The puzzle of representing the problem

Patrick Pound


How to represent the problem. (Catch me, I’m falling)

When art wants to rub up against the world, there’s always a choice to be made of how to go about depicting the problem and making trouble for it. Artists often set to thinking through making, with the work becoming a remnant of that process, a remnant saturated with ideas.

Artists and curators like to set up camp at the fork in the road. From climate change to change management; from close encounters with colonialism to the rethinking of identity; from the material nature of things to the internet of ideas and the visualising of information – artists take on the task of sophisticating what is, as yet, largely undecided. They take soundings. They tend to lean towards making sense of things, or towards making the everyday mysterious, the banal poetic, and even finding a place of resistance and an aesthetic niche in the archive while swimming through the rising tides of information. Artists often stand defiant (if a little dumbfounded) in the face of change. Some like to answer back and to offer alternatives. Their works, in turn, become remnants to be read by others.

The curators of The National 2019: New Australian Art have assembled and commissioned telling artworks that encapsulate and reflect the times. Isobel Parker Philip told me that her particular take directly sought to open the idea of the artwork as a remnant of our present, seemingly precarious time. These works, then, might somehow or other represent, replicate, recall or stand in for our precarious moment, or its shell. She spoke of the Australian invention, the black box, which records the last moments before disaster strikes. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) exhibition and its works are then the black boxes of art-making. These soundings echo throughout all three exhibition sites. Sounds good to me. A little bleak perhaps, but there’s poetry to be had in the land of the melancholy and in its marvellous follies.

Taking a reading from a thing. Telling shapes and the shape of telling: the remnant as a resounding record is a driving force in museums of all kinds

The historian Steven Conn describes an 1894 encounter between a journalist and a museum curator, one Frank Hamilton Cushing, wherein Cushing speaks, in a way that has a patina of condescension that today might make us blush, to the afterlife of things and how they can be found and made to hold and express ideas. Cushing, a 19th-century ethnographer, extrapolates from a single Missouri clay bowl as if Sherlock Holmes had taken hold of him and that pot:

We can learn from this bowl more than the maker knew himself. We conclude that this Missouri people came from some forest country where the crested wood duck was common. This handle is the conventionalised head of that bird. This pattern was originally carved from wood, or made from a gourd. The shape tells that. It was made in a part of the country where the wood was good for carving, and there was not fit bark for making vessels, probably therefore from the north-east. Thus the maker of the clay bowl kept the same pattern long after he perhaps knew why he put the head of a wood duck for a handle. (1)

Parker Philip and the artists presented at the AGNSW are working like a postcolonial Cushing in reverse gear. Unlike the bowl in the hands of the interpreter run amok, as commissions and contemporary works are made with more of a ‘mutual understanding’, these remnants and their makers are allowed to speak for themselves. Parker Philip lays out a panoply of artworks that seem to have been deliberately made to encapsulate the tales of their production and their reason for being. But more than this, these works are deliberately devised and staged as rubbings of the times that produced them. They reflect and project our uncertain present, and their artists’ observations, as if on a dare. The artists here variously, and elegantly, align with this method and this reading as the suppliers of remnant reliquary objects and experiences. While I hesitate to overly instrumentalise their work, for the sake of the frame, let’s let this run for now. The aim here, it seems to me, is not simply to romanticise the fossil record – although this appeal to the sublime appears to be a common thread – but, instead, to take a rubbing of the present. A rubbing that might be quietly telling. This exhibition is, after all, meant to be a survey of the present landscape, of The National state of play.

Let’s avoid the anthem. Artists always have a range of options, approaches and functions. They inevitably reflect the world and reflect on it. They often can be seen to mix the two. I remember Lucy Lippard saying that art can’t change the world but it can be a part of the changing world. It’s pretty flexible, this art thing. It needs to be. The works put before us here are indexical and reflective. They stand as remnant responses. These artists have taken their soundings. The works are then assembled for an artful relay. They are, in effect, an echo chamber and an MRI scan, and a mirror just back from a walk.

I think of the methods of verbatim theatre and of collage, where the overheard and the collected scrap stands in for the whole as an expressive device. We all remember that Picasso painting where the cane sits in for the chair. Here the photograph and the painting, the installation and the video take on the task of sampling our surroundings. Despite these calls to authority and the integrity of experience, via the indexical and the evidentiary, there is also a rather romantic cast to so much of this. The exhibition and its framing documents offer a romantic portrayal in recounting the wash-up. There is, in all this, a poetic overtone. The battlefield can do that to you. Funerary monuments prefer the attractive corpse and elegant drapery set in stone. Beauty is often dreadful.

There are, of course, those who are not true believers in the contemporary mores of art or in the relics of contemporaneity, let alone in the romance of the remnant. Not everyone is on board. Not everyone is looking for black boxes in the white cube. For some, affect is not effective. For some, artists are not the best spokespeople. Some even think art should mind its own business. Being deeply sentimental, I’m all for the black box in the white cube.

Ekphrasis: Comparing pictures and texts in times of trouble

Art has a liking for troubled times. It takes a shine to them. So too does the description of art and art- making. Parker Philip’s idea of the black box recording of art reminds me of a pair of literary copies of the world that are also limit cases of the type, in that they attempt to replicate the world as much as describe it. They, too, stem from (differently) troubled times. Like our works of art, they are both of the world and reflective of the world in extremis.

Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad is base camp for the word picture writ large, known as ekphrasis. There we find the ‘Description of the Shield of Achilles, Divided into its Several Parts’. As Alexander Pope, who, in turn, translated this picture text, tells us:

His intention was no less than to draw the picture of the whole world in the compass of this shield ... the cities delightful in peace, or formidable in war ... in a word, all the occupations, all the ambitions and all the diversions of mankind. (2)

In Pope’s 1771 translation he explains that this shield is a representation of the compartmentalised universe. (In this it reminds us of Georges Perec’s apartment building based on a chessboard that houses all the players of his novel Life: A User’s Manual.) The shield of Achilles is, in effect, a universe in miniature, described in full as a poetic, ekphrastic word picture. As a remnant it is a marvel of reduction. Pope’s translation is complete with a fold-out illustration of this shield that replicates the world scaled-down. Words concertina as a picture.

Then there is Jorge Luis Borges’ little 1946 masterpiece ‘On Exactitude in Science’, which describes a one- to-one-scale map and the armies at war on and over it. The vast map gradually falls apart. When things seem precarious, perilous and problematic, writers and artists go to work. They are quite good at making something out of nothing, or of reducing the mountain to a potent little pile, whether they view the world through clinical detachment or crocodile tears.

Unpredictable times: The times we live next to. The times we live next, too

Don’t mention the war. I’m assuming the unsaid lies behind Parker Philip’s idea of the black box.

The West is obsessed. The West is obsessed with Trump and his unpredictable behaviours. Sleepless in Australia, I listen to NPR all night. Truth be told, I can’t stand the way Trump comes up in all circumstances. But artists are just one group who might see themselves as, or be called on to act as, canaries in the coalmine. That is, if canaries are required. Bushfires send embers ahead. We all seem to be stating the obvious. But, inexplicably, in spite of evidence, it’s a time of dirty minds and clean coal and it’s getting hotter in here. Embers are everywhere. Canaries flock.

Cold comfort. Trump won’t be here when you skim- read this in the second-hand bookstore a few years from now. Then again, maybe nor will that bookstore. (A few will surely remain as heritage artefacts, as leftovers for us romantics. Predictions are perilous.)

The black box record is itself prone to being inexact, somewhat partial, contradictory and slippery, like the house museum and Google Earth and the artwork posing as a remnant. The National 2019 sets out to record what is going on. It is an attempt to survey the more interesting art-making in this land while avoiding generalisations and platitudes. That’s always a big ask (especially when writing a prior response without phoning-in the chorus), but like artworks, curatorial premises should both raise questions and look for answers, and they should leave something to the imagination and then leave something behind.

Writing of the exhibition prior to its staging presses me to think of Parker Philip’s prompt as a call-and- response rebus that echoes the black boxes to come.

Some leftovers: Three more black boxes

Black box 1
In 1972 David Bowie sang: ‘... five years, that’s all we’ve got’. (3)

Unpredictable times. David Bowie outlived his prediction. That song, then, outlived him. The song, and its clarion call, remained the same. Cancer took him and he sang himself to sleep. He was always an artist who spoke back. He was, after all, a recording artist. Blackstar, his record released in 2016, two days before his death, kept calling like a cry from the grave. In the song ‘Lazarus’, Bowie sings out: ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’. Blackstar is a black box recording if ever there was one.

Black box 2
On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and her 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared from view. It went off course and has eluded us ever since. (I have a scale model of that plane in my collection of things, sorted into numerous boxes of there-not-there. It’s a cousin of the skull on the saint’s or scholar’s desk in a hundred old paintings.) The black box is missing as well. The families are the only voices we still hear from.

Black box 3
Running through these ideas, I imagined a novel that included a black box recovered from a plane that no- one knew was missing. A plane whose departure and destination points remained unknown. That black box was found to be full of aphorisms arguing both sides of everything. Each (often-contradictory) observation as convincing as the next.

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier and simpler.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882–87) (4)

Every truth has two faces, every rule two surfaces, every precept two applications.
– Joseph Joubert,
Pensées (1842)

A proof tells us where to concentrate our doubts.
– Anon., cited by W.H. Auden,
A Certain World (1971)

In my imagined novel, that black box was then thoroughly investigated. Its source was endlessly hunted down. Boats were put to sea. Planes scoured the oceans. Cars rallied across the deserts. Forests were scanned. All to no avail. The novel would keep its secret: the black box was a hoax. Its recordings were a random selection from The Oxford Book of Aphorisms translated into (male) pilot-speak.

But then again, aphorisms might just be to truth what forgery is to painting – full of the effects of it but missing the kernel. That novel might be amusing or even telling as a poetic exercise, but what remains are the voices of the families of the really missing. Those are the soundings that are most real and rebounding.

A new maxim is often a brilliant error.
– Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, Pensées et maximes (mid-18th century)

I wonder out loud what The National: New Australian Art will be like this time. It sounds promising.

Readers will know by now.


(1) Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926, University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp.3–4.

(2) The Iliad of Homer, vol.4, trans. Alexander Pope, J. Whiston, Baker & Leigh, W. Strahan, and others, London, 1771, pp.254, 237.

(3) David Bowie, ‘Five Years’, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, RCA Records, New York, 1972.

(4) John Goss (ed.), The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, Oxford University Press, 1983, p.230 (Nietzsche); p.255 (Joubert); p.231 (Anon., cited by Auden); p.1 (Malesherbes).