Nick Cave, hanging from the ceiling; twisting gently. You forget how tall he is, how long. His golden angel wings lifting him above the fray…
This handmade wooden puppet from Budapest is one of the arresting curio’s gracing the shop-front window of Radio Free Alice, an alt-culture haven in Darlinghurst. Also available in this line is a Siouxsie Sioux (as Alice), the pixie Charlie Chaplin and a disturbing walking Ear, standing guard on the door.
The unusual name of the shop is an indicator of proprietor James Tsai’s underground leanings. Radio Alicia was an Italian station out of Bologna in the ’70s with an anarchist bent, catering to poets and punks. Also, there is a literary reference to sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick via his novel Radio Free Albemuth (’76), a subversive, dystopian take on the Nixon era. Behind James’s gentle, avuncular visage lurks a free radical.
Located in a small cluster of shops on Darlinghurst Road, between the Jewish Museum and the Darlo Bar, ‘Alice is the mother lode for indie kids. A sweep of sound, music, film, books & artworks fills the store with a strong cosmopolitan flavour. A theme might be: outsider art – dangerous beauty. One distinguishing label for the records reads, “just strange people, and their strange music”. The eclectic range of films likewise caters to the experimental and the curious.
Though there is always a soundtrack running in the shop, film and image may be James’s first love. Growing up in steamy Hong Kong, he would escape the heat at the local cinema which would screen a range of movies from arthouse to porn. With no ratings, a creative world opened up.
Photography too, was an early interest, which he brought to suburban Sydney as a teen. Other seeds came from the French-based comic book Heavy Metal, which introduced him to such luminaries as J.G.Ballard, and a slightly intimidating bookstore on George Street, The Land Beyond Beyond; now, true to its name, sadly gone.
Later studying film theory and technique, James confesses “I lied… a lot” to get into the very competitive course. Spinning a yarn to the teachers of making a guerilla documentary in the HK housing commission buildings, whose ‘controversial’ footage went missing, seemed to hit the mark. We agreed you could probably draw a line from this visual lineage to his current collage work hanging on the walls. “I dabble,” is all the modest Tsai would say about the erotic/modernist pieces, though he later noted German Dadaist Hannah Hoch and pop artist Peter Blake as influences.
Today, James runs a space with few parameters bar quality. Customers can sit down to scan the walls, and walk out with a small artefact from the ocean of recorded 20th-century culture; legitimising the outcast and the visionary, the rebel, the freak, the genius. As James neatly puts it: “I’m for all.”