Wentworth Street

IMG_0057Port Kembla. Kembla meaning ‘plenty of wild fowl’ but to all contemporary intents and purposes — Steel City. Also Iron City, Copper City, Coal City, Heavy Industry City and, like all such places, subject to fluctuation.

In the early 1980s the various arms of BHP employed nearly 30,000 people in Port Kembla. That figure is now a little above 3,000. Business pages talk: ‘an oversupply of steel, overseas competition, a stubbornly high dollar and muted domestic demand from the construction sector have again brought steel to its knees.’

images-1Until 20 February last year it was also home to Australia’s highest chimney stack, 198 metres. Impressive or what? Unwind half an athletics track, stick it up in the air and blow industrial waste out if it. Port Kembla Primary School was once located next door but was closed down due to pollution problems including lead-contaminated soil, acid rain and soot. But that’s all. A warning alarm was fitted to warn of high toxin levels. I’m not sure if the kids were sent home or just instructed not to breathe when it went off.

In 2008, an inspection confirmed that the stack had concrete cancer. Demolition was planned for 2010 at a cost of A$10 million. Correct. $10 million. A team of 30 people working on it for 20 months with nine NSW government agencies involved. Taken collectively those factors would slow things down, but there were also asbestos concerns.

vp14r0_96_1024_672_w1200_h678_fmaxClearly the stack added a certain landmark frisson to Port. The Gong (the city of Wollongong) 10 k.s north and much bigger had nothing like this.

The stack did come down 12 months ago. The Illawarra Mercury had an 8-page commemorative wrap with a live blog. It was a major story in the Canberra Times. Thousands turned out to watch. Many of them would have been sad. The demolition would have left big hole in the landscape.5272032-1x1-700x700IMG_0066I guess this is relevant. When I was chatting to Julie Howard (at left) about Port Kembla the stack and its fate came up very early in the conversation.

But this is not about the stack. It is about Wentworth St, Kembla’s main artery.

IMG_0014A couple of months ago I was due to make a visit to Illawarra Sports High not far away in Berkeley, had an hour to kill and needed a cup of coffee. I turned down Five Islands Road and took the funny little Darcy St dogleg to get me into Wentworth Street, drove down the hill, up the other side, did a U-turn and drove back again. I bought a paper and was directed to the Enigma Coffee Emporium where I met Julie and her excellent coffee and very fine home made cake.

I drank in as much of where I was as I could, because I wasn’t sure just where that was. And then I came back, twice, because I thought I needed to.

David-Warner-of-Australia-celebrates-his-century-during-day-three-of-the-Third-Ashes-Test-Match83UnknownThere was the architecture. Let’s call it NSW Deco, certainly with a strong ’40s and ’50s flavour but individual in a Dave Warner (at left and right) sort of way, a not-to-be-denied individuality, coupled with a little bit of ‘theoretically I don’t speak Hindi’ kind of individuality.

And there were the shops. More than half of them are empty. It is a ghost town in the middle of a conurbation.

I am moved by dying towns and we’ve seen lot of them. They are often the beginning of walks. Timber, mining, tourism — they are all likely to be near somewhere naturally beautiful or interesting, and they are all likely to be going up or down. Although I am very anxious in an empty shop, I like the patina of decay. I like thinking about who has been there and what they’ve been doing, the detail of social trajectories.

In that light I wondered what Wentworth Street had been like as a bustling shopping strip, if it had ever bustled because there wasn’t much bustling going on there now.app

 At left and below are glimpses of how it began, and what it became. nla.pic-an23817226-v

We found the Westfield’s mall — with more than 56,000 m2 of retail space (yes!!! punches air) — at Warrawong a kilometre away when we went to see Penguins of Madagascar. Film and mall were well suited. Both require 8 litres of coke and a cubic metre of pop corn for digestion.

The Warrawong Mall is one of the beasts that have killed Wentworth Street. And yet, and yet …

Let’s see a bit of what the street looks like now. The formidable houses are at ends of the main drag.images-5















The lads have left their mark on some of the decoration.


But art springs up elsewhere.IMG_0020

IMG_0052images-2The International Billy Cart Derby celebrated above, began in 1941, collapsed in the 1980s and recommenced in 2012.




Is this so very different from the Rosalie Gascoigne below?Unknown-1

It is art, decay as art as well as art in decay. But it might also be art growing out of decay — the vacant buildings, the cheap rents, the congenial company — that revitalises Wentworth Street.

Both hills are showing signs of life. IMG_0050Besides a whopping bottle shop, the eastern end is growing a cluster of bric a brac and antique shops, and a bakery with fabulous smells. Amanda Johnson (at left) collects and sells vintage material and makes it up into wonderfully inventive bits and pieces. Dulcie Dal Molin is president of the Red Point Artists Association based in a Wentworth Street property and organises the Billycart Derby. The Illawarra Mercury quotes her: ‘Since the first revived race in 2012, Wentworth Street now has boutique wedding shops and an arts precinct.’


So hooray.


IMG_0067The other hill is dominated by the pub but there’s a chemist, hairdresser’s, newsagent, gift shop, more wedding stuff, flowers, party hire. Kevin Crane (looking fabulous at left) from Broken Glass hairdressers has won awards.w1200_h678_fcrop

It all just might work. The Wollongong City Council, which has just spent a small fortune on duding up its own mall, commissioned a town planning study about what to do with Wentworth St. It was published in 2007 and the recommendations were pallid, and cheap: work on the main street entrances, emphasis on pedestrians (there’s no one else there chaps), new street furniture and signage.

But, seriously, would you get town planners to sort out something like this? You’d have to agree for start about what the result was going to be.

I left with a sense that it might be women who make Wentworth Street into a home for more than their working sisters. Maybe that’s part of the regrowth phase. Low key projects, low financial investment, moderate to high emotional investment, modest ambitions.

I’ve got to say I like it the way it is right now, but a) I’m a blow-in and b) I’m not trying to make a living there.

But when it’s gone, it’s not going to be anywhere else.IMG_0072

Chuck Close at the MCA

92532383_3784818cd6This is Bob where I first saw him in 1982, in the Australian National Gallery. It was an early acquisition and at nearly 3 metres high and 2.14 wide competed with Anselm Keifer’s ‘Twilight of the West’ for dominance of the space where they were displayed. Probably like most people I thought, hmm big photo, quality print, caught a moment and, probably like most people, was a bit shocked to discover it was a canvas covered with acrylic paint. However close you stood it was hard to be convinced. Photorealism realised.

Chuck Close was the artist.

I began to follow his career which has at least two unusual aspects. The first was that Chuck has prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, a cognitive disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired while other aspects of visual processing and intellectual function remain intact. It can be acquired or congenital and may affect up to 2.5% of the population. The specific brain area usually associated with prosopagnosia is the fusiform gyrus which activates specifically in response to faces allowing the recognition of faces in more detail than other similarly complex objects. Rather thrilling in itself. To date, no therapies have demonstrated a capacity to remediate the condition. Prosopagnosics often learn to use ‘feature-by-feature’ recognition strategies involving secondary clues such as clothing, gait, hair color, body shape or voice. Because the face seems to function as an important identifying feature in memory, it can also be difficult for people with this condition to keep track of information about people, and socialise normally with others. Who else has prosopagnosia? Friend to primates Jane Goodall; UnknownFrench actor Thierry Lhermitte (at left) whose face you might recognise if not his name; possibly accounting for his very wide range of wives and mistresses playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (né Tomáš Straussler, who knew); Dr Karl of Triple J and splendid shirts fame; Oliver Sacks who despite writing case studies of prosopagnosia didn’t realise until recently he had it himself.

There is a major exhibition of Close’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney at present, and Myrna didn’t like it much. One of her reasons was that there were too many self portraits, and yes there were a great many, but maybe it’s a manifestation of his prosopagnosia. Close himself has said: ‘I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me.’ A need to establish your own physical identity?

Perhaps paradoxically, Bob the subject (Robert Israel) has said: ‘I had wanted Chuck to ask me to pose for him, but I really didn’t feel it was proper for me to ask. Chuck’s decision of who he would paint had to do not only with whether you were a friend, but with the topology of your face.’ What’s he seeing there? Close tells his own story about Bob. ‘I had taken a break and was walking back into the studio. Looking at the painting, I realised that a highlight in one of the eyes was too bright. And I said, “Damn it, now I’m going to have to take his glasses off”. But when I realised what I had said, I pivoted on my heel and walked out leaving the lights on, the compressor on and the airbrushes full of paint. When you start believing in your own illusion, you’re in serious trouble.’ Clearly his relationship with his work is complex. Is this another version of the idea of art, high art, fine art, being a product of dysfunctionality? IMG_0113And this is Chuck. (It’s a photo that I took of the desktop of the computer at the entry counter.) He’s in his wheelchair. In December 1988, Close suffered a seizure which left him paralyzed from the neck down. A spinal artery had collapsed. He’s worked hard to get some mobility back and for some time he has been able to paint by strapping paint brushes to his arms and moving them — the second remarkable aspect of his career. So, rather than the very fine work with spray painter, airbrush and so on, his gestures have become larger and his media more wide-ranging.IMG_0107 Again, art influenced and modified by infirmity. At left is a detail from the self-portrait on the right. What brilliant colour management.IMG_0108

Another reason Myrna didn’t like the show was its focus on the technical aspects of the work. She had been warned. It was called ‘Prints, process and collaboration’ and it was one of the reasons I enjoyed it.

It was a display of North American can-do technological skill and willingness to experiment in collaboration with master craftspeople. I like that. He moved from paint to print a long time ago but now we have very complex photo processing which produced this lovely portrait in which the whites are stronger than I have been able to make them here.IMG_0104 IMG_0095And adventures in paper pulp (above, plugged into the grid at right according to a very detailed ‘colour’ chart), and renaissance games with perspective (below).IMG_0088And this, this, is a tapestry!IMG_0105 It was clear how the print series layering colour on colour become their own works of art both as individual pieces and as series.IMG_0083 Even the print woodblocks create their own jigsaw of delight. IMG_0097 Finally, the audience makes its own contribution.IMG_0103 IMG_0091Jacquard tapestries. Roy Lichtenstein on the left. Extraordinary.

•••••••••• IMG_0024Tangential reason #713 for living in one place, or another: in the Wollongong Gallery you get just one pair of Phyllis Stewart’s gorgeous shell slippers. In the metropolis you get more.IMG_0109

Attractive Curiosities: wet and arty


Pt Kembla sea pool. Two swimmers. Disappearing into infinity. The colours of ghosts. The terraces at left suggest another different time. Such a beautiful pool.

IMG_0009North Wollongong beach. Hot. IMG_0010From a distance the statue looks, what, Grecian? Up closer, a bit more terrorifying.


The rocks above the Gong’s sea baths.


Wedding Cake Rocks in the Royal National Park.


The Illawarra as described on the outside wall of the Wollongong gallery.IMG_0028

The Illawarra as described on the inside wall of the Wollongong gallery.IMG_0026

The Illawarra as described on the bedroom wall of the Wollongong gallery.


‘Why me?’ Alice McKenzie, Narwan woman. Self-explanatory.IMG_0021

Untitled masterpiece. George Tjungurrayi, Kiwirrkura man. Not self-explanatory.


Lady Di providing direction to three Pre-Raphaelite chaps.


Why this? Why anything?