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Eavesdropping at a half-open door

“one has to teach the skill of reading even to those who are no longer illiterate”

“uncultured readers… with a vague knowledge that there is something else here, and enjoying the text like someone eavesdropping at a half-open door, glimpsing only hints of a promising epiphany.”

Umberto Eco, on literature, pages 171 and 219.

Some days I have the confronting feeling that I’m a beginner in something I’ve practiced daily for almost six decades. Then I tell myself to stop being maudlin and self-indulgent, and just get on with it.

I have tried to make visible the work of reading. I have complained bitterly when I found reading challenging. I have made reading the foundation of every day. I write about attentive reading, focusing on every line and word… but lately I’ve wondered – am I getting all I can from all this effort? In particular, am I making connections, building usable knowledge. I note correspondences as I go, and the use of indexing glyphs in my notetaking has been useful in later consolidation around particular ideas. Possibly I need to be more alert to the need to extend my glyph set.

In my last post (7-Jan-2020) I tried to link books and authors with fabric swatches. That was step one in an experiment.

The previous data viz experiments were generally useful, giving me space and time to think, seeing from different angles, generating some surprises… I decided to look at where I was spending time reading, and to search for rhythms and flows in the mix of reading. Keep mine-ing the existing tool set and stash. The brief developed:
* Start recording time spent reading.
* Repeat the scarf form. This time with weaving.
* Begin simple, with options to elaborate as the process continues. So plain weave. I put a 2 metre warp of black cottolin on the 4-shaft table loom, a straight threading.

The result is a record of four weeks of reading – 30 November to 27 December. Information encoded:
* Length of weaving is proportional to length of reading. Four centimetres = One hour.
* Beginning of day is marked by 5 picks in cotton – white on Sunday, then darkening greys reaching black on Saturday.
* Indicate book by weft – torn fabric strips.
* Most reading was done in my workroom. If outside the house, a supplementary fine coppery weft was added (“sunshine”). If bedtime reading, a supplementary weft of silvery white was used (for the moon).
* When a book or essay was finished (not many were), mark by 5 picks in red cotton.

Detail – Wednesday 18 December 2019

In the detail above you might just be able to see the cotton picks at the beginning and end of the day. The book swatches all look quite different when squashed down and used for weft.

Umberto Eco on literature

John Berger
Selected Essays

In the morning I read Umberto Eco for 45 minutes. John Berger accompanied me on the bus, and in a cafe waiting for CPR training – a total of 50 minutes and a glint of sunshine.

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

At that time I was reading Jane Hirshfield before sleep – hence the loops of white rayon. I wasn’t taking in much, just trying to find the flow, to get an overall sense, hoping to learn enough to be able to read it again with more understanding. Thirty more minutes, and a total of 8.3 cm.

Classic uses of a data visualisation are discovery (learn something new) and storytelling (communicate ideas). I can’t claim either here. Using standard viz software I would have waited to collect all the data before even starting, then probably run a variety of statistical analyses, experimented with multiple chart types, maybe colour themes and scales, transformations, brought in other data sets for context or comparison… There’s the faintest hint of this in the fringes.

By amazing chance, the number of warp ends was precisely four times the number of days woven. So each piece of fringe is one day. The fringing shown above records the total amount of time recorded reading each day (range from 0.67 to 2.75 hours). At the other end of the scarf the number of books read is shown – from 1 to 4 each day. Note the same information is already encoded in the weaving. This is simply a different chart type.

plump folds, showing more of the fabrics

Despite the proportions, the resulting textile can’t really be called a scarf. It does not drape softly and warmly around the neck. However while it sat on my desk over the last week, I came to love its edges. And to appreciate that “not drape-able” could also be described as “sculptural”

reading scarf sculpture

So perhaps wearable sculpture.

Click for larger image

Reading swatches

A game / experiment: matching reading material to fabric swatches. Maybe it could be seen as a form of deliberate self-training in ideasthesia, but really it started because I was trying to improve my reading plus to make the abstract (reading) concrete (clothing-ish). An extra criterion – the fabrics are all from my old clothes (from larger days).

Antony Gormley On Sculpture

Antony Gormley On Sculpture

This book is highly structured and highly thoughtful. I was going to write “generous” but it’s more like the careful guidance of a teacher, dedicated and wanting to share his knowledge, his message, rather than the lighthearted open hand of a friend.

Chapter 1 discusses his own work, the body in space and time. The second chapter considers works by other sculptors of importance to Gormley. Next was Mindfulness, and the influence of Buddhism on Gormley and his practice. The practice of meditation, and the idea of sculpture about being rather than doing are core. Finally, in Expansion, Gormley takes his ideas a step further. He wrote “Represented movement is a stupid idea for sculpture” (p.78) Instead, looking at stillness, we experience the movement in our own bodies.

The swatch is from a silk-hemp blend fabric that I dyed using shibori-based stitched resist, then sewed into a top. Where the resist prevents dye is as important as where the dye strikes. The first piece of old clothing I re-purposed, I was conscious of the absent body, and also of a stilled moment, rather than the movement, change, impermanence (I was around 30 kg heavier when I made it) over time. My space. My time.

Hugh Brody Inside Lake Ballard

Hugh Brody Inside Lake Ballard

Inside Lake Ballard is an essay I found on Gormley’s website – I would like to visit this installation. Experience the activated space. Think about what it means to stand in Australia.

Hot, bright colours from a linen shift seemed right for this swatch.

Johanna Drucker Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

Johanna Drucker Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

There’s a strong element of the data viz I know, but this book goes far wider. It’s an overview, a survey of the terrain. As well as abstracts and Boolean logic, Drucker considers humanistic, rhetorical arguments produced as a result of making, a poetics of graphical form. Drucker distinguishes between representations of known information and visualizations that are knowledge generators. She gathers together a huge number of references, creating a coherent structure and giving context. At times existing snippets of my knowledge shifted and came into focus, or coalesced in new and intriguing patterns. Many areas were new to me, leading to happy exploration of many rabbit holes even while I was realising how very much more I have to learn. And sometimes a phrase was like a magnet bringing order to iron filings. For example “a reified intellectual construct” provided a structure I didn’t know I needed and opens unforeseen vistas – and that was in a footnote! This is dense and challenging reading.

The subtle gleam of this swatch from a business jacket is lost in the photo, but the sense of purpose, structure, visual complexity in detail and coherence at distance, and hidden depths remains.

Giacomo Leopardi Canti and Zibaldone

Giacomo Leopardi Canti and Zibaldone

From total ignorance, last year I kept coming across references to Leopardi, starting in the last Hobart session of the intensive creative research group. He was the author of what Mary Ruefle describes as “The World’s Bleakest Poem”, and his conversation between death and fashion is quoted in an essay by John Berger.

Leopardi (1798 – 1837) has been described as Italy’s first and greatest modern poet. There’s a lot of misery and death in his poetry. The one quoted by Ruefle begins
Rest forever, tired heart.
The final illusion has perished.
The one we believed eternal is gone.

Zibaldone is enormous, his philosophical and critical notebook in which Leopardi compiled quotes from his extensive reading as well as his own writing and musings. There’s also extensive cross-referencing in a series of indexes that he created. The material collected provided the foundation for Leopardi’s extensive published writing. (That’s three “extensive”s in a row, but what can I do – the word fits!) I now have a copy of the english translation – over 80 pages in the introduction, then 2500 pages of the Zibaldone itself, Leopardi’s own index, and the editors’ notes. The translation itself was a major scholarly effort. Given my own notebook efforts, I was curious to see and learn from a master. Opening at random, page 1335:
“A language that is strictly universal, whatever language it might be, would certainly and necessarily by its very nature be the most slavish, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly tongue, the most incapable of any kind of beauty, the most inappropriate to the imagination and the least dependent on it, indeed in every way the most separated from it, the most bloodless, inanimate, and dead, that could ever be conceived; a skeleton, a shadow of a language rather than a real language; a language that would not be living, even if it were written by all and understood universally, indeed it would be a great deal more dead than any language that is no longer spoken or written.”
One sentence. One rather difficult sentence. As it happens relevant to an essay in Umberto Eco’s book. So many connections. And to be honest, so much that I don’t understand – even as it draws me in. Reading this is going to be a labour of love, probably falling in and out of love with it over years.

Mauve, paisley and beading feels a good fit for his poetry.

Mary Ruefle Lectures I will never give

Mary Ruefle Lectures I will never give

Just a touch of Mary Ruefle in my reading over the period, to check the poem she referenced. Very interesting to read the two quite different translations. What I’ve read of Ruefle’s work sparkles with ideas and wit. The patterning in the fabric is a modern take on paisley, making a satisfying link.

Umberto Eco on literature

Umberto Eco on literature

When I started reading this book it felt like chocolate – smooth and velvety, warm and luxurious, rich and flowing, but with a sparkle and not cloying so perhaps a hint of champagne. So chocolate, maybe champagne truffles, guided my fabric choice.

As I read further the book became more challenging – I know nothing of linguistic theory (pretty sure that isn’t the right term), and Eco’s careful differentiation of terms was lost on someone meeting them for the first time. Still, it feels worth learning.

Emily Dickinson The Complete Poems

Emily Dickinson The Complete Poems

I’ve tried opening at random. I’ve tried following themes from the subject index. I know Dickinson has a huge following. But I haven’t connected, so far at least. Perhaps I don’t know enough about poetry to appreciate her inventiveness and the power of broken convention.

The fabric is a cheat – from the general stash, not old clothing. I can’t quite see or connect with Dickinson. I suspect this swatch doesn’t really suit her, that I am misapplying convention. Perhaps when I’m more mature as a reader I will get further.

Alain de Botton How Proust can change your life

Alain de Botton How Proust can change your life

Mentions of Proust seem to pop up in much of my reading, his influence felt directly or indirectly throughout the 20th century. But reading In Search of Lost Time is a big investment of effort, and I have the impression that many readers fall by the wayside. I’m reminded of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time – a friend was given three copies the Christmas after that came out. People thought it would be right up his alley, but apparently he didn’t finish any of them!

The plan was that reading Alain de Botton’s book might help me decide whether to take on Proust. Unfortunately…

What a show pony de Botton is! Yes, there’s information on Proust’s life and on his writing, but it’s all very arch and clever, with lots of winks and smirks and witticisms by de Botton as he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader. (I’m assuming that can work in writing as well as on the stage. In any case, he’s putting on a performance so there’s little difference.)

Fortunately for my own specific purpose, I was able to find Proust’s work online. I’m not un-interested, but I don’t think this is right for me at the moment – especially given that in the meantime I started on Leopardi.

The flashy pink snake print rayon number is for de Botton.

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

This is a book about poetry, written by a poet. The language is rich and beautiful. My own writing is an arid desert. But Hirshfield opens my eyes, my mind, my ears, and I think I’m almost beginning to see a little of what she is showing me. It’s not easy to read. It’s a joy to read.

One of my all time favourite jackets provides the swatch. All the colours I like, with some shine and an interesting weave.

John Berger
Selected Essays

John Berger
Selected Essays

A chapter in Bento’s Sketchbook was my introduction to John Berger’s writing, a chapter in which he is drawing some irises. Some light silk that I painted using watercolour-like techniques then made into a blouse feels a good fit. Most of the essays I’ve read so far in this current book have been short, pieces written for a newspaper. Some of them have me looking at the world differently, thinking about artists and ideas in a different way. Really, just what I want from my reading.

General Purpose

This fine wool swatch is included for completeness in the project, a catchall for some side-reading.

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street

This book contains sixty short prose pieces. Another conglomerate of fragments? Perhaps more a kaleidoscope of insights into the everyday. Lots of little disparate nuggets that together add up to something more. This blouse fabric has the nuggets. It’s also a little difficult and uncomfortable – there’s a metal in the weave.

Anne Carson

Anne Carson

This green-blue shot silk doesn’t show well in the photo. I wasn’t conscious of a reason for my choice, but with hindsight could it be something as simple as a Canadian named Anne and “green”? That’s a bit embarrassing. I’d like to distract by drawing a parallel to Carson’s poetry… I find it difficult, clever, beyond my reach but I keep trying. Well while true, that’s not an explanation of the choice that will convince anyone.

Actually I find a lot of these books difficult. All the reading was done over a four week period, 30 November to 27 December last year. Only a few are finished – Gormley, Brody, de Botton. Most of the rest are still in rotation.


I started this post weeks ago, trying to sort out the … connections? resonances? overarching themes? … in the various books. Poetry and the poetic. In Hobart in January, a couple of nights before the first gathering of the Intensive Creative Research class, I made a little form in wire (it was later modified to become the quivering Dido). I was thinking of the flickering movement as we fight for balance, but in my notes that day thought the model too literal. When I showed the form in class, Ruth called it “poetic”, and I had no idea what that meant. It’s only while writing now that I’ve identified that link in my reading – I’m trying to understand “poetic”. That’s not where I thought this post was going to go. It now seems blindingly obvious and an almost banal conclusion – apart from anything else, there are two volumes of poetry and another subtitled “How great poems transform the world”. Curious.

This matching is step one in my little game. There’s more to come.

Words of Guidance

A friend chooses a word each year as kind of touchstone. It’s quite an open/generative thing, a guide or perhaps a reminder – I think a positive way to approach the new year rather than specific resolutions.

Mine is “exploring”. I wanted a verb, active, with flavours of curiosity, openness, movement, learning, paying attention to what is around me.

We were at the MCA, and while exploring (!) I found a wonderful avatar, one figure in Guan Wei’s huge Feng Shui:

Guan Wei
Feng Shui (detail)

That’s me exploring – chin up, eye alert, the hair used to have some ginger (the first to go grey), happily dog-paddling.

Other choices among the group were lightheartedness, joy, delight, dare and active.

Want to play along?

Gallery tours, talks, and wanderings

Today a quick memory jogger, rather than a gentle meander.

Rizzeria in the Kaldor Studio at AGNSW. The Rizzeria is “a Sydney based collective of self-publishers and printmakers with a Risograph stencil press that they make available for public use through open-print sessions”. Kaldor Studio is “a dynamic artist-led learning space, providing opportunities to interact and explore contemporary art practice through 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects”. Making art public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects is on at AGNSW until mid February. It’s a survey of “the rich history of Kaldor Public Art Projects using artworks, archival materials and reconstructions of past projects”.

Documentation of Tatzu Nishi War and Peace and in between project

To me the vitality of the Studio is a very clever inclusion to an exhibition which otherwise I find static and unappealing. Each past project is isolated in its own private white cubicle. I experienced some of the actual projects (see for example 13-Apr-2013 when I posted about my experience of the 13 Rooms exhibition). I remember walking into Tatzu Nishi’s project with my mother in 2009 or 2010 – in fact we quite often remind each other of it when walking up to AGNSW. The archival remnants now on exhibit felt sad and dusty – almost inevitable given the comparison to both the original event and our shared memories of the experience.

I booked into a demonstration of the Riso machine in the Studio. Good to know of the possibilities and availability of the Riso machine, for potential future projects. Also rather nice that I arrived early and had some unexpected time to wander, leading to…

Japan Supernatural. This is on until early March. I’d already been on a formal members only tour of the exhibition. I tend to avoid tours, wanting to go at my own pace, thinking my own thoughts, spending time with the works that particularly attract me. Time for a rethink, assuming I have time for both tour and solo. Having some extra context and familiarity allowed a more thoughtful second visit.

Tsukioka Yashitoshi

Above is a woodblock print from 1859, part of a triptych now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (side-note – no such thing as a quick post. I just spent more than a few happy moments searching for more information on their website. For this work click here).

Every culture has its stories, its demons. More wandering that day led to the survey exhibition Quilty.

Ben Quilty
The Last Supper 2017

This dark dream is a response to the election of Donald Trump. I struggle with this exhibition. One enormous canvas after another, full of emotion and outrage, visceral in subject matter and materiality… Turning away doesn’t seem an option, nor does simply standing witness, nor shouting into the wind. Escaping into a world of ideas and aesthetics, focusing on the minutia of living daily life “well” seems woefully inadequate to the times. And yet in one sense more real.

A different day, a different gallery tour, this time at the MCA, again with time to wander before the main event.

Primavera 2019: Young Australian Artists. This is the 28th edition of the Primavera series, which showcases young Australian artists.

Coen Young
mirror painting

An addition to my collection of non-selfie photos. This is me, reflected in one of Coen Young’s mirror paintings, which aim to dissolve the space between the artwork and the audience, shifting between abstraction and representation. The signage included “As reflective surfaces, Young’s paintings are both dependent upon, and a negation of the image. They refer to the history of the ‘monochrome’: a moment within the history of painting in which all pictorial content was reduced to a single field of colour.” Given my tendency to take things literally, the poor framing resulted from my determination to include the bright orange of my bag.

Aodhan Madden
Soluble Rectangles series

More puzzles for me. There are elements of comic books, of instructions, of a very conscious use of words and language in Aodhan Madden’s work – a series of drawings, plus an audio installation. The audio was a series of exercises and like learning a language. Plain english text was altered according to a series of rules, shifting vowel sounds, changing emphasis on syllables – all apparently intended to enhance communication on an emotional plane. For example “To express fright in the confusion between the transparent and the lucid”, one can “shift all long vowels to short vowels, and move all short vowels one higher position towards the front.” Even with printed instructions including “before” and “after” text, plus the carefully enunciated audio, I had no idea what was going on. Is that the point? A break down of language and communication?

Guan Wei: MCA Collection Two finger exercise includes 48 pictures – all with plump figures using the two fingered V sign associated with the pro-democracy movement. Apparently on the back of each is a short poetic text in Mandarin. A leaflet of english translations was available – so in this instance, language enhancing communication. Plus a link to earlier in this post, as a response to contemporary politics.

Guan Wei
Two-finger exercise no 21

Why are they hiding in there?
I’m not afraid. Giving the V-sign,
I’m prepared to face wind
and rain.

Guan Wei
Two-finger exercise no 23

How am I doing? How’s my
technique? I want to get this
position perfect!

And finally it was time for the most exciting of the recent tours – a Behind-the-scenes installer tour of the Cornelia Parker exhibition.
This was fascinating. Mark Brown, Installation & AV Manager at the MCA, took us through the exhibition, focusing on the four major multi-element installations. Many months of detailed discussion and planning including the use of 3D software to meticulously check spacing funneled into the controlled frenzy of a three-week installation period. For Subconscious of a Monument, thousands of lumps of excavated earth were carefully taken from trays, threaded one by one onto wires, and hung. Teams rotated frequently, and needed every minute of the available time. The silverware in Thirty Pieces of Silver had to be polished before it was hung. The team working on that piece used the original templates but developed new techniques to make the hanging process more efficient – all of course with ongoing dialogue with the artist and her team during both planning and installation. Some of the smaller elements of Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View were pre-threaded, but more had to be done on-site. Once she was satisfied with the process and approach of the installation team, Parker allowed them a lot of freedom in the detail of placement of elements.

There was discussion of lighting – very specific to the needs of each work, and often quite different to previous iterations of hanging the works given the windowless gallery spaces. Wires varied by work – for example reflective silver colour for Thirty Pieces of Silver, and an earthy rust for Subconscious of a Monument. Then there were the gossipy snippets, such as the the height of the “pools” of silverware in Thirty Pieces of Silver – not at all by coincidence, the height of a UK roll of toilet paper (rolls being used as supports during hanging of the original work). All of the MCA installation team – the small permanent group, the extended pool brought in as required – are artists themselves, providing a level of understanding not just of the importance of every detail for the artwork but also of the perspective of the artist herself and the experience of exhibiting.

Apparently somewhere there is time-lapse video of the installation process. I’ve searched the MCA website without result. If anyone comes across it, please let me know in the comments – I think it would be fascinating!

Incomplete fragments

“To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations”

The quote above is from Emily Dickinson. Or so a number of results from a duckduckgo search tell me. It heads an essay by Mary Ruefle, Lectures I will never give, which appears to be a transcript of a lecture she gave. It seems she didn’t want to be speaking in the lecture hall, and she didn’t want the students to be sitting there listening to her – she thought it would be better if they were all in their own rooms, writing.

Angry and sad, caught for whatever reasons in an unsatisfactory situation, Ruefle sifted through old files “in an effort to accumulate debris” and “came across a few untethered pieces of paper that intrigued” her. The undigested conglomerate of disparate material became the un-lecture. Magical properties in the bezoar?

I haven’t posted much lately, which means a gap in my memory bank. So this is my hairball, presented in an attempt at Ruefle’s structure.

I read Mary Ruefle’s lecture essay in the final days of the Intensive Creative Research program with Ruth Hadlow. Eight of us including Ruth, four sessions each of three days, spread over eight months. Sitting in a circle, or at our tables. Attentively speaking, reading, listening, writing. It kept getting better, we kept getting better, each session. Ruth teaches a process, a model of practice. There are lots of glimpses of it throughout this blog, hints and fragments, or at least of my attempts to live the process. I’m reminded of a performance lecture at AGNSW by Padma Menon – “Exploring Indian classical dance and Hindu-Buddhist sculpture”. As I understand it, Padma’s words, her performance, could only ever point to the philosophy, the approach, the belief, of Bhakthi. Actual personal experience is a key element. I hope I’m not being disrespectful in this comparison, but there seems to be a parallel. Anything I could write about specifics taught by Ruth, and I have copious notes I’m trying to get into some semblance of order, could only point to, only be a shadow of, the doing.

While in Hobart I visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Julie Gough
Head Count

The major temporary exhibition was from Julie Gough – Tense Past (link). Julie Gough is a Tasmanian Aboriginal artist. I’m not certain of the lessons when I was in primary school in the 1960s – it may still have been a story of complete, utter, and deliberate annihilation of the indigenous people on the island. Not true, but “The Truth” (as if there can every be such a singular thing) is still a dark tale.

Research of this colonial history and the impact of colonisation on Tasmania’s first people is the focus of Gough’s work. She reworks, reconsiders, text from the archives, complex histories, from her perspective, rather than the original colonial perspective of the material. She reads between the lines to show what she thinks is actually happening. The exhibition included works of sculpture, sound and video installations made over a period of more than 20 years, brought together in a conversation. Gough states “you can learn more. Nothing is fixed, frozen or definitive.” We – especially in this context Tasmanians, but all Australians – all have the capacity and responsibility to learn, to try to understand, to work together to face the past in order to move on to a different future.

Ideas around conversation, communication, perhaps miscommunication, recur through the exhibition. There was a constant murmur of voice from the various videos. Text was formed by shadows, stitch, burning… Repetition and reuse of imagery, found objections and borrowings from museum collections, made connections through the space, time, and the ideas.

Also on view was Extinction Studies, a performance by Lucienne Rickard that will continue over twelve months.

Lucienne Rickard
Extinction Studies

Rickard draws recently extinct species… and then erases them. It makes a very powerful as well as beautiful statement – after just a few weeks she had shown over a dozen species, judging from a penciled list at the side. Unfortunately the artist wasn’t there at the time I visited.

Relating it back to my own current explorations, it’s an effective way to move between analytical and material modes. There’s the abstraction of a list, the material representation of the drawing, and then the action, the creation of a visible memory, the making apparent and present the abstract but very real loss.

Anita Larkin tutored a (long) one day workshop “Making Sculptures from Found Objects” for Basketry NSW. Lots of skills, methods, products (the wonders of a lively mind in a hardware store). Unfortunately I was very low on energy, plus felt quite distant from the found materials I’d brought, so no work of mine to show. However, a couple of shots of others’ outcomes, taken from the Basketry facebook page.

The Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (link)… There’s so much to say about this exhibition that it seems impossible to begin.

There are fragments. In the case of Subconscious of a Monument, earth excavated from underneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa, suspended and filling a gallery space to a common level. Then add lighting, most spectacular in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. With something that has worked, keep returning, finding new angles, new life, as in Thirty Pieces of Silver. There’s the original form, then photogravure etchings, then a tapestry… The initial strategy of removing and then adding volume is repeated as well. Then there is intense focus on materiality and what is left behind – black laquer residue from cutting records, curls of silver from engraving, deflated balloons. There is violence, actual and implied, mostly with a cartoonish edge. There is wit and cleverness and curiousity and clearly the most amazing ability to engage with people and enthuse them to work with her.

It was in a lecture on Rodin that I first learnt the idea of a “complete fragment”. In a brief recent visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia I had the opportunity to see multiple examples of Rodin’s work. In fact there seemed to be a Rodin in most of the galleries, all supporting themes being explored by the curators. I’ve written about AGSA before (5-May-2013), and the way different objects are juxtaposed to reveal unexpected connections. That visit I was particularly taken by the conversation between The Bowmore Artemis (c. 180 AD) and Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009). Both works are still in the same gallery, but have been moved around and other objects added and removed – breaking that link, it seems to me.

The first “complete fragment” I found was Flying Figure in a space exploring ‘the marvellous’, and was actually on a “waterfall wall” of works which “point to concepts of movement yet appear frozen, like fragments of time”. Signage also referred to Rodin’s belief that a fragment “can convey the complete sensation of motion”.

From memory this next work, The Inner Voice, was in an adjoining gallery, and I didn’t record the theme. Quoting again from the signage: “Rather than pursuing anatomical correctness or finish, Rodin was instead interested in the expressive qualities of form. Here he has distorted the female figure to explore themes of isolation, vulnerability and introspection. The laterally leaning upper body with its head resting on the right shoulder established the beginning of a tranquil, curving rhythm that flows throughout the entire sculpture. Such articulation would have been compromised, for example, by the inclusion of arms and the left knee.”

In a third gallery, sharing space with The Bowmore Artemis and Buck with cigar, was a The Walking Man, study for the torso. Dated 1878, cast in 1979, it was in a cabinet with another torso of similar size, carved in stone in 1931. From my reading (Albert Elsen seems to be the “go to” man), The walking man is a key example of the “complete fragment” philosophy. Head and arms are not included, not required, to convey the movement being explored. It is particularly interesting to see what is effectively a fragment of a complete fragment. It still manages to be full of life, energy, and movement.

In his book Rodin, Elsen claims the truncation was not a simple whim, not indiscriminate. “By reducing the body in this way, Rodin established a new authority of the artist over what had heretofore been considered the sanctity of the human form and the completeness of its external appearance, and gave sculpture a new integrity which … was to influence cubist sculpture. He may have intended to show the body as marvelous and mysterious in every part and at the same time force the viewer’s attention to the sculpture’s execution.” Also
“… what he was doing here with the figure was a precedent for the arbitrary proportioning of parts of the body for aesthetic and expressive reasons… a precedent for establishing criteria and completeness that were based upon the fragment’s self-sufficient expressiveness and the sculpture’s ability to be further curtailed without loss of its potency.” Elsen noted care taken in the carving away of sections, a continuing respect for the integrity of the body. Thinking of this while in the gallery, I was convinced by Elsen’s argument.

More recently, I’ve been reading On Sculpture by Antony Gormley. He points out that a sculpture is “a still, silent object”. Instead of seeing Rodin as offering a new beginning, Gormley states “I admire Rodin, but … we have to ask what he had to do in order to make gesture acceptable. He had to accept the object nature of the work and cut off body parts quite violently… he had to allow it to become an object and wound it, cut it and destroy it”. Gormley claims “a whole trajectory of Western sculpture ends with Rodin” and concludes “Represented movement is a stupid idea for sculpture”. I think there is a deliberate bluntness, even clumsiness, in this sentence.

It seems clear to me that the two sculptors have different goals. Rodin is expressing a movement or emotion, or exploring aesthetically. Gormley is interested in reflexivity, where the viewer becomes aware of their own movement, their own breath, when moving around or through Gormley’s sculptures and installations. Each approach has, in its own way, a kind of spareness, terseness. Just enough, and no more, to achieve objectives. Space – physical, mental, spiritual? – that the viewer must complete. Working at a very different level, this makes me question my recent investigations into “unbalance” – working with mobiles (which of course are actually very carefully balanced), and photographs of piles of crockery about to topple over. I was looking to create sensation in a potential viewer – a catch of breath, perhaps a flicker of foreboding – but it was all very literal. Fulsome. I need to find other ways.

Still at AGSA, some other works that caught my eye.

Hauntingly beautiful work on the wall by Hossein Valamanesh.

It’s made of lotus leaves on gauze, and synthetic polymer paint. The shadow figure writing is a verse by Rumi (1207 – 1273):
I tear my shirt with every breath for the extent of ecstasy and joy of being in love; now he has become all my being, and I am only a shirt.

More fragments in a gallery space filled by Chiharu Shiota – Absence Embodied.

And finally a selfie – this time a reflection – with Lindy Lee, The Life Of Stars.

Lindy Lee
The Life Of Stars

Mary Ruefle does eventually bring herself to give specific advice if you want to be a writer.
When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.
And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.

And as for time for other occupations (the Dickinson quote), my years employed as a data analyst have come to somewhat abrupt end, and thus somewhat startled, I am entering into a full-time creative life. If the voice in this post seems rather uneven, it’s because it has been written over a number of weeks while I’m finding my feet.

Finally a maxim from Pitigrilli, quoted by Umberto Eco in “Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism”:
Fragments: a fortunate excuse for writers who cannot put a whole book together.

Red warp coat

Back in 2013 I had a “window of time” and dressed the big loom with a red warp – 8-Mar-2013. The window proved narrow and the warp languished…

… for 6 and a half years.

Finally this September I finished weaving every last centimetre I could get from it. Beautiful luscious fuzziness.

And this week I finished sewing it into a coat. Very nearly every centimetre of fabric. Now a shorter and less patient pause while I wait for the right weather.

Work made visible: Reading

There’s already a lot of material on attentive reading on this blog. Rather than repeating that, this post focuses on my attempts to make the work of reading visible.

Step 1: Generate some data
Daily tracking of reading in a spreadsheet, including a notation of whether the essay/book was completed, set aside, or the reading is ongoing.

Step 2: Data analysis
This data could be used to create some metrics and charts. From late May to mid October I started reading 52 works, and completed 30 (58%), the others being ongoing or set aside. Eighteen (35%) I spent only a day or two with. The longest reading effort was 33 days spent with Agnes Martin (edited by Lynne Cooke – see link) – a wonderful way to start the day.

But why get lost in numbers when the original tracking sheet is so striking?

Step 3: Material transformation

Reading Light Chart

Step 4: Push it further
Layers of transformation, combining with the glyph for light/shadow/reflection.

Reading light and shadow

Postscript: After my post on Note-taking (15-Oct-2019) Claire of TactualTextiles reminded me that we were encouraged to use skim reading during our degree-level courses with the Open College of the Arts. Pretty much the extreme opposite of attentive reading. Why?

I think there’s a fundamental difference in approach. OCA wanted demonstrated learning in the form of an essay, or a clear input to a planned and executed output. Jump in, get what you need, jump out and on to the next requirement. In Ruth Hadlow’s model of practice, you need to be clear about where you’re starting – the terrain of investigation, points of reference, what is attracting your attention. Then you explore, discover where it takes you. How can you discover new possibilities if you’re not being attentive? That’s the journey I want to take in my reading – finding new ideas, making new connections, asking “what if…”.

Articulation of Practice: Note-taking

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is a compulsive habit.

I carry a note-book everywhere and jot down thoughts, observations, questions, appointments… I wasn’t one of those first year uni students who wrote down “good morning” when the lecturer began, but I wasn’t far from it. I write down points from others. I write down points I want to make when others finish speaking. I doodle and sketch and diagram and outline. I work things out. I think.

When I’m having trouble explaining something I reach for pen and paper. A time axis, some labels, arrows, scribbling through, vigorously underlining – and communication.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is an integral component in all elements of practice.

Ruth Hadlow teaches that Practice is Thinking: Reading + Writing + Making + Lived Experience; and uses those words in the most broad and inclusive way. With a computer science background and taking care to shift from noun to active verb I translate to Input-ing + Process-ing + Output-ing + Context/Environment(-ing?).

Input-ing: I’ve heard it said that we generally don’t read word by word, but don’t have further information on that and a quick websearch suggests it’s complicated. There’s certainly skim reading, flicking through and hoping to chance on what you need. There’s also speed reading – again, out of my experience; but I’ve never liked the idea of racing through. Ruth teaches attentive reading. Enjoy the language; observe the structure; be aware of the poetic techniques of adding layers of meaning. You don’t need to read all of every book, but be attentive to all that you do read.

Taking notes – dot points, diagrams, even literal illustrations – helps, as a reminder and also simply as a way to slow down. To maintain focus. Reading aloud, reading while pacing, reading one cup of tea at a time all help too 🙂

Output-ing: Note-taking as writing might seem obvious, but this is writing as a way of having a conversation with oneself. A way of thinking through ideas. In my interpretation writing can also stand with one foot in “Making”. My Morning List (1-Aug-2019) was a writing experiment that started with note-taking as ideas collection, was founded in Reading of Georges Perec, and that documented my morning schedule that includes a focused hour of Reading (including, naturally, some noting).

Most of my Making takes place off the page, but note-taking captures ideas – a resource for the future. It also works in plan development.

In practice, note-taking moves quickly from one element of practice to another. How quickly? The page on the left shows initial thoughts for a data visualisation to explore just that. A bar chart showing the proportions of note-book pages – different colours for times of reading, thinking, capturing ideas, planning making, daydreaming, …

… and resulted in making.

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What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking creates notebooks. It builds a store of information.

Again, that might seem obvious. I’m continuing to build the spiral bound books mentioned last year (28-Jul-2018). Such a small, simple, thing – but it gives flexibility and allows me to keep information from multiple sources in a single, chronological store.

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As well as new Reading, my morning routine includes reviewing notes – the previous day, and a dive into earlier pages, last month or last year (using a random number generator to select a page 🙂 ). It helps me make connections, add layers of understanding, strengthen learning.

How to access this store methodically, not just at random? Often I have a visual memory of a page, say a particular diagram, but no idea of when it was written. I have a record of books and essays read (a topic for another day), which might give a rough date. Not satisfying.

But I was already photographing the pages regularly for the bar chart, and that photographic resource created another spiral note-book – a visual index. So if I want to review the peculiar feather-duster that accompanied thinking about philosophy and “truth”, it’s relatively quick to find.

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What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking traces threads and exposes slippage.

I wanted more value from my notes, from the index. I wanted to squeeze every drop. What if I needed to find information related to a particular theme or terrain of investigation, rather than a single particular page?

Over time I have developed a series of “glyphs”, extended as new areas of interest become apparent.

Glyphs are added as I write or review pages. If I want to collate material relevant to the terrain of memory, for example, I scan the index for its glyph – ∞. It provides a level of flexible access to the paper-based records – something I sorely miss moving from digital storage. A means to identify and track currents of investigation.

Coding glyphs as I go is another way of slowing down, of pausing to think about what I am writing, what it could mean. I become more attentive.

Glyphs have also proved a rich source of slippage. Wanting – needing – to keep the number of glyphs (my glyph-abary?) fairly small, I’ve overloaded them with “related” concepts. For example ∞ can also refer to time. Or history. Or the past. It’s not yet been tried in practice, but I’m hoping for some surprising combinations of concepts, some unexpected connections.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is a generative field underpinning further transformations.

Development of the glyphs has broken open new possibilities, helping me make sideways steps and transformations away from the original material.

A personal language is building, a set of shapes that I can deploy. For example, a photo of a crockery tower (11-Aug-2019), combined with the glyph for unbalance/uncertain, some blurring, layering, masking and cropping, gives:

Something I find quite dynamic and interesting, with layers of meaning.

Having the glyphs also gives me something easy to count. My data visualisation background could spring into action, as it did with That Dreadful Man. Instead, a transformation using a different set of skills.

Two weeks of notebook pages

Basketry. Each glyph was assigned a colour of cottolin thread – a mid blue for “process”, the most frequently used glyph (after all, articulating, documenting and visualising the processes of practice has been my major terrain of investigation). The bright yellow is “mark/gesture” – not much used in the period shown. Mauve was used to mark the end of each page. A core of rope was wound in colours, based on the glyphs recorded on each page. This is a visual representation of my note-taking, just as much as the earlier chart.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Would there be a practice, without note-taking?

This post is part of a loose series. A major focus this year has been developing a creative art practice that sustains me and which I can sustain. It’s all part of the Intensive Creative Research Program I’ve been doing with Ruth Hadlow. As part of thinking about and experimenting with aspects of practice, I’ve been trying to make the work of practice visible.

The Tale of That Dreadful Man (27-Sep-2019) gave an extreme example of my efforts to read attentively. The original essay also also provided the repeated question | multiple response format I have used above.

Morning List (1-Aug-2019) articulated the time schedule that carves out a guaranteed hour of creative practice each day. The list form was inspired by Georges Perec.

Not part of the series but highly relevant are my notes from a previous Articulating Practice workshop with Ruth (25-Feb-2016).

Attentive Looking. Louise Bourgeois: Arched Figure

All the time in the world.

Slow down. Pay attention. You have all the time in the world.

I say it to myself. I write it in my journal. Again and again. And just at the moment, it’s working for me.

Of course it’s not true. Which doesn’t bother me because (a) at the moment I don’t believe in “true” as more than an unrealisable, unreconcilable, abstract concept, a simplification ignoring multiple perspectives in a complex world; and more importantly just now (b) if I act as if it’s true interesting things happen.

In the Creative Research program Ruth Hadlow has been teaching us to be attentive. Read a book or essay one chapter, one page, one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Engage. Unpack. Think about what’s being said, how it’s being said, what it is about the work that is interesting you, what your own response is, what is happening between you and the work, how your life experience meets it, how it could extend or change your ideas, your practice. Note the slippage in what I just wrote. The “book or essay” has become a “work” – which could be text, or any type of art work, or an event of almost any kind. A number of us in the class have been facing different life challenges, and we spent time discussing strategies, how to do what we need to do, meet obligations, manage constraints and desires, be responsive and responsible and caring, all within a framework of practice that is sustaining and sustainable.

Easy, right? That’s why they call it “practice” – no end point???

Louise Bourgeois
Arched Figure
1993, cast 2010
bronze, fabric, wood and metal

This work can be seen for another week or two in Here we are at AGNSW. This exhibition “features new acquisitions for the Gallery’s collection by some of the most compelling women artists at work today. Focusing upon figuration and portraiture, their works present human relationships in all their intricacy, pathos and power.” (from the gallery website).

My purpose here is more practice in attentive looking. Careful looking, and for my own purposes, watching my own reactions, my own thoughts.

The work is in the centre of a fairly large gallery, and dominates. I’ve seen it previously, in a much smaller, more intimate area as part of Nude: art from the Tate collection, accompanied by a series of gouache drawings, and included in a section titled “The vulnerable body”. In this larger space that vulnerability has dissipated. I feel less carer or protector, more voyeur. Indeed the body is almost brutally displayed, immediately visible to those travelling down on the nearby escalator. It’s almost like a butcher’s window display. On one visit to the work my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden thump and flurry. Another visitor had tripped on the low plinth and almost joined the tableau, but quickly recovered and continued videoing on his mobile phone, with a quick glance around for more targets, a cruise past two wall works, and on out the entryway.

Am I looking at a spasm of agony, or is it ecstasy? The body is a lean male, and while I first accepted it without question, the longer I look the more it seems unsettlingly mis-proportioned. Just slightly wrong. And the bronze has an unhealthy greenish mottling under the polish.

There is no head, no arms. The contorted arch of the spine, the toes clenching or stretched as the muscles writhe and jerk, express everything. A lecture by Michael Hill on “Rodin’s abject and fragmented bodies” earlier this year introduced me to the idea of the “complete fragment” – just the phrase I find haunting. From Albert Elsen’s book Rodin: “By substituting the test of esthetic and expressive validity for the conventional ideal of completeness, Rodin opened important avenues for the equivalence of form and meaning, through which the modern sculptor could make the human body correspond more completely to his own thought and feeling.” (This may seem to step away from my own attentive looking, but the call to my own recent musing and research is part of the attraction of the work for me). In a physical extreme, the intellect, the head, is not needed. No voice is needed.

The contortion, the muscles in spasm, could be agony or ecstasy. Are we always sure of a difference? Back to Elsen, quoting Rodin’s comments on Michelangelo: “All his statues are so constrained by agony that they seem to wish to break themselves. They all seem ready to succumb to the pressure of despair which fills them.” A veneer of knowledge of Bourgeois’ biography and obsessions suggests agony as a reasonable reading of the work.

One of the readings in the Creative Research program was John Berger’s essay A Story for Aesop, particularly for the example of attentive looking in practice. Berger extrapolates a meandering narrative from his viewing of Velázquez’s painting. Even a generous photo on the Museo del Prado website doesn’t support me in following Berger’s thread. Still, the point of this is not to be “right”. It’s to be engaged. To think. To react. To expand and deepen…

So following my own thoughts, I consider the blanket-covered mattress. It reminds me of the beautiful woollen onkaparinga blankets we used to have (I know mum still uses her’s). The domestic clashes with the crucified (?) figure – that arch of the spine recalls so many crucifixes. An arch, a bridge going nowhere, connecting nothing, a frenzy of denial. And in an awkward segue I must admit my own denial, rejection – of the intense emotion I see, of the role of voyeur, of the exploitation of biography for art.

The Cautionary Tale of That Dreadful Man

There was an essay to read for the Creative Research group, a curator’s essay about an artist.

I couldn’t read it.

I started. I re-started. The first paragraph was mostly the artist’s words, a broad setting of the stage. Good. The second paragraph – I have no words. It had too many words. Strangely leaden, clumsy, repetitious words, desanguinated words, the life and meaning sucked from them.

Starting at the third paragraph didn’t help. The theme was dismemberment, and the writer performed his subject with a bloody pile of random buzz words, and disjoint references to other critics, other artists, other works.

The Creative Research group demurred. Yes, the writing was awkward, but the structure worth examining, the artist of considerable interest.

My creative life is limited, I declared. I can get better value elsewhere, better information without hand to hand combat with an incoherent foe. Too much of life has already been drained by pompous, arrogant, narcissistic, hollow, self-proclaimed authorities.

Finally I relented. That Dreadful Man was back in the to-be-read pile. At the end, beyond the cliff-edge of my life, never to be seen again. There was some discomfort. Declaiming with such vigour is suspicious – she doth protest too much. Something I could live with…

until the fates intervened. My day job faltered, the green fields of a Creative Life expanded, the cliff-edge retreated.

The curator, That Dreadful Man (TDM), re-appeared. Smirking.

Better get it done and gone. But I still couldn’t read it.

What exactly was the problem?

The writing was choppy, not flowing. In the unusual structure there was deliberate repetition with jarring variation. The writer was creating paradox, the unexpected, unconventional use of terms – clashing with the artist’s own deployment of those techniques, and looking even more contrived and weak by comparison. So much of the essay was not actually his words. It was a clumsy stringing together of other people’s ideas, like a cheesy clip show on TV.

Time to be specific. Generate a table of data, some numbers to quantify the disaster.

But that doesn’t take into account TDM’s words, only the insertions. Perhaps a visualisation of the types of words counted on 2 pages.

But that doesn’t suggest the fragmented character of the writing.

Using the same two pages, a count of the different categories of segments – a word or words of the same type, before they are interrupted by different categories. This time a treemap to show part-to-whole.

If this was an interactive dashboard you could drill down to see the individual snatches of phrases and references that make up the treemap. Would that help?

Perhaps the issue is around the words TDM selects. A somewhat subjective count of major word groups used gave a word cloud.

I still didn’t have an insight into the reason, or reasons, for my difficulties.

Perhaps a deeper dive into the text. How are the words used together? Those same two pages, only TDM’s words, and excluding words of three letters or less, gives:

libidinal economy, desire elliptical. That strategy. Some anti-Oedipal: they could what call, their function being . break object dismember plate convert regime desiring machine. establishes short-circuit canon virtuoso . aura object confronts social dysfunction.
lists some principles economy implies. places viewer game lack completeness, dismemberment cohesion. Minimalist economy resounds here. organization merely compositional economic. organizes whole tense confrontation with atomistic perception. resisting pulverization, effort against entropy.
belongs family androgyny. quotes lines from : says. acknowledges that identity relates . object androgyny . observed that constituting home, work with Iceland, searching. points political ethos androgyny . argues that language compounds identity, that shifters, like, ungendered.
geometry. appreciates geometry that there imperceptible, like Arctic Circle like geometry finds poetry. twenty-five blocks showing twenty-five letters remark. works , remarks.
Among, assigns continuous, baroque movement clown realm angular geometry. initial dispersion parts cut-up geometry, approaches pulverization seen lithograph . After disintegration, however, seek cohesion.
there poetry? quotes lines. Therefore, witchcraft.
syntax, quite grammar.
book production, become. syntax involves orderly system things dismembered, destabilized, defrosted. requalifies form properties visual language. demands into planes reassembled, sometimes even conflated with parts particles another plate. diagram infinite grammatical sentences discussed. mediated relationship language – doubling, pairing, conjugation, editing, including memories. observes that require syntactic completion. compound smaller larger than original plate. stands fact discipline, says .
cognitive activity, invention syntax – would. makes analogy between scrambling syntax Cubist painting. operates rational scrambling

Another approach could keep the layout of TDM’s page. Just one page this time.

Beginning to run out of ideas, I amused myself with a mesostic of That Dreadful Man.

None of these techniques were as effective in showing the source of my difficulties as a simple photograph of those two pages, coloured and marked as I worked and re-worked to understand the issues – not those explored by TDM, but the underlying cause/s of the unreadability.

All of this, and I still hadn’t read the essay.

TDM would not defeat me. I would read every single word, give weight to every word in the essay.

I knit it. Garter stitch, three stitches per word. Time and reading embodied in knitting.

The base thread is undyed tussah silk ribbon. Colour coded with strips of torn fabric to match the markup developed. Pretty much all my hand-dyes, a mix of tissue, paj and organza silk. Roughly 20 x 143 cm, although it will stretch thinner and longer. Scarf sized, it looks superficially useful but try it on and the tufts are just an irritation. A fitting description for the essay and the whole project really.

Seventeen days of active work, spread over a month. More time than I spend on most books. I feel there should be some moral to this Cautionary Tale. Beware of smirking, performing, “experts”. Trust your first instincts. But in the end, most annoyingly, I found the material interesting. This is an artist, these are themes, that resonate. The essay structure opens up questions and breaks down assumptions.

It was worth reading.


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April 2021

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