Friday, 22 May 2009
On Tuesday night at The Lamb the Blue Bus reading featured Gavin Selerie and Barry Schwabsky. Schwabsky, a native of Paterson NJ, has been in London for some years and runs the reading series at the Parasol Unit (at which it was a pleasure to hear David Chaloner read a few weeks back). His work has a light, graceful touch that belies its density. The most recent of his volumes is book left open in the rain (Black Square/Brooklyn Rail, 2008). Gavin Selerie’s reading was a de facto launch for his selected poems, Music’s Duel, just published by Shearsman. Selection would have been difficult since Selerie has worked largely in longer units that have become books in themselves, such as the early Azimuth (Binnacle, 1984) or the wondrous recent volume Le Fanu’s Ghost (Five Seasons Press, 2006). Like many fine poets in Britain his work has been less than readily available to the wider anglophone audience. This volume would be a very good place to start for those unfamiliar with his work and a welcome addition for those who are familiar with it. It contains work from all his books except for a handful of very brief publications and includes a considerable portion of previously unpublished work. Olson is in there in the approach to historical documents but there is also a quite un-Olsonian voicing that owes much to the English poets of the sixteenth century.
Monday, 18 May 2009
Saturday, 16 May 2009
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)
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Last night at the old Calder bookshop in Southwark, Reality Street Editions launched Wendy Mulford’s The Land Between and Peter Jaeger’s rapid eye movement. Jaeger’s book consists of parallel bands of text: dream narratives and found material including the word ‘dream’. I’ve heard him read some of this work before and he does it well, breaking sentences at just the right tone and pitch as he shifts from text to text. The reading is completed when a set alarm goes off at whatever point in a sentence or even a word that the author has reached. The book seemingly walked off the display shelf though a healthy group of writing students in the audience (Jaeger is a writing teacher) may have made a difference here. It would be a pity if the comparative sales of Mulford’s book reflected anything more than this. It is her first since and suddenly, supposing, the selected poems put out by Etruscan Books in 2002. Mulford’s work is undemonstrative and precise yet nonetheless formally innovative. Significantly she insisted the lights remain on in the room rather than isolate herself on the Calder’s spotlit stage.
Friday, 8 May 2009
May promises to be a busy month. There’s an element of spring fever that bulks up the attendance at readings. On Tuesday I forewent Ron Silliman at Birkbeck to go instead to the Shearsman reading featuring Anne Blonstein, Wendy Salomon and Tim Allen (above), whose singular book Settings was well worth a journey into London. The reading was well attended despite its coincidence with the Birkbeck gig. Speaking to some who went there and noting entries on the UK Poetry site, I detected a mild lack of enthusiasm with just a faint hint of exhaustion. Harry Gilonis, asked for his response, gnomically reworked the Crystals’ ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’. Elizabeth James was measured. Some noted just how big the book (The Alphabet) was. In my own case I figured that I could always watch clips of Silliman’s readings, like those on Openned or the ones from last week’s readings up in Bury, on Geof Huth’s site.
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
It has been a fortunate couple of years for those interested in early twentieth-century Russian art. In March last year I went to two shows dealing with this period. Yesterday I caught the Tate Modern’s display of the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova, now into its last weeks. The beauty of this exhibition lies in the work both artists did over the period 1917-1921 or so. While the later work is available to us through multiple editions and through photographic documentation, these idealistic abstractions have come together from a number of collections spread across the former Soviet Union as well as the USA and an especially well endowed public collection (the State Museum of Contemporary Art) in Thessaloniki, Greece. These works still seem revolutionary now suggesting speed without recourse to illustration. A turning point in the careers of both artists was documented by the two-part exhibition held in Moscow over September and October 1921 and entitled 5 X 5 = 25 (the two rooms featuring this event also include work by Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin and Aleksandra Exter). It was a crucial moment because from this point the artists had to justify their practice through proving that art could play a role ‘in the real world’. Rodchenko and Popova were able to develop the practice of photomontage and, as my earlier piece notes, find a place for photographic modernism in the depiction of sport and other dynamic subjects. The stage designs from the early twenties are still startlingly fresh and Popova’s fabric designs (like the one shown on the gallery booklet cover) would look good even now. In the service of the Revolution however they began to produce advertisements for goods made available through Lenin’s New Economic Policy. It is a sad thing to witness a utopian art reduced to advertising biscuits as Rodchenko’s did. The later ‘pop’ artists of the West kept a kind of ironic distance between their principles and the items of consumer culture dominating their work and one can certainly imagine the indignation if a well-known American or British painter were actually asked to advertise soap (though I can also imagine that some of the YBAs brought to our notice by Saachi & Saachi would happily do it). In Rodchenko’s case there is no such framing distance (it reminds me of the story retailed by Arthur Danto: that the Brillo boxes appropriated by Andy Warhol were actually designed by a failed Abstract Expressionist). Rodchenko lived on until 1956 often in penury. Popova was spared the excesses of ‘socialist realism’. She spent her last years in poor health, dying, with her son, of scarlet fever in 1924.