Sociology of the National Arboretum

Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra

One of the themes of my visual sociology is the representation of science. Conservation is as much about social practices as it is about earth science, biology and other natural sciences. Today’s post is about the sociology of the National Arboretum, which sits on Ngunawal country. Ngunawal people are the traditional custodians of this part of Acton, west of the city in Canberra. Less than a seven minute drive central business district, this is one of the world’s largest arboretums for rare and endangered trees. I am no arborist. I cannot even claim to be a fan of gardening. I was interested in the Arboretum first in an attempt to capture a visual sociology of Canberra, and second to see how people interact with this place as a science centre. The focus of my post today is on the social dynamics of the Arboretum, especially on community aspects of conservation and the trees that drew the greatest interest amongst the crowds I saw: the Bonsai and Penjing Collection .
National Arboretum (18)

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Weekends With a Sociologist

The Canberra Times Fountain by Bob Woodward. Public art in Canberra City

Canberra is Australia’s capital city, but you may not necessarily know this if you were parachuted in blindfolded, out of the blue. While Sydney is bustling with tourists and attractions, and Melbourne is brimming with multicultural events, Canberra is seemingly pedestrian. On a Sunday, the majority of the shops close at 4 PM, even in the city’s central business district, and on holidays, there are few people in the centre of the city. That’s because Canberra is, in many ways, a satellite city: our politicians fly in on weeks when Parliament sits, which ramps up the pulse of taxi drivers and plumps up some of our cafes and bars at peak times, every other week. Many people who live here are not locals. Young people tend to move away, while public servants and academics move their families here for their careers.

I had previously lived in Canberra for six months as part of a secondment for another job, many years ago. I was much younger then and, looking back, I did not really enjoy the city. I mostly spent my free time with groups who knew each other from graduate placements and often talked about work, even at 1 AM outside clubs – which is, by the way, the time that most clubs clubs closed back then (and likely do still). “Did you know he’s still an APS5?” (Australian Public Service Level 5) “He’s never going to be promoted!” I was surrounded by Anglo-Australian people who had little interest in multicultural experiences – having come from a highly multicultural part of Melbourne, this was a big change.

Back then I worked very long hours (and do still but not quite so intense) and, to be honest, I was often tired and I own the fact that I did not make a big effort to get to know the city. This time around, knowing that I’d be here a bit longer, I have gotten to know different types of people and have gone out of my way to get the most out of Canberra, by exploring more of its heart and culture. I aim to bring you a few visual stories of how I reacquainted myself with this city, with a visual sociology series I’m calling, Weekends With a Sociologist.
Weekends with a sociologist

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Ai Weiwei: Pop Art to Protest Art

The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is currently showing an exhibition of two monumental artists, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, whose work and interests often intersected, even though they were working in different eras. As Weiwei was still studying in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when Warhol’s star was meteoric. In this post, I only focus on Weiwei’s work.

Ai Weiwei shares Warhol’s scepticism for “high art” and authority, as evidenced in his 1995 classic artwork, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which he redid in 2015 with legos (featured in my photos below). Similarly his two installations, Chandelier with Restored Han Dynasty Lamps for the Emperor and Forever Bicycles (both 2015) make a comment on the cultural artefacts that are revered at a later point in time, even though they were once everyday household items with little value.

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Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine Chapel

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine ChapelToday I spent a great deal of time playing around with the Vatican’s virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. For an art and sociology of religion nerd such as me, the 360 degree view of the Chapel was loads of fun. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about the history of Christian art and, in particular, Michelangelo’s contribution to Western ‘high art’ culture. I am interested in how Western European art of the Renaissance period set up women as The Other of men, and how this gender binary continues to influence dominant discourses of divinity within mainstream Christianity.

Elizabeth Dodson Gray offers a feminist critique of the history of patriarchal depictions of divinity. She argues this form of patriarchy is best exemplified by the system of meaning behind Michelangelo’s design of the Sistine Chapel. Dodson Gray’s central point about ‘the process of naming the sacred’ helps to unpack the narrative behind the Sistine Chapel’s most famous work. Dodson Gray argues that throughout most of modern history, men had greater power in constructing discourses of The Sacred. As a consequence, symbols of God were constructed as synonymous with being Male. Until women began offering feminist critiques of religious signs and texts, religious imagination largely ignored women’s knowledge.  Continue reading Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine Chapel

Street Art and Distinction in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Zuleyka Zevallos

In the photograph below, street artist Shamsia Hassan is featured in front of one her graffiti creations in an industrial park in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hassan was featured today in The Guardian, where she argues that many people in Afghanistan have not been exposed to (non-religious) art, but she sees that graffiti is a way to change that. She says: “If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art”. To many people in “Western” countries, Shassan’s comments might seem to be consistent with the dominant view that Afghan people exist in a “backward” social vacuum. From the outside, Afghans are perceived to live in a society untouched by modernity and completely ravaged by war. This view fails to recognise the history of Afghanistan, as well as the cultural and educational diversity amongst urban and rural groups from different tribes in different regions. Moreover, I see that Hassan’s comments about street art go to the heart of much of Bourdieu’s work on taste and distinction.

 

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