Creating New Conversations in Art

This piece of writing comes out of my reflections on activities that I continue to miss as the pandemic ebbs and flows. I am not talking about the walks with friends through the countryside or enjoying the well-brewed coffee made from freshly ground beans in a café midst the hum of conversation from where I can gaze out at the passing traffic. I am talking about the missing experiences of galleries and theatre – witnessing the lively expression of art and the chance sharing of views with strangers. These reflections are tinged with the concern for the people who make these experiences happen – the baristas and waiting staff and the artists, sometimes one and the same person, now languishing with little income because they have missed out on financial assistance because they are intermittent casual workers.

I believe that all art forms are an important part of life. I want to be challenged and art challenges me. For me the artist must provoke me, challenge a viewpoint, must discombobulate me.

Two examples of recent experiences in art galleries provoked emotional, somewhat visceral, experiences within me. The most recent was earlier this year.

For months Australia had been engulfed in fire and smoke: NSW, Queensland and then Victoria. A visit to Sydney in December had left impressions of grey sea, hazy hills, smoky air and impressive harbour sunsets. Now in Victoria smoke engulfed cities and towns hundreds of miles away from the actual fires. On waking the smell of smoke drove one to the door, front and back, to check whether the fires had arrived on nearby hills, in forests or the drying pastures of surrounding farms.

I was in Melbourne to catch the last days of a photographic exhibition: Civilisation: the way we live now. The exhibition was fascinating, interesting, and confronting. While still moving through the galleries we were instructed to evacuate; the smoke alarms were alarmed. My daughter and I joined the outgoing throng. Once herded into a safe place it was evident that it would be some time before we would be allowed to re-enter the gallery so we headed into the city for lunch.

Outside it was very evident that the smoke alarms had been triggered by the smoke engulfing the city and had little to do with fire within the gallery. The experience was surreal and I felt a poem emerge in rather the same way that the poet in Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, who, while chasing a lost love was pursued by poems he must give birth to.

A warm day in the city,
Scented with coffee and boiled oil.

The gallery cool
Photographs mounted on walls.
Attendants whisper into phones
Keeping in touch
While we gaze at the images:

massed people
soaring buildings
mountains of debris
conveyer belts of food, goods, people

of entrapment and solitude

Images capturing human ingenuity, waste, joy and despair.

The alarm sounds!
We spill onto the streets
Into the haze hanging over the city;
A smoky curtain, the fabric of a country on fire,
Through which we view a city in the making:

tower cranes
hi-vis jackets

Commerce waves in the smoking sultry air.

Later, returning to the exhibition
That echoes the city outside,
We ask the question:

Can we continue as we are?

Last year, sometime in March or April, I found myself responding to two exhibitions by two very different artists working in different countries at different times: Robyn Piggot and Alexander Calder, one working in glass, the other metal structures. Calder (now here’s a boast – a distant relative) has fascinated and enchanted me all my life. He transports me to a different plane; he lightens my mood; he makes gives me joy. When his work was juxtaposed with Miro at an exhibition in Barcelona I found a perfect blend of artistry. I love that the shadows cast by his structures, whether static or in almost imperceptible motion, make me something different, make me ponder on mutability. Piggot evoked much the same childlike wonder through her glass-blown structures, reminding me of a trip visiting glass manufacturing workshops at Brierly Hilll and Broadford in the U.K.

My soul awakes after wintering
this hot summer.
It stirs in autumnal warmth
roused by artists

Robyn Piggot
Alexander Calder

who entice the observer to look beyond,
to reflect on shadows cast,
reflections in glass.

In 2019 Ballarat Art Gallery hosted two major exhibitions: Picasso’s Vollard Suite and Becoming Modern; two very different exhibitions, both reflecting major shifts in society and art forms. Picasso was a shape shifter and his Vollard Suite alludes to those shifts as well as the breadth of his thoughts, confronting viewers one moment and seducing and enchanting them another. Becoming Modern, on the other hand, was an exhibition of Australian women artists, mainly working from the early to mid-twentieth century who were not cowered by male egotism, no matter how great. That one followed hot on the heels of the other (Becoming Modern followed Picasso) was a stroke of conscious or unconscious genius. Here were women, quiet and unassuming, but also determined and aware of their strength as individuals and artists, making their way through whatever avenues available to them, reflecting back to the viewer the challenges of women and their success in the face of gender inequality that, like most inequalities, has no foundation.

Landscape and exploring the countryside by foot has fed my interest in drawing, using charcoal. Who can wander through landscapes and not be interested in its history and be concerned by our desecration of its beauty and bounty. I wrote the following poem in 2009 and it seems as fresh today as it was back then when it was received to an ovation:

We sit, once more pen poised
Over paper, book before us
Ready to ponder the words
That translate ideas of others
Who in death are silent on the interpretation.
For what I read and what I understand
In the end is as unique as that original.
Whether right or wrong, true or false
Who now can really say?

So I sit once more, pen poised
Already anticipating the translation,
A slender pathway that leads to the place
Of the classroom and Virgil’s text:
His story of Hannibal, the barriers
And the solutions
Then the chaos
Which I heard as I found my words
To tell his story in this time.
And I recall Romulus and Remus,
Hercules and Laocoon and poor Cassandra;
Those tales of love, war and betrayal
And of their enchantment during
Dreary school hours
Of Latin translation
And inspiration
So that even now I phrase and parse
Sentences to match.

What is the truth of Virgil today
As we teeter on the brink of
Environmental chaos
And financial mayhem,
When what was taken for granted
Is as ephemeral as Virgil’s love
And as important as Cassandra’s portents?
We need a new Romulus and Remus
Suckled by wolves in forests
Who know the vagaries of nature
And realise the fickleness of Man:
His ability to destroy
And turn wine to vinegar,
Rocks to sand,
Sand to dust,
Ravishing resources
Until we perish in the narrow corridors
Of wilful ignorance and petty warfare.

Landscapes can appear to be innocuous but I think they are very confronting. Only think of Constable, an apparently wistful romance with the countryside, or Turner and his observation of the transformation of the country as a result of industrialisation – that train, for instance, speeding across the bridge (Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844) or closer home, Australian Indigenous artists, reminding us of life forms and water sources disappearing as a result of colonialization, wilful misunderstanding, plunder by mining and climate change.

When I walk through the landscape I feel connected. I can see the malachite humming bird in Ixopo amongst the hills of Natal, South Africa, hovering over a wild flower, or the waterfall no longer falling over the rock face in Australia. Artists capture such experiences in music, poetry, photography, theatre and sculpture and we miss the conversation. I wonder how future conversation will be formed post pandemic.

We need our artists to interpret changes in creative new ways.

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