An art gallery with a difference: Urban Spree, Berlin, Germany

Urban Spree
Revaler Strasse 99, Berlin
http://www.urbanspree.com/

If you’re not a big believer in “what’s meant to be, will be,” let me tell you a little story that may change your mind. After a long day in Berlin, I was flopped on the bed in my PJs having a look at the Berlin city map on my beloved Sygic Travel app to see what else was in the area of a particular Christmas market we planned to visit the following day. I saw a little logo right near the market and clicked on it: Urban Spree. The description read “This eclectic space hosts concerts, workshops, exhibitions, markets, festivals and other artsy events – just dive in and explore this vibrant place.” Great idea! Until I looked at the rest of the day’s activities and realised it was one of those days we’d be doing lots of stuff I’d enjoy/stuff that husband just tolerates because he loves me.

Fast forward to the next morning, and off we go to the Christmas market. We walked from the train station and followed the blue dot on the phone’s map towards the area of the market. And found ourselves in an absolutely incredible area that can only be described as hipster art gallery meets the apocalypse; we accidentally turned up at the back entrance to the market, which happened to be the front entrance of Urban Spree. And husband thought it was awesome, anyway. Meant. To. Be.

It’s actually kinda hard to describe Urban Spree. The website says:

“Urban Spree is a 1700 sqm artistic space in Berlin-Friedrichshain dedicated to urban cultures through exhibitions, artist residencies, DIY workshops, concerts, an art store and a large Biergarten.

Within Urban Spree, the Urban Spree Galerie is a 400 sqm independent contemporary urban art space. Set in a 70.000 sqm postindustrial compound in the heart of Berlin, the gallery benefits from its large urban grassroots ecosystem and offers its invited artists and photographers an ideal space for experimentation through ambitious on-site residencies.”

On the day I visited, without having read any information about it other than what was on the app, what it looked like to me was a crappy old industrial area full of abandoned buildings left to decay. Which was then taken over by a band of entrepreneurial hipsters and artists who decided to make something beautiful out of it. What you have to understand here is that I’m a Melbourne girl; I’m spoilt, I’m used to great street art projects, and it takes a bit to impress me. Urban Spree totally knocked my socks off. The bars and shops and galleries within it weren’t open on this particular day, but that only made for a better experience – there were only a few other people around, so we got to wonder around this phenomenal area in peace. Instead of snapping a photo and running to the next mural, we got to actually look at the pieces; I’m quite an introspective creature, so I couldn’t have been happier with all of that physical and mental space to take it all in and mull it over.

I imagine it’d have a pretty awesome atmosphere in full swing with people all around, live music playing and drinks flowing, but if you’re there for the art, I’d really recommend visiting early in the morning. We spent a good hour walking around before we finally made it to the Christmas market, and could have easily spent an hour more pouring over all of the artwork. With the rise of artists like Banksy, it’s really great that cities are slowly forming a more progressive view on art in its many forms – what would have once been considered graffiti on derelict buildings is now seen as real art, and the casual, outdoor gallery that is Urban Spree is getting a new generation involved in art in a way that the stuffy art galleries of old never could.

   

A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

Japanese Film Festival, Melbourne 2015

The lovely Mon from Mon’s Adventure got in touch with me a few weeks ago about the Japanese Film Festival only a few days after getting back from Japan with an offer I couldn’t refuse – she’d been invited to attend an opening screening at the Japanese Film Festival but couldn’t attend, and very generously offered up her place at both the pre-screening cocktail party and the movie itself to me! Yes please and thank you!!

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The pre-screening party, held in ACMI’s Lightwell space, was a good chance to mingle and nibble and drink; basically, a bit of time to unwind from the day and start to enjoy the evening! As one would expect of an event like this, the food was delicious (particularly those sliders), and when I realised the glasses being passed around were full of Choya Umeshu (a Japanese liqueur made from ume fruit, and a personal favourite of mine), I was a pretty happy little camper.

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This year in Melbourne, the Japanese Film Festival was being supported by Washoku Lovers, an organisation/club/community that is promoting authentic Japanese culture and cuisine here in Australia (mostly Sydney at this stage, but they are trying to break through in Melbourne, yay!), so I have them to thank for the kind invitation extended to myself and my good friend JV for the night  : )  After seeing the list of eateries they’re compiling for Sydney, I can’t wait to see the places that sign up for Melbourne – not only is it going to be a great little black book of dinner locations, you may get some discounts, too…

It all started back in 1997 with three little screenings; now, in it’s 19th year, the JFF  is enjoying much bigger crowds (almost 32, 000 people attended last year), showcasing the unique nature of Japanese film (through genres as varied as anime, samurai, food, classics and drama) in comparison to the standard Hollywood stuff we usually see – on Thursday night, the screening we were invited to was for BAKUMAN, which is pretty popular in Japan! We also got to hear from JFF 2015 Cultural Ambassador Adam Liaw (of MasterChef fame) who spoke about his first link to Japan not being food, but film.

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I’m going to be brutally honest here – the idea of seeing a movie about two teenage boys trying to become published manga artists didn’t really excite me much, but I found myself really getting into in 15 minutes into the film! Based on manga and publishing giant, Weekly Shonen Jump, the film tells of two kids who just want to be published (actually, now that I think about it, I should have been more into this  movie from the start as an amateur writer who’d love to be published…) and the struggles it takes them to get there. The themes explored were friendship, struggle and triumph, and this film perfectly captured all three.

The festival is still running right around Australia until the 6th of December, so if you’d like to get a little taste of Japanese film, head to the website for tickets! I never thought I’d be sanctioning a film like this, but seriously, Bakuman – go and see it!

 

And a very big thank you to the Japan Foundation for having me as one of their guests, for opening my eyes a little more and giving me a little more appreciation for their culture beyond just their amazing food!