Winton watches children reach into the wall of water that falls in the entryway of the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s a surprising feature of a building that, from the outside, is as imposing as a fortress. Watching the children sends Winton back to his own childhood discovery of this place in 1969.
The contrast between the gallery’s imposing outer structure and its beautiful, soft water feature suggests that there’s something mystical about what the gallery contains, and what it represents for Winton.
Winton and his family travel from isolated Perth to metropolitan Melbourne in 1969. The journey is harrowing—bumpy, dusty, hot, and long—but they’re sure it’ll be worth it when they discover what the “other side” of Australia is like. When they arrive after more than a week of driving, their itinerary is full of disappointments. Melbourne isn’t as glamorous as they expected it to be. Visiting the Melbourne Cricket Ground when empty is a hollow experience.
Winton is apparently not the only member of his family driven by curiosity—his family is so excited to discover another side of Australia that they’re willing to traverse a horrendously bumpy road in order to reach it. But, just like the moon landing, the reality of a long-anticipated visit is disappointing compared to Winton’s expectation.
Winton and his siblings look forward to the National Gallery, not for the art it holds but for the promised waterfall within its walls. When they arrive, they dunk their sore feet in the fountain and splash around before being shooed from the water. Apparently, their behavior is disrespectful—the fountain is art, and it shouldn’t be touched. But when they finally try to enter the museum to see the art inside, they’re told that going barefoot is not allowed. Only his dad telling the attendant that they’re from Queensland gains them enough pity to be let through.
It’s a foreign concept to Winton and his siblings that something as joyous and alive as the gallery’s water feature is only for looking, not touching or being immersed in. Winton’s curiosity and joy about this water feature stems from his earlier experiences of diving underwater or riding a wave, so this distanced approach to art is difficult to digest.
Embarrassed and out of place, Winton spends a long time staring at the same statue, reluctant to explore anything else. But after seeming to gain comfort, or perhaps even inspiration, from the statue, he sets off to see what else he can find. Winton feels like he could look at each piece forever, trying to work out its story or meaning. He keeps exploring and looking for a long time before finally yielding to his waiting family, exhausted at the entrance.
The fact that just staring at the statue gives Winton enough energy and bravery to explore further into the gallery is a reminder that, for Winton, creative expression is an almost literal form of nourishment. His mood and actions are as influenced by exposure to art as they are by access to food, water, or sleep.
Though Winton doesn’t see himself as a genius, he knows that he wants to do what the artists whose work he’s just experienced have done—to see past the normal everyday and into the world of the imagination. By the time a year has passed, he’s excited by the prospect of life as a writer.
For Winton, making art isn’t dependent on being a particularly outstanding individual or possessing extraordinary talents, but about endless curiosity and excitement.
In the present day, Tim’s delighted to return to the National Gallery and see it full of visitors. The water feature is now embraced as an interactive installation. Though the stained-glass ceiling seems a little outdated, Winton admires the changes that have allowed for more lively interaction with the art—places for children to run and opportunities for them to respond to the art they see. One of the most striking developments is the increased representation of Asian art which echoes Australia’s social changes in the years since Tim’s first visit. He remembers the feeling he had as a child who, though initially ashamed, exited the building “like a man in boots.”
Though Tim has already had a significant career as a novelist and must, by now, be used to environments like this gallery, his happiness at seeing interactive exhibits implies that he hasn’t ventured far from the tactile joys of his childhood. The opportunity to be able to touch and play with the art pleases him, because he remembers his own desire to do so. He recalls feeling, upon his first visit, that although he was ashamed of his barefoot appearance, the experience of seeing so much vibrant, invigorating, confusing art renewed his confidence and pride.