Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Impressions of Canberra

Written June 27

I’m home.

I’m not in the place I’d most like to live in Australia. I’m not in the most comfortable home I’ve been in while here. And I’m not surrounded by family or friends.

I have arrived in Australia’s replica of my hometown. And I can feel it in my veins. Stepping out of the car I breathe in the cool air, look at the leafless deciduous trees in front of the smooth stone monumental boxes that are the museums, and I am home.

Ask any Australian where you should visit in their country and you will get fairly standard answers. Sydney, Melbourne, Reef, Uluru, Great Ocean Road, Outback. Almost none of them will say Canberra. Even other backpackers won’t say to come here. The place is not in favor. There aren’t a lot of people here. There isn’t enough built up here to call it a social hub. And yet it isn’t frontier town, so you don’t get the nature-geek crowd either. It is a political city. And that seems to be what most Australians view it as.

I had to make it here. It was essential that this be one stop on my pilgrimage across the country. As a resident of DC, it was not a choice.

Australia started out as a British colony. Eventually they decided that they were over that and eschewed the crown to federate themselves as a sovereign nation. Having taken their time to do this, there were already a couple very large cities of influence and a wide spread of populace. When it came time to choose a capital city, the business hub voted for itself. Far away, the cultural hub voted for itself. It was a deadlock and no side was going to relinquish their grip. And so a compromise was reached. They would build a new city to be the new capital of this new nation. And they would do it between the population centers, somewhat near the middle of the spread of people.

This is Washington DC, Australia edition.

And in recreating DC, they’ve done a remarkably good job of it. They of course didn’t just stop at using the concept of DC as an inspiration of spirit. They’ve copied in large part the things they liked about it. The museums are large rectangular marble and smooth stone monoliths set in large flat grass spaces. A large chunk of them sit in a row, near the river. The Parliament building sits on a hill at one end of a long grassy expanse that is The Mall. The memorials are big, clean, elegant. The streets are wide. They come together in countless traffic circles. Even the lights on the footpaths outside the museums look like those in DC.

That isn’t to say it is DC entirely. The population here is proportionally small. There is a university, the government, museums, and the industries needed to keep those afloat. People live here for one of those three reasons. And so while the streets are as big and numerous as DC – and as circuitous and confusing if you don’t know them – they aren’t full of cars. Driving is something you can do here to actually get around, even during rush hour (though less so).

But for all that I love this place because it reminds me of home, I also have so far really enjoyed it as a city. While the nation may view it as the seat of political turmoil and out-of-touch demagogues (as much as Australia has the latter), it is also a city of culture. Specifically, the type of culture that can be purchased, consolidated, and curated. After all, where else would be the logical place to put the country’s arts budget to use than in the capital? And being funded by tax dollars, the admissions to most museums is free.

I spent today wandering around the National Gallery of Australia.* From opening to closing, with the exception of a couple hours I napped in my car. The collection is impressive. And well organized. Galleries lay out works from colonial times to impressionism, post-impressionism, surrealism, art deco, modernism, expressionism, minimalism, and pop. In chronological order. With explanations and context. And the most famous piece in the museum, the most famous and most expensive in all of Australia, is here as well: Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

The piece is mesmerizing. I spent half an hour looking at it. Up close. All at once. Focused intently. Unblinking for minutes. Letting the colors wash over me. Squinting to change the texture and colors. For a work I had thought I could do quite easily before I’d seen it, there was a depth and intentionality to it that I had not expected. I got out of it what I chose to. I’m sure anyone else looking at it would get completely different things.

I like it here in Canberra. There are plenty of other museums of memorials to see. I’m sad that I only have three days here. I may have to come back. We shall see. This is a place where I don’t want to sleep and lose the time. The buildings, the layout, the river, the monuments, the exhibits. This is a pretty place, and a seat of culture as much as it is of politics. Perhaps more of Australia will come to see that. I think they will eventually.

This may very well be a place I could buy a house to live in down the road. Maybe a few decades away. There need to be more people here to build up the social culture I want to be within. But those days will come. This place is DC fifty years ago. And down the road, after another financial crash, after the mining industry stops being the boon it is, when the front of economic power and political tensions and land disputes has shifted from Atlantic to Pacific, when it is clear that the government is an industry that isn’t going away, this place will have continued to grow the way that DC did in the last twenty years. And that might just about be the time that I’m ready to settle down in a house in one place for a longer time, to enjoy the finer, more seated things in life. Canberra, consider yourself on the short list.

POSTSCRIPT: I woke up today and fed the parking meter for an hour. I got to my car a bit late. Four minutes after the meter had expired I received a parking ticket. This truly is DC.

* There is still that feeling of an inferiority complex in the naming of things. In the US, the National Gallery of Art doesn’t need to specify that it is in the US. Its location manages that. Similarly, London’s The National Gallery doesn’t even feel the need to include the word ‘Art.’

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This entry was posted on June 29, 2012 by in ACT (Canberra), Australia and tagged .

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