Saturday, July 22, 2017

Filomena Coppola's Earthly Tales at Gallery 152, York, Launched by John Kinsella

This is an exhibition of the tactile — you’ll want to touch, but you can’t, and that tension will generate insight upon insight in a cascading run of sensations. For these works are about sensations, as much as they are about displacement, disconnection, but also invitation and entry points.

There are three series of work here; each of the threads is in conversation, in this superb open space where light and bareness coalesce. The natural elements are displaced, as the Murray Cod you will see drawn on ancient petrified redgum sanded and polished to a sheen, and the orchids you see in their aching leaves and stalks and blossoms are a long way from home. Yet such separations create empathy, for the fish is trying not only to find its way home, to understand its own issues of belonging, but also to tell us something about our own conditions of belonging and isolation. In a sense, the threads interweaving in this distant space are about empathy and hope.

And as a silhouette of the ‘Fish Out of Water — Murray Cod’ series there is an earlier work, and some understanding of the drives of this work is useful in approaching ‘Murray Cod.’ Filomena Coppola has said:

Fish out of Water – Murray Cod is a development from an intervention project that began at summer solstice, 2013 and continued through summer solstice 2014. I have been painting a lone sardine on a river pebble – the sardine is a reference to the waters near Sardegna and the Port of Napoli – the port where my parents began their journey to Australia. I then released a pebble at each of the eight sabbats. These represent the earth changes of the summer and winter solstice, the equinoxes and the four cross quarters of Lammas, Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. Often associated with pagan festivals, I am acknowledging this history as well as connecting with the earth changes throughout the year; the seasons, light and my own connection to place.

If you’re interested in the dynamics of this fascinating project, there’s a downloadable pdf available via Filomena’s website. And though these sardines are in evidence in the framed works here (which constitute one of the three main narratives in the exhibition), crossing Australia on their long, almost timeless journey, carrying stories across the world’s oceans and acting as shamans and healers on behalf of the earth itself, while also functioning as cultural intermediary and creating a hybrid presence and new stories as they progress, the real focus of the ‘Fish Out of Water’ installations here is the ‘Murray Cod’ of which the artist notes:

This work Fish out of Water – Murray Cod is a continuation of this project. Working with petrified red gum, which is between 5000-9000 years old and sourced from the Murray River, I made nine organic forms – grinding and sanding the wood into forms that are beautiful to hold. The petrified red gum carries within it stories of the Murray River, this continent, its cultural history, and the floods, droughts, fires that have affected this landscape. I feel that each organic form vibrates with the history that it carries. On each, I have painted a Murray Cod – a fish out of water – a comment on this changing continent, its climate, culture and demographic. I then travelled the length of the Murray River and selected nine locations beginning at Cudgewa Creek and ending where the river runs to the ocean at Goolwa’
[Artist’s statement — website].

And we can see that journey here, and we can connect with its cyclical movement, and share the journeys. This vital predatory fish of the Murray-Darling system — one that nurtures and protects its eggs — is under threat in its own home. It is looking for a way back to its stories, its narrative of being. And, in addition to this, we can all question our own understandings of cultural presence and relativism, and the responsibility we all have to respect the different stories of belonging, and the different stories of journeying. I appreciate and admire the respect shown to Indigenous knowledge and presence, and the power of that belonging.

The other thread of this exhibition, the ‘Wallflower’ series, is in part about sexuality and female subjectivity, and this doesn’t necessarily mean it requires the male, though the male may be there, hovering around the edges. It’s about identity more than sexuality, and as sensual it is, it’s for the ‘female’ to decide, to make choices.

In many ways, these flowers are speaking to women, though not exclusively — these are not to be left sitting on the sidelines neglected, waiting to be asked to dance, they are far too active in their apparent quietude for that. These are suggestions of female bodies — but there’s the furred implication of male presence as well, but maybe that’s not essential here. What’s challenging in all this is that these ‘parts’ are closer than many would like to think — they fur together, they grow together, they are part of the living organism, of the essence of life itself.

There’s nothing prurient in this — it’s threatening, sure, but life is about risk and we need to understand our discomforts as much as our pleasures. So, enticing and disturbing, maybe, at once?

They are also outside sexuality, as they are outside the plant, the botanical. They are vegetable becoming animal and vice versa; they are the interweaving of all life into the moment of observation and experience. And the desire to touch. First thing I did when approaching the remarkable ‘Wallflower — Meow, make me purr’, was reach out to touch, then remind myself, No, that’s not permitted, not part of the rules of encounter. Step back, respect the intactness of the image before you, and all it represents.

Not only did I want to stroke the fur as one might a partner’s hair, or an animal’s fur, but to stroke it against the grain, the wrong way. Because there’s something disturbing going on in these drawings, something that makes the pastels hyper-real beyond illustration, and something almost carnivorous. Not as dentata, or as invasiveness, but as a dangerous kind of welcome.

Talking with Filomena, she mentioned the animal belly seam in the fur, and I agreed, I had encountered that in the work as well — something liminal, a line that is vulnerable and yet assertive. The irony of the docile image of the wallpaper background, the polite and muted domestic, is that within the walls of rooms the secrets are held, the risks taken in love and life, and shared encounters made. There is something threatening and rebellious in all this; with its undertones of the anarchist designer William Morris, one is also reminded of where the decorative meets craft.

And also something investigative, as we find with the sardine swimming through the neat, small frames of botany, zoology, and rainfall data on the Australian map in the three confrontations with data and subjectivity — what facts we have, what we know, and yet the ‘touch’, the qualities of life itself are often missed. As the sardine ‘swims’ on the dry dead eucalypt leaves in these montages, it lifts details into the sensorium, into the realm of environmental investigation, consequence, and we hope, healing.

But we are ahead of ourselves here, because we need to find the Murray Cod trying to re-enter the river, a river that has suffered horrendously from environmental degradation, that is a barometer for the consequences of colonialism. Yet it’s also a river of ongoing beauty and strength, and that’s to be embraced; the presence of people has been part of its being for tens of thousands of years, and the new migrants to Australia of the last two hundred or so years, or, indeed, of the last decades, can be part of its repair and its spirit if they listen, learn and sense.

I see the ‘Fish Out of Water’ Series as very much about healing, about return, about belonging. The merging of textures in the ‘pebbles’ — the wooden stones, if you like — carrying the fish as they ‘bed down’ in different locations on or near the river, or by the sea shore, absorb the qualities of those locations, and return to their homes with the knowledge of their experiences. This is an ongoing conversation, in which learning is essential — Filomena Coppola has gifted us a role in this narrative, and that is to find the fish, to witness, to return them to their homes, and in doing so share in this illumination.

For me, touch — the tactile — is a vital component of understanding. I was lucky enough to have the artist hand me one of the stones — the Barmah stone — to hold, to nurture in my palm. It’s a disconcerting and reassuring experience at once — a sense of breaking a taboo, of being where you shouldn’t, and yet entirely ‘natural’. Now, viewers can’t touch these objects, but they will want to, and that’s the point. On their wooden platforms with photos of sites where the fish out of water will try to find its way back, they tempt us to pick them up and put them in place. I asked a couple of people which fish they connected with, and three said the image of the reeds, as the fish was soon going to work its way through the reeds back into water. Another said, ‘All of them’ — a collective experience of return and belonging.

In all of this, the hybrid, the identity made up of many experiences and backgrounds and even origins, is part of the understanding, part of the beauty and the trauma. No easy solutions are offered in this, and neither, I think, can art do that. Art is about ambiguity as much as resolution.

Mentally, away from the space of the exhibition, my mind keeps returning the installation of/from/out of Bonegilla, and its relatively recent history as a migrant camp of many Nissen huts, and the transitions from one life into another. All lives are part of presence, and the fish returning to water is a complex journey, and involves many stories; these are fixed and unfixed, and have a massive breadth.

So, respect and welcome and difficulty and reconciliation and hope and desire and questioning and conservation and learning. And touch. Filomena Coppola said to me as we were looking at the image of the fish on its ‘pebble’ near rock-pools that will probably dry out, leaving it more stranded than ever in an alienating landscape, but we hope, we hope against the odds, that she intends, ‘Layers of different cultures in landscapes...’, and this is surely the case.

So, I declare this beautifully uncomfortable exhibition open — it is seductive and disturbing in so many different ways, and it is generative, and searches for a healing and a healthy future. And may you embrace its talismanic seeing-stones — touching them with your mind’s eye, but not your fingers!

          John Kinsella

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Against Australia's Arms Trade Ambitions

          by John

So, the fascist regime wants to position itself to become a major arms exporter, to feed the horror and distress of military conflict around the world. Its concern about export to oppressive countries is a furphy, a way of positioning itself as righteous in exporting to the apparently ‘better’ countries, countries more efficient at screening their human rights abuses.

Australia hungers for power, and the constant papers and addresses to position itself as an influential ‘middle power’ are part of the same mentality that denies human-induced climate change, sees the remaining native vegetation and wildlife as something to delete or at best fetishise, something that stands in the way of ‘development’.

It’s tragic being inside this most nineteenth-century political and psychological immaturity — a game of states and borders, of power deals made by elites with vested interests in their outcomes. Australia is not decolonising; it’s recolonising and extending its ambitions into becoming a coloniser in overt and subtle ways. Arms exports are the most brutal form of colonisation.

This goes hand in hand with the abuse of refugees, of ‘turning back the boats’, of refusing to scrutinise the ‘fuck off we’re full’ or ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ mentality that rules in much of rural Australia, and in the suburbs as well.

One of the most appalling notions underlying so much of this pocket battleship aggression, this dreadnought hangover of the years leading to the First World War, is that of ‘any job being better than no job’. We hear this being peddled by politicians of the right over and over again. So, to manufacture arms that are used to kill is a just way of making a living?

There aren’t even semantics worth undoing here to show the blatant hypocrisy of such unreasoning ‘pragmatism’. The mining industry hugely benefits from arms trade, and all the ‘philanthropy’ of rapacious miners buying off academic institutions, and infiltrating the thinking and processing mechanisms of universities, doesn’t change the fact that in the end they provide the raw materials of bullets, guns, missiles, atomic warheads. The degrees of separation seem to protect their consciences, but in the end, the corpses are at their doors, and the doors of government.

Christopher Pyne’s desire to position Australia as a 5 percenter in terms of defence industry and sales is an overt fascist desire — the nation state develops and fosters industries that entrench a militaristic identity in which we are all expected to acquiesce or to be excluded.

There are no real rights in Australia, just illusions of rights. They are taken from us daily, and we do nothing. Australia already participates in the international arms trade; don’t think it doesn’t. And this should be stopped immediately.

But things are about to get a whole lot more bloody in the new patriotism stakes that are being foisted on us. If this core of colonialism is not addressed, Australia will consolidate its position as a New Colonial Power. For that’s what it is, and why people can’t see the wood for the trees given most of its forest and bush is being chopped down with nothing but dust in sight, chopped down and burnt or logged and/or turned to woodchips; it’s an astonishing feat of denial. But then again, note the sticker you see around here that supports the hunting and fishing party: a gun with a tick, and a tree with a cross through it. Get it, people?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Working with Urs Jaeggi 1

       by John

I have worked with Urs Jaeggi on a variety of text(ual)-visual-poetry collaborations since the mid 90s when I first met him in Fremantle, Western Australia, while attending a PEN conference. When I moved to Cambridge with family, I got to see Urs every now and again as I often travelled to Germany. He and I read together in Berlin and Hamburg and created via fax machine a book of poem-visual-textualisations entitled D & G that has since been lost. There were a number of paper versions of D & G circulating around the turn of the century, but none of them seems to have survived. A section of the book was published in Chain magazine in the late 90s, and is included below. As said in the note that follows the pages, the work came out of an intense 'conversation' across and around and under and over and through the works of Deleuze and Guattari.

Since D & G, Urs and I have collaborated on a number of other works via email, with fractions and fragments being published here and there over the years (e.g. in Vlak magazine). Most recently, we have been working on 'drawings and poems', whereby I respond to series of drawings sent as attachments by Urs. This is the reverse of a process we employed in around 2006/7/8 when I sent Urs my Divine Comedy 'distractions' and he 'illustrated' and sent back. Those drawings never found their way into the English-language editions of the work (WW Norton and UQP), but a few did find their way into the selection done by the Italian publisher Raffaelli Editore with translations in Italian by Maria Cristina Biggio in 2013. I have scanned some pages and will include below.

What I have presented here are some snippets from our recent work together, and I intend to add to this over future blog postings. Collaboration has been a vital part of my creative working life, and is really what I am most interested in, and most value. As well as working with Urs for over twenty years, I have also had the good fortune to work creatively with Louis Armand, Pam Brown, Niall Lucy, Dorothy Hewett, Mona Ryder, Karl Wiebke, Thurston Moore, Kwame Dawes, Tracy Ryan, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Susan Schultz, Frieda Hughes, James Quinton, Wendy Jenkins, Barry Phipps, Paul Kane, Alan Jenkins, John D'Alton, Gordon Kerry, Forrest Gander, and others, and I feel privileged in these interactions.

I begin with a letter and poem written quite a few years ago now in celebration of Urs's 80th birthday, and included in a primarily German-language volume celebrating the brilliance of this Swiss-born sociologist, cultural and social activist, novelist, poet, visual artist, sculptor, and much more. 


Happy birthday, Urs. I thank you for your friendship and for sharing your work with me over the years. Working with you on various collaborations, including D & G and most recently the Tractortatus texts, has been an ongoing revelation about the possibilities of art and language. You are the embodiment of the Renaissance artist and thinker — all is in your ken — but in a truly contemporary way.

Here is a poem based on a few factors: visiting your apartment in Berlin in the mid-90s; the painting used as the cover image for Salt magazine number 8 (1996); and very distantly, your wonderful poem-text ‘Miles’, published in the same issue of Salt.

I often think of our performances together in Berlin and Hamburg. You are the liberator of the word!


            for Urs Jaeggi’s 80th Birthday

In the room the room
you offered the staying
place the rocking-horse
room where night-fright
made no horror and no
shadows just the zoo-light
carried in from wanderings
about the wall machine
down ergo silence of cabinet
of sketches expressing
shudders and stillness
an ergonomics of presence
where comfort allies
with friendship and intensity
with sincerity and circles
wavering circles and souls
stepping down and out
through window and image-bank
in book-frame and covering
voices with plausible trance
or entrance — thankyou
for the cover the glint
and gleaning of salt
and movie-time rescue
like risk like announcement
overtalking to echo
through theatre and audience,
failsafe nor forget-me-not rhizomes
tunnelling streetworks
cloistered or blossoming in window
of multilingual fruitfulness,
no imprisonment in artifice
or maybe freedom in artifice
but not ‘officialese’ (you made
your escape! you sculpted
plastic form office throne
choke of narrative, storyline
fame left on the altar),
degrees of ranks blown
in by Peter the Great
and no notice taken
or left freehold resurrection
poem of provinces — dead
souls — no, no estates
made from transfer or silence:
third persons telling their tales,
folk tales and heritages,
red and blue witches,
sagas   epics   prophecies
I heard Khlebnikov asleep
reciting asleep I was awake
asleep near the rocking-horse
childhood recognition of apocrypha
I was part of we all were you’d think
or you were too and I detailed
the twists and scrunches
of paper that made up
your eternal poem your
challenge to rock the horse
to rock the boat
to rock the monastery
of learning and blight,
chronicle   recital   ode
paint hunger form
of inner-city apartment
as generous as caverns
and sky, ‘(dritte Lektion)’
in the mineshafts of wonder,
investigation, breakthroughs,
loyalty of palette is body
of palette is opening colour
outside its spectrum
without the inducements
of colour, refraction, spectra,
prism analogies, dispersion,
diffractions the clamour
for laws we never want,
we pass without pause:
sharing is silence and noise
and the joy of knowing.
Bonding and making,
rooms to fill and empty,
all made in the shades
of living contrapposto.

            with very best wishes,
            from John Kinsella

And some drawings and poems (i.e. Urs Jaeggi's drawings followed by my poem-responses):


Confrontation (after Urs Jaeggi’s IMG-888a4.jpg)

When the boomers
confront each other
on the second tier
below the house,
we described it as a dance. None of us have danced recently,
nor attended a dance, or thought much about dance,
but it’s inherent, isn’t it? We pluck memories
like fur from the coats
of rivals we don’t have, or don’t want. We are not
violent. But the old boomer — scarred, dominant —
hangs on to his mob for another season —
three rivals, almost but not quite
as large, wrestling for supremacy.
All lived to tell tails
they balanced on, ‘boxing’
and tipping opponents
until first and second round losers demurred
to watch from down low
the final tilt, the pas de deux
that defines the sociology
of the present, and what will be
for a time, a cycle.

And from earlier in the latest collaborative cycle:



I intend to travel beyond the spectrum.
I intend to recast lines and mergings.
I intend to open the doors and windows when it's storming.
I intend to let language escape into geography.
I intend to let geography escape into language.
I intend to wake the sleeping.
I intend to wind the chronometer backwards.
I intend to stir the wind against gravity.
I intend to colour all reproductive parts of the flower.

Closing Bell

Paso doble shock to casternet
Psyche's blastdoors, to confront
a mirrorcall, a despicable wall
of Self stretched to profit ideology.

We see into your pas de deux,
your rough riding aubades
to make a myth fit phrenology.
We sense a universal and tranquil pool

beyond your aqueous humour,
beyond the closing bell.



Repossessions of peace
counts empire-standard,
clauses claws & shadows
philology of body type
facing departures.
Nip the randomness.
Take the chance.
Reading & expression =
stones hauled so far

Struggling over the ruins
as a black rain swirled,
they wiped their eyes
to better see the spirits
rising from spent palaces,
granaries, and tombs.

Greetings from Mexico Received

'Froto mis párpados:
el cielo anda en la tierra'

    Octavia Paz, 'Madrugada Al Raso'

My brother-in-law
travels frequently to Mexico.
He sees the dawn over mountains,
he sees fresh light silhouetting
timeless ghosts in the streets, the trees.
He sees far beyond any wall,
and on The Day of the Dead
he sends us greetings
and we share, too.

 And now some pages from the Italian edition/selection of my Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography... Urs did numerous drawings but only three could be used in this edition — one for each canticle:

And finally, here is the short section from the lost D & G (if anyone out there has a copy of the full manuscript, please let me know!), as published in Chain 5: Different Languages (eds. Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, Summer 1998). As I mention in the epilogue/afterword, we envisaged it as a kind of radical eclogue, with English, French, German and Latin stretched and fed into the collapsing pastoral (fax) machine:


So, that's a sampler... more to follow in future posts. Thanks for twenty-one years of sharing, Urs.