A Diary, a History, a Walk up the Hill

Artist's statement/catalogue essay

Experimental Art Foundation - Adelaide - 2002

I come from a background where ideas of narrative were held as anathema in the visual arts. Tutors at art-school who in their own work tied lumps of steel in rusty knots, would frown at your construction made out of clingfilm and balsa-wood and dismiss the work as ‘literary’. Then take a drag at the floppy cigarette they had just finished rolling. This was one of the great stop-you-in-your-tracks determinations. It was not only a passing description but also a penetrating analysis of a terminal state, which cast a shadow over all sense of possibility. If your work was described as such, you could not be a real artist. No matter how hard you tried. There was some genetic fault.

Even though the Greenbergian dictats of high modernism are now as quaint as a trilby hat, the complex ambiguous relationships to narrativity in the visual arts remain. Back then, it was the fear of some Victorian hangover — that the implication of some sort of story — no matter how attenuated — would turn the work and all that it touched into some hyper-atrophied Augustus Egg. Remember this was a time that Anthony Caro ( the ur-maker of muticoloured steel constructions ) was criticised for his literary …and therefore some how unsound …leanings for having the temerity to call his sculptures ‘Early Misty Morning’ or some such, rather than ‘Untitled 5’. Now, even though we are meant to be so hip to the mixing of codes and ‘hybridity’ that you even find the word in the mission statements of arts funding boards (so we can be certain that its day has in fact passed), the better part of the art super ego — this time usually without the soggy cigarette in mouth — still regards it with some suspicion. It's as if it doesn’t make you work hard enough. At the same time there is some sort of terrible desire at work pulling the other way, and one can so easily see the embrace of the arcana of much theory during the 80s and the 90s as ways of wrapping the mute object of art production in their own (meta) narratives: making them players in another’s plot. Of course one way of seeing this to do with the increasing uncertainty that the art object is part of that other great story which we still — so guiltily and secretly - hold dear, the Gone With The Wind story of modernism…we will be your avant garde …that one day a change will come.

I’ve always had the love that dare not speak its name — but as benefits a child of the first wave of (hardcore) structuralism manifesting itself in the teaching staff of art schools - it’s long been a sort of complex guilty love. In the very late seventies I was writing diaries where I was being someone else for that day : so André Breton was waking up in the leaky terrace house he shared with Ken Gill at eleven in the morning, re-rolling dogends in the ash-tray. Then going down the dole office in the Westgate Road to sign on. Then I was Aragon, Anais Nin, Lou Reed and my friend Biddy. A contemporaneous work called ‘3000 Famous Men’ was a nightclubbed out mumble of a video tape about failed attempts at being other people…how reading the Beats led me to stand in the rain at a roundabout for several hours trying to get a lift etcetera. I definitely agreed with Godard (which was certainly a relief to him) that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. And I think that I still do.

Of course part of this fascination was the feeling that perhaps those out there who weren’t dealing entirely with the entirely hermetic event/object were having so much more fun. In a pretty serious way. This suspicion could only grow in a context where the thriller became the form for literary investigation into the malaises of society and Phillip K. Dick a more resonant imaginer of the future — and present — than a Baudrillard or Barthes. Central is a fascination with the protean forces of language and description and what we used to call at school ‘the imagination’ (as in ‘imaginative’ writing), how they pull different worlds and different orders of understanding into being in some sort of hallucinatory brew, and how they refuse easy legislation. * In many ways it is narrative itself that has become a concern of the work, outside what the subject matter of those narratives may be.

The works in this installation are part of a rather baggy community of projects that I have undertaken over the last few years. In fact a component part of the exhibition- A History of Reading — is from a couple of years back. As all the works stand alone, but in this context the tapes are different facets of the same concerns. So not only does each component concern itself with narrative in some way, but the three in turn make connections and generate their own relationships. ‘ A Diary, some Keys and New York City’ uses small mundane objects that are seemingly without resonance and embeds them in the matrix of a text written over three months in NYC. A sort of Proustian madeleine strategy, but somewhat reversed. Rather than the object and sensation bringing back the past, here it is more as if the past has washed these artifacts into the present, choreographing them, but at the same time meeting a mute resistance. As a youth I had a great fascination with archeology, and would field walk, finding bits of pot or charcoal or other scraps of living. When you hold these objects in your hand you become painfully aware of how much of their narrative cannot be retrieved, that vast aching history that cannot be recuperated or known, they can now only be articulated in different orderings of use or presumed utility. The objects in the tape flicker between different fugitive states in that dark gap. ‘A History of Reading’ zooms out a little. It was made in the studio in New York. Different artists had been staying in that studio for many years, and had bought books to read. The ones they didn’t want to take back to Australia were left behind. I used every single book that was in the studio plus the ones I had bought myself, (these were books I had bought to amuse me, not to make art with), and I spent a long time finding an arrangement or ordering of the books where they started to make ‘sense’ where one linked to another, be it through a verbal echo, a visual link or some other syntax. A Walk Up the Hill in Six different Countries zooms out further and is a sort of immersive video game pan through the landscapes of the Australian bush, breathlessly narrated by descriptions of the imaginary topologies of the Isle of Dionysis, Shangri-La, Narnia, and Utopia. Virtual landscapes that have been drawn from the experience of landscapes and which in turn shape and narrate our own understandings of the world. Here, they are the imported stories that have overlaid and erased the previous narratives that spoke the land in ways that we can now never know.

Richard Grayson 2002

*Such concerns were central to the 2002 Sydney Biennale and I expand on them at greater length in its catalogue essay.