Friday, 30 April 2010

constructing a new world

Tate Modern’s exhibition ‘Constructing a New World: Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde’ is the fourth in an overlapping series of shows (‘Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World’, ‘Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia: The Moment Art Changed Forever’, and ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’). I missed the first of these shows but have no doubt that, like each of the others, it would have been a curatorial triumph. The current exhibition traces Van Doesburg’s connections from De Stijl through Dada to the Bauhaus and includes a number of artists whose works have appeared in the earlier shows. It’s a rare occasion (and a welcome one) to see so much of Van Doesburg’s own work but its context too is well managed. It is timely to view these works as something other than precursors to Clement Greenberg’s future.

The exhibition contains paintings, typography, architecture, sculpture, interior design and furniture. Everything is locked, like so much early modernist work, in a moment when idealism hadn’t solidified into lowest common denominator standardisation or, worse, totalitarianism. There’s a sense that the individual artist is no longer a romantic exemplar, no longer a person of unique importance. Skill is essential (the attitude is not to be confused with hazy notions that we are all poets and artists) though skill is something many people might share. There are many admirable works on display yet in several instances the artists themselves are interchangeable. This is in part the product of a vision of the arts combining and contributing to a greater whole, a mode of living.

A part product of this idealism is the mobility of the practitioners. Scanning through the biographies in the catalogue you notice that between half and two-thirds of these artists moved at least once between countries. Many, born in the pre-war provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have travelled, as artists do, to the centres. Many more were uprooted by global politics and moved in some cases permanently to France or further to the United States. Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (represented here by an abstract cinema piece) left Germany only to be rounded up in Britain as an alien once war was declared. He was transported to Australia in 1940 as one of the ‘Dunera boys’. Two years later James Darling the enlightened headmaster of Geelong Grammar School secured his release and appointed him art master. He lived in Australia for the remainder of his life.
[The works shown above are by Vilmos Huszar, Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld, Otto Carslund and Henryk Berlewi]

skinhead moonstomp

Polling is only a few days off. The television debates have veered between the downright depressing and the merely bemusing. And in a climate like this some odd things crawl out of the woodwork and into the mailbox, like the above missal. Really I thought these great grandsons of Sir Oswald had melded with Nick Griffin's BNP but, no, they're still out there. This one (33 going on 14) lives nowhere near Mid-Kent. It's not hard to read between the lines of his statement either. 'Ministers of Eastern European (Marxist) extraction' indeed. What was the old term of abuse? 'Rootless cosmopolitans'?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Peter Porter, 1929-2010

In the late 1980s I was working on The Epigrams of Martial (a book that in its own way ‘got back’ at the anti-modernists in the Australian literary world who’d savaged the work of my friends and myself). I had read and enjoyed Peter Porter’s book After Martial along with his other poems, but I deliberately didn’t go back to it while I worked on my own versions. Only when I had finished the work did I do so only to discover that our translations barely corresponded. This in itself was a lesson in poetry and poetics. Peter’s versions focussed on social mores whereas mine tended towards literary politics and ad hominem barbs. I saw Peter many times over the years, in Sydney and in London (where he and Christine put me up on one occasion). Late last year he delivered a paper at Australia House. He was clearly unwell. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to talk at this event but a few days later we did so at length on the phone.

I met Peter in early 1983 at the launch of John Forbes’ magazine Surfers’ Paradise. Peter and John had been in contact for some while, probably since the mid-seventies when John had worked for a few months at Australia House in London. I gave Peter a copy of my book Adventures in Paradise. Not long after I received a postcard from him (JW Waterhouse’s painting of ‘The Lady of Shallott’) expressing enjoyment of the book. At the time reviews of my work were mixed at best, often downright damning. That same year a manuscript of mine that Hale & Iremonger had scheduled to publish was refused funding by the Literature Board. I was able to read the anonymous reader’s report and it seemed clear that the book had been knocked back largely for reasons of literary politics. Hale & Iremonger said they would try again the following year. Someone suggested I send the manuscript to Peter in the chance that he might write a recommendation for the publishers. This is what Peter wrote. It is an acute comment. It gave me heart and does so still, twenty-five years later:

Mr Duggan is a stylist in an area of poetry where style is notoriously difficult to maintain . . . a form which demands absolute sureness of touch if it is not to collapse like a shattered mosaic. His lyrics of circumstance catch the tone and peculiarity of urban Australia convincingly . . . He makes structures which are more than the facts and opinions they employ. That, I think, is poetry.

Though this post may seem to be more about me than about Peter I wanted to put on record an instance of great kindness, a rare enough thing in this edgy world of factionalism.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Subterranean and subsequently atmospheric effects emanating from Iceland possibly thinned out the audiences at some readings over the last week or so. This wasn’t the case at the Menzies Centre where Katherine Gallagher launched her selected poems Carnival Edge a week ago. Gallagher has lived in London (excepting a few years in Paris) since she left Australia in the late sixties. Both of us had first books published by Robert Kenny’s Melbourne based Rigmarole of the Hours press. Her book, The Eye’s Circle appeared in 1974, my own East in 1976. She read from the new book finishing with poems from the sequence ‘After Kandinsky’ set to music composed for the occasion by Kwesi Edman. The Shearman reading a few days later had lost one of the readers, Lars Amund Vaage, due to illness though as it turned out he wouldn’t have been able to get to the UK in any case. Tony Frazer was lucky enough to make it back from Berlin. The other reader, Jaime Robles (lower photo), was fortunately already in the country and present for the launch of her book anime, animus, anima. A number of other attractive works published by her own press Five Fingers (San Leandro, California) were on the table among current Shearsman titles.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

interior decoration

It isn’t (and shouldn’t) always be the case that the participants at a poetry reading should mesh but on occasions, like last night’s Blue Bus reading, the result was eminently satisfying. Tom Lowenstein (top) read new work; a kind of reinvention of Coleridge’s prose writings. Martin Anderson (centre) read poems from last year’s book Belonging and in the second half sections from the soon to be published continuation of The Hoplite Journals. Anthony Rudolf (bottom) read mostly recent work including transcriptions from the English of his East End Jewish grandfather shaded with the wit of a Reznikoff. The Lamb, like many other pubs, has been attempting to shape up to an ideal that might not necessarily satisfy its present clientele. They have installed plush curtains and a flat-screen TV upstairs and a very solid looking wooden table that would probably be more at home in a council chamber than in a pub. This feature in particular determined the seating arrangements of the whole room. All that was missing was an order restoring gavel.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Saturday, 10 April 2010

dreaming in colour

When I visit historically themed exhibitions of photography I often find myself giving only a cursory glance to the recent colour works. These are often gigantic C-type images mounted directly onto the wall with plenty of surrounding space. Even at this date I find that so much of this work feels ‘empty’. So much of it tends to illustration or at least it seems that the social documentary hasn’t had time to harden into the shape of art. In many cases it resists ‘art’ even though its size and location (in an art gallery) make this seem like a form of hypocrisy. There’s often a sense similar to that evoked by many of the early colour movies: that the abstract potentiality of the medium has been sacrificed to the drive for naturalism (even the extremes of natural colour become commonplace after a while). Last week I visited a show that more or less turned these expectations of mine upside down. ‘Three Dreams’, at the Whitechapel Gallery had advertised itself as an exhibition covering a century and a half of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However it wasn’t chronologically arranged; instead the gallery walls featured five thematic groupings with some overlaps between them (the portrait, the performance, the family, the street, and the body politic). Within these groupings the older photographs worked not as early stages in the development of the art but as indicators of continual concerns. The majority of the work dated from the mid-twentieth century on and a good deal of this work was in colour. A number of earlier pieces as well as some of the later ones were hand-tinted. This was not done as part of a quest for greater verisimilitude; instead it tended to enhance the ceremonial or artificial nature of the image (a wedding perhaps, or a figment of the imagination). The photographs are ‘painted’ much as the transvestites and transsexuals and the movie stars who feature in some of these photographs are ‘painted’. Many of the works were indeed documentary (like Tanveer Shahzad's image of demonstrating lawyers held at bay by water cannon) yet this didn’t preclude them from the realm of art: they sat comfortably serving both ends. [The above images are by Ram Rahman, Raghubir Singh, Tanveer Shahzad, Pamela Singh, and Dinesh Khanna]

Thursday, 8 April 2010

social engineering works

Something didn’t seem right when I arrived early at The Leather Exchange [students can finish this implied novel if they wish]. The writing was on the wall. Literally. A blackboard in the bar advertised fine dining upstairs from Wednesdays. It was Wednesday and a poetry reading was scheduled for that same space. Luckily for us there were no diners though the pub’s moves to change its clientele seemed pretty much like the thin end of the wedge [or the rough end of the stick, or whatever]. I fear we may be hunting for another venue before very long. Amy D’Ath and Elizabeth Guthrie read separately and performed together in the first half of the reading. They left the listener wanting more but I had to head back to the adjacent county. As I was passing through the barriers at London Bridge tube I noticed some transit police rushing ahead. They’d cornered a man of dark complexion under the suspicion that he was carrying a knife in his belt. The ‘knife’ turned out to be a large buckle. At least the police apologised profusely.