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tilia europaea linden tree
Linden was originally the stately home of the Michaelis family. lt was built in 1870 for Moritz Michaelis, a German Jew who settled in Melbourne in the middle of the 19th century; he was the founding father of a family of prominent Victorians as well as foundation president of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. So, this winter, when the Jewish Museum of Australia held an historical survey exhibition on the Jews of St Kilda and Caulfield
(Bagel Belt: The Jews of St Kilda and Caulfield, 20 June-30 September 2001) documenting the educational, religious, cultural, social and charitable institutions and activities of Jews in the locality, Naomi Cass was invited to curate an adjunct exhibition at Linden. She in turn invited six artists working in different media to produce works inspired by the early history of Linden.
The results of their research and reflection, rendered into audio and visual forms, were housed in the six ground-floor rooms of the Gallery. Each artist was allotted one room, while the entrance hall, or foyer, was stocked with memorabilia-photographs, Bibles and biographies, records of formal occasions-of the Michaelis family and accounts of the history of the building.
Some of the artists offered a postcolonial response to the European settlement of St Kilda. One such was Carl Priestly's sound installation of two COs and four speakers which unfortunately was inaudible at the official opening when it failed to compete with an unorchestrated symphony of chatter and clinking glasses. Percussive drum beats and didgeridoo echoes were blended with bells, human voice and amplified keyboard sounds
to produce a hybrid mix of Aboriginal and European, sacred and secular musical motifs. The European migrants may have brought with them a certain musical heritage- the classical concert and operatic singing repertoire, as well as Jewish liturgical music-but the Indigenous musical tradition lingers on and competes for attention with the imported sounds.
Stephen Gallagher's finely embroidered parlour apron and smoking cap, made of stainless steel mesh, silk thread, glass beads and sequins, likewise drew attention to the cultural pretensions of ihese middle class European migrants-who dressed their maid in a fancy apron when entertaining guests and when the smoking room donned an imposing Turkish fez with tassels over the simple head-covering required by orthodox Jewish tradition. The floral patterning on the cap and apron, however, employs native Australian rather than European examples of foliage, providing a local inflection to, or decorative deviation from, imported culture.
Harry Nankin's hollowed-out log of Spotted Gum, in the shape of a canoe and suspended over a mirror, was decorated with Linden leaf imprints, as well as letters and phrases in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German and English. In a departure from his usual medium of photography, this sculptural work, inscribed with letters, leaves and snatches of text, most evocatively conveyed the complex mix of cultural baggage carried by the Michaelis family to these shores: the Greek rational philosophical tradition, the Old Testament prophets, the Hebrew liturgy, Latinate scientific terms and nostalgia for the landscape of the German homeland. The canoe or ark, fragile receptacle of bodies, languages, knowledges, religious and cultural traditions, evokes both Aboriginal and Jewish tribal associations.
In the dining room, ceramicist David Ray staged a table setting for a Michaelis family Seder, the traditional annual Passover ritual dinner. The decorative crockery was largely blue and white, like much traditional English china, and the candlesticks were subtly rimmed in silver paint, but an incongruous single Chinese bowl with chopsticks and a tin of coca cola amidst the pretty period setting jolted the complacent viewer out of his/her aesthetic indulgence into questions about tradition and change.
Kim Donaldson 's assemblage, From the vegetable garden 1872, which included humble, meticulous and delicate pencil drawings of vegetables, alongside 1872 price lists of produce and hints for pest control, was tucked away in the smallest room, a narrow antechamber between the dining room and the front parlour. lt was an appropriate location for an overlooked and underrated type of 'cultivation' practised within the grounds of Linden. If the luxurious lifestyle and social pretensions of the haute bourgeoisie were evoked by the spacious settings and elaborate dress and dining codes of the embroidery and ceramics exhibits, the basic ingredients and means of daily sustenance were squashed into a hidden recess, an alimentary canal.
In the front parlour, Andrew McQualter employed pastel and acrylic paint directly onto the walls to sketch four different versions of Michaelis family history: a time line with brief annotations; lines on a hand, annotated with dates and place names; a map with arrows and red route lines marking journeys of the founding father and his daughters; and an antipodean tree (upside down, with roots on the top), covering one wide wall, with the descendants of Moritz and Rahel Michaelis forming circular clusters of yellow flowers. Though raising questions about ways of representing family history, this contribution lacked both artistic flair and bite. Like most genealogical exercises, the bald detailing of names, places and dates is of little interest to people outside the family; and unlike theother exhibits, it provided neither drama nor delight.