With the closure of museums and galleries worldwide, we find ourselves not only estranged from one another, but also from the artworks we hold dear. Odes to the Absent forms as an expanding collection of reflections upon and tributes to artworks that we miss and long to be connected with physically and experientially at some point in a future still yet uncertain. Individually contributed by Gertrude Studio artists, exhibiting artists, staff and friends, these reflections will accrue as a compilation of acknowledgements of longing, infatuation and absence until we will one day be reconnected with the works that we cherish as important and of value, in places and in institutions that similarly hold such objects to be of aesthetic, cultural and conceptual importance. May we all be one day reunited.
Gertrude Studio Artist Andrew Atchison
Ode to Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, 1908. Stone, 64 x 29.5 x 31.8 cm. Collection of Musée Rodin, Paris
Despite dating back to 1908, I thought of Rodin’s The Cathedral as a sculpture that embodies our socially restricted, physically-alienated present moment. In my recollection of visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris in 2007, the pair of enormous right hands that comprise the work fold-in toward one another to create an intimate enclosure but don’t actually touch. Instead of grasping — the more typical symbolic gesture of connection — they articulate the kind of intimate space one forms with the hands to hold a small bird, a strong yet restrained protective enclosure for something living and vulnerable. The work is so stripped back as to feel contemporary; the limbs end bluntly, mid-forearm at their shared stone-block base. There are no other elements to the composition. With this degree of formal emphasis, the only possible intention I can understand is to evoke the essential and transcendent experience of desiring another across a void that, no matter how narrow, still divides. Thinking socio-spatially, with our bodies in negotiated estrangement from one another, this work is an ideal motif for now. The sculpture seemed to be proximity objectified. Tantalus. Thirst. So I thought, anyway.
The neat alignment of the sculptural form with our mutual isolation was on-track right up until I did my due diligence by watching some video documentation. I saw, as the camera lens moved across the object that …gasp… the fingertips do make contact—and not only once in some hard-to-see place, but at several points, and fairly blatantly. Despite the work being set in stone— so I know nothing could have changed in thirteen years—my memory had distorted the sculpture to satisfy my own inclination toward artworks that emphasise space. Without consciously trying, I had made the work what I wanted it to be and, at some point, that became a fact, my knowledge.
In being distanced across time and space I had unwittingly remade and, in that process, lost some of the work. And so now I wonder, at day 98 of Melbourne’s second lockdown, what else have I lost? What has fallen away from my ‘knowledge’ of everything and everyone outside my restricted radius? In the vacuum of distance, I tend to project to fill-in the gaps, to fantasise unknowns, others and elsewheres as a means to settle an account for the state of things, in order to move on with life. I wonder about going overseas to see art again, when and where will that be possible? I am lucky to be partnered, but I wonder about hugging friends, will that feel surprisingly different to what— if I thought about it carefully like I have The Cathedral — I anticipate? While video has helped to maintain a sense of connection, the visual doesn’t wholly substitute the experience of being in the room with objects, artworks and people materially. We ‘see’ a lot with the body’s other senses. For the sake of this thought, I imagine hugging the sculpture. Touching texture, weight, temperature and mass. I guess one advantage of fantastical distance is that I can believe, on the other side of all this, such a possibility will exist.
Gertrude Supporter Kat Theophanous MP, State Member for Northcote
Ode to Weeping Woman
Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937. Oil on canvas, 55.2 x 46.2 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso
Weeping Woman, I hear you now more than ever. 2020 has been tough – and I can see the many women who have wept with you this year. In exhaustion, frustration, angst, uncertainty.
But now I can see you are not all melancholy. Your weeping may be brought on by tough times, but when I look at you, I can see your strength. I can see your resilience, endurance and determination.
And maybe you are not weeping in sadness. Maybe you are weeping in joy. Maybe you have rediscovered something that you had missed. Maybe you are reunited with someone you had lost. Maybe you are weeping in relief, in hope, in courage.
Picasso has always been a favourite of mine, and this piece, at the National Gallery of Victoria, is always a highlight when I get the chance to visit. A beautiful gallery too, located in our normally bustling, vibrant city of Melbourne. It is quiet now – a different kind of beauty.
The Weeping Woman’s eyes are hard to get lost in. But she is captivating all the same. I look forward to seeing her again, on the other side of this. To remember that weeping is not all about sadness. We always have things to be thankful for, no matter how big or small.
Gertrude forthcoming exhibiting artist Lara Chamas
Ode to S.J Norman
SJ Norman, ‘Take this, for it is my body,’ 2010 - (on-going), performance in Dark Paths as part of Dark Mofo 2019, Hobart. Photo: Lara Chamas
Hello, my name is Lara I’m an artist from Melbourne.
I am absolutely crushed I missed tickets to your performance at Dark Mofo. And tried desperately at the door just now. I have written at length about it in my studies, and it’s such a big influence on my master’s work and my own artistic practice.
I am so desperate to see it in the flesh.
Do you have any other plans to perform ‘Take this, for it is my body’ again?? Or do you think you might be able to perform again in the future??
I really hope so. And will follow your social media in hopes of another announcement
Hey Lara, I’ll be brief as we’re in session and I’m writing you from backstage. We can get you in, I don’t think we are fully booked out tonight so I can radio through to FOH and tell them to let you in
The crowd have been extra racist tonight, so we’d be very happy to have some sympathetic energy through here tonight 😂🔪
If you make it back just give FOH your name. We’re on until Sunday. SJ. X
Also, I’d love to read your MA research!
I couldn’t believe my eyes…
Oh my god
I’m about to cry
THANK YOU, I’M RUNNING NOW
You know that part in The Simpsons when Homer reads about a free trampoline, and he can’t say the word trampoline, but is able to say ‘TRAMAMPOLINE, TRAMBOPOLINE’ before running off with no explanation? That’s what I did.
This is how I got in to see Take this, for it is my body by SJ Norman.
I run so fast and recklessly that I smack my head on a low-hanging tree branch, it knocks me down for a moment. I yell out briefly and keep running.
I arrive at the gate of Government House for the second time that evening and see the same front of house staff. They anticipate me pleading again.
Out of breath, I fumble out something incoherent and show them the messages on my phone. I’m in.
A small group of us walk into a room with a table set for an English afternoon tea. We had two silent servers who poured us tea, and drew our attention to the jam, cream, and note on our plates. We read the note; it briefly illustrates the colonisation of what is now known as Australia, highlighting the genocide of First Nations peoples. The text described how settlers poisoned flour rations with arsenic, and gave blankets infected with disease. The writing then ended with an anecdote about the artist’s grandmother kneading so much scone dough, her knuckles began to bleed and streak the dough. The note then informed us the scones we were about to be served have been baked fresh by the artist, and contain their blood, the blood of our servers, as well as the blood of Indigenous elders and community members who wished to donate. We can do with the scone what we see fit. When prompted to leave, we walked past the kitchen and saw the blood being added to the scone recipe, as well as a blood donation station.
Eating the scone felt disrespectful, like taking too much. Leaving the scone to be thrown away felt like a rejection, a waste. I took the scone with me and will keep it as long as possible. It sits on a shelf in my studio in a paper bag.
. . .
Blood links to identity in a visceral and literal way. Norman’s blood and personal narrative made that work, in a way that Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger’s blood would not have. Norman’s blood is politically charged; their DNA is what separates them. Being a person of colour is a lived and more often than not political experience, inseparable from one’s body. In combination with the artist’s personal memory, connected to a wider narrative of Indigenous oppression, Norman’s body, the labour of kneading the scones, the labour of the indigenous servers, and their blood and the elders’ blood, the work moves beyond the shock factor of using blood in art or food.
Tensions between love and violence, poisoning and nurturing are present in Take this, for it is my body, notably in the arsenic-laced flour described in the text, the flour used to make the scones, and the blood added to the scones. There is a confronting irony in re-creating such a trans-generationally traumatic event.
Participants in the performance were struck by their own varying senses of complicity in this history as non-Indigenous Australians. This sense of complicity was provoked by the realisation of their own embodiment in that space, and what it meant for them to be sitting at that table.
Here’s to that lonely, blood-laced scone sitting in my studio, and to all it represents. I miss artworks like this performance with its endless layers; trans-generational trauma and memory, story, blood, body, racism, colonisation, history, food, family… I miss being part of art, I miss works like this that implicate you in such a poetic way, that confront you, generate discussion and reflection. I miss art that connects us in a constellation of stories, and makes us feel so big, and yet, so very little.
Gertrude Supporter Ged Kearney MP, Federal Member for Cooper
Ode to Blue Poles
Gough Whitlam with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Image courtesy of The Australian, photographer unacknowledged
Dear Blue Poles
I miss you. I hope you miss me.
I mean - I kinda like to think I hear you say “welcome back” each time I stand before you. And it’s been ages.
I know we are not equals. You are wonderful. Brilliant. I just love how your eight poles seem so randomly spaced, but I know they are perfectly placed in that vibrant wilderness created by Jackson Pollock.
Somehow the balance within their randomness calms me down and cheers me up.
Each time I visit our capital I try to visit the National Gallery. And each time I do, I stop to pay homage to you, to your grandeur, to your story, to your purchase by the great Gough. And even though you are so lofty and float so far above me in every way, I feel like you look back at me, without haughtiness, but rather just to say Hi, welcome back Ged, nice to see you again.
Abstract expressionism they say you are. I think that is perfect. You stay put in that honoured place and I imagine you watching us as we move around you, in and out, abstractly observing us. And each time I come I reckon you have a little more to say, to give, to express.
I try to leave a little bit of me with you. Sometimes I look for signs of my last visit in your expression, but they are swallowed up, absorbed of course.
I get goose bumps right now thinking of the millions of people who’ve gazed on your abstract expressionist wonder and left their mark.
Now I panic a bit! I miss you – please don’t forget me! This will all be over soon. I can’t wait. xx
Gertrude Volunteer Andre Franco
Ode to Square Depression and the loss of the collective experience
Installation view of Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression, 1977/2007, skulptur projekte münster 07. Cast concrete sculpture with white rendering, length/width 25 x 25 m, depth 2.3 m. Photo: Hubertus Huvermann taken in 2016.
On a whim in 2017, I embarked on a road trip. The destination was Münster, Germany, to the once every ten years, tour de force of public sculpture, the Skulptur Projekte Münster. I was traveling overseas prior to a semester abroad as part of my undergraduate art school education and happened to find myself in Münster to witness the who’s who of contemporary public sculpture. Prior to leaving Melbourne and still in the first semester of 2017, my mentor at the time impressed a desire for me to see a certain permanent work installed in Münster. I eagerly nodded my head and said the appropriate, obligatory 'oh wow, sounds amazing, Yes! I definitely will go and look at this artwork'. Truth be told, I really had no intentions to make the effort. But I did, and I am eternally glad and grateful as it may well have been the last time I will. The work I nearly missed experiencing is Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression (2007).
Nothing more needs to be said about the American artist Bruce Nauman, a seemingly near-mythical, creature-like artist, unafraid with unbridled, relentless output over a career spanning fifty plus years. But here I go, as I believe something happened to me, my practice and my relationship to and experience with art on that spur-of-the-moment trip in 2017. The work, Square Depression, I feel, is so pertinent for our time, much more then it was only a couple of years ago when I experienced it, or the forty plus years ago when it was conceptualised, or the thirteen years ago when it was realised.
Square Depression is my ode to the experience lost, of being drawn to the middle, converging together at a common, inevitable centre point. At this point in time we can barely see the horizon line, our perception and experiences are boxed in. The sightlines are above and beyond our eyesight. This is a shared, collective experience, something that might be exchanged in the experience of Square Depression, and something I think Nauman wanted to communicate. This is a grim, depressive description of the work, with feelings of isolation and helplessness front and centre, fit for the present moment we are in. The experience of being boxed in time. These sensations and experiences are happening all around us right now, perhaps not directly in the context or experience of art, rather instead, the depressive, the psychological, spatial and bodily experience that Nauman presented to us thirteen ago is uncannily being played out before us, in the present.
When asked about an artwork that has moved, stirred, awaked or changed me, I am often at a loss for words, while simultaneously, Square Depression is the work that I truly recall in detail, want to witness, experience and simply ‘be’ in when asked such things. There might not be a chance that I will see and experience this work again, not only because of the pandemic of 2020 and maybe beyond, but rather, finances, need and reason. Life, primarily. But not for lack of want. Maybe I do need to see this work again, to be in the collective experience of art, for this is what I truly miss.
Gertrude Volunteer Sebastian Kainey
Ode to navigating paths (with Clare Longley)
Image caption: Clare Longley, By/from C.H.L x, 2019 - 2020, oil on canvas, 177 x 155 cm. Courtesy of Clare Longley and ReadingRoom, Naarm/Melbourne
The grids of Melbourne’s CBD may seem rather straightforward to navigate, yet there are endless ways to go about one’s journey. Little distractions and temptations are filled in every corner. At times, it can be hard to stay present or fully engaged amidst all the busyness.
Sometime around late February to early March this year, I spent an afternoon wandering around a handful of galleries clustered around the city. Just before succumbing to fatigue, I found myself entering the creaky, dated elevators of The Nicholas Building. I ended up at ReadingRoom, where Clare Longley’s exhibition Garden series with boundaries, was showing. This was the last exhibition I saw in person before COVID-19 took hold of Melbourne.
Longley’s practice explores common symbols and preconceived emotive responses to them. Engaging with a strong sense of narrative, delicate marks and motifs are scattered throughout the composition. Upon close inspection, the canvas is detailed, layered and busy. Take a step back and larger forms become clearer and the mood shifts. Displayed in the bright, naturally lit ReadingRoom, Longley’s work offers a sense of calm and an escape from the busy streets below. In By/from C.H.L x, 2019-2020, one navigates through a garden that is ever-changing and evolving. I found my eyes wandering through the frame, traversing and following paths— becoming lost, then regaining my trajectory. There are multiple vantage points from which to approach this work, just as there are multiple paths to navigate a city.
Works of this ilk are far better appreciated in person. This is something I found myself yearning for during Melbourne’s lockdowns—an opportunity to make paths, connections and experience art that is best experienced firsthand. Exhibition installation views serve their purpose, but the visceral feeling and emotive experience felt when physically present in front of an artwork can become diluted.
Such is often the case when viewing certain types of art online. Lately, my experiences involving art have been via a screen, along with most aspects of my life. Creative applications of web- based platforms, 3D virtual exhibitions, Zoom artist talks and other alternative methods of connecting art to people in the digital space has been interesting to see. However, not all art is conducive to this mode of display and engagement. I am intrigued by how these digital methods of making art go public will continue to be exercised in a post-COVID world—to complement and assist the physical art experience.
Gertrude Volunteer Isobel Lake
Ode to Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden
Installation view of Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2017, QAGOMA Watermall. Photo: author's own
As I write on a 13-degree day in Melbourne, my thoughts cannot help but float north to sunnier days. Visiting family up in Brisbane over Christmas holidays would always entail a trip to the Queensland Art Gallery and the adjacent Gallery of Modern Art (QAGMOA), drawn by both the exhibitions and the air conditioning. With 2020 for the most part feeling as a changeling of summer holidays, the architecture of Brisbane’s cultural precinct is a frequent fantasy.
Opened in 1982, the buildings of QAGOMA at first appears a modernist monolith, sandstone squares unloaded onto the banks of the river. But rather than remaining a bastion to culture, QAGOMA looks outwards; to the city of Brisbane, its people and its landscape. Robin Gibson, the architect behind the precinct, describes how “[QAGOMA] is not only a place for the collection… it is a place where the walls and barriers of the Gallery are broken down, where there is a constant source of interchange between the art world and the public” - a utopian vision for the role of a national gallery.
In David Williamson’s Emerald City, a character describes Sydney as “a city of subtropical abundance,” but I always felt that statement better suited Brisbane. Even in QAGOMA, Brisbane’s tropics remain abundant. Tangles of greenery and hollows of water follow you around QAGOMA, with large expanses of windows looking over the river snaking its way through the city centre. Sunlight pools in from the windows, saturating the sandstone walls and the colours of the exhibitions. Such a vivid vision of nature only serves to enhance the collection of artworks within the gallery’s walls.
A particularly memorable exhibition was the display of Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden (1966/2017). The work involved the display of hundreds of large silver spheres on the Watermall inside the gallery. Each of the orbs created a solitary universe, reflecting visitors and the building back upon themselves. Narcissus garden feels like an apt metaphor for 2020. However, I would much prefer my self-reflection against the backdrop of QAGOMA’s collection and Brisbane tropics, rather than my bedroom walls. Full of light, the modernist buildings of QAGOMA continue to be my utopian mirage from within the boundaries of Melbourne.
Gertrude Volunteer Jessica Dunn
Ode to Holden with hair curlers
Margaret Dodd, Holden with hair curlers, 1977, earthenware, 20.5 x 40.0 x 18.0 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed.
This work is from a series called This woman is not a car, a collection of ceramic Holden cars made by Margaret Dodd in the 1970s. Margaret is right, a woman is indeed not a car. Is a woman a woman at all? The performance of femininity can be fun when it isn’t mandated, and Holden with hair curlers is, aesthetically, very fun. I first saw this work some time ago at the Art Gallery of South Australia. I’m fond of AGSA because it is never particularly busy. It has a familiarity that allows long lingering. It also conjures memories of times spent with family and friends over the years.
Like Margaret, I grew up in suburban Adelaide. The suburbs sprawl a lot, and cars are a necessity to get around. Getting my first car at 16 was a liberating thing which let me move around much more freely. I still have the same car. During lockdown it’s been sitting inert on the side of a road in inner Melbourne, gathering dirt under a big plane tree, and does not have the same promises of freedom or movement.
The thought of anthropomorphic cars is a disconcerting futurist concept. When I was younger, I often had a recurring dream about being in the backseat of a car with no driver, it was driving itself, and was skirting dangerously close to the curb. The internet says this kind of recurring dream means you have a lack of control over your life, which rings quite true at the moment.
Cars can be a symbol of liberation, but they can also be scary. In a lockdown fuelled Ozploitation film binge, I recently rewatched the Peter Weir film The Cars that Ate Paris, which I can’t believe was such a flop in its day. The VW bug adorned with spikes from the film is a particularly a memorable image. It is the antithesis to Dodd’s malleable, soft pink Holden. Cars can have big personalities.
I like this work because it’s silly but also serious. Suburban life can be constraining, I’ve personally moved away from it. But it can also be very comforting. Ultimately Holden with hair curlers gives me fond memories of home, and is a nostalgic object when home seems otherwise far away.
Gertrude Gallery and Administration Assistant Kathy Pappas
Ode to Swinguerra
Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, Swinguerra, 2019. Film Still. For the Brazil Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019.
Courtesy of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo
The title of the 58th Venice Biennale, May You Live In Interesting Times, certainly foreboded the current global situation in 2020.
Swinguerra (2019) was exhibited at the Brazilian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale last year, contributed by artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. It was the final day of my 3-day pass, and so I was racing through the national pavilions in a somewhat frenzied and dizzy state, a state I am sure is not unique to me when taking in a great deal of art.
Swinguerra examines social and political tensions in Brazil through contemporary dance culture. The title of the work literally translates to describe the story followed in the video work: ‘Swinguerra takes its title from swingueira, a popular dance movement in the north-east of Brazil, fused with the word guerra, meaning war.’  Wagner and de Burca’s work assembles a group of gender diverse dancers with the story revealing itself of two rival groups battling each other.
It sometimes takes me a long time to get into video works, sometimes I am absorbed instantly, and other times not at all.
This was one of the times that I was instantly engaged. There were two projections on opposing walls inside the space. Audiences who walked through chose whether to view the projection facing the left wall or on the right. I noted how the audiences had to collectively face their backs towards each other to view the work, and that we watched the video projection together, yet also opposing each other. Sometimes, I looked back to the other side of the room just to double check what the other group were seeing.
The layout of the exhibition was not dissimilar to our present dual experiences of art, in which we are an online collective consuming art in new ways, but simultaneously sitting apart. The architecture of the building also managed to turn spectators into participants in the centre of the Swinguerra universe. 
The energy of this work, as well as the way the space allowed me to become immersed in it, was exactly what I needed. My faint and fatigued state had disappeared. I was finally brought back into my usual state of art adoration and out of my state of give-me-a-panadol-a-double-shot-of-coffee-asap.
I miss the feeling of finding an artwork that snaps you out of a tired spell. I miss racing through spaces only to stop and surprise myself by sitting in front of a work captivated and untroubled.
In the most simple expression, Swinguerra cheered me up. I dedicate this Ode to Swinguerra because I look forward to more times where I can sit in a space that is public and have a private moment of adoration.
 May You Live In Interesting Times: Biennale Arte 2019 Short Guide. p. 224.
Gertrude Studio Artist Sarah Brasier
Ode to Saskia Leek
Saskia Leek, From Now On Just Us, 2003, oil and pen on board, 22 x 28 cm (framed).
Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; and Ivan Anthony, Auckland
Is there a difference between crying because something makes you happy and crying because you feel like you might never feel happiness again? Or are they the same thing?
Depending on what day I look at this painting by Saskia Leek, the heartbreak I feel is either hopeless or hopeful. Sometimes it’s both at once.
They had just finished arguing
One sat in the bedroom, feeling trapped
The other in the loungeroom with a bottle of wine, feeling empty
This is what happens when a sharp needle punctures the heart
A pin prick of loneliness that turns into the smallest black hole in the world
No matter can fill it
No sunshine can warm it
The yellow really brings out the void in your eyes
Together and alone
Me and the emptiness
From now on
The bird is not lost, the bird is here
The bird will not abandon itself
The bird rejects the myth
about love and success
either landing in your nest
or evading you forever
The bird has found the dolphin
They will build a humble flawed life from the rubble
and they will cherish that
There is nothing more glorious on the face of this earth
than a bird who refuses to give up
who refuses to give in to their most self-hating, discouraged, disillusioned self
and instead learns, slowly and painfully
how to relish the feeling of building a nest in middle of the suffocating dust
From now on
Gertrude Patron Helen Seales
Ode to Amanda Marburg
Amanda Marburg, Grandma in the Park with the Kids, 1999, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the artist. Collection of Helen Seales, Melbourne.
Amanda Marburg’s work, Grandma in the Park with the Kids, 1999, is not absent to me – I live with it – but many aspects of the work are absent in August 2020.
Marburg painted this work shortly after graduating from the VCA. Her practice at the time featured the exquisite painting of failed photographs. This blurred black and white photograph, probably taken in the '60s, features her grandmother, mother and aunt at Coburg Lake, an idyllic scene. I have a similar image from my childhood of a picnic with my grandmother.
As I write, we have strict constraints on our activities, which do not permit sitting in a park. I remember a Leunig cartoon from the '80s in which a figure with a pram is confronted by a sign 'No walking baby nephews in the park'. Well, we are there... Grandparents are unable to have contact with grandchildren, so many are communicating via whatever technology they can access. The simplest of comfortng, physical contact is not possible.
Arguably, today there is no such thing as a failed photograph. No waiting a week to race to the pharmacy to collect a packet of images to see which were successful. My most embarrassing photography fail: I was travelling in China in the early '80s and our trip began and ended in Hong Kong where we eagerly had our photos developed. A fellow traveller had asked me to photograph him on the Great Wall. I didn’t realise until we were back in Hong Kong that I had managed to cut him out of the picture – these days that would be rectified instantly with another image.
This work also represents to me an absence of conversations. During a CAE tour of studios and galleries on Flinders, I began a conversation with Amanda, who was working in her studio. Sometime after this meeting, I encouraged her to allow me to acquire the work. That conversation led to many more, including with Jarrod Rawlins and Blair Trethowan upstairs at Uplands. Further, absent conversations...
I was recently speaking with an artist friend, who said she found the cancellation of gallery openings, and the conversations with friends and colleagues during the COVID-19 restrictions, a large absence in her life. For me, the greatest absence now is the inability to have family and friends share a meal, which I think returns to the subject of Amanda’s work: connection.
Gertrude Gallery Coordinator Siobhan Sloper
Ode to West Space
Improvements and Reproductions, West Space. Credit: Photography by Aaron Christopher Rees
It’s a strange thing missing something you don’t yet know.
The new West Space at Collingwood Yards was due to open their inaugural exhibition Improvements and Reproductions on 20 March, but a few days prior, the team at West Space made the difficult decision to temporarily close the gallery - prior to government restrictions to close galleries and entertainment venues but a sensible decision in an effort to help contain the public health emergency.
Despite this the artists and curators involved in Improvements and Reproductions went ahead and covid-safely installed works. This decision is difficult for any artist, curator or arts professional to make - the prospect of presenting an exhibition wholly experienced online is not what was intended through the exhibition’s conception; but the prospect of not being able to realise it at all, is also quite disheartening.
West Space was fortunate that, come June, they were able to offer viewing by appointment - however I was not, and missed this opportunity.
My experience of Improvements and Reproductions and the new West Space gallery has been exclusively through a screen - Pixel, iPad and iMac - these retina displays are good, but not good enough to give me what I miss the most. The physicality of the space, the tactility of the light as it is drawn into the interior, the smells; which I imagine consist of paint, plaster and fresh cut pine. But whilst I can conjure up these ideas in my mind, I don't have all the words (I don’t think they exist) to aptly fool myself into relieving the longing.
I look forward to visiting West Space post lockdown 2.0.
Our family had a saying: ‘cockroaches and Paul would survive a nuclear holocaust’. My older brother, Paul, should have died at birth and many times thereafter. The odds were stacked against him. Born with a rare chromosomal abnormality and a hole in his heart, he developed encephalitis when only a few days old. It was amazing he made it to week one.
At his healthiest, he stood under 5 feet tall, weighed 30 kilograms and was autistic and intellectually challenged. But what he lacked in physical and cognitive robustness, he made up for with life force.
Paul lived with my parents all his life and their care ensured his longevity. They indulged his whims – his refusal to wear any colour other than green, his restricted diet which included Coca Cola drunk through a green straw as his only fluid, his fondness for the Magic AM radio station, and his repetitive making of jigsaw puzzles. When they (our parents) died, we worried about his ability to cope. But Paul thrived as my sister and I, with an entourage of female carers (Paul’s so-called harem) maintained his lifestyle and routines.
We invited Richard Lewer to paint Paul’s portrait. Paul had a number of idiosyncratic utterings which we thought Richard might capture; but Richard had other ideas and decided to paint the biggest portrait of the smallest adult person he had ever met. Richard sat with Paul and Paul thought Richard would be a suitable carer.
The painting captures the essence of Paul – his open, interested expression, his wayward left eye, his arched eyebrows, the odd angle of his mouth, his hunched back and clasped hands, the perilously poised glasses with mended frame, and his watch stretched over his green jumper. The brown, rather than green pants, means a toilet mishap had occurred. Paul is reluctantly looking at the picture and has no emotional connection to it. I can hear him saying: ‘I want to get back to my jigsaw puzzle’.
Paul died six months after the picture was finished. During the last weeks of his life he was obsessed with the Beatles song ‘When I’m 64’. His heart finally gave out shortly after his 64th birthday.
The painting of Paul now hangs in my sister’s house and greets visitors as they enter. With COVID-19, I have not been able to visit Paul for quite some time. If the current lockdown ends according to plan, I will get to see him again, just after what would have been his 68th birthday. As our eyes lock, I can hear him shouting to my sister: ‘What’s happening?’ And we will reassure him again, that there is nothing for him to worry about…
For more of Michael’s words on art, please visit our friends at the NGV Gallery Guides and their blog https://beguidedbyart.com/
Gertrude Studio Artist Jason Phu
Ode to the Guardian Spirit
Guardian spirit, 700 CE-750 CE, Henan / Shaanxi province, China, Earthenware (Sancai ware),
74.4 × 23.4 × 19.5 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
I first saw this work many years ago at the NGV. I think it is on permanent display, but it seems to disappear and reappear at will, or I probably just don’t pay enough attention when I visit. It is a guardian spirit, people think that that means it has to always be on guard, but a good guardian spirit knows when to look the other way. Probably explains why I sometimes don’t see it, or maybe it has to go pee.
It is proud, but respectful. It is loyal, but ferocious. It is green, but it is also brown. These things aren’t contradictory but simply the sum of its parts, which vessel the spirit happened to enter. It probably has a name as well, one that changes with the moons, that sheds with the suns, it is probably something like Bob right now. Sally tomorrow.
Ears to hear gossip. Horn to impale deer. Face to scare children. Hooves to make an annoying clip clop sound like a bored horse. These are its attributes. Probably not the best use of them, but it is the little things that over time make the great things. At only 74.4cm it is much shorter than me.
At the doorway in the Tang Dynasty watching the rise and fall of one of the golden eras must have felt like a retirement before the work of sitting behind a piece of thick, smudge-free glass. But that’s ok because everything breaks or melts eventually, the dynasties change, even for the guardians.
Gertrude Board Member Jon Campbell
Ode to Lower Plenty
Lower Plenty at Crazy Arms Bar, Polyester Records, Fitzroy, 26 February 2020
Photo: Simon Karis
Rock music has always sustained me and going to see live bands has always been one of life’s pleasures. My first share house was in Rathdowne Street, North Carlton, in 1981. I was 19. A ten-minute stroll down the street led me to the live music venue Martini’s, sadly long gone. I would go to art school at RMIT during the day and go to Martini’s in the evening. Often, I would go by myself. It was usually free to get in and I would sometimes go five nights a week. It didn’t really matter who was playing or what style of music. Sometimes there were 10 of us in the crowd and sometimes it was packed. It was a small room. INXS played one of their early gigs there and I couldn’t afford a ticket but managed to sneak in by following the road crew. I looked up Martini’s gig history online; it was Wednesday 4th March 1981. But mostly it was local bands that I saw. I’ve always loved seeing bands in small rooms.
I don’t go to see live music as often these days, but I still love it as much as I always have. Earlier this year, before the Covid-19 isolation, I went to see one of my favourite local bands, Lower Plenty, at the Crazy Arms bar out the back of Polyester Records in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Also now sadly closed forever. It’s the last gig I attended. It was a night of performances organised by fellow artist Oscar Perry. Oscar performed, as did Trevelyan Clay. Lower Plenty had had a fractured previous year and I was unsure if they would in fact ever play together again. The band consists of Jensen (Tjhung), Daniel (Twomey), Al (Montfort) and Sarah (Heyward) and the sound comes from two acoustic guitars played through amps, percussion and drums. They all sing. Their songs and presence is kinda laid back but also intense. There is no pretence. They have beautiful songs and melodies. I have known Jensen and Daniel since I taught them 20 years ago in the painting department at the VCA.
I know all good things come to an end. I’ve been imagining if this was to be the last live band I’d ever see and if so, I’d be happy that it was Lower Plenty.
Gertrude Studio Artist Darcey Bella Arnold
Ode to Jean Goldberg
Jean Goldberg, Ola Cohn, 1961, oil on canvas, 90 x 74.5cm.
National Portrait Gallery Collection, Canberra
A portrait of artist Ola Cohn, seen once on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, now far out of reach during the lockdown of Covid-19. Ola was prominent in Melbourne throughout the 1930-50s, born in Bendigo in 1892, painted here by friend and female colleague Jean Goldberg in 1961, three years before Ola’s death.
Ola was 'a big flour bag of a woman, healthy as bread, strong as a millstone'  and I love this description of her. She is most well known for her works in sculpture and has carved modernist figures much like her own, large robust forms. This portrait has stayed with me as the portrait of a female artist, not dainty, but forceful and strong, with large artist's hands. The women Ola sculpted often had large hands and feet, working hands; she lived as a worker with carving dust, limestone, and sandstone all through her hair, making for a large tuft of unkempt hair to silhouette her face - or so the legend goes.
During Covid-19, stuck in the wanderings of my local area, I have discovered her house and studio, located a mere 500m from my flat. Her ashes are buried there, along with her cats Kitty, Rufus, Smokey, and Ginny…I think of Peggy Guggenheim when visiting Ola, buried in her garden surrounded by her art and cherished felines. Her garden and studio have been donated for educational purposes and is now the hub for the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors of which Ola was president for fourteen years. The space has an idealistic feel to it, a romanticism of artmaking.
In the course of the lockdown, missing openings, social events, the art world, and its conversations, I have returned to a rudimentary drive to make art, that simple unwavering urge to make. Ola’s garden has been a symbol of this and is filled with her sculptures, women’s faces carved from stone, conceivably faces to talk to during a time of isolation.
 Barbara Blackman, Glass After Glass: Autobiographical Reflections, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Australia, 1997
Gertrude Director of Business and Operations Tracy Burgess
Ode to William Wegman
William Wegman, Rover Roller, 1987, Giclee print, 61 x 51 cm. Courtesy of the artist and
Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; Sperone/Westwater, New York; Senior and Shopmaker,
New York; and Texas Gallery, Houston
Sometime in the late 1980s, an amusing photo, most likely a postcard, of a dog in roller skates appeared on the corkboard just next to the wall mounted phone at the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen and den of my grandmother’s Southern California home. This was a very important spot in the house – the one where you could see both what was happening in the kitchen and what was on the television.
The chair was high, covered in blue vinyl and swivelled 360 degrees. Sitting there also meant that when the phone rang you were the one who got to answer it. There was always a note pad – sourced from a hotel somewhere I’d never been like Las Vegas or Singapore or Mazatlan – and a short, golf scoring pencil. These were for important things like grocery lists and phone messages, but I was obsessed with drawing palm trees and practicing my signature.
When not waiting for the phone to ring I was in the backyard torturing lizards or in a frenzy waving to the trains running along the coastal route below - if I was lucky, the train driver would sound the horn to return my wave.
The photo was still there the last time I visited the house on La Ventana for the Christmas of 2004. Six weeks later I moved to Australia. More than 15 years on the house has been sold and demolished. I wasn’t around to help with the packing up so I’m not sure what happened to the small print but I’ve thought of it often along with a flood of other details of its context. As time passes the memories become less accurate but I’m okay with that.
Gertrude Studio Artist Lisa Radford
Ode to Grace Culley
Grace Culley, Alfred Nicholas Gardens, 2020, recycled cardboard, hardwood steaks,
steel wire, oil paint, PVA, liquid latex, pen, sharpie, 2.1 x 1.6m. Courtesy of the artist
In the week of shutdown at the School of Art where I am employed, I walked the corridors of the studios furiously documenting the material evidence that artists once lived here. I didn’t foresee that two months later I would still be yet to return. In the imaginary that is boringly based in reality, my dystopic disposition (or is it depressive?) imagines the VCA studios as I remember my visit to Pripyat (a ghost city in northern Ukraine in the vicinity of Chernobyl).
The materiality that was the bodies who inhabited these studios — laughter, thought, energy, conflict, desire, absurdity, stupidity, love — is currently disembodied from its anarchic collective.
Her's was the last work I encountered.
Part of me imagines it still there. Hanging in the corridor. Waiting for the IRL crit.
Cardboard, wire and garden stakes support a lush gestural painting reminiscent of reflections on a lake, interrupted with a fragment of text. Reading as mantra, cursively guiding us — Step by Step. In the past, my brain would’ve taken me straight to NKOTB and the video clip of a-once-was- boy band trapped in pre-Boomerang dance going up and then down stairs. Instead, the text in these works by Grace Culley ask for a kind of banal care and consideration. The quiet irony that may be in the script of the tattoo font used, collapses in this context. The title, Alfred Nicholas Gardens, gives it a locale, but not a site.
In the work that sits beside it, I wish this was parquetry, Grace’s latex lace rests on egg cartons on large corrugated cardboard. A dirty domestic reminder of the materiality and banality of the structures we inhabit, and that also inhabit us — forms and frames of painting in an assemblage ready-made, monumentally unmonumental. Dirty, sexy, tough, gentle. Femininely painted, imprinted, arranged, framed and constructed.
Looking at the JPGs, the green sharpie drawing that I see embedded in the latex has faded from memory. The JPGs also remind me of what I want to return to see and be — confronted with all things I apparently know, re-arranged in ways I didn’t know they could or could be. Forms feeling like, not looking like, the relations our bodies once shared. A different knowledge, another economy.
Dear Eva Hesse,
Your friends are here, they’re Grace’s friends, our anarchic collective. I am waiting to see them and their work again.
Long live art, in friendship.
Gertrude Studio Artist Georgia Banks
Ode to Zoë Bastin
Zoë Bastin, Redemption for the Redeemer, 2020, performed at Kings Artist Run.
Photograph by Damien Laing
There’s a lot of art that can be quite successfully reproduced in a book, or online, but we’ve never quite mastered the art of reproducing liveness.
Before the galleries of Melbourne boarded their doors, the last live work I saw was at Kings Artist Run, during their farewell party. The evening already had a different air to it - it was not an opening; there were no other works to stand in front of with one’s head cocked slightly but not too slightly to the left in order to indicate interest and/or being deeply moved. There were no objects on plinths that really could have used another coat of white paint, plinths one might covertly point out scuff marks on to a nearby friend. There was just Kings - a cavernous space without its usual partitions - a DJ, free beer (I’m assuming), and a whole bunch of folks from all over the Melbourne art scene who came to say goodbye and have a good time.
Plopped smack bang in the middle of the night were three performances, the second of which was Redemption for the Redeemer by Zoë Bastin. The performance began with Zoë emerging from behind a door (the kitchen door) with a lit candle before proceeding to the centre of the space which had been marked out as a stage purely by the absence of bodies. ‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna is playing. As the music picks up and begins to bop, so does the artist. It’s a body dancing, it’s a body moving freely, it’s someone letting loose alone in their bedroom to a song that they love. At first the crowd is gathered and stood back at a respectful distance - as one is expected to when observing performance art. But as Madonna explodes through the speakers and Zoë explodes in all directions while looking good as hell in her flame red unitard, people from the audience also begin to move. Soon the crowd swells and rises and ripples like I imagine a crowd of fans at a football match do.
That's what I miss, and that’s what I hope to see again when the world returns — liveness, sweaty bodies, and a sea of artists not worried while dancing to Madonna in a gallery with no walls.
Cimabue (Bencivieni di Pepo)
I visited Assisi in November of 2018. Cimabue's 13th-century frescoes are found in the transept of the upper church of the Basilica of St Francis. They are extremely damaged. Aside from the paint that has completely flaked off, the lead pigment of the tinted-white areas has blackened such that the frescoes have inverted into a negative of themselves. The enormous scale of the work combined with the noisy effacement made it nearly impossible for me to look at them. I felt like my brain was registering a static-corrupted signal. I did not encounter them as a merely patinated surface. They were still images but they resisted intelligibility. In some areas it seemed as though the damage had actually made new figural impressions, spawning unauthored compositions with the original figuration. I have no recollection of the frescoes except as an absence, and it resides in my mind as the imagined experience of a retinal scar.
The deterioration of these paintings is not a regression into a more primitive stage in their own coming-to-be. Rather, the images are positively moving from pictorial legibility into a new future as an undecipherable visual event. I think of this encounter as witnessing some virtual force corrosively irradiating through the membrane of the visible; destroying the flesh of its own realisation as it passes through.
I try to imagine the impossible 'beyond' of sight. Magnification extends visibility into the miniscule. An unmanned spacecraft strikes towards the edge of our solar system and beams images back to earth. A cliff face shears off into the sea, freshly exposing rock strata. Directly in front of me as I look out over a landscape, I perceive the horizon and an apparently vertical field of sky that my eye can neither pass over nor puncture, but can only move into. The visible is an edgeless continuum. I futilely pick at this scab of surface trying to find some fundament sustaining it, but the dermis of the visible extends under, around and inside every thing.
I walked up the mountain at Assisi to visit the cold stone grotto where St Francis prayed in solitude. Over the centuries ascetics and monks have built or found their own bare shelters around the hermitage to retreat in imitation of St Francis. Standing near such a hut I saw a beehive encrusted into the fork of a tree. I had never seen a beehive in 'nature' and in fact it seemed like the most unnatural and alien thing. I thought of the biblical story of Samson, who walked in a vineyard in a foreign land. Samson came across a lion in the vineyard and was compelled by God to rent it in half with his bare hands. Later, Samson returned to the same vineyard and found the carcass of the lion now harboured a beehive. He ate the honey and gave it also to his parents to eat. I like images best when they are like this: saturated with significance and nearly emptied out of any means of translating that significance.
Gertrude Studio Artist Matthew Harris
Ode to Kaylene Whiskey
Kaylene Whiskey, I Love the Flag, 2019, Acrylic on linen, 91 x 122 cm.
Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Life is better without most art and art-related activities. Openings are boring. Fake smiling hurts. Rich people aren’t very interesting. Nobody likes speeches. Panel talks are a waste of time. Admin. Sincerely, kind regards, warm wishes, cheers, thanks again, hope you’re well, best. Some art is good in reproduction and terrible in real life, some art is better in real life than in reproduction. Agnes Martin paintings are dead in photos and radiant in person, even with almost nothing there. Agnes tested a child by holding up a rose and asking if it was beautiful, the child said yes. Agnes hid the rose, asked again and the child said yes. So beauty is really an idea in our minds. Some things seem better in our minds than they actually are and some memories never do the real thing justice. I miss Kaylene Whiskey’s work because all the details she gives us are impossibly beautiful. In my mind, out of my mind, in photos, in real life, everything. I saw her show Wonder Women at Roslyn Oxley on a road trip with friends, we accidentally parked in Roslyn’s spot but she wasn’t mad. As much as I love those friends, I wish I was road tripping with Kaylene. Sun smiling, zooming by all the flowers and wombats in our batman car, coats of many colours flying in the wind, water snakes dancing, Tina chugging coke, Dolly bloated from too many hot chips and Whoopi feeding some to the cockies. Kaylene is the best DJ. Non-stop hits and heartbreakers. It’s about time she programmed Rage. I wonder what she thinks of Cher’s ABBA cover album? Does humanity deserve so much perfection? No. And we don’t deserve Kaylene Whiskey. You’re simply the best, better than all the rest.
Incoming Gertrude Studio Artist Justin Balmain
Ode to Rineke Dijkstra
Rineke Dijkstra, I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009, 3 channel HD video, 12 minutes.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London and Paris; and Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
I’ve always loved other people's description of artworks, and I miss the museum experience of eavesdropping upon people's discussions of works, often preferencing that over my own knowledge and experience of the art being looked upon.
Rineke Dijkstra’s I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009, which I saw at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2017, acts as the perfect stand-in for Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Dijkstra’s video examines the 1937 painting, yet Dijkstra herself preferences the audience and their interpretation, rather than including the painting within her frame. A group of schoolchildren describe and convey what they are experiencing whilst looking at the painting through the prism of their own lives. 'I think she was at a wedding and she stole the cake' remarks one. We are left with totally unguarded descriptions, often comical, absurd and tragic ideas around why the woman in the painting is in fact crying, reinforced within the peer group through the repetition and redistribution of ideas.
Dijkstra’s video installation is a microcosm of our collective and social engagement with art, the reality of the work of art defying the artist’s intent once it enters a public sphere, and to the means that we interpret through social and cultural contexts. This work is a reminder of the broader communal inclusivity of artistic engagement. It touches upon my own excitement of experiencing art and wanting so desperately to communicate those encounters with others.
Engaging with culture in isolation through these mediated forms that now feel like an extension of myself – software as prosthesis – I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman) exists like an umbrella through these online encounters. It reminds that our participation with art is not solely our own; it is indebted to others, individually and socially. This work makes me want to be out there looking and hearing and experiencing the stuff, along with all the others, who are doing the same.
Gertrude Studio Artist James Nguyen
Ode to Dale Frank
Dale Frank, Stephen Hawking, 2001, Diptych, Synthetic polymer paint and varnish on canvas,
200 x 260 cm, Art Gallery of NSW Collection
As with life, art is never love at first sight.
A fleeting lust for the ooze of resin, sweat breaking through calloused skin. No thanks. How was I to know that a painting could be so wet and thirsty, saturated yet weak as a homeopathic tincture.
When I first encountered Stephen Hawking at the Art Gallery of NSW, I didn’t care for what I saw. A pair of black monochromes, larger than life, but not MASSIVE large.
So I looked at something else and moved on.
About a month later, I found myself at the same spot. I passed by.
A few months after that, I was there to see a photography show. It was on the same floor, but to my left, so I didn’t see the painting.
Fourth time lucky. Also, fourth time unlucky.
The last time I saw the painting, I had time to waste. I walked right up to it and took a sudden step back. Back and forth, forth and back, getting so close as if I could breathe moisture onto the thing. For something I had previously assumed was smooth and flat as the lid of a grand piano, the painting was all furrowed and sullen. It seemed to be suffering from a chronic rash, covered in large swathes of psoriasis. Touching the scarred cicatrix behind my knees, I felt like I was touching the painting itself.
Absorbed into its imperfect surface, folded into its reflection.
These black monochromes by Dale Frank are in and of themselves a painting of a void. Part of a long tradition of endless and cosmic dead ends. Functionally they serve as expensive material and conceptual traps that most visitors would just pass at a glance.
But this is the only painting that I have ever really loved, the only artwork I have had a relationship with.
I have not seen it since; and miss it now more than ever.
Gertrude Artistic Director Mark Feary
Ode to Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste (Portrait of the Artist's Mother), 1958, Oil on canvas,
61 x 50 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Geschenk Bruno und Odette Giacometti, 2005
© Succession Alberto Giacometti, 2019, ProLitteris, Zurich
Self-isolation, its wonderful, but its not for everyone, although it is for everyone. This period of isolation and confinement offers one the opportunity to reminisce, question and reprioritise what is of importance, what is longed for, and what one hopes to be connected with at some point in a future presently ill-defined. A work that I have been thinking about with great fondness over the past weeks is a 1958 painting by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste (Portrait of the Artist's Mother). I first encountered the work at the Kunsthaus Zürch while completing my final year of schooling as an exchange student in Switzerland. The work of Giacometti had been introduced to me the previous year by an art teacher whose name I no longer recall. Growing up in the South Island of New Zealand, much of my art historical education relied heavily upon reproduction slides and publications to understand the history of art from outside of Aotearoa. So to encounter Giacometti’s works in real life was a rousing experience. In a fulsome showing of his works, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste was exhibited among other paintings and the sinewy sculptural figures for which he is best known. But it is with his paintings that I have always felt most enamoured. Working within the limited palette of black, white, yellow ochre and red oxide, the complexity of the painted surface invariably tilts toward a wondrous meditation on grey. Giacometti frequently used his family members as the subject matter within his paintings, always sitting alone. Perhaps this is why his works resonate so strongly for me in this time of collective aloneness. My first encounter with Portrait de la mère de l'artiste and the other Giacometti works surrounding it was so overwhelming, it would be the first time I would shed a tear in a gallery. It would certainly not be the last time, but in reality, it remains the only time that could be regarded as a positive experience.
Gertrude Studio Artist Mia Salsjö
Ode to Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Time after Time, 2003, Video, 5 minutes 22 seconds.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London and Paris
© Anri Sala. Courtesy Bick Productions
In 2005, while visiting relatives in Sweden, I stumbled across Anri Sala’s video work Time after Time in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This haunting depiction of a horse stranded on an Albanian motorway was new to me and it moved me to the core. I was immediately drawn to the imagery but for the first time I also felt in awe of video art as a medium.
Normally one expects to see horses immortalised in paintings or sculpture as animals fine and noble. But here one sees a creature cast into abject vulnerability – alone, emaciated and at risk of collision with the passing traffic. The horse fills the screen, but the scene is so dark that it is hard to make out. This changes momentarily when a passing car’s headlights illuminate the sad and lonely reality of this beast of burden. And it is that ‘glimpse’ that act of ‘glimpsing’ that transforms this work into something larger, a metaphor for all the unseen horrors that exist by the roadsides, byways and lonely laneways the world over – animals, children, women, men and even nature itself. That is why this work was transfixing, and why for me it confirmed in those glimpsing seconds the absolute power of art as a communicative tool. In another generation this might have been the stark revelation that occurred when a horse, illuminated by a single lightbulb, appeared in Pablo Picasso’s great work Guernica (1937), or in Caravaggio’s equestrian masterpiece of 1600 showing Saint Paul beneath the feet of his skittish pinto mount. In Sala’s case however, the work is a video, something that could have been shot on a cell phone, though elevated by the artist into a piece of work that transcends the transitory probability of so much digital media. And there is, of course, the being of the horse itself, that solitary actor that stars in this tale of misery and woe. I was left thinking about that horse in all its spirit being for months and years later, and reflecting, not on the brutality of animals, but rather on the transgressions of humans against the world and all its inhabitants. How could I think otherwise than to see this horse as a superior being? Throughout the piece, the camera goes in and out of focus, dissolving the scene into an entirely abstracted field of darkness and fragmentary light. The gesture appears to say, ‘Are my eyes really seeing this?’, ‘How can this be happening?’, and yet it is unfolding before our very eyes.
After, I looked to see who the artist was, and to my astonishment discovered that Sala is Albanian. For me, this was significant, having grown up in Australia with an Albanian mother and a Swedish father and feeling that such a mix was altogether strange and unusual. Artistically, Sala spoke my language. But we also share a similar heritage. This affirmation of my cultural identity went against the grain of the negative stereotypes I had so often heard about Albania and it provided an opportunity to both embrace and transcend that history.
Some years later, in 2015, while living in Havana, Cuba, I had the good fortune to meet Anri Sala.