I guess my childhood at the boat shed is the reason for my love of fish. When I heard about the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney I knew it was up my alley. Exhibits at this museum are always excellent and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. The nature of the Museum would mean certain limitations on what is exhibited so it is even better when they come up with such a simple idea done in a fabulous way.
Entering through a scaly doorway led to an open sea of fish. Fish in design, fish in indigenous art and fish in painting, photography and illustration. I can’t even pinpoint my favourite work – paintings by Margaret Olley, Arthur Boyd, Ken Whisson and John Olsen were tempting enough but then you see marvellous colourful illustrations in one of the world’s rarest books dated 1754. It was just the absolute variety within this exhibition that had me enthralled. I felt I could stay, sketch, research. It felt like a beginning towards my end in works about the boat shed.
One small unassuming work was an illustration of Condon’s Creek in the Illawarra area and the use of the dog tree by the aboriginal people to stupefy fish. It involved preparing the bark of a tree, stripping it and putting it into the fire to get hot. It was then plunged into the creek where the fumes would stupefy the fish and they would rise to the surface. I knew this was a great link – not only was it a local connection to place, it was a fishing method that leant itself to story telling. A story that leant itself to painting.
I had once thought my memory of flying fish was imagined but I know that fish are as extraordinary as an invented world and this display so wonderfully curated by Penny Cuthbert and Stephen Scheding has provided the excitement I needed to re-visit the subject again.
The exhibition involved tales of fishing, whaling and scientific collection. All of this within a museum that sits right on Sydney Harbour, where during the week a whale was hurt inside the harbour by a ferry.
There is no other ideal place for this exhibition. It is sad that it has been cut short and is only on for another couple of weeks.
Unfortunately it is giving way to a repeated pirate exhibition but if it draws a larger audience and little aquatic gems like this exhibition are held from time to time I won’t jump off the plank in a hurry.