now desecrating the original classics? I don’t know.

I’m not poking fun at the prequels because I hate them. They’re not masterpieces, and there are certainly groanworthy moments that are difficult to watch, but they’re still fun if you don’t treat them like they’re supposed to be the ultimate expression of cinema. I prefer the original trilogy, but I wonder how much of that is just nostalgia. There are also cringeworthy moments in those films.

As a resource for making the comics, we drew up a list of “Stupid things we need to explain” for each movie. People seem to think it’s hilarious when we point out how stupid something is in one of the prequels. Plot holes, bizarre character actions, ridiculous technology that defies physics and/or common sense, and so on. But you know what? We have lists of pretty much the same length of things just as stupid in each of the original trilogy films. When we use these to point out something silly in the original films and make jokes about it, what are the readers going to think?

Honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our readership dropped by half or more when we move from the prequels to the original trilogy. I hope it doesn’t, and that the story we are telling keeps readers hooked, and that the majority of people approach it with the same view of affectionate parody that we’re actually aiming for in the prequels, and stay to enjoy it. But I’m not sure that will happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.