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Travel & Holiday

Sydney's secrets

Check out the revamped Museum of Contemporary Art and emerging art galleries in the city
The Straits Times - April 3, 2012
By: Adeline Chia
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Sydney's secrets At the Museum Of Contemporary Art Australia, Australian artist Stephen Birch's untitled 2005 installation shows a figure of Spider-Man facing off a worm-like bearded face. -- PHOTOS: ADELINE CHIA

Everybody is outside in Sydney. The beaches are packed, joggers abound in the city and alfresco dining in the balmy climate seems compulsory.

So it should come as no surprise that Opera Australia has decided to take its late summer production of La Traviata outdoors, performed on a purpose-built stage on the waters of the Sydney Harbour.

The A$11.5-million (S$15-million) spectacle is indeed a wonder to behold. Verdi's thrilling music and redemptive story about hedonism and love are key elements of the show, but excellent production values also pave the way for an unforgettable evening under the stars.

Opera Australia, the national company, is serious about its bid to make Sydney a destination for international arts lovers with this extravaganza, which, playing to an audience of 3,000 on a grandstand every night, is the largest outdoor opera ever staged in Australia.

Everything about it screams 'global art event'. The floating opera is performed on a diamond-shaped stage measuring 25m by 25m. A 3-tonne chandelier - 9m tall and 9m wide - has been the subject of breathless media reports, not to mention the fireworks that animate the sky every night with the show.

And who can argue with the view? In the distance are the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and glittering lights of the city's CBD skyline, twinkling way after the last dramatic high note expelled by the opera's consumptive heroine Violetta.

The production runs for another two weeks until April 15 and ticket prices range from A$85 to A$350. If you miss the run this year, the opera will be re-staged during the same period for three weeks in the next two years.

The opera lover could plan a holiday around this production alone, but this energetic city has plenty of other gems to show off its contemporary art chops.

I am not just talking about obvious biggies such as the Opera House, which has become synonymous with the city and its cosmopolitan aura, but also about newer developments in the dynamic art scene.

A must-visit is the expanded Museum Of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) on The Rocks, a stretch of prime land by the water, which threw open its doors last week after a 20-month, A$53-million redevelopment.

A new building, a modern four-storey boxy structure of glass and concrete, has been added to the existing sandstone building. It houses one new gallery, rooms used for lectures and seminars, a centre for creative learning, as well as a rooftop cafe and sculpture terrace.

The museum re-opens with several new exhibitions, including Volume One: MCA Collection, which provides a wide-ranging survey of Australian contemporary art drawn from the museum's permanent collection. Admission is free.

It features works by more than 170 artists, from cutting-edge multimedia art to woven baskets and bark paintings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

The key image for the museum's publicity is drawn from this exhibition. It is a photo of Australian artist Stephen Birch's untitled 2005 installation showing a figure of Spider-Man facing off with a worm-like bearded face mounted on the wall.

Make what you will of this uneasy confrontation, but do also seize the day and catch another excellent temporary show called Marking Time, an exhibition exploring notions of time and its passing.

Ponder your own mortality with the ticking 'death clocks' of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, which count down to the moment of death chosen by 1,000 participants, or contemplate the zen movements of the taiji master portrayed in Kiwi artist Daniel Crooks' video work Static No. 12 (seek stillness in movement).

When your feet are calling out for a break, step into an ingenious 24-hour video installation called The Clock by Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay that won him the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Biennale, the top contemporary art fair.

The video splices together thousands of clips from films showing clocks, watches and people saying what time it is.

The beauty of it is that the time shown in the clip reflects real time. So at 10.15am, the time featured in the corresponding film clip is 10.15am, and thus the viewer experiences the passing of time via a streaming montage of films from different genres and time periods.

It may seem like a tedious exercise but the experience is mesmerising - and surprisingly pleasurable. I walked in at 10am and took in shots of people getting out of bed, startled by waking up late, or emerging from a sensual night under the covers with various sheet-clad lovers.

At noon, the films were about people getting off trains, coming out from business meetings and going for lunch. I had to tear myself away for my own lunch before sinking too deeply into a trance-like, vegetative state.

For arts lovers of a more active bent, Sydney offers a range of art galleries that can be explored on foot. Local tour operator Sydney Art Tours (www.sydneyarttours.com.au, +61-400-378-842) does a variety of walking tours that take around three hours and cost A$50 a person. Personalised tours of specific geographical areas or specific art genres are available.

The company's director, Ms Isobel Johnston, an experienced arts educator, takes me on a jaunt around the Surry Hills and Redfern area, which she describes as a vibrant and up-and-coming area for art galleries, compared to upmarket Paddington, which is the more obvious and established art district.

A big landmark in the area is Ray Hughes Gallery (270 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, +61-296-983-200), named after its colourful dealer-owner and one of the most established private galleries in the area.

The 600 sq m space, which used to be a furniture factory, showcases works of contemporary Australian, New Zealander and Chinese artists. When I was there, an exhibition of prominent landscape painter Lucy Culliton's latest flower still lifes was being planned.

Just across the road is the preserved studio space of the late Brett Whiteley, one of Australia's most celebrated artists (2 Raper Street, Surry Hills, tel: +61-292-251-881). He lived and worked in the studio from 1987 to 1992, and the space exhibits a selection of his work and provides intimate glimpses into his private world through sketchbooks, photos, rock 'n' roll music collection and personal memorabilia.

The place is self-described as 'Sydney's best-kept secret', and rightly so. Admission is free and there are regular free events such as poetry readings and art workshops, so check the website www.brettwhiteley.org for updates.

For something a little more indie, go to the pop-up art and design gallery called He Made She Made (70 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, Tel: +61-478-504-232), featuring emerging Australian designers and artists curated by a group of young artists. The ongoing exhibition is Second Coming, showcasing cool furniture adapted from found objects.

Most indie of all is Chalk Horse (8 Lacey Street, Surry Hills, tel: +61- 416-057-186), a rough-and-ready artist studio slash gallery. From the outside, with its closed metal garage door, the building looks nothing like an art gallery but more like an industrial warehouse.

When you enter, there is a small exhibition space and a more extensive working studio housing the work of several artists - one of whom I found wandering around in only a pair of shorts. That is laid-back Australia for you.

But what is a trip to Sydney without experiencing the Sydney Opera House? Take a Sydney Opera House Backstage Tour, which grants you a two-hour VIP access into the bowels of the 39-year-old performing arts centre which hosts more than 1,500 performers a year.

The daily tour starts at 6.45am, the only time available before the theatres get busy and nosey-parker visitors like us will get in the way. Tickets cost A$155, including a hearty breakfast, and can be bought online at www.sydneyoperahouse.com

The experienced tour guide will take you through the labyrinthine insides of the Opera House, revealing industry secrets and funny anecdotes on an excellently scripted tour.

My favourite story is about bodybuilders standing in the wings of the theatre to catch leaping ballet dancers. Before the stage was expanded, the wings were too narrow and ballerinas would otherwise crash into a wall.

Then there are the stories of chickens flying into the orchestra pit during a production requiring animals, the full-time job of tuning the 200 grand pianos in the opera house and the tradition of female performers kissing the walls before a production (there are many stains as evidence).

The two hours pass quickly and breakfast is served. At about 9am, you are left to your own devices.

I wander outside - always outside, it's Sydney! - to take in the view of the magnificent sails of the opera house, that image so immortalised on countless tourism brochures and postcards.

But now I know that the facade is covered with more than one million tiles, all made in Sweden, cream-coloured to prevent glare and with a self-cleaning glazed ceramic surface.

I will leave it at that - some secrets are better discovered on your own.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Destination New South Wales, Tourism Australia and Qantas.

Qantas operates 14 direct flights weekly from Singapore to Sydney including daily A380 flights. As part of its latest fare offer which ends on April 30, economy fares to Sydney start from $888 including taxes.

The fare applies to departures from today to Aug 31.

WHERE TO SHOP

PHOTOS: QUINTESSENTIAL DUCKEGGBLUE, FUNKIS, MR ROSE, ADELINE CHIA

QUINTESSENTIAL DUCKEGGBLUE

497 Darling Street, Balmain; tel: +61-298-104-330

A word of warning: Everything in this shop is highly covetable. It sources and professionally restores industrial and antique furniture from Europe, America and Russia. Explore Jules Verne-inspired curios, medical cabinets and English club sofa chairs - all of them curated under the stylish eagle-eye of owner Leanne Carter-Taylor.

A few doors down is duckeggBLUE, the sister store selling women's wear, bags and shoes by cult brands such as Malene Birger, Hoss Intropia and the Parisian favourite: Repetto ballet flats.

FUNKIS

202 Oxford Street, Paddington, tel: +61-293-583-093

A great place for timeless Scandinavian- inspired chic clothes, shoes and homeware. Besides the fairly predictable Marimekko patterned clothes and homeware, the shop stocks clothes from its in-house brand funkis, as well as cult Sydney labels Milk From A Thistle and Secret Squirrel.

The most popular items are the funkis clogs and sandals that come in different colours, materials, straps but with the same functional wooden sole. Women have been spotted agonising over which to buy since they all look so good. Prices start from A$85.

MR. ROSE

31 Norfolk Street (corner Gurner Street), Paddington, tel: +61-293-681-423

This shop is dedicated to the PWS, also known as the Perfect White Shirt. Heck, why shouldn't a wardrobe staple have its own acronym? From feminine silk blouses with pussybow ties to crisp white tuxedo tops, the collections span the classic to the playful, and include other items such as waistcoats and inter-changeable collars and scarves. Shirts range from A$180 (S$235) to A$320.

ALL BUTTONS GREAT AND SMALL

419A King Street, Newtown, tel: +65-295-501-782

There is magic in buttons. For some serious wizardry, head to this shop which sells, well, exactly what its name suggests. This 23-year-old Newtown outfit boasts one of the best collections of buttons in the world and has provided buttons for the Moulin Rouge film as well as, erm, children's show Bananas In Pyjamas.

Obsessively colour-coded, thousands of buttons from vintage replicas to wacky animal-shaped ones will speak to anyone from the serious button collector to the casual browser. Prices start at 5 Australian cents for a basic button and go up to A$50 for bespoke ones.

WHERE TO EAT

MOMOFUKU SEIOBO

The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont Level G; reservations online only at www.momofuku.com

Celebrity chef David Chang has just opened his first outpost of his award-winning, near-impossible- to-book restaurant in New York, and he has gone Down Under. Specifically, in the new The Star casino and entertainment complex in Sydney.

Reviews have been ecstatic for this 30-seater, with a 15-course tasting menu that costs A$175 (S$229). A sake and wine pairing is available for A$95.

Momofuku means lucky peach and Seiobo means heavenly queen, and the celestial references in this restaurant's name are a prelude to an epic journey for the taste buds.

The menu spans East and West, skipping from the fabled pork bun, which some reviewers have compared to eating a baby, to his interpretation of the Yorkshire pudding, a tiny puff that is sinfully buttery yet light as air, accompanied by sweet mud crab with a tear-inducingly flavourful bisque.

Another golden moment was the deconstructed 'cheese course' - grated pecorino with honey licorice and bee pollen that dissolves and sings a symphony on the tongue. This is an experience I will take to the grave.

The bar counter is good for watching the action in the open kitchen headed by the English head chef Ben Greeno.

It is good for people-watching too, especially if you are sharing it with Duran Duran's John Taylor and his girlfriend - which I was.

Bookings open online every 10 days, so stand by the computer like a hawk.

Last word of advice: Starve yourself before dinner because portions are small but not tiny. Fifteen courses of heaven can be a stretch for even the heartiest of appetites.

REUBEN HILLS

61 Albion Street, Surry Hills, tel: +61-292-115-556

This new outfit is a newcomer to the already cafe-saturated neighbourhood of Surry Hills, but its reasonable prices - for Sydney, anyway - and no-nonsense good food give the incumbents a good run for their money.

On the Central American-inspired menu are dishes such as a tasty baleada (Honduran tortilla). It comes with eggs and black beans for vegetarians and pulled pork for carnivores.

For a lighter lunch, try the zingy ceviche of ocean trout, roast corn, smoked sweet potato, chilli, lime and witlof. Those with a sweet tooth can go for the Dogg's Breakfast, an ice-cream sandwich with a splodge of dulce de leche. Mains start from A$6.

MS. GS

155 Victoria Street, Potts Point, tel: +61-283-133-000

Everyone in the hip parade wants a piece of this place and it is easy to see why. It has a streetwise and edgy vibe with a graffitied wall, a relaxed environment of sharing platters and a rocking menu that draws from Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai influences. Try the tender raw scallops served with kohlrabi (a kind of juicy cabbage), guacamole and lime for starters, and move on to a smoky main course of grilled king prawns, konbu and lemongrass butter.

The place has a mean cocktail menu too. The Kawaii L'ritz mixes El Jimador tequila, sloe gin, lemon, peaches and soda into a fizzy, refreshing drink. It sounds girly but packs a punch. Mains start at A$16.

NEILD AVENUE

10 Neild Avenue, Rushcutters Bay, tel: +61-283-534-400

This Mediterranean restaurant is the latest venture by Mr Maurice Terzini, the prominent restaurateur behind Icebergs, an institution on Bondi Beach. This stylish and monochrome eatery is up to his usual high standards and the menu has a huge section devoted to the coal grill (this is Australia, barbecue motherland after all).

For starters, go for the addictive deep fried cauliflower florets seasoned with chilli, parsley and garlic. They sit like popcorn on a cumin and yogurt sauce. There is plenty of choice from the grill department, but choose the calamari, fluffy as a cloud and with a smoky, woody taste from the fire.

Desserts include a warm mini duck egg custard tart that is a rebooted version of the Portuguese egg tart, but it is infinitely richer, eggier and more custardy. Smaller dishes start at A$12 and grilled mains from A$35.

JOHN AND PETER CANTEEN

245 Wilson Street Eveleigh, tel: +61-285-719-004

Situated in Carriageworks, a performing arts space that was converted from a rail-carriage workshop, this airy eatery serves fuss-free Italian food made with fresh ingredients.

Opt for the paper-thin culatello with fresh figs for starters or a crunchy salad of celery heart, burnet and white anchovy, and sprinkled with golden bottarga (cured fish roe).

Mains, which start at A$26, come in hearty portions. Try the grilled snapper with sweet baby heirloom tomatoes and basil.

Finish off your meal with a heavenly torta di Verona, a gloopy mixture of mascarpone, blueberries and toasted almonds.

If you are still hungry, head over to the Eveleigh Markets just opposite with more than 80 stalls selling organic and artisanal produce from New South Wales every Saturday.

For those who cannot get a seat at the famous Chinese restaurant Billy Kwong's, its celebrity chef Kylie Kwong has a stall there selling her steamed pancakes and signature dumplings.

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