7th November 1999

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Beading, carving on Coke cans and soap

An exhibition of the work of Australian artist Fiona Hall opened at Gallery 706 on Saturday. Fiona Hall is widely recognized as one of Australia's most prolific and innovative artists. Her work spans Imagethe disciplines of photography, sculpture, painting, installation, horticulture and design.

Fiona Hall is visiting Sri Lanka at the invitation of eminent Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa's Lunuganga Trust. Fiona's visit marks the beginning of the Lunuganga Trust's artist-in-residence programme. Her visit is also the first in what will be a series of interactions and exchanges between Australian and Sri Lankan artists sponsored by the Australian Government under the Asia- link arts exchange programme.

During her stay, Hall will present a lecture about her work and meet with local artists, architects and landscape designers.

A leading force in contemporary Australian art, Hall's work operates at the juncture between humanity and the natural world. Using techniques such as knitting, beading and carving, often in unlikely materials such as Coke cans, video tape or soap, Hall draws attention to the processes of production and the connotations that certain materials have in contemporary society.

Hall's work has been shown widely both in Australia and overseas, including in a number of Biennales, as well as at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.

Overseas exhibitions have included shows in Bangkok, Tokyo, Italy, Copenhagen and Cologne. Hall recently collaborated with the Indian artist Nalini Malani, and the work was shown both in Bombay and in Sydney. Hall was unusual in being given a solo show at the National Gallery of Australia in 1992, an honour usually only bestowed upon artists in their late careers. This exhibition toured Australia to great acclaim through 1994. In 1997 Hall was the winner of the inaugural Contempora 5 art award, held at the National Gallery of Victoria. Throughout her career, Hall has also worked on a wide range of commissions. Her most recent completed commission was a garden in the courtyard of the New Exhibitions Galleries at the National Gallery of Australia.

The exhibition at the newly - and beautifully - renovated Gallery 708 will continue till Nov. 28. The pieces in the show - called "A transit in paradise" - have been selected with Sri Lanka and Lunuganga in mind, including a new sub-set of Hall's exquisitely sculpted "Paradises Terestris series", created especially for this exhibition. Fiona Hall's visit, and the exhibition has been undertaken with the assistance of, and as a cooperative effort between the Lunuganga Trust, the Australian Government ArtSA, Asia-Link, the Australia Council and the Queensland Art Gallery.

Compassionate, lucid and heartbreaking logic

This year, as invariably happens, most of the media palaver generated by the Booker Prize has focused on a few well-known names. Yet one of the joys of the judging process lies - as I discovered - in the sudden revelation of fresh talent from a quite unexpected source. In his speech at the Booker dinner recently, Gerald Kaufman spoke of his special affection for Mirage - a first, self-published novel from a Nor thamptonshire-based writer. Other judges admired it deeply, and it came close to gaining a place on the shortlist.

Bandula Chandraratna worked for several years in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. That closed kingdom, poised nervously and often violently between ancient hierarchy and modern wealth, gives Mirage its firmly painted setting (although it is never named).

Sayeed, the novel's good-natured hero, is a poor man, prematurely aged, who migrates to the city from his distant desert village. He lands a comparatively well-paid job as a porter in a sleek new hospital and builds himself a makeshift home in the nearby shanty town .

With great skill, and plenty of sly comedy, Chandraratna sketches the impact of such a gleaming flagship of technology on the traditional lives that encircle it. The expat doctors and technicians bicker, gossip and (in the case of a couple of Scots) brew up some illegal hooch; Sayeed quietly rejoices that a few drops of this new prosperity have trickled down to him. Kind and diligent, he dreams the honest dreams of the devout: to "live in a big house, with one or two beautiful wives", so that "then he too could give large sums of paper money to the beggars".

A visit back home transforms Sayeed's life. His relatives decide that he should marry, and they find a local wife for him - a young widow with a little daughter. Sayeed believes that hope, "like his youth, had come back after a long absence to make him happy."

Yet Latifa, his bride-to-be, can feel only disgust at the prospect of marriage to this ageing stranger. After the perfunctory wedding feast, she and little Leila are whisked by truck from their wellwatered oasis to the squalid shanty town where Sayeed has to live. Unruly goats, surly neighbours and nocy religious elders plague her at every turn. "This is almost like camping in the desert," she bitterly complains.

So the stage is set for a peasant tragedy of the kind often narrated by European novelists of the late 1 9th century. Thomas Hardy himself might feel at home with this well intentioned, ill matched pair. The difference is that, here, an antique code of honour runs slap-bang into the glittering temptations of urban life, just as the desert sands instantly give way to "rows of shops with pink and green fluorescent lights" at the city's edge. The book's ending has a heartbreaking logic to it but still strikes with a terrible force.

Most people in the West will read little about a society such as that of Saudi Arabia beyond the stereotypes, laced with scandal, that the media deliver from time to time.

And that hi-tech tyranny itself has no interest in exposing to outsiders the cost of its forced march to a short of feudal postmodernity. For that, we need novels as lucid, moving and compassionate as this one. I would urge you to read it.

Looking back with nostalgia

By Ruhanie Perera and Laila Nasry

The cast danced and pranced. Music filled the room and their golden voices cast a spell on the audience. Bursting with energy and full of spirit, they transported us to days long gone and then brought us back to the future. The stage changed from tower to Town Square, from drawing room to wayside inn. The audience watched, clapped and cheered as a 1000 years of British theatre and music unfolded before their very eyes.

'Thanks a Millennium' presented by the English Lakes Touring Company held on November 1st at the Colombo Hilton was a celebration of 1000years of British theatre and music. To the group "the idea to have a nostalgic look at British theatre over 1000 years on the eve of a new millennium seemed a good idea." To do 'pieces' which are familiar and well loved seemed a better idea. Interspersing this with period music was a stroke of pure genius.

The destinations on the itinerary were the 14th Century, the days of Chaucer and his renowned Canterbury Tales, the 16th Century where King Henry the VIII and William Shakespeare took over, the 19th Century and the last stop the 20th Century with contemporary works.

The cast - Bridie McEntegart, Eileen Nichols, Jane Vicary, Roger Bradley, Maurice McCarthy and David Williams were not only skilled and enthusiastic but also the most attentive 'tour guides'.

Before every piece, they presented an introduction that made the unfamiliar familiar and brought the audience closer to each era. Acting out more than 15 pieces on one night calls for a considerable amount of ingenuity. For every piece depicted a different age and was unique in its own right. Thus having big props and changing them each time was practically impossible. In the excerpts portrayed many of the props were improvised and that the actors adaped accordingly said a lot about their skill and versatility. The programme began with songs and dances from the 14th Century. The singing was par excellence, with Andrew Leavett's music complementing the whole performance.

The "Knights Tale" from Canterbury Tales told the story of two imprisoned cousins who fall in love with the same woman and their fight to win her hand. A light piece, it was obvious the cast enjoyed themselves as much as the audience.

Although the group performed one extract from Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor', they threw in their version of 'Macbeth'- which was a definite 'high' for the evening. They first performed it with exaggerated Scottish accents and then got one of the Hilton staff to translate it in Sinhala. This was hilarious.

It was quite clear the theatre group had gone to great lengths to ensure that the production was not without a Sri Lankan flavour. From the starting "Ayubowan" to the "vivekaya" in between, this was evident.

'The Drunkard's Dilemma', originally performed in the days of Queen Victoria, was typical melodrama with the 'villain', the 'hero' and the 'maiden'.

The cast got the audience actively involved in this performance and they readily responded by 'booing' and 'hissing' the 'villain' off stage and cheering the 'hero'.

'Three Little Maids' from Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado' ended the first half of the evening. Although Bridie McEntegart, Jane Victory and Eileen Nichols played the three little maids with skill, it was the males who stole the show when they decided to do their own version of the three little maids. The second half had three quaint but witty songs "A Room with a View" (Noel Coward), "Mad about the Boy" (Noel Coward) and "Have some Madeira-m'dear" (Flanders and Swan). This is where Jane Vicary and David Williams with their powerful voices shone.

There followed another delightful piece from "Round the Home" called 'Oh Charles', where a wife questions her husband about 'Daphne' who ends up being a dog. The final performance for the evening was "Gosforth's Fete" from "Confusions" (Alan Aykbourne) which was despite the 'confusion' extremely entertaining.

It was a lovely evening. A grand dinner and a hearty laugh. What more could anyone ask for.

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