An Obvious Problem

Peter Westwood: An Obvious Problem. In: RMIT School of Art Gallery (website). Melbourne 2007

For a period of time I lived in my car. Well not entirely, not like the man in the Volvo who I used to see in the park every morning cooking his breakfast and then meticulously cleaning the hotplate. I lived in my car because I lived between ‘situations’. I had moved out of my home without a plan and I thought it would be easy to find some place to live. But it wasn’t. And in this strange time of being rootless, but free, I found I routinely shifted in my mind between states, prompted by living in small but not always different circumstances. I lived in my car, I moved to a room where I struggled with the problem of a cat and a window that wouldn’t shut, and most perversely I lived in a ‘granny flat’ at my mother’s. This was a time of short-lived moments where nothing certain was ever defined. While it seemed to me that there was something depressive in recognising that I was on the edge of something that might never be securely reconciled, I was also acutely aware that it was a time distinguished by transience coupled with the possibility of imagined alternatives. The notable feature of this transient movement simply distinguished by ‘small’ markers of the experience, was an awareness of the converse: the desire for permanence and stability. I was aware of myself as transitory, my sense of actuality as only ever being rhetorical, simply supporting a primary impulse to identify and to locate. I recognised I was drifting, daydreaming really, thinking about imagined possibilities but never really being able to seize them. There are obvious problems in being within something and only ever being able to imagine what it is, or what it could be. 

Swedish artist Jan Svenungsson and German artist Katrin von Maltzahn work with an awareness of the rhetorical nature of perception, perhaps considering this as a discourse that is hardly debatable. In their recent parallel project A Place on Earth & Tracking (2007) and Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days (2007), Svenungsson and von Maltzahn define corresponding states and imagined possibilities that may never be, may never end, may merge, or split in two. In developing A Place on Earth & Tracking Jan Svenungsson sought, but was unable to achieve his desire to travel to Central Australia to establish connections with indigenous people and to encounter the landscape. He chose to develop a painting based on an aerial photograph of Central Australia, an image easily sourced on the internet through Google Earth. The photograph chosen by Svenungsson as the basis for the painting A Place on Earth marks a location that was at the beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal acrylic painting movement, carrying with it associations of the international awareness of the dynamic in indigenous Australian art that subsequently followed. Svenungsson chose this particular location because he recognised that it was historically significant to indigenous and to many non-indigenous Australians, consequently regarding the area depicted in A Place on Earth as representing a ‘Centre of Australia’.  A Place on Earth & Tracking recognises the unavoidable perspective of a European legacy, replicating the quintessential European experience, Svenungsson deriving the work through a photographic and therefore mediated source, as a projection of desire that implicitly recognises the characteristic Western impulse for an engagement with authenticity and an encounter with cultural difference. A Place on Earth is a work that may just as easily have been made in Europe. Svenungsson developed A Place on Earth working in inner city Melbourne, remaining and working at the periphery of the continent, acutely conscious that he was at the edge of something that he had been unable to genuinely encounter and that remained as an imagined possibility. Svenungsson has developed A Place on Earth as a potent sign of the residual legacy of desire, as recognition of the experience of arriving elsewhere but never being able to fundamentally engage. In gracefully rendering A Place on Earth, Svenungsson recognises and replicates the Romantic impulse, the yearning to locate desire for an authenticity as a tangible reality. As a counterpoint to the painting A Place on Earth Svenungsson made Tracking, video footage captured through the process of running in a large circle through urban Melbourne with a hand held video camera, fleetingly documenting the experience as a shaky and disruptive urban tracing. Svenungsson’s circular run echoes the circular tracks and roads that distinguish the terrain depicted in the aerial image within A Place on Earth. However Tracking is visually inaccessible, a jerky counterpoint to the desire underlying the more physically expansive and gracefully handmade painting. In juxtaposing the two media Svenungsson exploits painting for its authoritive stasis and video for its transitory movement. Tracking defines reality as immediate and transient where the impulse to perceive is disrupted and insecure. In juxtaposing A Place on Earth and Tracking, Svenungsson defines his work as residual, as tracings of possibility that may belie a futility in the overwhelming impulse to locate desire. 

Truth is never ‘plain’ nor appearances ‘genuine’. (1) Several notorious literary hoaxes significantly mark modern Australian cultural history, the most noted being the Ern O’Malley hoax. Representations of the intrigue and fondness for deception in Australian culture are found in the work of contemporary Australian writers, most notably Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan. As well, there has been an almost endemic cultural affection in Australia for the ‘tall story’, the verbal ‘slight of hand’, a dubious cultural distinction that may have grown from the desire for distraction from isolation and disconnection. ‘Tall stories’ in Australian culture may be as much about avoidance of facing the inaccessible as they are a recognition of the lack of restriction that comes from isolation and of being able to pose the question: ‘why couldn’t this have happened here?’ There is an ‘impossibility’ about living in Australia most often noted by its geographic location in relation to the rest of the world, but also by an awareness of the seemingly irreconcilable and concurrent consciousness that spans indigenous and modern culture, coupled with a sense of never really being able to ‘pinpoint’ a transient and primordial land. And conversely there is also a strong sense of possibility in Australia based on the recognition of being able to ‘make it up as you go’ alongside a more insecure and depressive desire to define a genuineness. The day after she arrived in Australia Katrin von Maltzahn learnt that Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days in 1938. Captivated by the idea that Borges had spent much of his time working under the dome of the State Library, a building situated across from the hotel where she was staying, von Maltzahn began to research the story. She learnt that it originated in a newspaper article published some years prior to her arrival but finally discovered the article had been a hoax. Von Maltzahn developed Jorge Luis Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days as a series of works on paper. She developed the work as a type of deflected recording without consciously making reference to the writer, but implying through the imagery his descent into blindness with the wondrous and perhaps bemusing idea of Melbourne and the dome of the State Library as encompassing his last months of sight. She uses a quotation taken from the dome of the Library ‘I who always thought of a library in form and shape as Paradise’ to reflect desire for possibility, as a yearning. Her recordings suggest the desire that motivates the displacement of reality with a fictional prospect. Von Maltzahn states that for her the essence of artmaking lies in the gaining of knowledge. She chose to neither accept nor repudiate the story. The dome of the Library under which Borges worked within this fiction is sentiently rendered on paper as a series of fragile but tangible forms depicting the geometry of the dome. Von Maltzahn’s works rely on architectural geometry to imply the historical, social and political authority of the Library, a cultural institution representative of knowledge. However through the use of paper, watercolour and pencil each geometric form appears as a delicate and tentative, perhaps illusory rendering, where geometry proposes structure and order only to be undone through a playful, intuitive and irrational resolve. Von Maltzahn’s investigation suggests the issue that underpins the hoax, that an illusory and spurious reality may simply suggest longing; a searching for something more, something definitive and cogent. Von Maltzahn observes the moment between two views, ideas or times as something to comment on, particularly when there is a noticeable disjuncture that brings our sense of truth and our perception of reality into question. It was a world that demanded reality imitate fiction, demanded that of us all. For a forger the possibilities momentarily seemed endless… (2) 

1. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, Four Essays on Beauty, Art Issues Press Los Angeles, 1994.

2. Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish, Picador by Pan Macmillan Australia, 2001; pp 118.

Peter Westwood (Peter Westwood is an artist, writer and curator based in Melbourne.)