Robert Macpherson

Theatres of Memory

ABC Radio National - Australia - 1997


I was walking through the Queensland art Gallery, in search of an Ian Howard installation when I first came across an actual Robert Macpherson work. My partner and myself found ourselves pulled up in front of a piece the bulk of which made out of those strange angled black capital letters on a shiny plastic background that you usually find hanging off hooks in hardware stores, and for which you can never imagine any particular use for although they do conjor up images of tacky seventies housenames. Here, the letters were quite simply arranged on thin wooden planks to form Latin phrases which were, even to my ignorant eye, some sort of taxonomic terminology, related to, say, biology or botany Phrases like 'Litoria dayi', or 'mixophyes balbus'.
Looking at the title of the work - 'Frog Poems'- gave some illumination as to what these gnomic words might be referring to. The planks bearing the words were arranged horizontally on the wall and each arrangement of planks hung in association with a weathered and everyday object - an umbrella perhaps, or some oars - having seen more of the series, I now can't quite remember what the objects were in this particular instance. This simple arrangement of letters, wood, text and object had for me, an immediate authority, an integrity and even an elegance, even though I didn't have the foggiest idea of what it might 'mean'.That it meant something however did seem inescapable thus immediately setting the work apart from the more usual high art obscurantisms that we have become accustomed to. I knew vaguely of Macpherson's work through reproduction, but the reproductions that I'd seen gave little idea of its physical presence nor of what I can only describe somehow as a 'decency' that came across. Although the work was difficult to 'read', this difficulty was neither arrogant nor putting one over on you. Rather than a threat, it was a promise.


The word Poems in the tiltle of this series of works (for there are many frog poems in MacPhersons's oeuvre, even when the work may not be directly referencing frogs - as much as anything it signals a mechanism or approach) is not co-incidental, for poetry lies at the heart of his practice. That and a rigorous focussed methodology that not only creates the space for, but generates the matter of, Poetry. By making a link or taking a coincidence between a word or series of words, and objects, a process of unpacking is initiated by the work allowing small explosions of richness and association to be detonated and unexpected meaning to be generated. In one work - Sundog: 12 Frog poems (green Whizzer) for J.B.' loaves of bread were exhibited in conjunction with meterologists international abbreviations for cloud formations, not only making a link between the variously rounded shapes of the bread in the gallery and the clouds represented through scientific notation but bringing to mind the gaseous broiling and boiling that both bread and clouds have in common in their formation. In turn this can lead one to memories of hymns (bread of heaven) or a consideration of medieval understandings of the world - as above, so below-etcetera. In one of the artists books, texts and the covers of cans and food containers, as well as small newspaper cuttings about coffee mornings and so forth are combined. The text goes on for pages. Here's an example 'I always buy my lunch at the Mayfair bar I always have a salmon on brown bread sandwich 2 boiled eggs and a cup of black cofffe no sugar I sometimes have an apple or banana and a pear sometimes I have a cheese and tomato sandwich if there is no salmon...' the text contains snippets of conversation...'He always says the usual or I have no salmon cheese I say busy I say he says yes ...' this forms a litany and listing, expanding, then returning , to eating and to food, a movement echoed in the newspaper clippings, some of which contain foodstuff words as metaphor. 'Symphonic movement sandwiched...' -Through the mechanism of combining two different, artificial forms of representation- words and images - and focussing on simple acts that are so central to our lives, a vast engine of association moves into action. This grounding in the every day, in the way we understand and describe our world through words and listings, our groupings of information, is at the centre of what I've called the decency of the work... and what one can only consider to be its politic. It's also central to the sense of wonder that lies there: there is a celebration of our languages and understandings of the world . What Macpherson does in his work is allow all this to get on and do its own thing, and through the rigor and focus of his practice this 'doing' moves inexorably into the realm of art. This essential celebration comes across clearly in a work recently exhibited at the Adelaide Biennale - 'A pollywaffle for Mr Mayfair 130 paintings 130 signs' - consisting of texts taken from signs outside a sandwich bar (the Mayfair of the title), and indeed of the bookwork Today Flat Head, Rocky Road Beef Croak Ettes, moving writer Ken Bolton in a recent review to say of the piece -'it seemed a whole world, vital, humorous...'

The 'whole world' that Macpherson both generates and delimits is one that is articulated and generated by biology, art theory, Australian history, art history, lived experience, autobiography, the bush, the city, the variously coded systems of our understanding, and this world is one that promises, and delivers new ways of seeing and reading and understanding our world, a world that the work so wonderfully unpacks and so closely overlaps.