In the Temple of the Unicorn

By Vita Forest

On Saturday, after Ghost netting at The Australian Museum, I took my last visit using my unlimited season ticket to The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Sunday being the last day before those great tapestries were rolled up again and sent back again across the seas to their home in France.

You pass under red banners decked in garlands and into a darkened chamber with spot-lit quotes by Rilke in framed gothic window silhouettes on the wall.  You walk into the dimly-lit inner hexagonal room and are immersed in the mysterious, peaceful world within it.  Each wall bearing a different tapestry.  The tapestries hang side by side, across from each other, conversing among themselves, reflecting details and differences, harmonious even as the components alter as you look harder and closer.  Visitors’ heads swivel and get lost in the world of animals  and plants and women floating on their blue islands on fields of red.

In the centre of the room is a split hexagonal bench, each side facing a different tapestry.  You can sit on both inside and outside the hexagon and look forward and also back across to the tapestries behind.

It is unknown what the real purpose of these medieval images are, allegories to the senses seems most likely, as in each tapestry you can note the Lady showing the unicorn his reflection (sight), or playing music (hearing), or feeding a bird (taste), or holding the horn of a unicorn (touch) or inhaling the scent of a flower (smell).

I sit on the bench looking inwards and across.  From here I can see three tapestries easily.  Can search the upper reaches of each one for the heron and the eagle.  I overhear a lady wearing a unicorn brooch tell her friend that she has an eagle in her life too.  An eagle she has watched plummet and dive to catch and kill another more fragile bird.  She talks about the satisfaction of finally getting here, to this room, to this place, after all this time, on the day before the exhibition closes.  She talks about ordering the catalogue weeks ago, how it arrived in the mail, how she will go home and read it through and through.

And I remember Fleur who made a special pilgrimage to this gallery to the see this exhibition as a way of celebrating her birthday.  How lovely to sit there amongst the blossoms and the frolicking animals and breathe in the peace on her special day.

I look up at the rabbits, at the foxes, at the dogs, at the goats, at the monkeys that remind me of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials (even though they are not yellow).  I wonder if the unicorn is the Lady’s daemon?  If he has to stay near her, attached by an invisible pull so strong that to break it would make them both ill.  (As I sit and write this,  I have my own little white daemon cat sitting beside me lounging against my thigh and nuzzling my hand).

I listen to a very interesting conversation behind me between an elderly couple and a not so elderly woman.  The oldest woman remarks that the unicorn has cloven hoofs like a goat, and a beard like that animal too, is it closer to a goat than the horse it is often compared to?  She tells the story of how her horse once broke a mirror when it saw its reflection for the first time.  It saw her with another horse and wasn’t happy about it.  She points out that the unicorn seems to know it is looking at itself in the mirror.  Seems to know what it sees.  I think that mirror is safe from hoofs, cloven or otherwise.

I watch two children with their pencils and worksheets squatting down in front of a tapestry, pointing up at the weaving and tallying up the numbers of different animals they see, recording their results in neat handwriting on the page.  I watch families stand in front of their favourite image and turn away from it to grin into the lens of a camera, their bodies enveloped in the soft red landscape behind them.

I think that these scenes somehow remind me of Totoro, that neighbour of Satsuki and Mei from that movie, the scenes of forest spirits and children, perfectly comfortable in each other’s presence, Mei falling asleep lying on the belly of the biggest Totoro as butterflies dance and plants sway in the shaded hollow under the tree where they rest.  Perhaps it is the peace, perhaps it is the magic, perhaps it is the sense of everything being just how it should be.

And I wonder if the Pre-Raphaelites saw these same tapestries, and remember that room in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I used to sit, all those years ago, that quiet hushed room with the similar dim light and peaceful atmosphere, where full-lipped maidens walked barefoot among equally detailed, recognisable trees, under trellises of roses, pomegranates and oranges.

And I think about the biggest tapestry – To My One Desire, and wonder what that was?  To simply be, in this place, with these animals and plants and women, where everything is safe and calm and timeless and as it should be.

 

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On Ghost Nets

By Vita Forest

Ghost nets – that’s what they call the lost and abandoned fishing nets that float the ocean, moving with the tides, travelling large distances and trapping fish and birds and dolphins, sharks and turtles.  At the Australian Museum, there is a display of Ghost Net Art, made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to raise awareness of this problem and to turn something destructive into something wonderful.

I visit the museum with a bunch of sketchers, fanning out through the rooms armed with sketchpads and pencils and watercolours and brushes.  I am attracted to texture, to roughness, to coarse surfaces, woven rope, splintered wood, twisted wire.  And so I find myself among the ghost nets, read the stories, read how these massive artworks came to find themselves suspended from the ceiling and crawling up the walls of the Australian Museum.

I stand in front of a giant crab, a huge disc of netting and woven spirals and multi-coloured ribbing stretched over wire.  I sketch out the outline and begin to map out its limbs and scribble and hatch the barnacles of its body as it hangs breathless against the wall.  I stand in front of it, where the light haze dims and brightens in time to the story on the screen beside me that starts up again and again at the touch of a child’s finger.  Across the way, a projection of Bangarra dancers twist and contort, and children shriek and try to catch the slippery bodies of fish made of light that dart beneath their feet across the floor.

And when I finish my scribbly, gnarled, ancient crab, I sit on the floorboards, too tired to stand now, not wanting the bench, the angle is just not right for the fish, the cod, floating high above our heads.  So I sit on the floor, out of the way, but still visible to the boy who slides down beside me to peer at my paper as his mother reads about the crocodile spirits, about the men who could hitch a ride on the back of a crocodile without fear.

‘That’s good,’ he whispers when it’s time to go, when he is called to stand up, to climb up and follow her away.

And I think about the legend of the cod and the crab who watched each other and fell in love.  And I think about the people combing those northern beaches for nets not shells.  And I think about them stretching and cutting and twisting the nylon into new shapes, new stories.  And how I am taking the ghost nets and stretching them out in a new way on my page.  And wondering if we could make something this shape, this size at school out of other thrown-away things.

And I think about the ghost net that caught me this week, floating unaware beneath the surface of everyday life, waiting, hovering beneath the flow of it.  And how I was gutted and let down, thrashing in my net, struggling to take a breath, to remember the good, until I was cut out in time, set free to slither out into the clear, warm water again.

And I think in the end, that’s all we can do – scoop up the ghost nets whenever we find them and take them out of the water so they won’t catch anyone else and try to turn them into something beautiful.

This week

By Vita Forest

This week I have been

READING A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

WRITING school reports!!

THINKING about ideas for poems

SHARING and LAUGHING at writers’ circle

VISITING The Strand Arcade with sketch club and

TRYING not to sample too many of the delights on offer…

LISTENING to two of my boys play Despacito on the trumpet and saxophone

CRAMMING a lot into a short week of school.

DRIVING my children all over the place on the weekend…

WALKING with Vastra on a brisk, early winter’s evening.

This week

By Vita Forest

This week I have been

WRITING school reports!

READING

  • Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

VISITING Culburra  for the long weekend with Sui-Sui and Alessandro where we went

EXPLORING Nowra and touring beautiful old Meroogal

STOPPING for a drink at the fabulous Steampunk Dog and Monocle in downtown Nowra

COOKING up a storm at the beach house in Culburra

MOTORING up to Gerringong for a burger and chips and

MEETING up with Betty and Bob  who had the same idea!

EXPLORING

  • Crookhaven Head
  • Callala Beach
  • Currarong

STOPPING into lovely Kiama on the way home and seeing dolphins, a stingray and a rainbow.

This week

By Vita Forest

This week I have been

WRITING school reports!

READING

  • Fire by Kristin Cashore
  • Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (just devouring this one, instead of writing reports…)

ATTENDING my Writers’ Circle and getting lots of good writing advice.

SEEING a bit more of Vivid at Chatswood.

CATCHING up with Saskia at one of our favourite cosy restaurants with flowers and lettuce in vases on the table.

FINALIZING costumes for our performance group

RUGGING up as winter arrives in Sydney

MAKING a herd of Ann Wood horses with a group of Year 3 and Year 4 students

EATING lots of soup