A review of Melinda Smith and Caren Florance's '1962: Be Spoken To', which was on display at M16 Artspace in the exhibition 'Lines of Site: Finding the Sublime in Canberra'.
Artistic collaboration, the intersected workings of two or more artists, does not always trek along smooth trails. From the mid-15thcentury legal proceedings of pupils against Squarcione, to the performative destruction of Ulay and Marina Abramovic, the intensity of creating between two makers can be a journey of hazard and risk. Given this, we might wonder why two people would choose the danger of working together.
Both Melinda Smith, a poet, and Caren Florance, a letterpress artist, recognised in each other an opportunity for fun when the chance to collaborate arose. While their work together has been driven by projects, it is the pleasure they take from sharing and observing each other’s methods that seems to push their artistic affiliation. They both take a comparable approach to creative work and the reality of being a working artist. Their circular and organic method is tempered with respect and humour. Sharing a style of collaboration that is organic and, as the years behind them show, sustainable.
Sometimes, the meeting of collaborators is happenstance, sometimes it is manifest. Basquiat, apparently, held a long adoration for Warhol years before he approached Warhol in a restaurant, and their then consequent introduction at the Factory. Duchamp called upon Man Ray at home where they played a game of informal tennis; an activity unconstrained by language barriers. Florance and Smith met through a mutual friend. While they had heard of each other, and each moved in similar creative circles, it was only after a social introduction that they realised how genuinely their interests were compatible and their complimentary skills well-matched.
One of the first projects Florance and Smith devised was in response to antique furnishings accommodated in Old Parliament House, now a museum for the history of democracy in Australia. Be Spoken To is in part inspired by the hand-lettered panel signs used in the House. It was also informed by the architecture of John Smith Murdoch and the history of the House (recall that the House did not install women’s’ toilets until the mid-1970s). Be Spoken To re-created panel signs using hand-printed wooden and metal type. The signs were a poetic and aesthetic response to tradition through being a playful and provocative comment on authority, masculinity and the frequency of nonsense in public politics.
The panel signs of Be Spoken To articulate the politics and playfulness of the collaborators. Each sign expresses the density of the poetic line while often also inciting mischief. For example there is a recurring use of homonyms, such as ‘member’ in its formal and informal uses. Moreover, each sign gives attention to symbol and icon such as, for example, the word ‘point’ accompanied by a hand-printed bishop’s fist (manicule).
The successful experience of working together and the inspiration each collaborator drew from the other spurred an extension of techniques used in Be Spoken To into another collaborative project, 1962: Be Spoken To, a limited edition artists’ book. The book holds a year-long cycle of Smith’s found parliamentary poems given life through Florance’s hand-set, hand-printed, hand-sewn work with the page.
The chapbook Members Only (Recent Work Press and Ampersand Duck) extends these works yet, cannot, however, seize the literal ‘bespoke’ elements of the work. Unlike some artists, and artists’ books, Smith and Florance agree that the haptic elements of the work are vital to understanding the work. Books are meant to be read, held and treasured. To this end, the book pages are free to be turned, touched, interrogated and enjoyed within the current exhibition, Lines of Site, on display at M16 until 3 September. The works are worth a visit not only for evidence of successful collaboration but also for a turn through the pages of our idiosyncratic and word-spoken political history.
M16 Writer in Residence 2017
German aesthetics of the 19th century were rich with the exploration of the idea of Einfühlung, literally an ‘in-going-feeling’. The inspiration in Einfühlung emerged from a proposition that the human and poetic nature of a work will reveal itself to a reader who is absorbed by ‘feeling-into’. As a process of criticism and epistemological investigation, Einfühlung is a significantly embodied, rather than cognitive, inquiry. Einfühlung befell inelegant translation and insipid psychologisation; it is often likened to what we currently call empathy. Yet, if we can imagine ourselves back to ‘feeling-into’, and perhaps animate Goethe’s diary entries where his looking into an artwork is a ‘groping around’ (umtastet), looking for the looking that will let him engage with Einfühlung, we may be able to understand the work of Andrea McCuaig.
We tend to read artwork with a handful of familiar and mild methods. For example, we read a work as a product or outcome of a process: to illustrate, we read some instances of paint that have been poured, dripped, and flung as evidence of Jackson Pollock’s mood and corporeal movement. Another method of reading is to comprehend a work as a narrative; summon the story around Picasso and his blue period. The blue period, we narrate as reflecting his journey across both Spain and personal grief. For some works, however, our familiar methods of reading are inadequate. We must stretch into discomfort, perhaps engaging with processes such as feeling-into, to be able to enter the work.
The work of McCuaig demands an exchange of our standard reading habits for a range of more difficult, unfamiliar reading processes; we must stretch into discomfort and grasp for an embodied form of reading that may shun our languages of word and concept. As an art-doing—the work of the work—we must abandon the typical structure of standing outside the world of the work and peering in with a critical eye. In the atmosphere created by reading McCuaig’s work we are both (reader and work) subject to the dynamic process of being written upon, much like the over-sized wooden boards McCuaig chose for a canvas.
To create these singular seven works McCuaig painted towards a dance notation, written with Liz Lea. She did not crudely ‘paint the choreography’; her project exceeds clumsy literal interpretation. Instead, with a sense of ‘essence’ in heart, McCuaig steels herself and unites the materials of production—energy+paint+movement+brush+space+board—neither hesitation nor doubt have purchase in this process. McCuaig created the large rectangular works in single movement sequences using matt black pigment over a layer of shimmering black background. This simplicity in tone serves to heighten the reading—and unity with—energy reaching out from McCauig’s initial motion.
McCuaig describes this practice as ‘commitment’; rounded with its original meaning of trust and pledge but with gift and dedication at its core. McCuaig also describes her movement onto the boards as ‘gesture’. In some ways, I think, her descriptor—gesture—is too timid. The works do cast out with an initial gesture: it is a reaching out, a hand offered, a flow of energy in what Umberto Eco might call this ‘open work’. To accept this offer and consent to ‘feel-into’ the work, is not to arrive in the work itself but to step into the intersubjective atmosphere promised by the initial gesture.
The ‘gestures’ on each board are bigger, larger, than the human body but they are not beyond bodily comprehension. To read them is to feel the dance—the smooth grace—of an oceanic tide, of grass nodding to a breeze, and of skirling ritual rings around an ancient campfire. The works are not tribal nor environmental; I offer these images only as metaphors of the paradox in McCuaig’s work, namely, the perfectly still movement, and the deep-sounded silence.
The works are an experience of sway, rise, scoop, and stop. Read the edges of each work as testimony to the constraint of form; canvas rolls are woven to selvedge, movement completes, inhale pauses to become release. Those familiar with McCuaig’s earlier works in this choreography project will conjure memories of colour and layer and history. Prepare yourself for this new phase of exploration: it is essentialised, succinct and vast.
M16 Writer in Residence 2017
Image: Dancer, Liz Lea in front of Andrea McCuaig's, Amplified, 2017, acrylic on board