This is a lecture I gave in 2010 at the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts. Joanna Mendelssohn, the lecturer who asked me to give the talk , is one the very few academics in Sydney who has both been aware of my work from almost the beginning and is politically as well as culturally aware so she has understood and sympathised with what I have tried to achieve.
The theme could not have been more appropriate because if one idea has been fundamental to my practice it has been the idea that being an artist is not defined by manufacturing stuff for the art market. The role of the artist is defined by generating cultural change and while some of the means you might use to do that may produce artefacts that could be traded in the market place that is basically a sideline, exactly the same as any other sort of merchandising. You should never mistake the merchandising for the real activity even if most people who talk about art have made that mistake.
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.
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.
This probably seems an odd thing to start with but there is a reason. They illustrate a problem both with the way my work is seen and the general misunderstanding of what an artist does.
First, what are they? They are a set of ten stools made of recycled varnished plywood with painted blood stains and hand prints on nine of them.
The plywood was part of several ute loads of plywood pre-fab audio visual stands that came from an AV hire company that rented them out for events like Melbourne Cup parties.
They were getting a bit old and shabby and were due for replacement in July 2007 but rather than dump them one of their employees Peter Jackson (himself an artist) sent out a message on the Network of Uncollectable Artists message board for any one interested to come and take them away.
In the end I was the only one who wanted any so I got nearly all of them. I gave some of the plywood away but in January 2008 when Mickie Quick invited me to participate in the Gang Festival I decided to make some stools by modifying the stands. I reduced them in size and reshaped them while retaining the structural slotted construction. I then screwed them together, added four small glue blocks for rigidity and then painted them or rather I splattered them.
So what I did for the Gang Festival was some painted furniture? Well, no, actually I was doing something else entirely (although when I’m feeling mischievous I tell people that all I do these days is make painted furniture out of recycled wood, I like the way it sounds so folksy kitsch). The call out that Mickie sent me said
Gang is seeking visual artists interested in having their work included in the lane ways surrounding Peace Park and Pine St.
Gang takes its name from the Indonesian word meaning alleyway or small side street and commenced life in 2005 as a celebration of the deep links between independent art spaces and collectives across the two countries…. The kampung street festival is a celebration of the fringe and the marginal, and the creative spaces generated by artist run initiatives.
Our focus this year is on sustainable environmental arts practices … The specific brief for the outdoors exhibition is to extend these themes of reuse and rubbish in the Sisa exhibition to include questions about what and why we consider a thing “of use” or “useful”. What makes a thing of use? (use/ful) What makes a thing no longer of use? (use/less) How do we determine the right usage of a thing, a word, a street, a day? Why do things become under utilised or over utilised?
That easily covered the recycled plywood bit, but my real concern was the use of public space which was at least implied in Mickie’s email. My interest in the conflict between community, corporate and political control of urban space went all the way back to the early 1970s when I was active in green bans, resident action groups and squatting. In the 1990s I had spent some time working in Jakarta where lane ways are used as extended living areas then in 1999 I spent several months in Boca Raton, Florida, the extreme opposite where the only public space is the highways and even shopping malls are so controlled they almost have a dress code (if not a skin colour code). I became obsessed with issues around public space particularly the right to just loiter and the government and private attempts to deny or control it. I was obviously not alone in my interest because it was around this time that Sean Goodsell produced his designs for park benches, bus shelters and later picnic tables that could convert into sleeping places for homeless people. I was a particular fan of a (now disappeared) website The Anti Sit Archive that was filled with photos of devices to prevent public sitting.
Above all loitering is an issue about the commons, that everybody owns the city and has a right to be in it and it is one of the many small battles that must be fought against the creeping totalitarianism of western society. That is why I made the stools, so that visitors to the festival and the lane way exhibits could sit down , hang around, chat and basically comfortably loiter in the street. The artist’s job is not necessarily to make stuff, it is encourage adaptive cultural change so to the degree that I made a “work of art ” it was not a bunch of stools, it was to be people loitering, the street converted into a place for socialising and the stools were just the means to that end. Incidentally I notice that recently someone in New York had a similar idea.
But it was not to be. The night before and the day of the festival was non-stop torrential rain. The whole thing just got added to my list of “What Didn’t Happen”. In fact ultimately the stools first public appearance was in my later 2008 exhibition at Mori Gallery called Grave Goods. There they joined another set of stools made for a completely different reason and one of the most amusing aspects of the opening was the way people stood and looked at them rather than sat on them.
At least I sat on one of them and on occasion I still use the tables from that exhibition for big lunches.
Finally, why the blood stains? Because we live in a murderous world plastered in blood and shit, but mostly we are blind to it.