I See A Can of Paint As A Painting Unpainted


Artist: Robert MacPherson
Year: 1982
Country: Australia
Publisher: University of Queensland Art Museum

It was the last day of the Born to Concrete at the University of Queensland Art Museum. John and I decide to visit. I’ve never thought about it before but I quite like this idea of ‘visiting’ – it suggests a quiet ambience. There are things or places we go to, like to the shops, and other things or places we visit, like a gallery or someone’s home. There’s a suggestion of gentility and welcome. Everything is beautifully presented, visitor experience is measured and managed. As the front doors open cooled air gushes into the hot day.

Born to Concrete presents visual poetry produced since the 1960s and drawn from the collections of the Heide Museum of Modern Art and University of Queensland Art Museum. One of the works included in the exhibition is Robert MacPherson’s I See A Can of Paint As A Painting Unpainted. It features a framed photocopy of typed text on paper. Because the typewritten text outlines the concept of the work, the painting need never be created. Further copies of this are stacked on a timber chair and are available for the viewer to take. I carefully pick up and roll one of the photocopied sheets with the intention of framing it and hanging it.

The text was probably typed on an A4 sheet then enlarged on a photocopier – it is not quite A3. The lines of typed Courier style font looks thin and uneven, as if produced on a well worn typewriter. It measures 29.6cm x 35.5cm. Despite my care, the sheet has been slightly creased in transit and may require pressing. When framed, it will seem less fragile. It will become an object and I will be able to handle it with more confidence and less concern for damage. A single sheet of paper in the world seems somehow precarious, even precious – though bound as a book or framed as a print the hand need not be so tentative.


Little Wicked


Artist: Kat Soph
Year: 2010
Country: Australia
Publisher: Self published

My life, or the rather the life I share with my partner, seems overwhelmed by books. No sooner do we say that we must do something about it, than we’re buying, giving, reading, borrowing more books. When we moved into this modest dwelling some seven years ago, there just wasn’t enough room for all the books so many boxes of them are stored in mothballs under the house, regularly sprayed with insecticide. We can’t say for sure whether this has preserved our books, but at the time it was a better prospect than selling or otherwise disposing of them. Yet, as those seven years rolled on, more books found their way into our home despite the bookshelves being double stacked to capacity. Piles mounted on the floor in corners and edges, presumably out of the way, yet never so. In deciding to rearrange our workspace, decisive action was required about the sedimentations of books throughout our house. In waves of sorting, storing and culling, the books have been parred down, the shelves single stacked and the floor recovered.

Sorting books can sometimes be sentimental. There was a temptation to sit on the floor and flick through the tomes, catalogues and pamphlets, reading selected extracts to each other in the way that only lovers can read to each other as a most intimate act of sharing. Yet, there were moments of shared stories about the books and our experiences of them. We keep these books because we love living with them, to have at hand the liquid prose of Marguerite Duras or the visceral disturbances of William S. Burroughs, to note the shifting grains of professional and research interests across art, design, urbanism, technology and culture. The memories stir and run deep. In sorting, like shuffling, new sequences of stories are assembled.

Others are recalled. Unassumingly a small folded book slips onto the floor. I only vaguely remember this as I study it, struggling to recall where it was acquired. Little Wicked by Kat Soph is a hand drawn, black and white zine photocopied on white bond paper. It is one A4 sheet folded to eight pages, measuring 7.5cm x 10.5cm. It was free and it may have been acquired at a progressive bookshop in Canberra, which stocks zines. Little Wicked, the story’s protagonist, is lost in a big bad city on a rainy day and is rescued by a kitty who takes her home. The drawings and writing are hurried and scratchy but the work is, for want of a better description, rather charming. Probably because it has a childishness about them that is appealingly innocent or naive, perhaps even pointless beyond it having been imagined and created.

This is the economy of the zine with its currency of throwaway or giveaway, seemingly ridiculous or riddling. There is no mystery here, no meaningful parable. As a vignette or fragment – cast into the world, gifted to the world – it lacks pretension. It’s ephemerality and hurriedness is an invitation. Hang on to it or throw it away? The back cover bears the mark 05.10, which I interpret as the date May 2010. For more than two years, this sliver of folder paper was pressed between mightier texts for safe keeping. It withstands the sorting and culling to be reshelved as a little something to be kept close at hand.

In the meantime, with a recently acquired taste for crime fiction, I am vaguely aware that my partner is cultivating another pile of secondhand paperbacks in the corner of our bedroom.

A Banknote Invasion (A brief history of land ownership in Australia)

Artist: Bevil Staley
Year: 2011
Country: Australia
Publisher: Self published

Wandering through the Salt Water Murris’ Art Gallery at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island, I noticed a book in a display stand. It seemed unusual to see an artists book in an Aboriginal art gallery. While Bevil Staley may not be of Aboriginal background, the artist has undertaken diverse projects, exchanges and residencies in Aboriginal communities and with senior Aboriginal artists. While artists books by Aboriginal artists seem rare – the only ones that come to mind are works by Archie Moore and Judy Watson – many Aboriginal artists produce online works and text based works, offering critiques of ‘the book’ and ‘the word’ as symbols of domination (by religion, education, law and knowledge), overwriting difference and race.

This book is case bound. Measuring 21.5cm x 15.5cm, the bright yellow colour of the hardcover book was embossed with the title in black text A Banknote Invasion (A brief history of land ownership in Australia). This copy is 13th in an edition of 200, signed by the artist. It is a political act to appropriate ‘the book’ to reinscribe the history of this country; the book is a form and a symbol. Each page of the book featured a reproduction of an Australian banknote accompanied by a text about the history of Australia’s invasion by the British.

As I flipped through it, a man in the gallery, whose name I neglected to ask for, was telling me about the artist who created the artwork reproduced on the one dollar note. As the man speaks, I realise there are multiple stories unfolding here – that of the colonisation of this country as well as the dismal record of appropriation (although, clearly, both are linked). He mentioned that the artist, the late David Malangi, who created the work was not paid royalties for the use of the bark painting. The image was reproduced without the artist’s knowledge and the matters of copyright and royalities were not considered as the artwork, which depicted a traditional rite, was in the possession of a museum. It was an exchange between bureaucrats and professionals. Once the real circumstances of the artwork’s use were more broadly known, the artist was offered and accepted tokenistic compensation of $1000, a fishing kit and a silver medallion.

The overarching story, however, is that of invasion told through captions which accompany a banknote reproduced on each page. Following references to the royal instructions to Cook and the eventual landing in Australia, the caption on a page featuring a one dollar note, showing the late Malangi’s appropriated artwork, reads “This looks like an empty place”. The next page shows the contemporary polymer ten dollar note, issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of European settlement. It features a portrait of a ceremonially painted young Aboriginal man. In the background is a Morning Star Pole, other Aboriginal artworks commissioned by the Reserve Bank and a dreamtime figure. The capition on this page reads “Hey! What’s an empty place?”. And so, as money circulates and changes hands, the story unfolds with references to the occupation of this land, the incursion by settlers and pastoral industry, the frontier wars, and, eventually, the high court decision about native title, ending with the young man on the ten dollar note and the caption “What now?”. That is a question for everyone to consider, as ‘the intervention’ continues its assault on the rights of Aboriginal people and remains focused on income quarantining for individuals and families.

In Aboriginal history, there’s a history of money and exploited labour – slave labour, withheld wages, underpayment, welfare dependency, poverty and now enforced income quarantining. Then, there’s another book that looms large here – the book of accounts, the ledger or the balance sheet. Someone has been fiddling the books, and the accounts now conceal a vicious truth about debts accrued – who owes what to whom. There is an ongoing issue of ‘carpetbagging’ in the Aboriginal art trade, with exploitation and copyright breaches of Aboriginal artists. Some galleries, like the Salt Water Murris Art Gallery, are operated by the artists and for the artists. Until the 1970s, Aboriginal wages were held in ‘security’ and the wages were stolen by corrupt officials and employers. It has been difficult for Aboriginal people to access records and there is ongoing reluctance to pay the monies withheld. Government response to Aboriginal challenges and claims has been slow and disappointing. Ultimately, Staley’s clever and humourous appropriation of money, word and book opens into the very serious, very real and very violent stories of theft from Aboriginal people, stories that persist into the present as deprivation and exclusion. While that last question is possibly too open ended and unanswerable, there is obviously unfinished business and a debt to pay. What now? Restitution.


Artist: Unknown
Year: Unknown
Country: Italy
Publisher: Commerically produced book attached to key ring

This little postcard booklet was bought a few years ago on Ebay. It reveals another aspect of my book collecting that I don’t much think about or actively pursue – Italian postcard books. I have about a half dozen such postcard books, or similar travel mementos such as two collections of slides from the 1960s. I can’t even remember how this treasure emerged from the great ocean of Ebay. It just appeared while I was browsing and searching. The seller had also listed a miniature vintage camera: images of an Italian city, probably Rome, were visible when looking through the viewfinder. Given a strange attraction to miniatures, I immediately bid for both objects, missing out on the camera but winning this beauty for the princely sum of $9.

The brass book which features 10 images of Rome is attached to a key ring with other brass fittings and a leather strap. The postcards are presented in landscape format, folding out as a concertina. The images have a hand coloured aesthetic which gives them a nostalgic and distant quality. Italy is my parents’ country of origin and these artefacts address a sensation, best described as ‘longing’, I feel when I encounter them. I am searching and exploring them from a position of detachment and displacement, as if I can see something of myself in them. The book measures 3cm x 2.5cm including the hinge. The cover image, set under plastic, features an image of St Peter’s Basilica and is headed ROMA.

The contrast is enjoyable as the monuments of Rome’s past are reproduced at a scale no larger than a thumbprint. Miniatures often convey a false sense of frailty. This object is quite sturdy with its metal frame and clasp and leather strap. Such materials give it appearance of quality, a souvenir to be treasured. However, as the concertina images, printed on light card, fold out from its protective casing, there is a fleeting fear that it might tear if handled carelessly or roughly. The pages must fold out and reveal themselves. The tiny images somehow, just barely, legible.

DIY Origami Book

Artist: Linda Carroli
Year: Paper version in 2005, electronic version 2011
Country: Australia
Publisher: Self published book, downloadable from Scribd at http://www.scribd.com/doc/46198460/DIY-Origami-Book

An ordinary thing, not art. I’ve always loved origami. There’s something gently meditative about working with and folding paper, especially some of the Japanese papers with their repeating patterns and motifs, to reveal the magic of small gestures. I also take pleasure working with my hands, holding things and touching them. Perhaps that’s one of the many things we take from books – an unspoken connection between touching and learning, holding and reading. More importantly, I worked on this book during a period of disquieting quietude in my life – prolonged physical, emotional and material distress. It was akin to exile or redundancy, perhaps self-imposed, drifting on rising tide of scalding sadness. The book, as one of many projects during that time, required stillness. I recall a lecture by theorist, Mary Zournazi, in which she said that her book Hope: New Philosophies for Change arose out of her own hopeless circumstances. Her confession resonated, just as her appeal to hope did.

The original of this book was made for my great nephew a few years ago. Each page is a collaged tableau in which an origami animal dwells. I kept scanned copies of the collaged pages and recreated it for the daughter of former colleagues. Late last year at a seminar, they told me that their daughter still plays with the book and is fascinated with origami. While I thought the book to be too fragile for a child, it seems that such fragility can elicit a response of carefulness in hands willing to learn from the things they hold. While the work itself is not deeply meaningful or artful, it is conjured from deft gestures and presented as a gift for children only new in this world.

Mini Majellen: Found Things

Artist: Michelle Vandermeer
Year: Undated, since 2005
Country: Australia
Publisher: Self published zine, See http://shelbyville.typepad.com

I have been tidying up my bookshelves lately, only to find more ephemera and publications  for documenting on CataBlogue, unearthing this as my tidying drifted from shelves to the piles of papers on my desk. These piles – let’s say compendia – of papers accumulate in trays as ‘things to read’, ‘things to file’, ‘things to attend to’ or ‘things that have nowhere else to be’. Accumulating in this manner is, apparently, a breach of the rules of personal efficiency – never handle any piece of paper more than once. I identified immediately with the artist’s reference to her own “personal collection of ephemera and arty crap”.

Earlier this year, this book was purchased for $5 from (m)art, a contemporary craft and design store established by Artisan, at South Bank. The book is also on sale online in several craft and design stores, like Etsy and Madeit. When I bought this book, I considered it as an artist’s book and discovered that the artist describes it as a zine. This raised some curious questions about the definition of such publications, a question I have little interest in exploring at this point, but one that I should put my mind to. I have, incidentally, sat in far too many symposia, seminars and forums where conversations turn to how to define this or that, only for dynamic conversations to grind to a defeated halt. Definitions provide a sense of certainty for some and for others they are simply a constraint. This has certainly been the case with artists’ books. Even so, it is of passing and notable interest that the artist of this piece has nominated it as a ‘zine’. The cataloguer or collector, as classifier, may need to consider whether zines are a class of artists’ books. The taxonomies and semantics of such things are rarely clearly cut. As I handle this unassuming publication again, checking against website entries (such as the entry in Zinewiki), I experience some satisfaction that such a small and modest production has posed this challenge to all encompassing classification systems.

Measuring 10.5cm x 10cm, Mini Majellen: Found Things is a concertina book copied on brown paper and bound with two loops cut from a plastic binding comb. It was created within strict parameters:

  1. Black-only print, able to be photocopied
  2. Printed on a single A3 sheet, cut and concertina-folded into a small 12-page book
  3. Created purely from found things.

These ‘found things’ include familiar items like advertisements, tickets, greeting cards, stickers and other ephemera. A sticker of Tom (the cat from Tom and Jerry) graces the book’s cover. The tip of Tom’s tail is a little crinkled, slightly raised from the paper where the stickiness has failed, and the hapless creature looks like it is falling, having missed its mark yet again. There is a mystery here though. I do not know what the title Majellen refers to other than an earlier and much larger work of that title. At first, with its allusions to exploration and discovery, I wondered if it was a reference (spelling aside) to the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, whose travels and name reterritorialised much of the world. There is the possibility that ‘Found Things’ is not just a name or a description but also an instruction to find things including an adventurous spirit. This, then, may mean the book is a kind of map that guides its reader into unfolding and unwritten terrains.

Scavenged items are assembled and manipulated with texts that suggest activities that break with routine: ‘taste the ocean’ and ‘wait’ are two that I found particularly appealing as someone who rarely gets to the beach yet loves the salty spray of the sea and whose impatience can be overwhelming. These playful arrangements entreat us to explore and experience more of our lives and our environment. They evoke those moments when we say to ourselves or our companions, “I haven’t done this for years …” There’s usually a sigh in there somewhere, possibly a tiny tide of tears or stretch of smile when a memory surfaces. As gentle reminders of the pleasures that await us in the everyday, there’s a touch of sadness in the realisation that we actually need to be reminded.

Distressed & Open for Instructions

Artist: Nick Ashby
Year: 1995 or 1996
Country: Australia
Publisher: Self published artist book

These two small books were also hidden in the hat box for safe keeping. Nick Ashby was artist in residence at Metro Arts, where I worked as the Director of Visual Arts for a couple of years. He gave me the books in 1995 or 1996. Bound by staples and tape, these small black and white photocopied books seem to reference Robert Jacks. The title of the work is, itself, an instruction.

Open for Instructions is a compilation of 12 opening instructions sourced from packaging. The artist’s name is stamped on the back and editioned with the number 38. The book measures 9.5cm x 5cm.

Distressed is a series of small dramatic texts, seemingly appropriated from psychic columns in magazines with the first entry reading “can you give me some information about direction in my life?” Each entry entreats a response, seeking ways out of loneliness and unhappiness, seeking paths to some more rewarding existence, seeking answers from some wise stranger. The artist’s name is stamped on the back and editioned with the number 23. The book measures 10cm x 5cm.

Nick also produced a series of paintings reproducing the texts from newspaper personal columns with a stencil. I have one of these in my workspace; it reads “I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart I know that things will never be the same but I will never give up”.

The works which excavate those emotive pleas are poignant, yet depersonalised. There’s a quiet desperation in these texts, partly because we know them to be somehow real, somehow taken out of the lives of vulnerable people who are struggling with their loss and their sorrow.