Sunday, May 05, 2019


This morning I had to get up early, clean the AirBnB, go out to breakfast, go back to the AirBnB and clean it some more (since I have a perfect record on AirBnB for leaving apartments spotlessly clean), then drag the bags to the train station and ride out to the airport for the long, long trip home.

With the inevitable hanging around in the airport, I had a chance to reflect on how best to sum up Amsterdam? Despite my early misgivings, which, to be honest, never fully dissipated, I came to appreciate it more and tried to look at it objectively. Such as their approach to car security.

One big thing I did notice it that the Amsterdamians seem to value urbanity in a way that Australians don’t. Australians enjoy themselves with aggressive ramping up; loud music, roaring cars, angry drunks and meth. The Amsterdam youth enjoy themselves by chilling out; sophisticated music, bicycles, happy drinkers and weed.

But Amsterdam had one last indignity to throw at me as I departed. I was feeling a little unwell on my last evening in the city, which ramped up into a head cold as I flew out. Whether it was exacerbated by altitude and over-processed airconditioning, or just a heinous bitch of a virus, I don’t know, but the act of flying drove that sick feeling into an agonising pain in my skull so bad I was nearly throwing up.

Fortunately in Doha I could access a pharmacy with hardcore anti-inflammatories and painkillers that aren’t available over the counter in Australia, so, even though the new plane sat on the tarmac for over an hour waiting for its takeoff slot, I zoned it all out as a world of pain softened into a blank fog of analgesia. By the time we landed back in Australia, I was almost okay.

Benny, being made of plastic, is immune to viruses. So he was fine.

Saturday, May 04, 2019


No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. At least that’s the prevailing ethos of the global tourism/Instagram/industrial complex.

The Van Gogh Museum has taken some clever steps to keep tourist-induced chaos under control. The first one I noticed is that cameras are banned in the museum, so there aren’t queues of Japanese girls flashing peace signs in front of Sunflowers. However, outside the galleries, there are larger than life size, high quality reproductions of Van Gogh’s most famous works, specifically arranged so that people can use them as backdrops for their selfies.

The other clever idea is the use of audio tours. Visitors are strongly encouraged to use the audio tours, partly because it gives them some context for their experience, but mostly, I think, because it shepherds the herds in a controlled way. I saw crowds of people gathered around a fairly unremarkable painting, not because it was special, but because they’d been told to stop there by the audio tour. Meanwhile other works that were more famous were clear, because they weren’t part of the tour.

The audio tour also encourages people to move through the museum faster than they otherwise might, burning through hundreds of works in about an hour. And judging by what I saw, they spent most of their time standing in front of minor pictures, staring at their phones rather than the art, waiting for the cue to move on.

You know that a museum is a big deal when its auxiliary exhibitions are bigger than the “blockbuster” exhibitions at Australian galleries. The Van Gogh Museum was also showing a collection of David Hockney’s most recent works, which I liked a lot more than I thought I would, and a collection of Emile Pissaro’s etchings. Unsurprisingly, while the Van Gogh exhibition was heaving with tourists, the Hockney and Pissaro exhibitions were peaceful and quiet.

After lunch, we headed over to the Stedelijk Museum, an institution of more avante garde modern art. Maybe I’ve hit a wall with art, but it just seemed pretentious and boring. Having borne witness to amazing depictions of joy, suffering and reverence at the Hermitage and the Van Gogh Museum, I was now struck by dry, smug intellectualism – the fine art equivalent of virtue signaling. There was only one of them that raised enough interest to justify a renaming.

Your husband's work is what we call "outsider art." It could be by a mental patient, a hillbilly or a chimpanzee. Jessica Stockholder, 1998

Friday, May 03, 2019


I visited the original Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 2011, and was, like a million tourists before me, overwhelmed by the avalanche of riches in its collection.

But I hadn’t realised that the Hermitage has spawned mini-Hermitages across the planet, the first of which being the one in Amsterdam. 2019 is its 10th birthday, and they are celebrating with what is honestly one of the most wonderful art exhibitions I’ve ever seen.

The Treasury! Exhibition is built around pairings of artworks. Each display featured two different but somehow similar artworks. One pairing was two 16th century paintings of the Madonna with Child, one by a Catholic artist, the other by a Protestant. In light of the different theologies on the divinity of the Madonna, viewers were invited to contemplate how Mary was depicted.

Another featured two warhorses in full armour, one from 3rd century Mongolia and one from 16th century Turkey, and viewers could consider the evolution from simple leather to ornate steel. Other pairings celebrated swans, or St George, or breakfast, inviting viewers to compare and contrast what very different artists wanted to say about the same thing.

This could only have been achieved by an institution as mind-bogglingly wealthy as the Hermitage. Only they can afford to downplay the fact that one of the paired works on the subject of nudes is by Leonardo da Vinci. Oh, and the other one is a Matisse. I also remember my dawning astonishment as I realised that one of a pair of panthers, a football-sized gold 7th century Siberian carving intended to decorate the quiver of an archer, was actually made of solid gold, and was worth millions of dollars just in the metal alone.

But one of the most interesting items, sitting all by itself not paired with anything, was a little carved blob of limestone that looked like a fertility goddess, if you squinted enough. It was fairly unimpressive, until you discover that it’s twenty five thousand years old.

It’s staggering. That’s older than a thousand Justin Beibers… which doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Thursday, May 02, 2019


Rembrandt’s House, our first art gallery for today, is a genteel museum for nice middle-class old people, with free audio guides which explain, in the clear patient tone of professional care workers, who Rembrandt was and how he lived his life.

He lived his life badly, as it turned out, since he declared bankruptcy in middle age and lost his large house to his creditors. The audio guides were far too well-mannered to consider why an enormously successful artist and art dealer might go bankrupt, but his fondness for rare antiquities and the finer things in life (which in the 17th century mainly ran to pineapples, fake marble paneling and leeches) may have had something to do with it.

Once out of Rembrandt’s House, we had a little brunch and then took a wander through Amsterdam’s Botanic Gardens. Both Benny and I appreciated the tropical greenhouse, partly for the rich biodiversity of plant life, but mostly because it was blissful being somewhere warm and humid after days of chilly Dutch weather.

Later, as I was strolling towards the lake, admiring the swathes of flowers and foliage, I noticed a young woman standing on a little bridge, staring out over the water with a sweet, thoughtful expression on her face. For almost a complete second, I thought, “Isn’t it nice that in this age of stupid social media, constant distractions and FOMO, people can still be moved to quiet contemplation by the beauty of nature”. But, after almost a complete second, it seemed to me that something felt off. Then when I glanced around, I noticed her boyfriend standing on the shore a little way off, taking her selfie for her.

She wasn’t moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden. She was playing being moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden for Instagram. I wondered if this was what these people’s lives are like – constantly performing the role of a person living their best life rather than actually being a person living their best life?

A friend of mine who knows a lot of drag queens once told me that the danger of drag is that the drag persona almost always takes over the performer’s life in the long run, because the drag persona is fabulous and fascinating and the ordinary man underneath it is just a normal, comparatively boring person. He becomes a slave to the oversized personality of the drag queen. I wonder if on some level Instagram is just drag for straight women - a scintillating, commanding public face that eventually strips all life and agency from the girl behind it.

I left the girl on the bridge to her profundity cosplay and went off to our final museum for the day; Micropia, the world’s only museum of the microscopic. Every exhibit has microscopes set up to allow patrons to observe algae, tardigrades, mould, eyelash mites and other tiny monsters that cause you to cringe when you realise that there’s hundreds or thousands of them on your skin at this very moment. There are also exhibits demonstrating how bacteria causes both good smells (cheese) and bad smells (sewage), and the role bacteria and viruses play in every aspect of our lives. On a more macro level, there was also a pile of foliage literally seething with leafcutter ants, who were kept in their habitat by a swirling moat – if you’re a little myrmecophobic, as I am, it was grotesquely fascinating.

Poor Benny was menaced by the HIV. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a first for visitors to Amsterdam.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


Visit any art or history museum in Amsterdam and you will hear about the Golden Age, a period in the 17th and 18th centuries when Holland’s power and wealth were at their greatest. They are proud of this heritage, and kind of wistful that it’s all over, but, if you dig deeply enough, they acknowledge that all of this power and money had to come from somewhere, and the previous owners probably didn’t give it up without a fight. It was a pretty awesome time to be Dutch… but it was a somewhat less awesome time to be someone who had something that the Dutch wanted.

The tricky business of acknowledging this unpleasantness has fallen to the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s grand museum of multiculturalism. It’s a much better museum than you might expect it to be, given that the phrase “museum of multiculturalism” brings to mind diversely coloured children holding hands and singing stupid hippie folk songs. The Tropenmuseum currently has cutting-edge exhibitions of the Hadj, on the influence of Japanese pop culture on the world, and on the exploitation of children in African coffee plantations. But the core exhibits address the dark history of the Dutch in South East Asia.

The Tropenmuseum used to be called the Colonial Museum, and is housed in a gorgeous 1926 building covered in classical friezes of happy brown people toiling in stylised plantations and paddies, as well as exquisitely carved woodwork on the doors and windows.

The conceit in all of these things is that the Dutch and the Indonesians were partners in this exploitation, and it’s certainly true that Indonesia has influences across Amsterdam. The streets in the suburb where my AirBnB is situated are all named after Indonesian islands – Madurastraat, Balistraat, Javasrtraat, Borneostraat – and there are also some pretty great Indonesian restaurants in the city. However, that probably doesn’t make up for all of the slavery and oppression – the Dutch held on to their slaves right up until 1873, 8 years after the Americans and 40 years after the British.

The Tropenmuseum’s approach to this history is, surprisingly, sort of the opposite of virtue signaling. In Australia, museums approach the sins of the past with great histrionics, if not downright hysterics, about the travesty and tragedy of it all. The Tropenmuseum’s approach is comparatively sanguine. It happened, they seem to say, and we are going to neither sugar coat it or flay ourselves about it.

But then, maybe when you’re an eco-minded marriage-equalising gender-neutralising modern Dutch person, treating the massive atrocities of the past with flat objectivity is the only way to maintain your poise. When screeching fury is the expected response to a misaligned pronoun or a plastic straw, how can you possibly scale that dudgeon up to respond to genocide?