Between Henty and Culcairn, the brilliant yellow fields of canola flank the old Olympic Highway like Liberace’s bed sheets. Jenny, in leopard-skin wrap sunglasses, carefully glides the taxi down to 40km/h as every small town has its posse of police ready to pounce. Jenny guns the hybrid Camry at Water Works Road up to 100km/h. The rail road stalks us on the left with its pilgrim power poles standing to attention, arms widespread like an endless Calvary. The cab fare reads $288.60 and we are only halfway to Albury. Jenny tells me she took a passenger to St Vincents in Sydney for $1200 on the meter from Wagga, which seems impossible, as there is only room for three digits in dollars.
I’ll let it pass. This is only one of the mysteries I found on the Wagga Road to Albury. I have arrived late for everything in my life, except my birth, when I was months early. Judges get irritated but aeroplanes just take off, even if you’re at the booking desk at exactly the time the plane is scheduled. There is some little writing on all tickets suggesting you arrive 30 to 60 minutes before the scheduled flight time. Who reads that? Why would you schedule a flight at a time, and then turn a passenger away when he arrives at exactly that time?
We have just slowed down through Gerogery, as Jenny says, “The police live here, and they love people speeding. He’s got a little hidey-hole near the silos and he gets people coming either way.”
My court case finished early and I took the opportunity to attend the opening of the world famous MAMA in hometown Albury. Waterstreets Apartments (formerly Waterstreets Hotel) was booked out, so I splurged for a night at Travelodge (now Atura) in Dean Street. The credit crunch wiped out three of my Charlie’s Angels who found employment in lesser institutions with judges and the like. My inefficiency has now attained its platinum level. I managed to book the flight to Albury, which I missed, so rather than wait for the midday flight, I winged it to Wagga Wagga and lucky Jenny was in first place at the Wagga Wagga International Airport taxi line. Its now $366.50 on the meter, and my decision to catch the opening ceremony is dashed; it is 11.29 by Jenny’s massive black watch. The MAMA running sheet suggests “Dignitaries to move to MAMA balcony via main entrance for light refreshments by 12.45pm with the option to join invited guests (optional) at the Elizabeth Room. Swift St. Albury.”
I have well and truly missed the opening by the sensational and talented local member Sussan Ley, Minister for Health, the only ministerial survivor of the Turnbull Turnover. It’s obvious that the point of the taxi trip has been a horrible waste of money but I will be attending the “Big Night Out” celebrations. I think I am a dignitary, as opposed to “other invited guests” and eligible to attend the “Chandelier Room” as hospitality area (drinks provided) and food from vendors in the Square.
Suddenly, we are on a four-lane highway that, if travelled, would miss Albury completely. The FM radio 99.1 Wagga Wagga barely plays static with intermittent suggestions of band music as we are so far from home. We turn on to the Riverina Highway and we are in Albury, two hours late, missing the opening, and official tour of MAMA by the curator. Mission Unaccomplished.
MAMA (Murray Art Museum Albury) looks like the most exciting, vibrant building in Stockholm has fallen out of the sky and landed in the middle of Albury. It is exciting. Brazen. Beautiful. Controversial. Loud. It’s more hip than the orthopaedic wing at the Albury Base Hospital. It is fabulous. Especially the exhibition by Deborah Kelly & collaborators called No Human Being is Illegal (in all our glory). Like everything in MAMA it is contemporary and Kelly’s new series of works titled Venus Variations is installed next to the main exhibition, which is 20 striking and evolving life-sized nude photographic portraits first created for the 2014 Sydney Biennale. I was on my third visit to the room before the volunteer guide quizzed me as to why I kept coming back. I said I have a bad memory and I needed keep seeing the images so as to maintain the magic. The truth is I have an eye for the nude, and so does Kelly, and in her hands they’ve never looked better or suggested more.
I’ve always loved found art, mostly because of its price, but Karla Dickens has created a tribute to her great-grandmother Mary Anderson, who was taken by white men away from her mother and ended up dying in Callen Park. Karla uses objects found in tips, streets, paddocks, brush, cemeteries, and reimagines them as windows into the world Mary Anderson lived. On one wall hangs a medieval torture body suit made out of leather and lead, which was used to punish the wicked, the very wicked, who were picked and pecked by birds as they hung strapped into the paralysing suit. It suggested the strait-jacket that her great-grandmother must have worn. Karla had covered it in feathers, and polished it like school shoes so that it shone and sprinkled it with glitter and it beamed irony. Karla wrote a long series of stanzas, Ancestral Twine, to accompany the work. In one poem she writes “my black history/ broken/ in the day of Mary Anderson / loving her memory / I can not polish her story / I will hold her scars / in the light / bathe them in tears / honour her pain in art / with my knowing/ pieces.”
In Clipped Wings she writes: “I am a Wiradjuri woman, artist, mother / upheld with the power of my eagle totem / A bowerbird by nature.”
Her two bored children are scratching each other’s hair on the scalp, restless and unrelenting, Karla says “They’re sick of going to museums and art shows.”
I said I thought they were an installation, the way they used their hands like claws massaging the hours away. They looked like teenage Frida Kahlos with licorice lips and tumbleweed eyebrows, on the verge of puberty, on the edge of history. MAMA has everything. Karla has her hands full.
I’ll watch the opening at the Atura on WIN TV news tonight and pretend I was there. I suspect I’ll come back often as I’ve always been called a MAMA’s boy. A banner across Dean Street advertised the Tallangatta Fifties Festival on the last weekend in October which will nicely fit in with my own appearance at Regent Cinemas Albury on October 24 for an “On the Couch Conversation” with “wine on arrival and delicious finger food” promised. It’s just as I remembered it – Albury is the centre of the known world.