Tag Archives: Penny Ryan

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.

The Book Group in Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth

Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing 2020)

Having threatened us with another Rachel Cusk title, this month’s Book Chooser opted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, a decision I applauded.

Before the meeting: The book’s narrator, Erica Marsden, moves to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be near the prison where her son is serving a life sentence for murder. Harking back to her own childhood in a mental institution where her father was head psychiatrist and inspired by a dream, she decides that a way out of her depression is to ‘make something’, and sets out to create a labyrinth in the weedy patch of sand beside her shack. Between dispiriting prison visits, she makes connections in the local community, and runs into an illegal immigrant who has just the skills needed to help design and build the labyrinth. As she realises her plan, she regains a degree of equilibrium, and her son seems – tentatively, incompletely – to be returning from the weirdness that had led him to commit a horrific act and then be lost in rage-filled (and, she believes, mother-blaming) isolation.

That’s it. It’s beautifully written, including some evocative moments when Erica is bemused by unspoken understanding among diverse male characters. I loved it.

My one small complaint is that there are no illustrations. Even though the descriptions the making of the labyrinth are very clear, I lack the visual imagination needed to interpret them. When I looked online, key words like ‘seed pattern’ seemed to have different technical meanings from the ones Erica gives. I mention this in the hope that an illustrated edition may be on the way.

What you get from a work of art depends on what you bring to it. I brought quite a bit to this book that intensified my enjoyment of it. I’ve seen the labyrinth at Chartres, and it was covered with wooden chairs just as Erica describes it. I’ve meditatively walked a small labyrinth at Glendalough in Ireland. Much more significantly, I took part in Connecting Hearts Project, an art work created by the Emerging Artist, which invited participants, among other things, to walk a kind of labyrinth made of terracotta hearts while reflecting on our common humanity, on our connection to people fleeing persecution, especially those held in detention by successive Australian governments, and on what it means to belong. With her permission, here are a couple of images:

And a video of the London iteration, where the spiral/labyrinth appears from 2 minutes 22 seconds:

After the meeting: There were six of us. The streets were awash outside, but we were warm and dry in our host’s home, which had been a rundown mess when we met there just before the onset of Covid, but he and his family have rebuilt as a joy and a wonder to behold. We ate well, and drank well (I wasn’t the only one to bring non-alcoholic beer, one of the many pleasures of the evening).

Probably because we were all so pleased to be meeting in person again, and because of the absence of him who has been tacitly designated the group facilitator, we spent a long time chatting – mainly about the new house and the current theatre work of one of us, complete with some great inside-theatre gossip – before focusing on the book.

The terrific discussion was kicked off by someone who said he had reread the second half of the book because it seemed that everything that had been built up in the first part was then wasted in the second. Characters were introduced with the beginnings of narrative arcs, and nothing came of it: an architect promises to get back to Erica with ideas for a labyrinth, then nothing; a teenage girl is seen self-harming, then nothing; Erica meets a neighbour’s daughter, then nothing. On a second reading he felt he had been too harsh, but still felt like things more or less petered out.

I couldn’t fault him on his description, but I felt that it worked, and struggled to say why. In some way, the incompleteness of the stories was the point. The labyrinth itself (mild spoiler alert) is never finished, and there’s a tiny movement in a key relationship towards the end that could be the beginning of significant change. I passed around printouts of some of the above pictures.

A third chap said he read the book as a study in grief: after the ordeal of her son’s trial and imprisonment for a horrific crime, Erica is in a fugue state, and the failures to connect or follow through on other people’s stories is a function of that. He drew our attention to the last two paragraphs, and when they were singled out in this context I think we could all see how beautifully the book is brought home. Both the opening speaker and I said we now felt like rereading the book from the beginning.

One chap confessed right at the start that he hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the discussion, and I almost wished I could have been him when, in the middle of all the discussion of grief and fugue states, small town communities, the perils of living as a refugee, the points of similarity and difference between this book and, say, Sea Change, and so on, someone asked, ‘What about the book burning?’

Then five of us made our various ways home, all through streets that were awash.

November verse 10: On a painting

November verse 10: On a Painting

Look! Me at breakfast scrolling Twitter –
hashtags Covid, climate, race.
No, I'm the incidental sitter
who supplied arms, thumb, hair, face.
The artist's left her shining pages,
table scenes from other ages:
a child communing with a cat,
a woman lost in dreams or chat.
The artist stands, her drink neglected,
sees him absent in his phone.
The books behind hold all that's known.
His cup is empty, disconnected.
Reading too much into art?
That knife is pointing at his heart.
Penny Ryan, Covid Breakfast News, 2020
Oil on canvas, 68 x 55 cm

The Emerging Artist claims not to have deliberately done that with the knife, and I had to reassure her that, previous works to the contrary (as at this link), I didn’t read the image as signifying hostility, but as a subtle evocation of current dangers.

Incidentally, the Emerging Artist is part of Time Being, an exhibition opening in the Shop Gallery, Glebe, this week. There are Covid-safe Meet the Artists events on Saturdays 21 and 28 November. You can find details here.

Simon Armitage’s Flit

Simon Armitage, Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018)

FLIT.jpg

This handsomely produced book of poems and photographs (mainly taken by the poet) was published to coincide with a small exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featuring a selection of the photos and a video of Simon Armitage reading some of the poems.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is brilliant: Henry Moore sculptures and sheep happily coexist in the fields, in wooded areas you stumble on Andy Goldsworthy’s extraordinary land art, an Ai Wei Wei Iron Tree stands outside a chapel, and there are any number of special exhibitions, including, when we visited in early May, the Simon Armitage room and Chihara Shiota’s Beyond Time, which fills a small building with floating memories of its past identity as a chapel.

hangingtree

Part of Andy Goldsworthy’s Hanging Trees. Photo by Penny Ryan

IMG_6897

Henry Moore, Two Large Forms and sheep. Photo by Penny Ryan

Back to the book. The YSP website describes it like this:

The fully illustrated publication comprises 40 poems by Armitage, who was poet in residence at YSP throughout 2017, its 40th anniversary year. […] Rather than writing a direct commentary on the Park, he has redefined it as its own country, the little known Ysp (pronounced eesp). Letting his imagination run wild, Armitage has mapped an elaborate, alternative reality that melds fact and fiction, creating a fanciful existence for both YSP and the poet himself.

The key word of that is ‘fanciful’. At least for this reader, the book hardly relates at all to the experience of the Park. Less than a quarter of its photos show any of the sculpture – most are of the park’s buildings old and new or of its woods and water, some with odd images collaged into them: a Vietnamese fisherman sitting on the roof of a shed; a paddle-steamer on one of the streams. The photographs are beautiful, and so are the poems, but for me the conceit falls flat – my main response to the Ysp poems (a queue that lasts for months, the legend of a great drought …) is impatience. I guess what I wanted, to use the words of the website, was ‘direct commentary on the Park’.

All the same the individual poems are a good read. I’ve heard Simon Armitage read on the radio, and am glad to have got to read some of his work on the page.

Here’s a spread that includes ‘direct commentary’ on a sculpture (an ekphrastic poem, to use the technical term):

steps.jpg

On the left is a photograph of David Nash’s ‘Seventy-One Steps’, with the image of an odd temple-like building fancifully, and to my mind awkwardly, inserted. In real life you encounter this sculpture as you walk through the woods, and if you weren’t on the alert you might just walk on the steps without realising they were a work of art, though you would probably register that they are a lovely piece of work.* What you can’t see in the photo is that the dark, hefty oak steps rest on 30 tonnes of coal which will gradually erode. (The work was originally called The Black Steps, but it has already changed enough that it has been renamed.)

On the right is ‘The Dark Stairs’, presented as a translation of a poem by Armitage’s invention, ‘Ysp’s most famous poet, HK’. It’s a 14 line response to the sculpture, the short lines themselves a bit like steps.

[Inserted later: I realised that the text is hard to read in that image, so here’s the poem in full:

The Dark Stairs

Each blind step
a railway sleeper
quarried from coal,
fossilised treads
marinated in tar,
charred planks
dug out of a fire.
To me they’re saying
heaven or hell
it’s all the same,
a minor scale
of sharps and flats,
black keys only
this way or that.

The more I look at this poem, the stronger it feels. Where Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Polish Sleepers’ spells out the dark associations of railway sleepers by invoking the Holocaust, Armitage (ventriloquising HK) invokes elemental forces of fire and fossilisation, and perhaps the spectre of global warming, and does exactly the thing that I had hoped for from the book as a whole, finding words that help name the feelings evoked by the work.


*One of the joys of the Park is that this is true of a number of the sculptures: you could easily miss the Andy Goldsworthy piece above if you didn’t happen to look over a low stone wall, and there’s a brass sculpture that looks for all the world like the exposed roots of trees.

Open Hearts in Chippendale

The winner of the fourth annual Chippendale New World Art Prize will be announced tomorrow night at the opening of the exhibition of the 41 finalists (thumbnails here). And I’m telling you this because the Emerging Artist is one of the finalists.

Her work, Open Hearts, is the first big day out for her Confined Hearts project (see Squarespace or facebook), in which she is working with a wide variety of people – from Rohingya asylum seekers to a retired children’s magazine editor – to make 1468 ceramic models of the human heart, one for each person in detention on Manus Island or Nauru. As she says, it’s an open question whether the hearts represent the detainees or us.

A small selection of the hearts was part of the recent Life Lines exhibition in the Chrissie Cotter Gallery in Camperdown, looking much better than in these snaps:

wreath  cchearts

 

In the Chippendale outing, hundreds of the hearts lie in a hollow circle on the floor in front of a cyclone fence, wrapped in little muslin shrouds. Visitors are invited to step into the circle, unwrap a heart and place it in the centre of the circle, then place the white cloth in the fence. Writing a message on the cloth is optional – some of the hearts have been inscribed by their makers.

It was installed this morning. Here’s a sneak preview.

openhearts

The exhibition is on until early July in Kensington Street, Chippendale.

November Rhyme #13

OK, this is a fridge door poem I made earlier, but since the object it describes is once again being exhibited I’m passing it off as done today

as+for+living+II+web

As for Living III, by Penny Ryan. Photo by Kate Scott

Rhyme # 13: Piece in an exhibition
A broken ribcage from some broken
evolutionary line?
But these  aren’t bones – too glibly spoken!
That’s no knotted ridge of spine.
This work displayed in art school stairway
is not by some apprentice Yahweh,
nor did the wondrous Burgess Shale
a woven life like this unveil.
And yet it speaks of some great sorrow,
something beautiful that’s lost,
A world bereft, left with a ghost.
Perhaps a warning for tomorrow
unless we act, lives we hold dear
will be as if they never were.

Sonnet 5: An exhibition

The opening on Wednesday night was fun, and the exhibition will be open for business at 51 Darling Street Balmain until 24 November, 11 to 6 Thursday to Sunday.

For those who came in late, the exhibition features work by three emerging older women artists: a narrative series by Penny Ryan about her mother and ASIO; exuberant work – mainly prints – by Janet Kossy that makes me think of Weimar art, only joyful; and delicate drawings by Charlie Aarons that reference Morandi‘s still lifes and traditional Kiribati designs.

Some men grow alarmingly sleazy moustaches in November. I do rhyme:

Sonnet 5: An exhibition
John Berger said, ‘Original paintings
are still and silent in a sense
that information [to explain things]
never is.’ Here’s my five cents:
that’s also true of prints and drawings,
whose lines are movement lashed to moorings.
Now frozen, mute, hung on the wall
of Darling Street’s Oddfellows Hall
are rage, desire, despair, compassion,
a mother’s joy, a daughter’s pain,
a moment freed from rat-race strain,
three days to hang, lifetimes to fashion.
We stroll around, we come, we go:
it’s just a little pop-up show.

IMG_0143

Photo by Penny Ryan

Come one, come all!

The Art Student has an event this Wednesday evening and you are warmly invited. I know, it’s not smart to invite the Internet to anything, but I keep a close watch on my stats, and in this case the part of the Internet living within visiting distance who will read this amounts to maybe 25 people. So come one, come all!

It’s a small exhibition of recent work by three friends. The Art Student is presenting a sequence of 14 small pieces inspired by her mother’s ASIO files. The opening is this Wednesday 13 November 6–8 pm at the Oddfellows Hall, 51 Darling Street, Balmain.

invite ARK

 

The Art Student rallies the troops

Here’s the Art Student speaking to a meeting at NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre last week about the imminent cutting of all funding to fine art education in TAFE.

Ain’t she something?

Hungry for Art indeed

In case you haven’t heard, the New South Wales government is in the process of a vigorous attack on education in this state. Judith Ridge has posted passionately and lucidly on the subject at Misrule (full disclosure: she says some nice things about me at the link, in the middle of much else). If you haven’t been noticing the headlines, you can catch up here.

Amid the carnage:

On September 11 the NSW government announced that it would stop funding art education in TAFE, leaving 4000 students without access to finishing their courses in 2013. TAFE Art courses are the main provider of art education in NSW, with many prominent artists getting their first ‘hands on’ training in TAFE. The withdrawal of funding will mean that only the wealthy will be able to afford private art education and NSW will suddenly find it no longer has emerging artists with skills coming through.

That’s right, art education in TAFE will no longer be funded as of 1 January next year. No transition – just a short sharp shock. It’s anyone’s guess what that will mean for people who started a year or two ago confident that the NSW government would honour its implied contract, let alone the hundreds of artists who survive thanks to part time or casual teaching. TAFE is of course the poor relation in art education: when the National Art School boasts of its many illustrious alumni, for example, it rarely mentions that most of them attended when the NAS was actually East Sydney Tech, part of the TAFE system. So art is vulnerable because of course the contribution that artists make to society is routinely rendered invisible, and art teaching at TAFE is double vulnerable because it doesn’t have prestige at the big end of town.

There’s an online petition at CommunityRun, which is the source of the quote above. Do have a look and, if you agree with its gist, sign it. Students at a number of TAFEs are organising, including St George, Nepean, Goulburn, Moss Vale, Meadowbank and Wollongong so far.

The Hungry for Art Festival has hardly finished attracting hundreds of people to  The Gallery School at Meadowbank than the government announces it’s in effect closing the school down. (Because where will they find alternative funding in three months, and will the school still be public, affordable and accessible if they do?) The facebook page of FAIM (Fine Arts Inc Meadowbank) is humming.

As you might guess, the Art Student is in the thick of the campaign against the cuts. Among many other initiatives, it is the subject of the final printmaking project in her Advanced Diploma.

The project is inspired by the petition sent to the Pope by the House of Lords in 1530 pleading for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. That petition was displayed in Lux in Arcana, the exhibition of material from the Vatican Archives that we were lucky enough to see in July. As well as signatures, the petition boasted the seals of about a hundred lords and bishops hanging on leather thongs. The effect is impressive, but also beautiful.

The Art Student hopes to attract a similar number of artists to sign a petition (wording similar to the one at CommunityRun) and carve a small soapstone block with a symbol representing themselves that can be printed in sealing wax and hung from the petition.  The art student will supply the soapstone, and the artists are welcome to keep the carving once the imprint has been made..

If you know any artists who might be interested, send them this way. My email is jonathan at shawryan dot id dot au.