Sunday, October 31, 2010

opened up, with a little statue in the corner

The Melbourne Arts Festival ended on the 23rd, but a Festival show called the Carnival of Mysteries went on for a few nights more. M. bought tickets. This Carnival, even though it never mentioned Christina Stead, was closer to her in spirit than I Write What I See.* Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith (the creators) might never have heard of Stead for all I know, but they had her willingness to go too far and to risk being misconstrued -- an act of faith in the audience, which was Stead's faith also.**

When I come across a production like this it reminds me -- and this is one of the reasons why I keep returning to Stead as well -- it reminds me that there is sometimes value in going beyond the point that seems normal and comfortable, and that, in fact, things can improve if you go too far (or put it like this: some ideas seem designed to be taken too far, as sharks are designed to swim), and if you have faith and dedication, for example, Moira Finucane standing naked on a low pedestal in a dim tent, her face tilted upward and rapt into the light, with the recorded sound effects of calving glaciers moaning and roaring around her, and the actor herself booming, "Don't touch it. It will burn you," then lowering her chin and opening her mouth and eyes in rectangles until she had the face of the Parco Dei Mostri ogre -- piling one idea on another -- a strange and archetypal figure, with her fingers splayed and tents of light descending between them to the floor.

There is no virtue in doing a thing like this halfheartedly. Either do it with a whole heart or look silly.

Stead, who rarely wrote halfheartedly, worked in an archetypal way too: Henny Pollit is a mother, but she's also a fairytale witch, "a charming slatternly witch" living in "a cave of Aladdin," Marpurgo in the Beauties and Furies is a seductive demon, and Edward in the People With the Dogs is a charmed prince.

Beyond Sam stood the physical world, and beyond Henny -- what? A great mystery.

By appealing to archetypes the show invites the audience to step into the roles played by Henny's children, witnesses to some colossal mystery, strange displays, unexplained behaviour that seems significant because it is being carried out with great conviction.

The Carnival's different acts were staged in tents and alcoves with fanciful names, for instance, The Tent of Miracles, The Midnight Pleasure Garden, while the performers were named The Handsomest Dancer Ever Born, The Man They Couldn't Hang, The Gothic Horror Librarian, The Queen of Abyssinia, Eye In Hand, The Daughters of Rasputin, but the execution was not whimsical -- by which I mean that it was not light, and not jokey -- any more than Henny is a joke witch.

They staged the Carnival in a downstairs room divided into different, smaller areas, the Tent at the centre, the Shrine in a little white space at the back, the Sideshow Alley like a set of boxes only slightly more significant than cupboards, enough to seat six or eight people each, with the performers about a foot away, clawing at the walls. There were three or four short acts running at the same time. These performances went for ten minutes, more or less, and after one act was finished, the people who had been inside that room came out, looked around, and chose another door.

If you ran all of those acts back to back (reckoned Finucane in interviews) then the Carnival would last for six hours, but the audience was only allowed in for an hour and forty-five minutes. After that there was a mass sing-along and you trailed away, up the pale square staircase, back to the street. So everyone saw a different Carnival. M. saw the Ice Queen, and so did I, but he was watching a magician disappear in one part of the Sideshow while I was watching Yumi Umiumare crawl across the floor in another part, and neither of us saw Garçon Gigolo (who, it's said, took off all of his clothes and stared you in the eye) or Eye In Hand -- what was Eye In Hand?

Then there were the decorations, for instance, a set of eyeholes cut unobtrusively into a wall, and if you bent down and looked through them you saw a dioramic painting of a grotesque battle. Eleven artists decorated the Tent of Miracles, eleven different painters, but I was so busy looking at the Shrine and the peepholes that I missed the work of every single one of the eleven.

“You know, Celeste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature," said Proust to his last housekeeper. "That is why it is never finished. Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a little statue in the corner" -- In Search of Lost Time being similar to the Carnival in this way: a long, long experience embroidered with thousands of tiny moments you might miss.

As you come out the other side the person next to you asks, "Did you like the painting through the peepholes?" or, "Wasn't it funny when the Guermantes decided to tour the fjords?" and you reply, "What and where was that?"

One blogger who reviewed Carnival wrote, "[U]nfortunately the limited time means that you will not see all of the performers," but the show was obviously designed that way (so it was not a misfortune but a plan) -- and that's one difference between this and a book -- you can go back to the book, but the Carnival ended last night, and I never will find out what Garçon Gigolo looked like with his clothes off (with them on he was tall, thin, straight, and bald, like a baton in a wrapper).

* Darryl Emmerson's Christina Stead biographical play. I wrote a post about it two weeks ago.

** Letty Fox.

Friday, October 22, 2010

a lodge of leaves

Enter a spirit. It is M. You have a lot of books, he says. Avaunt! Exits. I'm boxing books again. All of my Australian authors are coming with me because I'm afraid I won't be able to replace them in the US. The Americans have heard of David Malouf, so I'm not afraid of losing him, but Elizabeth Jolley seems to be an unknown quantity, in spite of the quote from the Washington Post that sometimes appears on her book jackets ("Elizabeth Jolley joins the handful of Australian writers of whom it may be said that their books are able to alter the direction of one's inner life" -- Elizabeth Ward, Washington Post), and so I will hold on to her -- and to the Selected Poems of Gwen Harwood as well, and the Selected Poems of J.S. Harry. Harry writes in bursts or hiccups, with dashes and extra spaces in the middles of lines -- or just short lines --

The butcher's dreams
of sleep 're transposed
onto the carcass of a sheep.
Half-asleep on his feet
he says he often dreams
he is the sheep - but alive -
and somebody else
is doing the cutting

(from Behind the Slice)

-- and often the poem ends in a pair of steps, one line, two lines, "and somebody else / is doing the cutting," with other lines wriggling around above it, fiddling a little ("he is the sheep - but alive -") as they search for the place they want to go, and then in two swift plunges they get there. In losing a lover / finding a place to keep seagoats the two lines are "it is months / since you started walking;" in the wanderer it's "so comes rain / to a lodge of leaves," and sometimes it's one line instead of two, which completes the poem with a stronger thud -- "This poem ends by a pile of cooling scrap" (Report, From The Outlands, Mating Habits There Being In A State Of Flux).

In other poems none of this applies, but there is usually a sense of wandering and then deciding in her work, and also a strangeness, verging on Nonsense --

1) Into the valley of death last night
six hundred/ butterflies/ our belov'd
field specimens/ they were carrying
duskyfoot woodrats

(from The Non-Naturalistic Weapon There should be gaps between "specimens/" and "they" and before "(loaded)" but I'm not sure how to insert them.)

If I try to imagine her sentences taken out of the poems I can see that they're usually clear and decisive, but the spaces, dashes, and other punctuation (more prevalent than they must seem from the examples I've quoted here) turn them into tentative bees, not sure where they should set themselves down. Instead they dart out in stabs. Harwood's poems are tighter, slower, more elegant, unhurried (next to Harry's skidding surface breathlessness), and they tend to take place in definite pieces of scenery. Often there will be a person, and this person will be carrying out an activity in a landscape. The landscape will be established quite firmly.

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move

(from Dust to Dust)

or from Home of Mercy

By two and two the convent girls are walking
at the neat margin of the convent grass
into the chapel

or from A Postcard

Snow crusts the boughs' austere entanglement

Once she has settled the reader's feet on the ground she goes on to describe a change, or a revelation, or an embitterment. The solid beginning takes on the role of a stepping stone. There is the very beautiful and dense Sea Anemones, with its two colours, first grey

Grey mountains, sea and sky. Even the misty
Seawind is grey. I walk on lichened rock
In a kind of late assessment, call it peace.

then red.

Then the anemones, scarlet, gouts of blood.

and with that, the poet goes from one plain word for everything around her, "grey," to no language at all, nothing adequate -- she is burst open --

There is a word I need, and earth was speaking.
I cannot hear.

Then she is earthed again, she regains her body, and there is a sort of seeking through resistant elements, cold and hardness.

Kneeling on rock, I touch them through cold water

Or an act of penitence. The peace is undone, there is no more lichen attached flat to rocks, but the anemones remind her of a baby's lips, and, "I woke once, with my palm across your mouth" and within a few lines the poet seems to have come to the conclusion that the peace of line three was not a desirable peace, but a closing-down of memory, and that the full life is a stimulated life: "Anemos, wind. The spirit where it will." The anemones appear to be inanimate but they are not. They are engaged in a struggle. "Not flowers, no, animals that must eat or die." She is condemned to this too, apparently, she either struggles, and sees, and has these memories about babies' lips and palms and spirit, or else she goes into the peace, and suffers a kind of death. Blood throughout the poem. Harwood is a romantic, often rueful, with the kind of alertness that seems always ready to come out in comedy.

Quite often in some trendy quarter
the passion to redecorate
those areas concerned with water
results in an expanse of slate.
Cork tiling's warmer, vinyl's neater.
Slate's forty dollars a square metre.
In kitchen, laundry, loo, I see
The stuff the state school gave us free

(from Class of 1927)

Born and raised in Queensland, she moved to Tasmania after her marriage. The grey sky and beach in Sea Anemones are probably chilly Tasmanian.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the girls in their ordinary costumes

On Sunday afternoon I took a break from the boxes and went over to Trades Hall on Lygon Street to see Darryl Emmeron's play about Christina Stead, I Write What I See. Emmerson directed as well as wrote, and an actor named Olivia Brown plays Stead. Dressed in old-fashioned dark blue jacket and skirt, with black polished shoes (the kind of outfit you can see Stead wearing in her adult photographs), she delivers a biographical monologue with the facts placed in chronological order, beginning a few years after the author's birth (1902), and ending in 1968 or 1969, soon after the death of Stead's husband, William Blech. In the final moments of the play she says, "Bill," in a lingering voice, then picks up a boxy suitcase, turns to her right, aims herself straight down the wings, and walks offstage. Pause, darkness, light, applause. People around me said positive things to one another: "Now wasn't that marvellous?"

I wasn't the ideal audience member for I Write, I decided, as I was watching it, because I knew Stead's life well enough to wonder why he'd decided to leave certain facts in and other facts out, and what was motivating him on the whole, besides a craving for the life story of a writer he admires. Emmerson puts it down to passion. "I am passionate that the lives and work of artists can be presented on the stage. Their childhoods, the stance they take up towards other people, the decision to encourage their own creativity, the ambition, quiet or otherwise, that lies behind their decision, where their lives and art lead them, these are all of great interest to me."

The words "passion" and "passionate" have been set in motion around this play. The director uses them, the publicity uses them ("Her fiction, passionate and often confronting ..."), and Brown-Stead uses them -- but passion was one thing I missed in her performance. She stood neatly, she tilted her ankle and planted her foot (heel first, then toe, deliberately on the stage-boards) she sat on a white cane chair with hands laid on knees, but I never saw anything beyond or beneath -- transcending -- this neat behaviour, nothing to give us a sign that here was a woman whose Man Who Loved Children was described by Clifton Fadiman as "Little Women rewritten by a demon," or whose For Love Alone prompted a reviewer at the British Listener to label her "a fiery comet" or who devoted herself to Nietzsche as a teenager, or who could write with a furious combination of detail and gusto, even in her private letters, and with so much lust for lists and beauties -- red silks and rich cloths, guts, muck, and romance.

The workers came from four sections of the city, with their massed flags, beautiful things, red silk and silk Italian flags, gold fringed, with streamers in various colours, embroidered names of sections, Communist and other sections of the Garibaldi 'Fronte Populaire', many carrying flowers, the girls in their ordinary costumes, blouse skirts and coloured sweaters (green, blue, scarlet, puce ...

(from a letter to Leon and Pilar Libenson, 1948)

When Brown-Stead had to recite something like that then she lifted her voice and made it a little loftier, drew words out in a way that said, "I think this is beautiful," but her diction was writerly-rounded, and the atmosphere was pleasantly magical rather than intense. It was not exciting -- it was nice. Stead had been whitewashed. The facts that make it into this biography are ones the audience will not have to struggle to approve of. She had a book banned in 1947 by the puritanical Australian censors, and this seems charming and progressive now; we spend a while hearing about it. Flirting with other women's husbands is not charming -- and we don't hear about it, even though it's relevant to one of the themes of the play, Stead's veneration of love. We spend a solid amount of time reviewing her childhood, but her lifelong socialist sympathies come into the story at a glancing sprint and leave so quickly that I wonder how many of the audience members who didn't already know about them remember that they were mentioned at all.

"I am not ... political," she wrote in 1942 for a book called Twentieth Century Authors, "but on the side of those who have suffered oppression, injustice, coercion, prejudice, and have been harried from birth." These people occur throughout her fiction, and some of the books, Cotters' England, for example, and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, concentrate on them exclusively. The audience for I Write What I See learns about love instead, and the angrier books, A Little Tea, A Little Chat, Miss Herbert, Cotters', vanish completely.

Her life has been streamlined, and this streamlining means that we lose nuances of awkwardness. Brown's performance took Stead at face value. There were none of those uneasy moments when you realise that someone is saying something but doesn't quite mean it, or that there's more to the situation than they're willing to admit. This doesn't jibe with the picture of Stead that comes out in the two biographies that have been written about her life, or the sometimes-cagey person who seems to lie behind her letters. One example: in Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, Chris Williams spends two pages trying to puzzle out Stead's communication with her stepmother after the publication of Man. "In this letter Christina perhaps tried to make amends for her severe characterization of 'the man who loved children' in the novel ... Christina did want to make peace but she could not seem to allow herself to do it ..." and so on.

The set was simple and useful -- two chairs to sit on, a typewriter, two suitcases to remind you that the author travelled away from her homeland in her twenties and lived on three different continents. The role of Stead's favourite wooden marionette Nello was played by a white-faced Muppet, anachronistic, but a canny reinvention because it allowed Brown-Stead to interview herself. Here the Stead character was most vulnerable. When Nello asked a question she didn't want to answer she withdrew her hand from his head. But even here, mortally challenged, her emotion was closer to a snit or a sulk.

Pictures were sometimes projected on the back curtain to augment the script. Brown-Stead talked about her lustful and frustrated teenhood; voila, some nudes appeared, Norman Lindsay's Spring's Innocence, a reminder that she wasn't the only Australian in the 1920s who wanted more sex in her life. (Lindsay had a novel banned by the Australian censors too, Redheap (1930).) Sound design was minimal and might as well not have been there. For example: Stead-Brown tells us that she found a job in an office and a typewriter rattles for a minute, then stops.

I had wanted something different. But, as I said, I wasn't the audience Emmerson was looking for. My ideas about Christina Stead were not completely congruent with his, and I Write didn't persuade me to change my mind. The play is about her but I don't think it is in sympathy with her. "The essence of style, in literature, for me, is experiment, invention, 'creative error'," she wrote. Read her books and you can see that she is willing to take risks, she is willing to seem too verbose, and too overblown, and overemotional, and to write about the kind of subject matter that saw Letty Fox labelled Lewd and Smut. In I Write, Brown-Stead writes "to be loved." Which, said in Olivia Brown's most wistfullest voice, seems too simple, and too sweet.

Friday, October 15, 2010

trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate

We're packing for the move to the US, and I've been reading some of my unread books to find out if I should keep them or get rid of them. I was going through Theodore Roszak's The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein when, near the end, I came across this sentence: "Today, reading the Countess de Genlis, I look up from the page to see a lone figure trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate."

Then (as it has before) my mind jumped to another sentence in another book, one from Titus Groan, a sentence about a man on a horse riding away from the castle in the distance. The reader never knows the name of this man and we never hear about him again. He exists for that one sentence, and then he is gone. A number of items like this are dotted throughout the book, tiny moments of acute detail that have the effect of drawing my attention aside from the plot and concentrating it briefly before letting it go. I find this calming, stilling; it throws the events of the plot into a certain perspective -- "Look," it says, "while you're paying so much attention to those people, another story, just as interesting, is happening in this other direction. You will never see it, but it is there."

"It is difficult, in post-war English writing, to get away with big rhetorical gestures," wrote Anthony Burgess about Titus Groan, "Peake manages it because, with him, grandiloquence never means diffuseness; there is no musical emptiness in the most romantic of his descriptions." I believe these moments of drawing-aside serve a purpose there too, cooling the blood, not distancing the reader, but telling them, "The world of this book is large, and you are small in it." Not pulling you away, then, but working to embed you.

The similarity between the two sentences was this: in both instances I saw the figure clearly in my mind, then a patch of landscape around the figure, as if the figure itself had brought that landscape into existence. The area of illumination was roughly circular or oval, and around the edges it faded into a black fog that surrounded it to the edges of my vision. I could see that ink-coloured darkness as clearly as I saw the figure in the landscape. My eyes were fixed on this small space. As I saw the man in Elizabeth Frankenstein, I thought, "A point of simplicity." Why simplicity? I decided that it must be thanks to a post I read at the Wuthering Expectations blog a short while ago -- the last of a series of posts on the subject of beauty. I read this: "I now see my problem: I want “beauty” to be both simpler and more complex than it is." Simplicity, I thought, and concentrating on a small area.

Then I remembered something else. In the opening of an essay about a journey to Moscow he undertook in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin wrote --

But, equally, this is why the visit [to Moscow] is so exact a touchstone for foreigners. It obliges everyone to choose his standpoint. Admittedly, the only real guarantee of a correct understanding is to have chosen your position before you came. In Russia above all, you can only see if you have already decided ... the question at issue is not which reality is better or which has greater potential. It is only: Which reality is inwardly convergent with truth? ... Only he who clearly answers these questions is "objective." ... But someone who wishes to decide "on the basis of facts" will find no basis in the facts.

"I wonder if beauty is like this Moscow of his," I thought, "and you can "only see" after you've chosen your standpoint, or after you've charmed yourself (in an existentialist way) with an idea of yourself as a thing, a solid, fixed, and impossible object -- a person who is certain." Ruskin (discussed in Wuthering Expectations' posts) had his standpoint: his beauty was a theological beauty, its existence was evidence of the divine, and from there he could discuss a beautiful painting as if it were not only attractive, but also morally good. Theological critical theory led him (Wuthering shows us with a diagram) to compare natural curves: here is a leaf, here is a glacier, here are their curves, God's work! The characteristic tone of Ruskin's writing is that of certainty. One thing is noble, another is wicked, a third had a chance to be noble but it took a wrong turn. "Thus treated, drapery is indeed noble; but it is as an exponent of other and higher things. As that of gravitation, it has especial majesty, being literally the only means we have of fully representing this mysterious natural force of earth ... But drapery trusted to its own merits and given for its own sake ... is always base," he writes in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Losing his faith in the late 1850s he judged himself afterwards "stunned — palsied — utterly helpless —" By 1869 he was trying to find simplicity in his new state. "That I am no more immortal than a gnat, or a bell of heath, all nature, as far as I can read it, teaches me, and on that conviction I have henceforward to lead my gnat's or heath's life."

Ruskin discovered Beauty one July evening as he was lying next to a fountain. A storm struck, and from his prone position he saw a gathering of pyramids standing still.

Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dome du Goûter a crash — of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning. The vapour parted before its fall, pierced by the whirlwind of its motion; the gap widened, the dark shade melted away on either side; and, like a risen spirit casting off its garment of corruption, and flushed with eternity of life, the Aiguilles of the south broke through the black foam of the storm clouds. One by one, pyramid above pyramid, the mighty range of its companions shot off their shrouds, and took to themselves their glory — all fire — no shade — no dimness. Spire of ice — dome of snow — wedge of rock — all fire in the light of the sunset, sank into the hollows of the crags — and pierced through the prisms of the glaciers, and dwelt within them — as it does in clouds. The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly — in the very heart of the high heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned — what till then I had not known — the real meaning of the word Beautiful.

So it goes in Titus Groan and Gormenghast too, the massive edifice of Gormenghast Castle is always there, solidly, through every kind of weather, floods and snow, "the mighty pyramids stood calmly," a static constant behind the moving figure of the enigmatic man on his horse (whatever he is doing, it must relate somehow to the castle -- thinks the reader -- for everything does), and giving ballast to the various ridiculousnesses in the books; Irma Prunesquallor, for example, object of the author's mockery, decides to give herself breasts by arranging a hot water bottle in her dress -- and my thought is -- who manufactured that bottle and where did they get the rubber? But everything is excused by the existence of the Castle.

Ruskin sometimes wrote nonsense too, not intentionally, as Peake does, but, seemingly, as a consequence of his mind flying away on the wings of theocriticism. He makes his madder announcements -- that cave fish are ugly because we cannot see them and that therefore God had no reason to make them attractive, or that iron reaches a personal apotheosis when it rusts -- with the same tone of conviction that he uses when he discusses ideas that are uncontroversial. Give yourself a solid thing to stand on and you can talk about anything you like. Imaginary conversation: "Mr Ruskin, can you tell us about the interior of Mars?" "Indeed! Sir, it is not beautiful. If God had made it beautiful, He would have put it where we could see it."

I came across those Ruskin quotes in this article at the Victorian Web. The ugly cave fish appear in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and rust is mentioned in The Two Paths.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

with sustainable ply

I'm about to mention the grand final again. At first I thought this was going to be a footnote to the last post, but it grew. We were at a Melbourne Fringe show on Friday night, a dance piece called Intimate Exposure, and at one point in this show the dancers began to speak. "I've got wool in my mouth," one of them said, and then, looking at a member of the audience who was holding a glass of wine, "I wish I had a drink." A different one commented on a woman's handbag. Then one of them was turning with her arms in the air, and she said, "Another grand final!"

I don't know if that was the line exactly, but it was something like that -- another grand final or the grand final again, or two grand finals or similar. She was talking about the replay on Saturday, which Collingwood won by fifty-six points.

That was going to be the end of my story, but then, thinking about the dance, I began to think about the art in the gallery above the rooms where the performance was taking place, and about the labels the artists had written for the exhibition -- there was a paragraph propped up next to each piece. We'd been up there the evening before, and I'd noticed that the language the artists used to describe their own art was sometimes inflated, and sometimes vague, as if they were describing an idea of an object, and not the concrete thing itself. Perhaps you could say they were describing their hopes for the thing, as if the thing itself had only been thought of but not constructed, as if it had remained in the realm of the possible without entering the material world, or as if they pined for what it had once been, an imaginary thing.* For example, one of the artists said that her work was "[a reinterpretation of] Hieronymous Bosch's triptych of humanity from creation to damnation.

Scenes from present existence and an imagined future are depicted in repurposed propylene. Cohabiting with sustainable ply they cast an elegant facade for the purpose of illumination."

It looked like a chandelier made of cardboard with white balls strung off the sides. Automatically I began to fret over the language. Why "cohabiting," I wondered. Of course they were cohabiting -- or coexisting -- she'd attached them to one another with string -- they were inanimate objects -- they had no choice -- why use a word that gave them agency? What did she mean by "cast an elegant façade"? The chandelier was casting a shadow, but a shadow isn't a façade, and casting a shadow doesn't serve "the purpose of illumination" except inadvertently -- shadows are a byproduct of illumination. Did she mean something closer to "constitute"? "Together they constitute a façade"? But why "façade"? The curved shape cut from sustainable ply wasn't the façade of the object, it was the object itself. If the chandelier was a façade then the real object of the artwork (its core, its true self, the meat behind the mask) was the lightbulb.

So I fretted and picked.

The obvious answer is, she's not sure about the word façade, she used the word "cohabit" not because the ply and the balls are creatures choosing their habitats but because she wanted to let the organizers know that she was in sympathy with the theme of the exhibition ("The city has a face, the country has a soul," or, the creep of the suburbs from the city into the country), and the word "cast" seemed appropriate to chandeliers because chandeliers throw out light. The application got a little muddled, but the idea is there. She's circling it. She reminds me of -- who does she remind me of? She reminds me of Françoise. Her written English is Françoise's spoken French, but where Proust attributes Francoise's inventions to her peasant background (picking up unfamiliar words she uses them wherever they seem to fit, placing them firmly like Humpty Dumpty ('"When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less"')) this artist seems to have come at hers from the opposite direction, from years at university or collage, or some other place where your superiors tell you to produce a work in the style of a well-known artist and then explain your process and goals. You, the student, you will be judged on this. And so, living in a universe where nothing is certain, you decide that you need an advanced degree of protection (Greek gods, if you could, but they're no longer available) and you erect a bulwark of words. Protect me words! you say. Make me sound smart, thoughtful, and accomplished! Propel me, O words, into the universe of my lecturers and judges! And then you write, with hopeful emotions, "façade," and "reinterpreting" or, if you are the people behind the Home Is Where The Craft Is craft exhibition, you summon a phrase from your old textbook -- oh yes, you think, "mixed medium" -- and you put the following note in the Fringe programme, "No longer obscured by it's residential location, creativity is expressed through home based mixed mediums," and with this spell you hope to project an image of power, O some great dark dominant phenomenon with eyes and teeth, or at least wisdom -- great and evident wisdom, flagrant and shining, your marvellous ambassador and bodyguard.

And it's a fact that once I thought of the chandelier artist as Françoise, I felt friendly towards her, I stopped fretting at the gap between the prose and the object (it felt as if the gap had been filled, even though nothing outside my head had changed at all), and I said to myself warmly -- Françoise, Françoise! It was an interesting transformation.

* Two days later in a gallery I saw a piece of computer artwork: a monotonous green screen with a red oval jerking to and fro at the centre. It was, said the artist on his label, a representation of a football being bounced at the beginning of play, but he had left out the figure of the umpire who was handling it. The sight of this work (he wrote) prompted the viewer to consider the nature of Australian masculinity. The chasm between the object itself and the effect it was meant to have was so extraordinary that I wondered if anyone would ever be able to straddle it. One of those times when the only bridge between the artwork and the outsider is a note. To the point where it feels to me as if the only reason he made the artwork was to give himself a reason to write two paragraphs explaining it.

I'm reminded of this quote from José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, which I came across a while ago on Mills Baker's tumblr page --

Take stock of those around you and you will ... hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which will seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to the reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual us trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas’ are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defence of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic ‘ideas’ and looks life in the face, realises that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.

-- and I wonder if this should help me to explain the irritation, the itch, that I feel when I see artists on their labels saying that "My artwork prompts the viewer to do such and such," or "I have created an allegory of so and so," and then the relief when I come across a more open-handed note, like this one in the Intimate Exposure programme: "'Intimacy,' 'exposure' and electrical energy sources led them [the dancers] to an interest in physical ramifications of invisible threats on the body; they have contemplated nuclear technology, atomic theory, personification of weaponry and the sexuality of war."

Not, "We have created an allegory of atomic theory," or, "Our dance piece prompts the viewer to think about the sexuality of war," (and there's nothing like these stark declarations to make the audience say rebelliously, "Well it didn't make me think about that," or, "Like hell you have") but more humbly, wisely, and helplessly: "We have contemplated it."