Saturday, 16 May 2009

avoiding myth & message 2

A couple of months back I mentioned the exhibition that is currently on at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Entitled avoiding myth & message and running from April 7 to July 12, this show looks at interactions between Australian artists and the literary world over a period from the 1970s through to the 1990s. The title is taken, appropriately enough, from ‘On the Beach: A Bicentennial Poem’ by John Forbes, the poet who is very much at the centre of this well-researched presentation. John had written his MA thesis on John Ashbery and had begun but not finished a doctoral work on Frank O’Hara, both of whose own interactions with visual artists were extensive and profound.

I think the Australian scene documented in avoiding myth differs significantly from New York of the 1950s and 60s. Collaborative work is much less visible. Anna Couani and Peter Lyssiotis’ work would qualify, but even in Tim Burns’ 1974 piece ‘Ask me anything about John Forbes’, in which the poet stayed in a room for 24 hours interacting with the passing audience via CCTV, Forbes is more of an art object than a collaborator. I’m thinking, by way of comparison, about the many works produced through the interactions of New York artists and writers like Joe Brainard, O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and Alex Katz where each contributed to an evolving text. In Australia the interactions tended to be at one remove. The poets would write about the artists; the artists might take off from already existing poems or they might provide a cover graphic for a finished book or pamphlet. Ken Bolton, who frequently wrote about art provided his own graphics (among the work of others) for his magazine Magic Sam and for other publications from his own imprints (my own book Adventures in Paradise is designed by Ken); Pam Brown would sometimes use her own work but more often use the work of an artist like Micky Allan; John Forbes in his own small edition booklets and with his magazine Surfers’ Paradise had a number of artists on call, especially those, like Colin Little, who worked at the Tin Sheds.

The Sheds were central for those of a certain persuasion who lived and worked in Sydney and a good deal of work in this show wouldn’t have happened without them. These eccentric spaces hosted readings as well as the impressive work of the Poster Collective. Considering the state of the buildings (they were, literally, tin sheds, surrounded by art and industrial detritus and an intensively farmed kitchen garden overshadowed by the newly constructed University of Sydney student union extension) it is remarkable that they remained on a prime piece of real estate for as long as they did. You wouldn’t know now that they ever existed:

There is more than one strand of work operating in ‘avoiding myth’ however, and it is often the individual writers and artists who operate across each other’s territories, either through the vispo work of πο, Ruark Lewis and Richard Tipping, or through the use made of texts by Mike Parr, Gordon Bennett and Jenny Watson. There is a sense through the exhibition of a community of interest existing over a number of years which has now largely dried up as the visual artists mounted the ladder of the gallery system. It’s probably a telling detail that, for a writer, the sight of one’s work behind glass in a gallery is still astonishing and strange. The artists, I guess, are used to it by now.

(Thanks to curator Glenn Barkley for the installation images)


Vanessa Berry said...

When I was installing my work in this exhibition, I went into the "70s room", and all the beautiful books were lying there, exposed, the glass tops not yet placed over them. I reached out for them, and was just about to touch, when I realised no! I wasn't allowed to!

Laurie Duggan said...

And I've still got copies of a lot of the stuff just lying around or on a shelf somewhere. All the same I wish I could get to the show.

Ruark Lewis said...

I must say I have trouble coming to terms with this show. Perhaps being included in it hasn't helped me resolved some of the things you’ve mentioned here. In fact I feel there are two shows in one competing with each other. I have been waiting for years for a curator in this country to assemble a museum show that looked at the area of language art, not just visual, but something that takes into account, publications, sound works, radiophonic compositions, experimental music, video and filmmaking. This is not the show. Missing in action are the experimental writers Ania Walwicz, Lindsay Clement, Alex Selhenitsch, Chris Mann or Javant Biarujia. Leaving out someone like Pete Spence, Bea Maddock’s amazing Tasmanian Island language maps or the typographic masterpieces of Alan Loney is difficult to understand. The invisibility of Komninos Zervos cannot be accidental. Nor the richness of new media that is absent also. The writers and publications of the 70s writers look quaint locked up and made silent in the museum vitrines. They are entombed, with their often weak cover designs exposed like picture cards. Rudi Krausmann has been transformed into a sort of floorpaper design using stick on letters (not even consulted) recreated and reformatted by visual artist Christopher Dean. Why Rudi’s own silk-screened concrete poems are not included is absent minded. Then PiO's wonderful urban epic 24HRS is overshadowed by the curator's fabrication with the poet of a faux experimental glossolalia called "iz az ez oz". In it's place I would have liked to have seen Amanda Stewart performing her remarkable vocal art and her unique photocopy page-works. The catalogue has errors through-out. My own sample pages are all in the wrong order and unreadable - the MCA published the same texts in the correct order in their 2006 catalogue “Interesting Times”.
What has gone wrong here in my opinion is that the school of ’72 avant-garde ‘neo-american’ writers have replaced a needy survey of Australian experimental writing. We begin that sort of survey by looking at Christopher Brennan, visiting the Ern Malley collage poems, reasserting the importance of Alan Riddell’s “Eclipse”, exhibiting a larger series Sweeney Read works, examining the graphics of Jas Duke, exhibiting the typewriter poems of Lindsay Clement, looking at the work of Ruth Cohen and acknowledging the collaborative outputs of Lorraine Krausmann. The flaw in the curatorial reasoning is clear when you read the work lists. The visual artists, almost all are conceptual artists have far greater profiling than the writers. What these poets are not and never will be in conceptual or even experimental. At best they were cover versions – cultural import substitutes in the age of American cultural imperialism. If we must include these ‘avant-garde poetry works, then why not note them as a simple bibliography? The University of Sydney Art Gallery has a concurrent exhibition on called Poesia Visivia – Italian Concrete & Visual Poetry of the ‘60s & ‘70s until July 19 derived from the Fredrick May Foundation. In that rationale they pay homage to Marinetti. It has a brilliant learned essay by the curator Connie Tornatore-Loong. I really think you should transport yourself to Sydney and examine both exhibitions and make another assessment .
At the MCA opening Alan Wearne made no mention of the artwork in the exhibition at all! Instead he salivated over the corpse of a dead poet’s society (apologies RIP John Forbes). Maybe the exhibition should rename it “Avoiding Mess by Making Myth”.
cheers Ruark

Laurie Duggan said...

Well I'd love to see the Sydney University show as I've long been interested in the developments of Futurism. In fact, Ruark, if you look through my books you'll find that I haven't entirely been an agent of US imperialism (here you sound not unlike a lot of the conservative voices of the 70s). There are several translations of work by Italian Futurist poets in there too. Generally I'd say the MCA curator was putting together a different show from the one you envisage. I think he deals more with interactions between the two fields of visual art and poetry rather than what could be strictly termed developments in 'vispo'. And though I agree with you about some inclusions and omissions it all ends up rather like those reviews of anthologies that spend too much time quarreling about who should have been there and who shoudn't. A bit dreary really.

Ruark Lewis said...

I think that a library would have been an apt location to place the literary components of this exhibition. At least the visual arts components were obviously readable. From a democrat's point of view the curatorial action was elitist. Also the material at the University gallery shows that visual poetry is more democratic as a display mode than are vitrines fulled of book covers. You’d have to be privileged to understand their contents. I don't think such a performance requirement would have been articulated by conservatives at any time in Australia. What is absent or misrepresented in the MCA exhibition does not represent the old school values you seem to allude to. You’re pulling the wool over people's eyes by suggesting that.
So I am more than happy to challenge your assumption here.
with respect

Laurie Duggan said...

Ruark, What you seem to think I said isn't quite what I said. But this is all going to end up as a rather boring ideological dispute between a couple of not very interesting factions don't you think?

PB said...

I don't think you've read the MCA exhibition's catalogue or publicity, Ruark. The curatorial approach is clearly stated -
Glenn Barkly set out to "explore the intersection of Australia’s literary and contemporary art worlds" and they also explain that he was restricted to using material that was mainly already in the MCA collection:
"Predominantly an MCA collection based exhibition, it will include
ephemera, publications and media-based works produced by
artists and publishers from 1968 onwards."
that probably means the MCA doesn't OWN any Pete Spence, Ania Walwicz, Bea Maddock etc etc etc....but I think most of the work included is collaborative or investigative rather than illustrative .
One of Rudi's graphic poems is stencilled in big yellow letters on the floor.

And, to defend Alan Wearne, although that wasn't his best performance by any means, his brief was to read the Forbes' poem that gave the exhibition its title. And he took that exceptionally long and winding road to getting to the actual poem - I agree that that was kind of agonising for the half-pissed guests standing for ages on a concrete floor waiting for him to stop rambling and read, but I'm pretty sure Alan wasn't asked to talk about the art!
There's an event at the MCA on Sunday arvo June 14th at 2.30pm where Christopher Dean will ask Glenn about the exhibition.
Maybe you'd be interested in asking a few questions too? See my blog for details -

Cheerio from Pam

Ruark Lewis said...

Pam with all due respect, it's you who haven't read the catalogue - especially in regard to the issue of works predominantly coming from the MCA collection. Firstly all the listed 'literary examples' in the vitrines are from the collection of Anna Couani see pages 63-66. That's 59 items. 4 items by John Forbes are Nicholas Pounder collection. Richard Tipping's donated publications & multiples to the Museum in 1998.
Of the wall texts of Bellear, Berry, Dransfield Forbes and PiO none are part of the MCA collection nor is the artist Vernon Ah Kee. Examining pages 60 - 63 you'll find that of the 72 visual works - 37 works apear to be part of the collection of the Museum.
I'd like to also point out that the work of Tim Burns in which Forbes appears & the wall text of Forbes are not in the collection either.
Although not in the collection, Bea Maddock's work "TERRA SPIRITUS... with a
darker shade of pale [1993–98]" was the centerpiece of the MCA's Meridian exhibition in 1992. It would have been wonderful to have the opportunity to see that work again in the context of this show.
Can you please refer to the list of works on the pages above and please explain why you believe this is, "Predominantly an MCA collection based exhibition".
92 works have been loaned!
I thought the exclusions illustrate a bias against more advanced and experimental writers in this country. Thank god the Tyndall Brothers have been able to work with Gerald Murnane to make the 86 minute film titled, "Words And Silk:The Imaginary and Real Worlds of Gerald Murnane" or Australia's greatest living experimental writer too would have been ignored.

Laurie Duggan said...

Well all shows suffer from omissions and the takes of various curators aren't going to satisfy everyone. Sometimes the curators even WANT to include certain things but may be obstructed by artists or writers who want the show to be a different thing and then complain afterwards that they haven't been included. And there are time and economics and lots of other boring constraints. If you have real problems with the show, Ruark, this blog isn't really a great place to sort things out. Why not approach an institution with your own ideas for an exhibition? The avants are hardly a persecuted minority these days.

PB said...

Phew & wow - Ruark,
what statistics, what a statistician!

point and points and points and points taken, on my part

anyway, good for you, your work IS in the MCA collection & in the show.

Should be an interesting discussion at MCA on June 14th - I assume you'll be there?


p.s. Thanks Laurie for the commentary space.

pete spence said...

i don't make myself all that visible
these days so i can understand being left out of this show.the show is more about concrete poetry/typography and design its a pity that the Cantrills film of Jas Duke was not to be seen it was of that era. my film of Jas Duke probably would have gone down well too. but in the end to be left out doesn't mean you should throw a tantrum at the curator! the curator
has the cards.

pete spence

Anonymous said...

should be said i think there is a fair divide between the concrete poets of what is being shown here and the visual by the victorian visual poet dave powell are rare i've seen nice prices on e-bay for copies of his books he edited LIGNE magazine with me they also sell well these days but we only kept a copy for ourselves all others were out there!how would anyone deal with me? i do assembling mags in germany etc there is only around 25 copies of
any issue and they go to the artists in any issue so who would
even know what we were up to?this is about how an artist chooses a way!my most recent project i was inwas an Homage to Italian Futurismthe exhibition started in Napoli and is moving around through Italy the only 2 Australians invited to this project were cornelis vleesken & myself! thats how it goes! the Bulotov visual poetry anthology has Tony Figalo and myself!the idea of how people are placed is both luck and chance of what your network is. if something turns up i'm probably first off the rank to let other Australians doing our stuff know but in the end its up to them.
i'm not interested in pushing my barrow but i'll try to push the barrow of others because i want to see what they might be up to. my interest is in the work not the cheers from the fans. to that extent i laud the energy of both Richard Tipping and "Pie Oh!" in all the effort they make...but in the end there is a fair gap 'tween the visual poets in Australia and those good guys of the concrete poetry movement who somehow wanna keep keeping on when after two years of the advent of concrete poetry it was declared a dead end by those who started it! this i suppose could be said about visual poetry also. in the end all stuff does an entropy and is later followed up anew! thanks for allowing me to blog
pete spence

Laurie Duggan said...

Pete, you're welcome. Of course exhibitions are always odd things. In a way it's fortuitous that I'm in there at all, though I guess I was a part of the Sydney scene chronicled therein. Certainly Ken Bolton, Pam Brown and John Forbes had much more contact with the artists. I did design one book myself though that's not in the show. Not surprising because I only did a hundred or so of them and it doesn't have an ISBN. The National Library probably doesn't have a copy either. I agree with you that sometimes it is just a small and particular audience we're after and to participate in a show like this is a bonus really.

Anonymous said...

thanks Laurie...there was a couple of magazines in the glass cabinets that i was in so you could say i was in the exhibition undercover!!
pete spence