"The Word, here, is encyclopaedic, it contains simultaneously
all the acceptations from which a relational discourse might have required
it to choose. It therefore achieves a state which is only possible
in the dictionary or in poetry-places where the noun can live without
its article-and is reduced to a sort of zero degree, pregnant with
all past and future specifications."
This excerpt from an essay written in 1953 by the French philosopher Roland Barthes
is the closest description of the function of writing that I could figure regarding
what I wanted to explore. As I walked home from the bus-stop past the (at that
time of evening) deserted 1960s utopian architecture of Unley High School, and
faux-Georgian houses whose internal lights were on even though the sky was still
luminous, the moon, full tonight, was large in the sky, round and pale-yellow
behind a calligraphic brushstroke of cloud. The stars were still invisible but
night would fall soon.
Thinking about the way writing functions with reference to some contemporary
art, I wanted to move past a history that traces inscription in art from pictograms,
through surrealism and cubism, to conceptual art and pop, and beyond. "I
DONT WANT NO RETRO SPECTIVE" the Californian artist Edward Ruscha indicated
in white lettering against pink-orange pastel on paper in 1979. But he got one
(or, in any case a "retrospective"). In 1965, American artist Joseph
Kosuth wrote "FIVE WORDS IN BLUE NEON", in, well, blue neon. At university
in 1989 I wrote something about how by painting words as images Ruscha severs
the relationship between signifier and signified. His words are words, but they're
also abstract things placed into illusional three-dimensional space. Since then,
I've realised that this gesture was also one strongly linked to his experience
of words in the real space of the urban landscape: "Words, as we know from
life, have a life in reality-the world of our physical experience. They exist
as actual markers, as signs on billboards, buses, buildings."
But I wanted to get at how writing, when it's linked to, or a part of, or as,
art, elucidates something emotive. Something that wont be explained by linguistic
theory. I wanted to think through how writing on an object can transform it,
and I linked that with the practice of note-making. And, I decided, I'd like
to approach these ideas, in this instance, in a personal and subjective way.
For instance, when the Auckland-based artist Daniel Malone was in Adelaide recently
for a show I curated called ambient (male) identity we'd
had to give a talk about the show on the Saturday afternoon after the opening.
Afterwards we met with curator and artist Joanne Harris and teacher and artist
George Popperwell at the Edinburgh Hotel, a local pub frequented by pseudo-yuppy
types and rich kids who wear Country Road clothes and drive big four-wheel-drives.
But, hey, it's Adelaide, a city where the real estate prices are second-lowest
after Hobart, and the streets in the inner-city suburbs are tree-lined and full
of red and green parrots in early summer. (The city also boasts the fastest ageing
population in Australia, and the highest proportion of population over sixty
years of age). At the pub, which is really nice, especially in summer when there
are kids climbing trees in the courtyard, we watched the live television broadcast
of the funeral of the Princess of Wales. What was so good was that guys were
playing pool in front of the big screen (which usually transmits football games
or video-music clips), and the commentary was mute, the soundtrack provided by
a group of young guys who kept plugging Doors songs into the CD jukebox. But
to get to the point (and, in many ways, there isn't one), as we were leaving,
Daniel noticed a business-card dropped on the pavement outside. After he left
town, I found it hidden inside a boxed set of books we had been looking at during
the week. On the verso, he had written "Princess Farewell / found 6.9.97
/ outside the pub / during Broadcast.". The card was for a limousine service "Adelaide
Impressions". I don't have to explain the irony/poetry. Its beauty, I guess,
resides in the fortuitous nature of Daniel's discovery.
So this is what I'm thinking about here. How inscription records something emotive
and transitory, and gives it weight. The nice thing about this kind of gesture
is that it carries with it a sense of the transitory nature of life that our
generation seems to enjoy. This is like a snapshot but even less anchored. The
dilemma, of course, is why the recording of any of these personal "moments" is
of interest or of relevance to anyone who has not experienced them, or for whom
they mean nothing. One answer perhaps resides in the way that "we" appreciate
the relativity of things, of the world. But, it seems, you have to locate an
aspect of meaning somewhere. And it seems to me that for this generation, "meaning" is
located in the experience of the present. The French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud
has said that the contemporary subject is "structurally inconsistent". He
conceives a concept of subjectivity that is as contingent as its external environment,
that "appears to be indistinguishable from specific circumstances, where
individual behaviour is determined by the strict dictates of events." This
is true. And it's even explained by contemporary science:
"Animals are not just herbivores or carnivores. They are, in the nice coinage
of the psychologist George Miller, informavores. And they get their epistemic
hunger from the combination, in exquisite organisation, of the specific epistemic
hungers of millions of microagents, organised into dozens or hundreds of thousands
of subsystems. Each of these tiny agents can be conceived of as an utterly minimal
intentional system, whose life project is to ask a single question, over and
over and over - "Is my message coming in NOW?" "Is my message
coming in NOW?" - and springing into limited but appropriate action whenever
the answer is YES. Without the epistemic hunger, there is no perception, no uptake."
But there's also something else. The conversations I have had lately about identity
with artists and friends acknowledges this sense of contingency (it's built in,
anyway, and becomes a question of realization), but it is linked with a deeper
sense of genealogical imperative. The Australian artists Adam Cullen and Paul
Quinn both make work that trades on a completely contemporary subjectivity with
its attendant sense of the ridiculous, but they're both interested in their own
generational Irish background. Same with Daniel Malone and his tracing of Asian-ness
via American indigenous self-hood. And all of this is something separate from
(but connected to) questions of self-hood framed by notions of gender and sexuality.
But I'm wandering. Let's get back to writing (which is implicit in these questions
anyway). Maybe I should just list some examples of what I'm thinking about:
Inscription as transformation
Daniel Malone's performance for ambient (male) identity consisted of the
artist choosing a particular moment during the evening (it was about 7.30 pm,
during the opening); he placed a boombox on the floor and played a cassette tape
with two versions of a track co-written by Daniel Malone and Biu Cheong. The
first version contained a melody which was absent from the second version. When
the second version started, Daniel spray-painted the melody (in musical notation)
on to the gallery wall. He continued, referring to a typescript of the written
music, until the paint in the can was used up. After that he unplugged and removed
the boombox from the space. A Sony Walkman was available with a tape of the music
for people to freely listen to while in the space.
Brisbane artist Scott Redford spray-stencilled the text "INFINITY OF MONKEYS
+ INFINITY OF TYPEWRITERS + INFINITY OF TIME = HAMLET (NOT)" on to the gallery
wall of the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide. He
used two spray-cans of auto-enamel ("Cherry Red Mitsubishi" and "Lobelia
(purple) Hyundai"). The cans were then transformed into another work by
the application of text: "FUCKBUDDY" was written horizontally along
each can. The paint used by Daniel Malone in his work untitled de-differentiated
def work was "Palais White Holden", a reference to the origin of
the Holden Motor Company in Adelaide. His used can was later added to Scott's
pair, placed discretely behind and in-between and inscribed "SOLO".
Adelaide artist Richard Grayson has customarily used found letters as the subject
of his paintings. Red Letter Received Nov. `80, 1992, (Collection Art
Gallery of South Australia) is a section of a letter painted in oil on canvas
that reads in part "...YOU STUPID...", a letter sent to the artist
by a lover.
Sydney artist Adam Cullen has used text in his work as an abstract form, and
to signal the contingency of the urban physical and psychological content and
context of his work. A painting from 1996 spells out the words "MY PARENTS'
TELEPHONE NUMBER IS 9982 1626" (Collection Gold Coast City Art Gallery,
Queensland), in silver spray-enamel on canvas.
Canberra artist David Laggner wrote a sentence in ballpoint pen on the window-sill
of "ether ohnetitel" gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne (now "STRIPP").
An un-spooled cassette-tape resting on the window-sill offered a kind of silence,
while a strew of styrofoam packing chips on the gallery floor provided an "analogue" sound-scape.
A flat piece of styrofoam marked with the impression of a tyre-track offered
another kind of analogue recording. Also in this exhibition, Poltergeist,
Melbourne artist Peter Graham showed drawings on small irregular pieces of note-paper,
full of formulas and scientific propositions, diagrams of the inside of birds'
My boyfriend Peter Harding copied down on a piece of paper a text inscribed on
to a mens' public-toilet wall in Sydney: "I am 15 and am looking for a boy
12-14 for a steady relationship. I live in Newcastle and get down here once a
month. Please leave reply at least 6 weeks in advance. My name is Paul",
which he used in an untitled painting of 1996.
I've just walked outside to the quiet street. The only text is a "For Sale" sign
on a property a few doors down on the other side of the road. The moon is now
high, there are still few stars, but the bark-chips that cover my front yard
beneath the softly rustling eucalypts are silvered by its glow. The birds are
asleep. It's getting warmer, which means summer is coming.
Christopher Chapman Adelaide, September 1997
I'm grateful to the artists for providing and creating works to be reproduced
with this essay.