Archive for September, 2013

Little Devils

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Tasmanian Devil

It turns out that Tasmania Devils are nothing at all like the cartoon.

Tasmanian Devil

After half a devil-free week in Tasmania, Elizabeth and I managed to hit the devil’s pen at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo during feeding time.  The two devils, are normally kept segregated, other than a very dramatic and somewhat indelicate mating process showing on a continuous video loop.

Tasmanian Devil

As we saw in several other areas of the zoo, the keepers do their best to keep the animals on their toes by hiding their food around the pen, even chaining it in place, making them hunt for their dinner—which they do enthusiastically.

Tasmanian Devil

Intellectually, I actually did know that they didn’t look like the Looney Tunes cartoon character, but I had no internal picture of what one looked like. They turned out to be much sleeker than I’d imagined.   This carnivorous marsupial’s looks sort of like the offspring of the much uglier and clumsier American opossum, and some kind of mink, with a tail that put’s its American cousin to shame.

Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devils are running a serious risk of becoming extinct in the wild. Forced off of Mainland Australia by the arrival of the dingo, approximately 5000 years ago, The remaining Tasmanian population has a relatively small genetic pool.  An unusual form of cancer, called ‘devil facial tumour disease’, has a 100% mortality rate. DFTD is spread by contact, which is especially unfortunate for an inbred population that fights constantly over both food and sex. Breeding programs may be the only hope for the survival of this fascinating and ecologically important predator.

Taronga Zoo

Sunday, September 15th, 2013


Wild animals don’t seem very comfortable in captivity, so Elizabeth and I are not big fans of zoos.  But we made an exception for Sydney’s highly-regarded Taronga Zoo, hoping to get a better look at some of Australia’s unusual animals that we hadn’t had a chance to see yet. We’d had some close encounters with koalas at Binna Burra, with their strangely graceless and unbelievably loud territorial calls, and a brief nocturnal glimpse. They sleep 18 hours a day, and do precious little when awake.  So we were looking forward to getting a closer look at some at the zoo. They could have been stuffed, for all we could tell.


Familiar with kangaroos, we didn’t appreciate the great variety and size of macropods, hopping marsupials with extremely large rear feet.  Surrounded by dozens of unphotographable pademelons ,  the roo’s smallest cousin, during evening flashlight walks, we were disappointed not to get a good look at one at the zoo.


We did get some good looks at a couple of different kinds of ‘roos, though. They were only slightly more alert than the koalas.


The two most characteristic features of Australia’s mammals are the fact that they are all nocturnal, rarely appearing in the daytime, but coming out in droves at night, and that they are all incredibly weird.  There must be a portal between Oz and Narnia.  The echidna , with its spiky exterior, functions in the same ecological niche as the North American porcupine (which to be fair, doesn’t have any more personality than a koala).


One disappointment was not seeing a platypus. We knew that they are nocturnal, relatively shy, and hang out in places where we are unlikely to go, like swamps.  The Sydney zoo goes to heroic effort to turn day into night, maintaining hundreds, if not thousands, of marsupials, spiders, reptiles, and birds in a sort of perpetual jet lag. A lavish indoor outdoor platypus pen had an attractive outdoor pool, filled with large blue crayfish, none of them being snacked upon by a platypus. The indoor half of the exhibit intended for the duck bills was closed, with only the ass end of a wombat for consolation.


Daytime in Oz belongs to the birds, which were well represented at the Sydney zoo.  We walked through a series of aviaries where we could have close encounters with emus.

Crimson Rosella

Crimson Rosellas

Australian King Parrot

and the Australian King Parrot. 


The Kookaburra is an Australian kingfisher that turns out to be much less shy than its North American cousins, and especially less shy than the English variety (which apparently refuses to mate if too many photographers are in the vicinity. The kookabbura, with a jungle cry beloved of amusement parks around the world, was not in a cage, but was flying free.  Maybe the fed the thing, but we had the impression he just liked being there. 

Snow Leopard

As covered in the previous blog entry, we also had a long visit with the Tasmanian devils.  The purpose of going to Taronga was to see the indigenous fauna, but once we finished with that, we still had a couple of hours to kill, so we went on a tour of the bears and big cats.  The snow tiger was pretty impressive, even without any snow.


I’ve seen lion king, but somehow, I’ve managed to live my entire life without fully appreciating the meerkat.  These little guys have a very efficient system, always leaving one very alert fellow on guard, while the rest of the meerkats do whatever it is that they do. We stayed for awhile watching the changing of the guard.


After a late lunch, and some time with the elephants and giraffes, we decided to head back for the Sydney ferr.

Brush Fire

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

Ring of Fire

Lots of smoke and distant fire added some unexpected interest to our 3 day stay in rustic Binna Burra Lodge Mountain Lodge.  Burns like this hadn’t happened for several decades, and we were told we were lucky to be there for the show.

Smoke visible on the far side of Ships Stern

About an hour directly west of Brisbane, in an area referred to as the Gold Coast Hinterland, (Queensland, Australia), Binna Burra, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, is surrounded by the Lamington National Park.  Warned that the Parks and Wildlife Service would be deliberately setting brush fires, looking out our bedroom window, we first noticed smoke about noon on Wednesday, coming from the far side of a sharp ridge to the east called Ships Steer.

View from our room at Binna Burra lodge at 3:15pm on Wed Aug 28.

By 3pm, it was clear that the fire had crested the peak of Ships Steer and was heading west, and by 4:15, flames were visible on the far side of the valley.

Visible Flames

Although a deep valley and a rain forest would probably keep the fire from reaching the lodge, by evening, the smoke smell was pervasive, spreading miles to the west, and creating an extraordinarily long and colorful sunset.

Smokey Sunset

By dark, Ships Steer was crowned with a ring of fire, making a surprisingly pretty show from our balcony.  Besides the flames, smoke and smell, we could actually hear the distant roar of the bush fire, with an occasional popping sound.

Ring of Fire

Burning is a natural part of these Australian forests, and some plants actually require the heat from a fire to germinate.  Getting roasted is a natural signal to the seeds that they are now in a cleared area and will have access to the sun. 

View from Bellbird Lookout

By Thursday, the fire had moved south along along Ships Steer, reaching Charraboomba Rock.  Although the entire crown had just experienced what appeared to be intense fires, from a distance, the canopy of the trees still appeared green. That night, the smoke was much more annoying, creating a significant haze, and mostly obscuring the sunset. There were only small glimpses of fire visible from our room.


Leaving the lodge and park on Friday, we stopped at Rosins Lookout to look up valley and see the last few traces of smoke. A ranger was making notes, and looking at Ships Steer through binoculars, so I stopped to chat with him.  He said that he and several other rangers had started the fires with handheld igniters, and they were very pleased with how successfully the burn had gone. He explained that after 20 years without a fire, dried brush was piled at least thigh high, presenting a serious risk of uncontrolled fire.  By deliberately burning in the winter, with cool nights (by their standards) and relatively high humidity (by their standards), a slow burn would consume the low lying brush, without harming the canopy.   He expected that they would reopen that section of the park to visitors within a few days, and that it would have new wild flowers immediately after the next rain.

The Poo Machine

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Tasmanian devil David Walsh’s delight in shock and playfulness are epitomized in the clinically neat and strangely compelling conceptual work Cloaca Professional, affectionately referred to as ‘the poo machine.’

Cloaca Professional, 2010

Many of the works in his privately owned Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) are characterized by Walsh’s preoccupation with sex and death, but one commission was intended to celebrate a different bodily function.  The most recent in a series by mad scientist Wim Delvoye, this digitally-controlled mechanical piece simulates the human digestive system.  Fed  from the right side (above) with chopped up food, and injected with a series of enzymes and chemicals, a neat series of glass reactor vessels progressively breakdown the nutrients.

Cloaca Professional, 2010

Evoking images of the laboratory, if not lavatory, the installation isn’t exactly beautiful, but it obviously was designed and built with a sense of aesthetics.  The gleaming glass and stainless steel spotlights the milkshake-colored slurry, accented by bright red plastic trim.  The individual vessels, each containing a different color and consistency of partially digested liquid, are vaguely evocative of udders and milking machines.The unpleasant smell is a bonus not offered by all works of art.

Cloaca Professional, 2010

In a triumph of regularity, artificial turds are emitted precisely at 2pm every afternoon (one can only imagine the eager crowd collecting at ‘reverse feeding’ time to experience the excitement of excrement).

For those who feel that modern and conceptual art is BS, Delvoye’s creation is a must see.

Subversive Adult Disneyland

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Exterior of MONA

Imagine if Tony Stark had one of the world’s largest private art collections, it was housed in the Batcave, and you were allowed to visit and even play with it some of it. It seems understatement to describe Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) as “the subversive adult Disneyland”.

Mona Roma

Financed by his success as a professional gambler, the eccentric David Walsh created a world-class museum up the Derwent from Tasmania’s largest city.  Clearly a personal vision, without the hindrance of boards or directors, the stunning, quirky, and  unusual pieces are housed within a beautiful and imaginative underground facility serviced by a his high-speed boat, the Mona Roma.

When My Heart Stops Beating

Elizabeth and I took the glass elevator down to the lower floor, and next to a bar serving beer made by Walsh’s co-located brewery, we were issued our iPods.  Instead of labels on the artworks, visitors use the iPods to read the descriptions of the art, which are often accompanied by personal notes from Walsh, along with other background information. Some of the iPod entries have topically related musical tracks.

Surreal Ping Pong

When first confronted with a huge trampoline, surrounded by brass temple bells, or a three-dimensional ping pong table, it isn’t immediately clear that you are actually supposed to interact with, even play with, many of the exhibits. Filled with paintings, statues, collages, and multi-media works, Elizabeth and I spent 6 hours in the place, and didn’t truly see everything.

On Perspective and Motion - Part II 2006

Many of the artworks are huge, taking up entire walls in a space that is the size, but certainly not the aesthetic, of a small convention center.  Screens are everywhere, some playing what could be easily understood as a movie or video, others defying easy categorization.

Vivian Girls

One room contained multiple pages from an extravagant 15,000 page work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.  I’d never heard of creator Henry Darger, but it turns out that ‘out is the new in’.  Our iPods offered three different musical tracks inspired by Darger’s Vivian Girls, pictured above in their least shocking form (yes, that’s blood smeared on the right most revolutionary).

The Holy Virgin Mary 1996

Famously dissed by Rudy Giuliani, and fully at home in a museum dedicated to the roasting of sacred cows, the only MONA work I was actually familiar with was Chris Ofili’s 1996 The Holy Virgin Mary.  Perhaps elephant dung is an artistic accent that should be considered an acquired taste.

David Walsh's Head

An exceptionally unusual feature of the MONA is a set of windows between the floor of the owner’s apartment and the ceiling of one of the galleries. After Elizabeth noticed a big shaggy dog in the apartment, I managed to catch someone, apparently Walsh, sitting in a chair.


A visit to the MONA isn’t necessarily over once you’ve left the museum.  If you enter your email address on the iPad, you can later login to the museum’s web site, and use a 3D mapping function to replay your trip chronologically or geographically. The web site allows you to view photos, descriptions, and commentary on the works you visited during the trip, and the ones you missed.

Untitled (White Library) 2004-6

Fat Car 2006


Berlin Buddha

Tasmanian Rainbow

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


Sailboat under Rainbow

Elizabeth and I took the high speed shuttle boat from the Hobart wharf up the Derwent to the fascinating new Museum of Old and New Art.   It was a reasonably warm late winter day, so I stood on deck to enjoy the sun and see if there were some interesting pictures, and I soon noticed an impending collision between a small sail boat and a large rainbow.

Marine Construction

I thought I did an OK job of positioning the boat under the rainbow, but then I was surprised that the rainbow kept moving in the same position on shore, parallel to our high speed boat. Next we passed a funny little work barge being pushed by a small Coast Guard boat, and I grabbed a series of shots when the rainbow went over the top.

Eternal Ocean

Next up was the 180m bulk carrier Eternal Ocean, apparently docked at the Zinc Works.

Hobart Zinc Works

My favorite shot was when the rainbow rolled over the top of the the Hobart Zinc Works.  I really liked the juxtaposition of the force of nature against industrial man.

 Military Vehicle in Shipyard

The Incat Shipworks came up next.  The funny looking gray boat is the HSV-2 Swift, a high-speed wave piercing catamaran owned by the US military.  Normally based in Norfolk, VA, it had come back to its maker for a refit.


Ten minutes after taking the first rainbow image, we pulled into the private dock in front of the private art museum, and the colors finally started to fade. 

Extra credit question: Was that the same rainbow for the entire trip, was it a series of rainbows, or was it an infinite sheet of spectrational mist, neatly segmented by our field of view, an infinite number of times?