n. the bush. In Australia the bush refers to any un-inhabited, or sparsely-inhabited region regardless of vegetation.
n. bushranger. Australian. Originally referred to escaped convicts who used the bush to hide in. By the 1820s it had evolved to refer to criminals who commit highway robbery and use the bush as their base. The equivalent of the British highwayman, or the American outlaw.

Ned Kelly was a bushranger.

Ned Kelly is Australia’s most famous folk hero; a hero who represents the strong streak of rebelliousness against authority that runs through the (white) Australian character; this is not surprising given that the original colonial inhabitants were convicts and their gaolers.

Ned Kelly is especially famous for his homemade armour.

There’s probably not a single Australian who has not heard of Ned Kelly.

He was the son of an Irish convict. Very briefly: in 1878 a young policeman came to arrest him for horse stealing. A fist fight broke out. As a result, wanted for wounding with intent to murder, Kelly fled into the bush with his brother Dan and a small gang. They spent the next 20 months on the run, ambushing policemen and robbing banks. Their final clash with the authorities was a ferocious shootout in which the outlaws wore homemade helmets and armour bolted together out of ploughshares. Kelly was captured and taken to Melbourne, where he was hanged in 1880.

Among the most famous paintings in Australia are Sidney Nolan’s 27 narrative paintings of Ned Kelly, painted in 1946-47. Nolan’s stark and simplistic rendering of Kelly in his homemade armour is an iconic Australian image.

I learned about these paintings in school of course, but seeing them in the National Gallery of Australia when we are there earlier this year I am struck by how powerful they are; powerful in the telling of Kelly’s story, and powerful in the depiction of the Australian landscape.

However, we don’t come to the gallery to see the Ned Kelly paintings, though they are the first to grab my attention when we arrive. We’ve come to see the new Cressida Campbell exhibition.

Here we are arriving at the entrance to the special exhibition that the gallery has curated, and that includes a whole wall devoted to a reprint of one of her paintings,

Photo by Don Read

Having lived in Canada for the past 40 years I’d not heard of her; her renown has been a slow build to the point that now her bigger works sell for $50,000. It is often said that Campbell’s gift as an artist is that she sees beauty in everyday objects, and it is the sheer beauty of her prints and woodblocks that draws me in. It seems to me that in the modern art world one has to make dark or dramatic or political images to be taken seriously, but give me beauty anytime.

Yeah, we loved this exhibition so much we went twice!

Photo by Don Read

Near the entrance there’s an enormous life-size candle, of a man looking at a cell phone while standing on a fridge. The candle is alight and the entire sculpture is slowly melting. It has burned down enough that the man has lost his head, which has fallen to the floor.

It’s the second burning of this man at the gallery, right down to nothing but a pile of dripping wax. It was then recast and the slow disintegration of the piece began again.

It is the work of Swiss artist Urs Fischer. Wax is the quintessential medium of his art, and the material both forms the work and creates a means for its repeated destruction, as it can be recast again and again. He created a wax sculpture of The Rape of the Sabine Women for the Venice Biennale of 2011, and there are photos online of the completed sculpture on a plinth, and photos of the pile of dripped wax that it was reduced to. This transformation is so evocative; the planned breakdown of the body a poignant symbol. How can you not be moved by a sculpture of a human being that will end in complete disintegration. We are powerless in the face of it.

In its essential message there is a similarity in the works of Cressida Campbell and Urs Fischer, though it is subtle. Her work celebrates life in all its mundane beauty, the aesthetic of everyday objects, honouring the transitory moments of ordinary life. Through her views of the harbour, or an arrangement of nasturtiums, or a vase of red gerberas, the artist celebrates the fleeting moments of life. Everything eventually passes away. In Campbell’s work we can forget that and simply enjoy the beauty. In Fischer’s work there is no denying it. Campbell’s work is all about the beauty. Fischer’s is about the slow burn.

Located in Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia was established in 1967 and now houses more than 166,000 works of art.

The specially designed building has 23,000 square metres of floor space,

a significant collection of large outdoor sculptures, fountains and gardens,

and a James Turrell skyspace located on the south side of the main building.

The American artist James Turrell has created over 82 skyspaces around the world. His medium is light, and his installations are viewing chambers that affect the way we perceive the sky. The National Gallery’s skyspace, Within Without, one of the most complex Turrell has created, is accessed by a long sloping walkway. The interior of this square-based pyramid has soft red ochre walls reminiscent of the colours of the Australian desert. A large basalt stupa dominates the centre and it is through the opening at the top of it that the light enters

and allows the sky to be reflected in a pool of turquoise water. The water highlights the sky in some places,

and us in others.

The entire construction is breathtaking, surprising, astonishing. And it’s a great place to play!

Photo by Julie Garran


Photo by Julie Garran


Photo by Julie Garran

From the National Gallery website: The National Gallery is committed to ensuring First Nations art, artists and culture are at the heart of the national cultural agenda.The National Gallery is committed to building and maintaining meaningful relationships with First Nations peoples, artists, communities, organisations and cultures.
The National Gallery is custodian of the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, comprising over 7500 works, which embraces, reflects and amplifies the diversity of First Nations art and culture.

It’s heart-opening for me to see how the Aboriginal people in Australia are becoming less and less marginalized, more and more celebrated; and to see how their art, in all its forms, is now taken seriously, whereas in the past it was dismissed as primitive, and therefore of little consequence except to anthropologists.

This piece, Sacred Grasses, is by Ada Bird Petyarr

The National Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the Traditional Custodians of the Kamberri/Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country. More and more they are taken seriously, and acknowledged as the original inhabitants of this land.

From art by one of the oldest peoples in the world, to something undeniably contemporary. Three screens in a row on a wall, each screen with an image of a woman’s face. We are intrigued and puzzled. What is this?

Photo by Julie Garran

And then suddenly an off-stage gust of wind, hair flies in disarray, and we are mesmerized. We watch for a while. Hair settles, then flies up again, always in a different way, random, and at times amusing. There’s no knowing which way the hair will dance. Or when. Sadly I didn’t get the name of the artist. Is it even art? I would say so, though certainly it’s unconventional. Either way it had our attention.

Australia’s such a young country for the colonists, though one of the oldest in the world for the First Nations people. Despite the atrocities committed against them, it seems that the original peoples and the white interlopers are slowly starting to live side by side. It helps that Australia is a multicultural society no matter the rise and fall of complaints about immigrants. We’re all immigrants, every single one of us who came from afar. Canberra is even younger than the original colonial settlement, and never grew organically the way cities normally do, so it can seem a bit staid and sterile. But then there are things like skyspace, and the coffee scene, the nature reserves, and all kinds of festivals. And the National Gallery – so nice we went there twice.

Next post: Swinging back to Greece and a visit to Iraklio/Heraklion on the north east coast of Crete.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.