‘Thirty years’, he thought, ‘it had taken him thirty years to put all this in place in the city that had accepted him, supported him and allowed him to, eventually, realise his dream. He’d done it.’
Sitting up high, on the balcony of his restaurant overlooking it all below, Tassie pinot in hand, he proudly glanced around his bush domain and then down to the city below. He could see across to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art – that peninsula edifice that had been the groundbreaker for all that had come later; for him and others. It had provided the pathway. Now this small southern climes metropolis rivaled the big boys of the cities that shaped the way humankind feel about art, and he was part of this mini-renaissance on the Derwent. On either side of MONA the dykes were going up, as they were in other low-lying places around the city, as they were around the globe. Finally the authorities had woken up that they had to do something about the inexorably rising seas before it was all too late. But he wasn’t going to allow gloomy thoughts to enter. All was good in his world – he was going to savour this anniversary.
He cast his mind back to this same day, thirty years previous, when the nub of the idea was encouraged into his mind. He still, even now, after all this time, has no notion of how much of that day was real, how much of it was some sort of hazy dream. Some of it he knows for sure, some of it is still a riddle to him. He does know that he, Jack Wang, possesses a unique memory – a memory that he will never utter. He presumes he shares it with others, that he is a member of a chosen few – but he can’t be sure. The knowledge will go to the grave with him, for he has promised.
Thursday, May 02, 2013
Jack Wang was happy, in fact, Jack Wang was more than happy. He was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to get home, to get home and tell the two people he considered his parents the news. Three years ago they bought Jack to this new land, this island – and now he calls it home. So lovely, so much space after the crowded confines of Hong Kong Island. ‘So many white people,’ – that was his first thought when he disembarked the plane at Sydney before transferring to a smaller one for the final leg to this teardrop in the southern oceans. His lovely new abode was on Mount Nelson, up behind his school; a house sparkling with light and glorious views – so different to his former crowded apartment.
He grew accustomed to being in the minority, but even so found the city had a strong, nurturing Chinese community. And his school; his school was wonderful. The teachers and other students were brilliantly caring and tolerant when he was struggling with the language, as well as the cultural differences. He had made some white friends, having good mates from the Asian cohort too. Why, he’d even had an occasional girlfriend. He couldn’t be happier. He was now shining at several subjects, but it was in the world of art he saw his future. His teacher in this curriculum area was endlessly patient. She had nominated him to be a participant in an exhibition of the best art work from Year 11 and 12 students from all around the state. His heads; his papier-mâché sculptured, larger than life tributes to those his admired as great were the hopeful pieces. They would be viewed by those who could maybe see something in him, with that leading to doors opening up for him. He had anxiously awaited the outcome, and today he received the news that his ‘heads’ had been accepted. He, Jack Wang, would feature in ArtRage – his work would be on show for the entire world to notice. This was the news that was accompanying him home, but he did not know it then that another door of an entirely different nature was about to open, changing his life – causing his present day good fortune!
Jack’s ‘parents’ often worked late – which encouraged him to spend time in the city’s galleries. This Thursday found him in the Glenorchy bus mall – Glenorchy being in the northern working class suburbs, therefore a place where one may encounter a fair sprinkling of bogans and rednecks. He’d been yet again to MONA, contrarily situated in this area of town, and he needed to transfer buses to take him to his more affluent side of Hobs. He sat himself down on a bench as the bus was still ten or so minutes away. There were other teenagers chiaking around him, and he was feeling somewhat self-conscious, with his Asian appearance in his posh school Hutchins uniform, in these parts. But it was not from his more scruffily attired peers that Jack’s problem arose.
Trying to keep a low profile, he was quietly waiting, reflecting on his good fortune and the kudos that waited for him at home. He looked around and noticed an old, decrepit man shuffling towards him. He came closer and closer. Jack tried to put a friendly expression on his face as it was apparent that this denizen of the streets wanted to say something to him. Jack noted his rheumy, bloodshot eyes, ruddy weather beaten face and days’ old stubble. His ancient grey suit was as greasy as his ancient grey hair. Jack assumed it was coinage he was after, so he started ferreting around in his pockets for change. He locked eyes with the old fellow, and quickly realised something more unappealing was afoot. The old man gargled deep in his throat, soon after which a gob of vile green mucus was projected onto Jack’s face, accompanied by the words, ‘Go back to where you came from boyo. We don’t want anymore ching chongs here.’
With that the old guy wheezed a chuckle and shuffled away. When Jack recovered he could hear laughter from the teenagers around him, enjoying the spectacle of the humiliation of the Chinese kid from the other side of town. Soon, though, they resumed their games of bravado and boast, but Jack was mortified; Jack was shattered. He wiped the spit from his face and buried his face in his hands. He stayed like that for several moments, and when he raised his head, there was somebody else standing in front of him – a little girl. To Jack she looked very young, this tiny lass of flaxen hair, olive complexion and incredible blue eyes. He took in what she was wearing - a cream smock with a floral yoke. This started him wondering where her parents could be. There didn’t seem to be anyone of that ilk in the vicinity, so he turned his attention back to the child. She calmly looked up at him, and then held out her hand, palm up, for him to take. He turned to the group nearest him and asked if they knew who she was, who she belonged to. If they heard they ignored him -continuing on with what they were doing, without missing a beat.
‘Who are you? What do you want? Do you want me to take your hand?’
With that she gave an almost imperceptible nod. Now Jack was not silly. He realised that in this day and age there were certain dangers in doing so, but he felt compelled to find the people she should be with, so he acquiesced to her calm demand. As soon as he did so, he felt her tug – she was obviously going to take him somewhere. Flummoxed, Jack let her do so, and she led him down to Main Road, crossing over at the lights and continuing along several blocks, toward the large, for this little city, Northgate Shopping Centre. Now this was a reasonable distance, causing Jack to be amazed that one so little showed no sign of flagging. Despite his concerns, passers-by did not bat an eyelid. It was if they were not there, as if they were invisible – just as with the kids back at the bus mall. They walked on, around to the back of the complex, to its western entrance.
This entry way took the form of a bridge across a storm water drain – or was it a cluttered natural water course? She took him to the railings where they both peered down, taking in its weeds, copious plastic bags – even a couple of rusty feral shopping trolleys. Then the girl drew his attention to herself as she opened her mouth, poised to speak. One word came out – ‘Blink.’
And he did so.
He opened his eyes, realising as he did so something had changed. He was no longer above – he was below, under the bridge – not on it. He realised that his little guide was no longer there with him. Finally he realised that there was a door in front of him – a door that was slowly opening. He felt compelled to step through – some force was pulling him in. He stepped across the threshold into darkness. Then there was the same voice again, the little girl’s voice; with again, the same word – ‘Blink.’
When Jack Wang reopened his eyes, he was in a different world. There was light, diffused light. There was a creek beside him – the same creek as the bridge crossed? He had no idea. Apart from the patch of clearing he was standing on, he was surrounded by pristine bush – man ferns and tall gums. Then again came the word, and yet again Jack Wang felt compelled to do so.
This time there was another standing in front of him in those forest surrounds – a girl like no other he had seen in all his years. She was much older than the tiny lass who left him at Northgate. She was around his own age, but with the same golden hair and clear tanned complexion as the little mite of a few minutes ago. And there were those blue eyes again. As for her attire; well he’d seen some weird sights around Hobart in the few years he’d been resident, but nothing compared to this seemingly surreal presence before him. Around her waist she wore an animal skin, of a brown hue, with pronounced black vertical stripes. Above she wore a cloak of green material, festooned with eucalypt leaves, and across her chest was a quiver of arrows. Over her left shoulder she carried a long bow of sapling wood. To him she appeared as a modern day Maid Marion, emerged from Sherwood Forest. She was standing there quietly – just waiting.
She wasn’t alone. Flanking her were a pair of panting creatures he initially took to be dogs. Then he spotted that their backs were striped – striped in the same manner as her skirt of hide. They were, but they couldn’t be, could they? They were thylacine. He was agog.
As discombobulated as he was, he still managed to blurt out, - ‘…but they’re extinct!’
Unlike her small predecessor, she spoke – ‘They are, on your side Jack Wang, but not on mine.’
She spoke with an accent he couldn’t quite discern. The words were perfectly formed, but they were soft, semi-whispered – akin to a summer breeze, he thought. ‘Sometimes, sometimes they do find a way to pass across but no, Jack Wang, no – they are not extinct.
‘You know my name! Who are you? What do you want from me?
‘Most would call me dryad, Jack Wang. Others call me Poppea. Whatever you call me Jack Wang, I am your friend. I am here to guide you on this side, to guide you to what you must do.’
‘And the little girl, the little girl who brought me to you? Who…will she be all right?’
‘She is my sister on the other side, Jack Wang, and she is Tyger. Brave she is. Brave as can be; so stout of heart. She knows no fear. You do not need to worry. And now, we must go.’
Poppea raised he arm and pointed – ‘Up there, Jack Wang. Up there’
He followed the line of her arm and raised his head. She was pointing to a flat topped hill under the massif that watches over his city, Mount Wellington. He could see its impressive bulwark through the tree tops, could make out the Organ Pipes. But strangely, he could not discern the television towers that were there, day in, day out, crowning the pinnacle.
‘I am not sure I have the time to make it up there.’
‘Here time is of no consequence. But now, Jack Wang……..’
‘Yes, I know……..blink.’ And he did
What he saw this time made him take several paces back – for in front of them was a giant eagle – a giant saddled eagle – ‘Who…? What…?’
‘Old White Belly. My totem. My friend. He will take us safely to our destination.’
And he did.
Jack had never felt so exhilarated. He was on the back of Old Whitebelly, working the up draughts over the city , up draughts taking them higher and higher – to way above the crown of Mt Wellington. He swore as he looked to the southern seas beyond he could actually see icebergs. He had his arms around the waist of Poppea in front, hanging on for dear life. He felt he was the star of a sequel to ‘Avatar’, with the mysterious forest green-cloaked maiden his Neytiri. The icing was when the mighty sea eagle soared down to land on the plateau of the indicated hill below Wellington’s ramparts. That descent – wow, what a rush! On dismounting, they were in another clearing; this one minus a creek, with trees more openly spread.
‘Blink please,’ Poppea instructed.
‘Nice to have that please,’ retorted Jack – as he did so.
The impressive avian transportation was gone, but two thylacines sauntered in from the scrubby surrounds to again stand beside Poppea. Same thylacines as below? He had no idea, but he went on to ask, ‘Now, will you tell me why I am here?’
‘Why Jack Wang, this is where you must do it – do your life’s work. It is here your purpose for being on the other side lies. This is what you have been chosen for.’
‘You have been chosen by those of the forest to do this thing Jack Wang.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It is not necessary for you to understand Jack Wang. In due time it will all become clear to you, like a crystal.’
‘And why in this place?’
‘It is here that it occurred Jack Wang – the battle to end all battles. The battle between good and evil on this side, Jack Wang. A battle that must be remembered by all – a battle that must be commemorated for the future people on both our sides.’
‘You mean the battle between the environmentalists and the forest workers?’ Jack knew in the last few weeks the island’s leaders had finally signed documents to ease the tensions over the protection of wilderness areas on his beautiful island.
‘Yes, like that Jack Wang – but bigger, longer, older; with real weapons!’
‘I have not heard of this. I have not read of it in the newspapers, Poppea.’
‘It is recorded Jack Wang, if you know where to look. You will search it out.’
‘So, please tell me Poppea. What exactly is it you want me to do here?
‘Jack Wang, I have already said that it will become obvious. We on this side have faith in you that you will reach the right conclusions – but you must promise me something Jack Wang. You must never speak of what has happened here when you return to the other side. Jack Wang – you must give me your oath. Will you do that – will you place your hand on your heart and give me your solemn promise?’
And Jack did that as well.
‘And now it is time……..’
‘……..for another ride on Old Whitebelly?’
‘No, no Jack Wang. You must depart this side and go back to your own. You must blink one last time. Farewell Jack Wang.’
Jack felt someone shake his shoulders. As he emerged from darkness he could smell beer, tobacco and see green-tinged teeth smiling at him. It was the old man again.
‘Wake up boyo. You were sounda. I think you need to catch this bus that has just arrived, judging by your uniform. There won’t be another for a while.’ Jack mumbled his thanks as he headed off to the bus, tuning to look quizzically at the old man once more. All the way back to Mount Nelson he wondered what it was he had just experienced.
His ‘parents’, as predicted, were joyous at his news. But what they couldn’t understand, though, was why Jack was so subdued, so seemingly preoccupied – normally when good stuff happened to him he’d be yo-yoing around the room like an excitable puppy. Was he in love again?
May 02, 2043
‘Well I was back then, sort of,’ thought Jack as he continued his ruminations three decades on. So much has happened since then. He’d had some affairs of the heart since Poppea, before settling on the one to share his adventure. But he could never forget his forest sprite, flanked by her thylacines, and that wondrous ride on Old Whitebelly.
It was almost time to close up. He went back inside to his to his restaurant where his hospitality staff were cleaning up, casting a glance as he did so over to the two display cases on the wall. Behind glass were mounted his two ‘heads’ from all those years ago at ArtRage - the commencement of his journey. One was of Obama, the now revered first negro President. Old now, he is still the conscience of his nation. The other taught the world what could be achieved through peaceful ‘people power’ – Gandhi. Many other of his ‘heads’ were down below, spread around the park, mounted on larger than life fantastical bodies – the work of many other sculptors. That was how his now vast project started – his ‘heads’, their ‘bodies’. Then he expanded, bringing in other sculptors to work in wood, stone and metal – mainly from Australia, but increasingly from overseas these days. The word spread – anyone of note just had to have a piece erected within his domain on the flat-topped hill flanking Kunanyi, as Mt Wellington was now called.
He wandered out back to the studios to ensure they were clear of any tardy visitors. These were available for artists and school parties and were increasingly well patronized. He looked out into the late afternoon gilded light that was so peculiar to Hobart in late autumn. He saw the remaining visitors hurrying to catch the last cable car for the day down to suburbia below. He knew others, the hardier ones, would be taking the so called ‘alpine walk’ to the mountain terminus and hotel complex at the Springs. Now satisfied all was under control, he prepared to make is own walk down to his residence, his ‘eyrie’ below the park, where Mei awaited. As always, she would provide him with food, drink and succour. He’d quietly celebrate, for even she did not know.
She’d come on board at the beginning as his personal assistant, but was now so much more. She had a way with words just as he had a way with ideas. She shaped his nebulous notions into submissions that won over first the Chinese community and the city burghers, followed, importantly, by Mr David Walsh, the ‘godfather’ of MONA. What they couldn’t provide in funds came from a belatedly enthusiastic state government. They were hoping for a repeat of MONA – they got it. Mei in many ways reminded him of Poppea, but an oriental version thereof. Slim and still lithe due to her fitness regime, she still lights up his world all these years down the track. She remains his muse; she, Tyger and Poppea.
He searched the world for edgy installations to supplement ‘his heads, their bodies’, and what started as a trickle over the years was now a clamour, forming the perfect adjunct to the city’s other attractions; a network linked by the light rail as well as a cable car up to the attractions on Kunanyi’s summit, with its restaurants and theme park.
One day, around fifteen years ago, he was trying to think of ways to ‘value add’ to the tourist jewel he built on the side of the mountain. His mind took him back to that other girl of dreams – the tiny Tyger. Then in a flash of inspiration it came to him
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night.
His domain was surrounded by forest – tyger – burning bright – burning – Burning Man!!!!!!
That annual festival of weirdness was still going in the Nevada Desert all these years on, culminating on the eve of the summer solstice. Why not replicate it – but for the southern hemisphere? And Jack did – but instead of ‘man’ read tiger, or thylacine to be exact, remembering Poppea’s marsupial companions from the event that changed his life.
And like his sculpture park it has taken off, caught the public’s imagination. It is ‘the’ event on Hobart’s attractions calendar. Thousands come from all over Oz, and further, to witness the giant wicker Tasmanian tiger explode in flames to the beat of the country’s top music acts. The antics of the revelers became an attraction in itself, rivaling the American template in outlandishness of garb, or lack of. After years of that other artistic Disneyland for adults on its Derwent peninsula, the local general citizenry was no longer shocked by displays of bare flesh.
He wonders if indeed somewhere Poppea and Tyger watched over all this as it evolved - indeed are still watching over him. He hoped they are approving of his achievements at Tyger Park. He imagines them still surfing the air currents on Old Whitebelly, somewhere up above him, protecting their dominion on the other side. And yes, he did discover where it was all recorded.
On some nights he leaves his bed and Mei to walk around the park in the wee small hours, when all is still – when the trees sleep. Occasionally, very occasionally, he catches glimpses of them – shadowy stripes in a moonlit blur of motion. And he knows they have, for a time, passed through the door.
They are out there; they are out there.
Jack Wang is a student at Hutchins whose two ‘heads’ featured in ArtRage 2013 at the Plimsoll Gallery, Hobart.
I saw them on May 02, 2013 – and read how the racial abuse hurled at him by an elderly citizen inspired the pieces.
Driving towards the mountain up Derwent Park Road it is possible to see the flat-topped hill below the peak.
The rest is from my imagination for a beautiful little one year old girl.