From Canberra with love

Art Life , Reviews Jul 30, 2010 6 Comments

Wendy Meares writes on her trip to Canberra, the National Portrait Gallery and the Gladwell installation at the War Memorial…

First of all I’d like to say a thank you to all those who called or sent emails and notes during our recent difficulties. Your thoughts and well wishes made us feel all the better during what has been a very emotional time. So thank you all! During our recent trip to New Zealand I had every intention of trying to see some art but there’s not much to talk about in Queenstown, frankly, which is all very reminiscent in tone to Byron Bay and therefore rather drab. People are there to go skiing, as was I, and don’t really have much time for trinkets or ghastly sculptures made of wood with a couple of googly eyes attached. So I kept my notebook in my pocket and enjoyed a rather wonderful time with Eric. We so rarely get a chance to spend time together these days with all his various projects on the go.

Sir William Dargie CBE, Essington Lewis, 1952.
Collection: National Portrait Gallery

We’d only been there two weeks when the call came. We had to fly back immediately and that presented a rather tricky problem. Eric had to go back to Sydney but we’d been planning on visiting his mother in Canberra on the way home. So I did the decent thing and volunteered to fly to Canberra to see Jacqueline. I insisted I check into the Hyatt, as planned, because I just can’t sleep in a small house. I know it’s a foible, but there you are.

All this is a rather roundabout way of explaining how it was that I ended up visiting the National Portrait Gallery. Jacqueline is 90 years of age and quite with it, although she needs a little help getting about. You’d think people at that age would have said just about everything they’re ever going to say, but not Jacqueline. She is a chatter box. She’s always talking – I want to go to the toilet – can I have a banana? – that sort of thing. Happily, the National Portrait Gallery is set up for people like Jacqueline, the infirm etc, and the so work is hung at a level for people who are in wheel chairs or perhaps stooped, and they can still enjoy it. Eric once asked whatever happened to all those portraits that get entered into the Archibald and the Moran and the answer turns out to be that they end up here. It’s like the Archibald every day! To be brutally honest, there are lots of portraits of cross looking men with their arms folded. The question of what to do with hands remains a pressing problem for the portraitist. There are probably only so many poses for a portrait but when you put them all together visiting the NPG is like going to some sort of board meeting. Speaking of which, it was probably a good thing Eric didn’t come with us as I’m sure he would have got quite cross when the saw the NPG. It looks like it was made from some sort of Ikea kit, although the appointments are rather handsome, lots of teak. And their website is rather lovely too. Speak of the devil, as we were leaving Eric rang to say the MCA had just announced that it was Simon Mordant for chairman, and so that was that. I knew when I got back there’d be a lot of comforting needed and so we left with a rather heavy sense of foreboding, and a rumbling in the stomach.

After lunch in Manuka I was about to drive Jacqueline home when Sophie Schwartz rang. When I told her that I was in Canberra, she absolutely insisted that I go to the War Memorial to see a new video installation by Shaun Gladwell. What’s wrong with that sentence? Just about everything! I thought the last thing Jacqueline would want to do but when I said I was going she piped up and said she’d love to come too. So off we went. There’s a lot of art in the War Memorial, which makes a change from all the audio-visuals. My abiding memory of the place was going there when I was in high school and all the mannequins done up in various uniforms. It was like visiting David Jones on a weekend. Now they’ve done a whole job on the place and it’s very educational instead of just dull. I was handed a flyer for the exhibition we were going to see and it said that:

“Shaun Gladwell is a contemporary artist who works primarily in video, photography and sculpture. Double Field: Shaun Gladwell – Afghanistan, represents Gladwell’s complex response to the technology, landscapes and soldiers he experienced in Afghanistan. In particular, it explores the way soldiers are trained to observe and quickly respond to foreign environments.”

I found this information very helpful because when I saw the “installation” it appeared to be a video of two soldiers dancing. It was at that moment Jacqueline piped. “Melanie!” she said, pointing at the screen. Then I recognised one of the soldiers was the artist and it all became very obvious to me and I must confess, rather interesting. I thought it was probably time to leave almost as soon as we’d arrived. It’s not that I don’t like video art, per se, it’s just that Shaun Gladwell, who Eric and I met once at the Art Gallery of NSW and he was a lovely young man by the way, reminds me so much of my daughter Melanie. Jacqueline, although confused, was spot on. The resemblance is uncanny. But I don’t really want to go into that – people make lifestyle choices that you don’t understand but you have to respect them for it, although I certainly won’t be calling her “Mole” or whatever name it is she’s chosen now that she’s part of that “performance art” collective or whatever it is. On the way out I was dreading taking Jacqueline through the War World 2 section but it turned out that it was closed. What a blessing.

Wendy Meares


  1. Fiona Parker-Bowles

    Hi Wendy,

    Just wanted to say I’m enjoying your writing on this website but would you mind letting me know, who in the devil is Eric?

    All the best,


    Eric Meares is Wendy’s husband – Art Life Management

  2. bubbles

    “its like the archibald every day” lol lol lol…..gasp

  3. michael

    Perhaps the Art Life could post a review of the exhibition Presest Tense which is on display at the National Portrait Galelry and is very unlike the Archibald and might just well be of interest to readers with an interest in contemporary art?

  4. Janey

    and could artlife let us know what it thinks of the National Youth Self Portrait Prize also on at the NPG?

  5. swan lake

    i like the tiny soldiers stuck in mud at the war memorial. they make me sad though.

  6. Phrenologist

    I’m very pleased to hear you enjoyed Gladwell’s use of self-portraiture in his contribution to Australia’s official war art. You certainly write with character!

    In case it helps, the NPG actually isn’t the repository for the Archies and Moran. I’d estimate that less than 5% of the total collection has a connection with the Archibalds or any other art prize. The staff there are friendly and always happy to help out with questions like that 🙂

    I also agree with your summary of Queenstown. Lovely place to sleep when you’re not skiing.

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