The Arcadia Tables are an ongoing series of tables that I have been building over the last few years, furniture that is also memento mori based on the Latin phrase “et in Arcadia ego”, the knowledge that even in the happiness of Arcadia there is still always mortality.
The first two were exhibited in my 2008 exhibition, “Grave Goods” at Mori Gallery in Sydney. Spotlit from above they were intended to appear more like two great sarcophagi than just tables.
They are constructed from re-used plywood television stands and were made using a type of torsion box construction that produced a strong unit out of the long thin off cuts from the earlier stools that I had been making.
The construction technique is clear in this studio photo.
And while the title is a reference on the one hand to Nicholas Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, one of the great masterpieces of western art and one that I had admired all my life, it also refers to the personal situation I had found myself in.
By the late 1990s I had pretty much worked through most of the things I had set out to do in the 1970s, although often not very successfully. Part of that had been to explore a whole different range of ways being an artist, at least in the sense of the artist as a cultural activist, but the one thing I had not done much of was being an artist in the most conventional sense, manufacturing physical objects for trade in art galleries.
It wasn’t that I had any desire to return to the conventional art world although I knew it would be seen like that, it was more that I wanted to broaden a bit further the range of things I had done and I wanted to do it by treating conventional art simply as a format peculiar to a particular audience rather like the trade union journal. I specifically wanted to avoid the usual art world game, I was not interested in advancing current fashions etc, I was purely interested in effectively presenting meaning. I began in 1999 by doing a series of paintings while in the US. I did a few more in the early 2000s but my heart wasn’t really in it, I found it far too limiting. But making furniture into installations was a bit more exciting even if it did seem an unlikely way of dealing with my other priority, I had reached that point in my life where I wanted to make a bit of a tribute to some of the things I had most admired – I think it’s one of those things that just comes over you with age. And I was starting to feel old, tired, and just wanted to potter around my shed.
But that was the other part. These really are very personal works, that whole “Grave Goods” exhibition is. Most of my life had been stressful and depressing and by the late 90s I was stuck in a toxic semi-relationship and slowly sliding towards early death. Then one day Terry Smith sent Wendy Carlson, his research assistant, to interview me for a (never published) book he was doing on the history of Australian conceptual art. She commented to me at the time that every one of us she interviewed was showing our age by being obsessed with death in one way or another.
Over that time we were slowly drawn closer and closer together until like a lost dog she took me by the ear and dragged me into a new life. I had barely the energy or hope left in me to do it and yet together we have both made new lives together. And as it happened the first really personal time Wendy and I ever spent together was in the Met and the Frick in New York talking about paintings like this and then a week later in Paris where we spent a week visiting tombs and cemeteries. By 2008, when we had been together for a few years, I was shocked to realise that probably for the first time in my life I was genuinely happy, even though there were health problems hence it really was a case of “et in Arcadia ego”.
I think the Wikipedia interpretation of Poussin’s painting addresses a lot of what I was feeling at the time I made the tables:
… in the latter version, one of the two shepherds recognizes the shadow of his companion on the tomb and circumscribes the silhouette with his finger. According to an ancient tradition (see Pliny the Elder, nat. Hist. XXXV 5, 15), this is the moment in which the art of painting is first discovered. Thus, the shepherd’s shadow is the first image in art history. But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death (in the first version symbolized by a skull on the top of the tomb). The meaning of this highly intricate composition seems to be that, from prehistory onward, the discovery of art has been the creative response of humankind to the shocking discovery of mortality. Thus, death’s claim to rule even Arcadia is challenged by art (symbolized by the beautifully dressed maiden), who must insist that she was discovered in Arcadia too, and that she is the legitimate ruler everywhere, whilst death only usurps its power. In the face of death, art’s duty—indeed, her raison d’être–is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.
Likewise I traced our shadows together in death and I also wanted to connect to the art history that had formed my life even if my life had turned out to be deeply flawed. I didn’t see art in exactly that way and I couldn’t claim to have produced anything as great as the Poussin but it certainly was meaningful for me.
Finally, the tables are actually usable and we have had dinners on them with friends. The idea of food and the good life colliding with love and sex and death brings to mind my favourite poem, a little known seventeenth century epitaph by Lady Catherine Dyer for her husband
My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.
Sex and death, illusion and reality, the only worthwhile themes in the end when all is seen to be vanities.
Posted: February 28th, 2012
, adaptive reuse
, et in Arcadia ego
, Grave Goods
, Mori Gallery
, Terry Smith
, Wendy Carlson
Comments: 1 Comment
In the mid 1970s I was thinking hard about the relationship between art and other forms of work while reading the great American journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel – his 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do remains a classic and an inspiration. Terkel, like PA Yeomans, was one of the people I saw as an example of the cultural activist as artist and his focus on the lives of ordinary people reinforced the way I was thinking of daily life as the critical arena for cultural innovation. In the process it occurred to me that what I might do was start some sort of news service about work and culture and politics, rather like his radio programs. These days you would just start blogging but then I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to do it so it just sat around in the background as an idea that would never happen.
But it was only a few years later that we set up Union Media Services Pty Ltd (UMS). I’ll talk about that in another post but for the first few years in practice it was mostly a full time working partnership between myself and a trade union journalist, Dale Keeling. Dale and I quickly realised the advantages of sharing material between the many publications we were soon producing and we even discussed organising it as a news service we would offer to other unions. In particular we shared cartoons between publications. We even fantasised that the combined readership of numerous trade union publications could form a sort of distributed alternative media that could at least start to balance the iniquitous propaganda of the mass media.
A bit further down the track, Dale was gone but within UMS we still shared material where we could. By 1983, I think, we were producing all of the Australia Council’s publications but we were particularly involved in their trade union based Art and Working Life (A&WL) program. In the course of discussions about how the program could be extended and further publicised I came up with a version of my original news service idea. I proposed that we could provide union journals, which almost all followed similar formats and were always desperate for interesting content, with entire pages, written, laid out, with photographs printed on hiqh quality paper that could simply be pasted in to the artwork for their existing layout without any additional work.
The Australia Council’s program administrator Deb Mills agreed and away we went. I designed a logo. Michael Davies did the art work. The content came from a variety of sources – ozco, the artists, etc – and Ian Burn mostly wrote it up. We produced one page a month, each covering a different A&WL project. It continued long after I left Union Media and covered a huge range of projects.
Meanwhile our influence had brought about a slow but major improvement in the way unions dealt with their internal communications. In the late 1980s the ACTU appointed a journalist, Andrew Casey as communication officer. He took the A&WL news service model, adapted it and began an ACTU news service, sending out a whole range of trade union and political stories in a format similar to the one we had developed. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a consistent story began to appear across most of the trade union movement for an audience that rivalled the mass media in size. The value of this was apparent in the 1993 federal election where the co-ordinated response of union communications played a major role in winning a supposedly unwinnable election – “one for the true believers” as Paul Keating famously described it.
My friend Guo Jian texted me from Beijing a few months back just saying “New York Times today”. A quick Google showed up this New York Times article about his latest work, a rather brave thing to do in the current difficult climate facing artists in China. Guo and I have been friends since the mid 90s when he first started showing with Ray Hughes and not too long after we first moved to Wallerawang he came up here and lived with us for a year before returning to live in Beijing. While he was here we did a work together which was shown at Slot Gallery in Redfern in August 2005.
The work was in five parts. The first part was a book of flower paintings by Australian artists that my mother used as a source book for her paintings. She is an amateur painter who almost invariably paints flowers and often copies other artist’s paintings. You could say she was a Sunday appropriationist.
The second was a painting she had done in the late 1990s based on an illustration in that book although I only discovered its source after I had painted a version of her painting which at the time I thought was entirely original. The painting was Palm Beach Still Life by Justin O’Brien which in an ironic addition to the Chinese whisper I misremembered as by Adrian Feint. She had only used the canna lilies from the painting and she had added a small ornament that she owned.
My painting was based on her painting although it was much bigger and I edited a few bits out. I painted it in 2000 just after I had returned from several months in Florida where for the first time in my life I had an exhibition of paintings. She had looked at the photos of the exhibition and repeated something she had said to me before, “Why don’t you paint flowers? People always like flowers.”
Later in 2005 when Guo Jian was staying with us he saw the painting and when I explained its story he said his art teacher also had told him that he should paint flowers because people like flowers. So he then did a painting based on my painting but without seeing my mother’s painting or the Justin O’Brien it was based on.
What we had by this time was a fairly clear example the game of Chinese whispers where the last version is almost impossible to recognise from the first version.
I added one further element, a statement that was in itself a further version in a way because it added a political interpretation to the whole issue of truth, lies and misunderstandings
“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”*
This exhibition, or perhaps, this work, had its origin in something my mother said ten years ago – “You should paint flowers, people always like flowers.”
My mother paints flowers although often she is a sort of appropriation artist, painting not flowers but other artist’s paintings of flowers.
I never paint flowers but I decided I would follow her example. I copied one of her paintings, a simple painting of three calla lilies in a vase. My painting was much larger, slightly sinister in its sharpness and harsh colour. It was only later when looking through one of her books that I realised that she had herself consciously or unconsciously copied parts of a 1930s painting by Adrian Feint, a mixed bouquet of flowers in a vase. Among the flowers were three calla lilies which resembled those in her painting.
Sometime later my friend Guo Jian told me that his art teacher had said exactly the same thing to him, a piece of advice which Guo had ignored. He then painted a painting based on mine without having seen my mother’s painting or the original Adrian Feint painting. His painting is the monochrome grey of dreams, hallucinatory and foreboding.
We live in a culture of Chinese whispers, a phantasmagoric world of lying murderous leaders, self deluded followers and manipulative propaganda from all sides. Try as we might, it is impossible to discern the original truth simply by studying the latest insanity, only knowledge of history gives you a thread through the maze.
Looking at our paintings I felt that unintentionally we had created a type of visual Chinese whisper, a cross-generational collaborative work of interpretation and misinterpretation symbolizing that dilemma.
But of course the problem with Chinese whispers is that by the end almost any interpretation is possible, we see whatever we wish to see, we believe whatever we wish to believe.
But there is another whole aspect to this flower painting lark. I’ve never really had artistic heroes with one exception, I’ve had a lifelong admiration for Vladimir Tatlin who navigated the cultural and political nightmare of Russia first as a constructivist who then turned to a sort of industrial design, produced the splendidly satirical Letatlin flying bicycle (with such a straight face that he was never sent to the gulags although he should have been) and finally spent the last ten years of his life painting the gloomiest flower paintings ever. It seems pretty clear that this was the only option left for him if he was to survive Stalin. Tatlin’s career is rarely discussed in the West beyond his famous Monument to the Third International (as his wikipedia entry demonstrates) but I would rank him with Picasso and Duchamp as the greatest artists of the early 20th century.
I was discussing this with Iakovos Amperidis when we were trying to work out what we could do to support the campaign to free Ai Wei Wei. We never did anything in the end but we worked through several possibilities until what we came up with the idea of building a site where we would invite artists whose work is conspicuously politicised to contribute a flower painting. We wanted to highlight the fact that politicians, be they Stalin or Kevin Rudd (see his idiotic comments on Bill Henson) would like restrict us all to painting dull flower paintings. We would treat the invitations, which would be limited, as a type of award for conspicuous political bravery.
The site was to be called letathousandflowersbloom.com after Chairman Mao’s infamous 1957 speech inviting critical discussion of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies – everyone foolish enough to take up the invitation was killed or imprisoned. We haven’t done it yet but the domain name is registered and it is on the list of future projects.
Posted: February 16th, 2012
Tags: Adrian Feint
, Bill Henson
, flower paintings
, Guo Jian
, Iakovos Amperidis
, Justin O'Brien
, Kevin Rudd
, Norma Cherry
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