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Where I am coming from

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Relatively unattached to institutions, my work has covered a broad range of subjects. Some people have questioned the presence of a common thread running through all this. This statement is an attempt to answer that question, for both my interrogators and myself.

I attempt a simple common link. My goal is to make a space in which the high and the low of the world might meet. Like the warp and weft of the tapestry loom, this simple confrontation produces many layers.


My academic research in narrative psychology has focused on instances where an ordinary life becomes special. My master’s research drew from interviews with mature-age entrants in a marathon about the reasons for their decision. The Ph.D. research that followed this explored the conventions for making any life narratable, with particular reference to the travel story. The concept ‘narrative partitioning’ that I developed to map this process described the way in which an individual story was structured through difference between everyday and special, or home and adventure. I continue to pursue this theory outside the official academic world.


While finishing my Ph.D, I coordinated a number of lecture series at 200 Gertrude Street. The first of these, Judgment of Paris (1988), brought academic specialists in French theorists to a lay art audience. This resulted in an anthology, published by Allen & Unwin. The second, Foreign Knowledge (1989), invited artists to talk about the distant figure on whom they had identified, such as de Chirico for Tony Clarke, or Proust for Gerald Murnane. The third, New Space (1990), brought together academics and artists on territory of mutual interest, such as chaos theory.

Other public forums that have followed similar lines include Byline: Craft & Text (1998) which brought together craft practitioners and writers, and Crack the Binary Code (1997) which new media artist were brought together with traditional art critics to see if there was a common language. This is pursued now in Scroll, which creates a space for online and offline artists.


The first exhibition I curated was titled Witness (1990). It drew partly from my interest in the travel story and brought together ten artists whose paintings featured a figure who stood as intermediary between the viewer and the world. The tour of this exhibition involved ethnic groups local to the galleries whose role in distinguishing the region had not necessarily made their stories public. These groups included the Hmong of Hobart, the Swiss of Launceston and the Lebanese of Sydney.

The following exhibition was Susan Fielder: A Fictional Retrospective (1991) which was a collaboration with an artist (Susan Bridie) and actor (Melanie Beddie). An artist’s life was constructed in order to experiment with the gaps in local cultural history. What emerged was a phenomenologist who eventually became an oncologist after a period as a painter.

In 1993 I curated an exhibition of video installation for the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself contained works that used the medium to house personae that engage in a dialogue with visitors. The exhibition How Say You (1996-97) followed this with artists who invent false personae in order to present their work.

During this time I began a residency at the Meat Market Craft Centre. Whereas before, the academic world had provided the partner to the art world, I know found an alternative opposition in the medium of crafts. This world had been dogged by an envy of the fine arts. The exhibition Symmetry: Craft Meets Kindred Trades and Professions (1994-5) attempted to find a way around this by pairing individual crafts with related occupations, such as jewellery and dentistry, or glass-blowing and jazz. Turn the Soil: What if Someone Else had Colonised Australia? (1997-98) drew from the experience of second-generation Australians whose lives have navigated between the foreign world of their parents and the English world of their friends. The speculation of alternative national history provided a space in which anyone could imaginatively participate in this opposition.

In Offline (1998), the implied dialogue was between the material arts and the digital technologies that appear to supersede them. This exhibition provided a space in which the very materiality of craft could be heightened for gallery visitors; this is part of a story where digital revolution creates in its wake a hunger for physical substance. Water Medicine: Precious Works for Dry Continent (1999) follows this story with artists using water as an element that resists digitisation. This exhibition takes a Zen point of view towards the sacred quality of everyday activities. Goodbye Kind World (1999) finds a space for craft in opposition to the 21st century.


My curated exhibitions develop first with an idea, which is then talked about with a number of artists. From these discussions come proposals that after some negotiation become works in the final exhibition. It is through these conversations and their products that the idea begins to take shape. While it might seem an individual voice, the ideas are critically realised in the works they help inspire. 

I see my role as curator is parallel with a theatre director who seeks a story that might interest the audience and helps construct a setting for good performance from the ensemble. In most cases, artists tell me they enjoy the opportunity to work closely with a curator and have their work exposed to a large audience. Yet there are a few critics who see me as stealing the limelight from the artist. While these criticisms are useful in keeping me aware of the need to service the artists in my exhibition, their resentful tone seems a rather mean approach to public display. The roles of frame-maker and artist need not be mutually exclusive. 

There is a useful cultural division of labour between makers and interpreters. In acting as a membrane between studio and audience, the curator helps free the artist from accountability to an immediate end. For the audience, the curator provides an objective eye in order to present the work independently of how it might look from the artist's own point of view. I realise that this division of labour might seem awkward to someone who believes that everyone is the same and there should be no barriers. In this case, I would continue the argument with a case for the necessity of structure in meaning.


There have been a number of themes running through my articles, mostly connected to the exhibitions. A series on the craft world for Object magazine constructed dialogues between Australian craft and a foreign tradition, such as Danish ecological design and Australian craft nostalgia. The theme of the new Stone Age has dwelt on the relics of the monumental age in stonemasons, cemeteries and sculpture. More recently, the process of entomorphosis by which humans become insects has provided a way of understanding the self-otherness of digital identities. In the area of photography, the significance of the smile as a Western salute has been the object of interest. Over the past several years, I have also explored the new symbolic meaning of the darkroom.

There are two long-term writing projects that sustain me. The first, Shock of the Old, is a dialogue between the new information age and its fleshy shadow. The second, a biography of Paula Dawson, is a more creative attempt to represent the truth of life through fiction.

I learnt to restrain speculative tendencies and to follow the unforgotten advice of my master, Charcot: to look at the same things again and again until they themselves begin to speak.

Sigmund Freud 'On the history of the psychoanalytic movement', in (ed. ) Pelican Freud Library: Vol 15. Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis (trans. J. Strachey) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986 (orig. 1914), p. 79

The experienced farmer lets his land lie fallow now and then; the theory of social prudence recommends the same thing. Everything will surely come again but in a different way; what has once been taken into the rotation process remains there but is varied by the method of cultivation.

Søren Kierkegaard Either-Or (trans. H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong) New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987 (orig. 1843), p. 296

You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight.

John Ruskin Stones of Venice New York: Da Capo Press, 1960 (orig. 1853), p. 38


My particular tendency to dialogic spaces has been develop through reading a number of authors.

The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin articulates my work most clearly. For Bakhtin, understanding is manifest in a dialogue between self and other. Of special interest is his concept of a chronotope, as an attempt to map the dialogical possibilities of different spaces such as courtrooms and stairwells.

Of course, Hegel offers a more sophisticated philosophical system, whose richness continues to surprise me. The dialectic process as a kind of conceptual pirouette seems to promise a system of intellectual openness. In Hegel’s footsteps, Heidegger seems to flesh out the canvas of Hegel’s ideas, though I am particular attracted the movement of the fourfold as a way of identifying those regions that are critical to our sense of being. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek translates Hegel into a contemporary context.


The most obvious pretext for these ideas is a Catholic upbringing. While not versed in the sophisticated theology of the Jesuits, the theatre of transubstantiation and bog Irish morality left me with an inability to completely leave the material world behind. This sense of gravity found its most intense expression in the Russian imagination of Gogol and Dostoevsky in my last years of high school. At university, psychology seemed a practical version of this thinking, though as a research discipline it seemed far more welcome to research funds than to ideas. Luckily, the university provided with mental stimulation in other departments.

The psychosocial school out of the Political Science department at Melbourne University provided an inspirational blend of literary imagination and psychological science. Under the brow of Alan Davies, analysts like Graham Little and Judith Brett provided a flexible language in which to articulate local identity.

Meanwhile, the English department provided riveting debates between the old Leavisites and the new deconstructionists. I was lucky to gain entry a reading group that persisted for many reading taking a steady course through the German philosophers.

The bridge between the academic and art world was made possible through 200 Gertrude Street, a contemporary art gallery catering for emerging artists. Involvement in the first years of Centre for a Constructed World helped sustain faith in the possibility of working outside an academic institution. The break with academia came finally when I refused a tenured lectureship.

Vnenahodimost '[seeing from the outside] It is only to the eyes of an other culture that the alien culture reveals itself more completely and more deeply.

Mikhail Bakhtin 'Response to a question from 'Novy Mir'', in (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (trans. V.W. McGee) Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986 (orig. 1970)


Naturally, the dialogical point of view lends itself to a left-wing sympathy. Yet while I support attempts to open politics to democratic forces, this is countered by a need to sustain the symbolic order of politics, as manifest in buildings and formalities. The practice of privatisation has rid public life of its shared capital, and I would support any review of future nationalisation.


I am particularly drawn to works that imbue everyday objects with a nobility. Examples are the suburban shopping centre photographs of Bill Henson, the reconstructed kitchen chair of Martin Corbin and the large canvases by Greg Creek. In music, this includes the spoken word operas of composers like Robert Ashley and Steve Reich; Yolngu music for the way it easefully expresses itself in rock; and Albanian folk music for its blend of Western melody with the exotic Turkish rhythms. 


I am biased against the ‘winner takes all’ movements, such as high modernism or elite sport. While part of me is fascinated by the god-like expressions of global spectacle, I find it difficult to identify with them because they lack a local point of reference. At the same time, I have a prejudice against multiculturalism, which in many cases seems to be an exercise in self-denial. Rather that the pure folk traditions, I prefer hybrid forms that interpret foreign traditions in a local setting. I am also wary of institutionalisation in which the politics of internal power plays overshadow the external functions. This is a problem that Australian institutions seem particularly prone to—we being such rule-governed creatures ('the good convict' syndrome). The twin evils of smugness and resentment send shivers down my spine.


I’d like to pursue the design of conceptual spaces for dialogue. The Internet seems to demand such an approach if it is to be anything other than a virtual bazaar. The basic model for this space is the hive, in which many individuals are able to produce something of substance through their collective work. The Shower Book is one such hive, but there are an infinite other possibilities.

While developing these buzzing sites of activity, it seems important to also allow for spaces of isolation and contemplation. One potential venue is the darkroom, partly abandoned by photographic practice. Another is the workshop. The challenge here is to reinvigorate the language of the mechanical age to bring to light its hidden poetry.

In a pipe dream, I would like to be involved in the development of a Centre of Object Studies that would document the life of objects, such as doors and windows.

 So finally, the continuing thread through my word is the faith in a space where opposite ends of the world might meet in conversation. Are you convinced? I’m not sure that I am, but I tried.


  • The more advanced the technology, the more primitive its subject
  • Put a door on it

 Last edited 27 Apr 2003