Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:57

Canberra: A David Lynch film come to life

“I love dream logic.  I just like the way dreams go.”
David Lynch in “Catching the Big Fish: Mediation, Consciousness, and Creativity”

Growing up in Canberra, I never thought of it as being a particularly remarkable city.  It was just the place where I lived.  Then one day when I was about 13, I read an interview of some backpackers in the local newspaper.  When prompted for their views on Canberra, one suggested something along the lines of “it is like a David Lynch movie – everything is neat and tidy but you wonder what is really going on below the surface”.  Not having yet seen any movies by Lynch - America’s legendary surrealist chronicler of urban life - I was a bit puzzled by this comparison, but with time I came to see what that scruffy backpacker was alluding to.  My hometown was not quite like other places.  And this is good.

Nestled in the mountains in the south east of the continent, Canberra is the capital of Australia.  Commonly known as ‘the bush capital’, it is filled with parks and open spaces, and is bisected by a series of freeways and large arterial roads. There, the car is king.  Construction began in 1913 following an international architectural competition won by Walter Burley Griffin, the famous American architect.  Canberra was instigated to satisfy the grand ambitions of Sydney and Melbourne to be Australia’s home of government.  As a city built completely from scratch, Canberra offers a glimpse of how the designers of yesteryear envisaged the city of the future: decentralised, dispersed and blending with nature. Over the years governments, commercial interests and architects have all challenged Burley Griffin’s vision.  While the city has turned out considerably different to how he envisaged it, Canberra remains unique.

Built with its important role in mind – parliament and bureaucracy – Canberra has long being the butt of jokes.  It is commonly derided as being boring, a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, full of public service drones and a waste of a perfectly good sheep paddock.  And the traditional response from Canberrans is just as hackneyed – the city is pretty, clean, safe, a great place to raise kids and so on.  But there is something more to the city than these well-worn claims, all of which sprout some tendrils of truth.

It would be easy to arrive in Canberra and think, “Strewth, what’s goin’ on here?”.  Compared to other cities, there is not a lot of human activity on the streets.  This lack of traffic and pedestrians can easily deceive you.  One day when riding my bike to school, I managed to ride for 5 minutes before encountering any other traffic.  It was as if everyone in the city had vanished overnight.  This was slightly eerie, but energising - I felt like I had my own private city.  Just as a dream takes a familiar scene and tweaks it, so too was my trip to school flipped on its head.  It is such moments of serenity shape the disposition of Canberra.  Perhaps this is what caught the backpacker’s imagination.  The thrum and buzz so often associated with seats of government is not there.

Lynch once said “A sense of place is so critical in cinema because you want to go into another world.  Every story has its own world and its own feel and its own mood.  So you try to put together all these things, all these little details to create that sense of place.  It has a lot to do with lighting and sound”.  Lynch succeeds in doing this in his films.  While presenting everyday settings and scenarios with which we are familiar, but then managing to skew these in a way that puts a slight slant on reality, Lynch masterfully injects a sense of magic into the mundane, making the normal feel other-worldly.

Canberra-Mt-Taylor3_smallIn many ways Canberra can feel like another world, and much of that can be attributed to the light and sound there. The city is nestled in a series of valleys and plains.  Views from any of the nearby mountains show a reasonably low-rise city threatening but not really managing to poke out from beneath the leafy canopy.  Canberra’s generous endowment of trees, parks and nature reserves attract a great range of wildlife (birds, possums, kangaroos, wallabies) that are hard to miss if you spend any amount of time in the city and particularly around its fringes.  In most parts of town the good burghers of Canberra awake to bird song, songs which can continue throughout the day.  I fondly remember the calls of the Currawong echoing from one building to another on winter evenings in the Woden town centre. While not particularly common, it is not unusual to see a kangaroo hopping down a suburban street, such is the overlap between city and country.  And the sun shines an awful lot.  Even a bitterly cold winter’s day is made bearable by the warming rays of the sun.


At some point I came across the idea that Aboriginal designs are reflected in the street alignment.  I’m not sure how true this is, but it certainly is an intriguing proposition.  Australian Aboriginal art is often influenced by myths from the Dreamtime, the time in the past when the world was created.  These Dreamtime myths are reinterpreted on the canvas in a unique style, generally comprising dots and striking patterns.  When viewed from above, or on a map, the streets in the older and central areas of Canberra appear as a series of circles linked by straight lines, mimicking some aspects Australian indigenous painting techniques.  Canberra’s large circular roads, some of which are concentric, conspire to baffle out-of-town drivers.  But given that so many towns are built on boring yet functional grids, for some this lack of lineation offers a round type of respite, at least to those who know where they are going.

canberra_04And just how is the landscape of Canberra manifested in its residents?  Barring the odd traffic jam or booners[1] in Toranas[2] doing circle-work[3] in a suburban cul-de-sac, the city tends to have an air of calm about it.  Not unlike that of a country town.  For most residents it is not too far to get to a park and the surrounding mountain ranges are also conveniently accessible. But at times it seems like Canberrans think too much (on average, they are the most educated and highly paid in Australia), are too eager to complain and too prone to melancholy.  For those new to town, it can be a bit difficult meet new people as cliques prevail.  Like most places, there are many people struggling to make ends meet.  It is by no means an urban utopia.  And for a lot of people Canberra is not much more than how I saw it as a child: a reasonably pleasant city that while bland, is comfortable. To these folk I suggest that if you are willing to let it work on your imagination and dream a bit, like the backpacker did, Canberra can inspire.  Maybe not in the same way as a scenic mountain vista or a mega city bursting with life, but the potential is there in Canberra.  You just need to surrender yourself to it.

In referencing David Lynch, perhaps the scruffy backpacker was hinting that away from the quiet leafy streets and behind the front doors, lurks a seedy unfolding nightmare that is at odds with the well-manicured image that Canberra tends to display.  Think Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  No doubt this is true, for if you look for it, human misery and intrigue is just as present in Canberra as it is everywhere else.

Who knows what that backpacker really meant?  He probably left Australian shores some time ago, undoubtedly more tanned than when he arrived, and hopefully enriched by having taken the time to let his mind wander, inspired by his days in Canberra.

(Photos by Stephen Dann, Andrew Schroeder and Pascal Vuylsteker)
by Pascal VuylstekerPascal Vuylsteker

[1] Unrefined people, often young, prone to ostentatious acts of stupidity.

[2] A late model iconic car produced by Holden, favoured for its muscular performance.

[3] Driving a car in a manner that the wheels spin and a large amount of smoke and noise is produced.

Published in Focus: City and Poetry
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:56

Cities in winter: a wanderer in Europe

December 2009 has been cold in Europe, and snow has been falling everywhere, something that is not seen every year. When I was a child, the spectacle of snow piling into the streets was rather common. It became more rare as the years passed by.

I had to travel this winter, going to Paris and Toulouse in France, Munich and Aachen in Germany, before crossing Holland to go back to France. I had to go to offices and universities, I had to hasten through the streets and the underground, but I had also time to wander through the parks and the squares, to dream when looking through the windows of trains slowed by the weather, and to let recollections come back to my mind. I was thinking of all the cities I had lived in, of their minds and structures, of the way they have become engraved into my soul, as is a novel to which you often come back, as also are a movie, a piece of music or a voice that is dear to you. It was so hard to me to separate the core of my being and of my memory from these places in which I had lived and wandered: Paris, as a succession of villages, the Seine river separating the city as does a sudden twist in the plot of a novel, the capricious streets turning around and making you suddenly lose your way, like the disorderly dreams of my student days have been doing to me; Brussels, tragic and gray, where my first job and the first apartment of my own were awaiting me, and that sounded to my ears so melancholic and disenchanted; Toulouse, where I worked afterwards, with its pink melody of bricks, coffeehouses and spacious riverbanks; Lyons, as an elegant elegy that tunes down emotions and passions to the level of a quiet, discreet melody; and the contrasted cities of Holland, Spain and Italy like symphonies resonating with wind instruments and percussions; for two years, I had known New Haven, New York and Boston, and they had sounded to me like a poem in prose or like the lyrics of a song by Ella Fitzgerald…

And then I went to Asia – and different music and poems filled my mind. The walls of Tokyo had been to me like neat lines that separate chapters in a Japanese novel, the unity and plot of which you are unable to discern; Taipei had slowly become like an old-worn poetry anthology, which you know so well that you automatically go the page you wish to reread; Hong Kong has been like a surrealistic poem of which you renounce to penetrate the meaning, just letting you be drawn away by its rhythm and associations; Chengdu was like ancient poems that you do not understand very well but that you turn page by page, just letting the atmosphere enter like smoke into your body and your mind…

flavie_kersante_bristol1I was back in Europe, and it was like finding again the poetic anthologies I was reading as a child, words, turns of sentences and rhymes that sounded familiar like the noises of the street where you are living and that awaken you every morning.

There is something in the fallen snow in the streets of a city that make nature and culture meet suddenly, and culture then shows its basic frailty, how it can be engulfed by a sudden surge of nature’s hidden energies. It is also as if the intense poetry of the city’s lines, memories and trajectories become incarnate, unveil their essence to the eye of the wanderer, suddenly able to penetrate the secret that makes this conglomerate of buildings, empty spaces and people hold together as a whole. Snow always speaks of the invisible.

And, through these leisurely train trips, cities in Europe were extending a kind of fraternity across hundreds of kilometres. Scattered on the map, they were gathering in the palm of my hand, composing a dense, intense community of desires, fears and sounds that was transcending its material form. In the course of my winter travel, the cities of my youth were gathering into one, becoming smaller and smaller, denser and denser – a short and eternal poem that will float around you on your deathbed.


(Photos by B.V. and Flavie Kersante)

Published in Focus: City and Poetry
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:54

City and Poetry

Can city inspire poetry? Traditionally, Nature is the first source of poetic inspiration: lakes, mountains and trees move the heart and the lips, and the music of the Earth becomes the one of our soul. However, city has become like a “second nature” to us, and its streets, its moods, its people and its scenery work on our emotions and our aesthetic sensibility as do waterfalls, pine trees and rocks.

When thinking about the poetic nature of cities, there is something that can strike even more our imagination: a city looks actually like an immense poems; its avenues, buildings or underground can be read as a giant network of rhymes, metaphors and verses. The city is like an elegy that men write, carve and erect on the surface of the earth. And these poems of glass, iron and cement inspire to them artworks of words, images and stories. The city is poetry itself - the poetic work erected by men to the face of the sky.

Lastly, cities are not always good poems – they can become dry, repetitive, uninspiring… For sure, no builder or developer can fully control the poetic impact of a city, for a city is first and foremost the creation of its inhabitants. Still, planners, artists and elected officials can nurture the poetic soul of a city though well thought public arts projects, humane city development and encouragement to citizens’ initiative. Ultimately, the more a city truly belongs to the ones who inhabit it, the more it will become the trigger and repository of the emotions, thoughts and inspirations of the people who will wander through its streets, its parks and its labyrinths.

This issue of eRenlai explores these three dimensions: what kind of poetic feelings will a city arise within our hearts? How can the city proper be read as a giant poetic work? And how can we foster the poetic soul of the cities we inhabit? Let us hope that this issue will inspire all of us, and that it may reach the ones who are responsible for city planning. Our future will not depend only on their technical ability but rather on the way they will be able to respect and foster our dreams, our fantasies and our creativity…

(Drawing by Bendu)

Published in Focus: City and Poetry
Wednesday, 21 April 2010 14:59

Snapshots of campuses in Taipei

These photos from Hubert Kilian capture the cadence of campus life in Taipei.  For many students class is of primary importance at university.  However the moments between classes can be just as enriching. Walking, chatting, day-dreaming, sleeping, sharing, cuddling or stressing.  These are often the memories that stay with us into the future.

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