Continental Shift: Colonization & Wilderness

Guest Posts

 Written by Richard Read

At the Art Gallery of Western Australia, we go downstairs, along a distant corridor and into a single room of the suitably nineteenth-century Centenary Galleries. The ‘Continental Shift’ exhibition is on until 5 February 2017, when the American paintings will move to the Ian Potter Gallery at The University of Melbourne to hang amongst a new set of Australian paintings.

The exhibition was accompanied by two teaching units, a level three undergraduate unit and an Honours seminar, both called ‘Colonization and Wilderness: Nineteenth-century American and Australian Landscape Paintings’, coordinated and taught by myself, tutored by Joanne Baitz, with contributions of various length by Melissa Harpley, the curator of the exhibition, Dr Peter John Brownlee, the Foundational Curator of the Terra Foundation for American Art and the co-instigator of the exhibition with myself, and Professors Kenneth Haltman and Rachael Z. DeLue of the Universities of Oklahoma and Princeton respectively. I also convened an international symposium which took place at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in September with papers by Professor David Peters Corbett (Courtauld Institute, London and University of East Anglia), Associate Professor Rachael Z. DeLue (Princeton University), Associate Professor David Hansen (Australian National University), Professor Kenneth Haltman (University of Oklahoma), Christopher Pease (Western Australian artist), Dr Ruth Pullin (Independent Scholar), Emeritus Professor Richard Read, Symposium Convener (The University of Western Australia) and Professor Catherine Speck (The University of Adelaide). The exhibition and events were a three-way collaboration between the Art Gallery of Western Australia, The University of Western Australia and the Terra Foundation for American Art, who generously funded them all.

What emotions do they produce, and how does understanding their historical meanings change them? The editor perhaps expected this post to be a digest of the exhibition, but I won’t get beyond the first few paintings. Research surveys have established that public gallery goers average only a few seconds in front of any given exhibit, but these paintings were made to spend a lifetime with and yield their meanings and emotions slowly. I hope this series of ‘Continental Shift’ blogs will introduce themes that help visitors to engage with other paintings in the exhibition. Not that the emotional impact of first impressions don’t matter. They take time to reconstitute, like hauling back the fish that got away, a predatory theme that suits this show. Still more meaning accrues – and is lost – in the rift between their time and ours; meanings of which the original artists and viewers, of course, could not be conscious. Now that the dust has settled after more than 60 teaching and symposium hours, it’s interesting to look at them again. I am surprised by the sudden reassertion of the sheer mute look of them. I’m ready for afterthoughts from the compost of reading and discussion.

The first wall to confront us in the gallery only has room for two paintings. So there were two choices: to choose a pair that represents each country or to illustrate instead the twin themes of the show – wilderness and colonisation? This was the title given to teaching units and an international symposium designed to study the visual representation of that great clearing of the land across the globe that the eighteenth century bequeathed to the nineteenth in preparing us for the dismal era of the Anthropocence. The curator went for the latter option: the struggle between man and nature. Thus, we do not encounter an Australian painting until the fourth exhibit in a sequence running clockwise, in chronological order and alternating between countries, in this, a single chamber of what used to be the old Perth Police Courts.

The painting on the left of the opening pair depicts American wilderness: Thomas Doughty’s In the Adirondaks, c.1822–1830. It represents a rowing boat and a sailing yacht on a silvery lake surrounded by an unbroken expanse of bluish mountain forests. On the right, by contrast, is American colonisation: William Groombridge’s View of a Manor House on the Harlem River, New York, 1797. This is the only painting that dips its foot into the eighteenth century, distinguished from the later works by the stolid presence of its four-square frame. Looking north or north-east from the tip of upper Manhattan island, pasture lands recede to the manor house on the left and, at the centre, a cluster of houses and fields taper along the Harlem River, which slides behind them to the right. On the far side of the river verdant hillsides recede towards the horizon, pricked by a distant church steeple signifying further settlement. The picture constantly returns us to its most gorgeous effect: the splay of fair-weather clouds triumphantly irradiated by the pink light of sunset streaming diagonally upwards from the right. It is a trope of auspicious futurity, freedom and release above the ordered settlement where smoke drifts gently from the occasional chimney pot in the opposite direction. The weather must be cold as well as fair.

Certainly, the central focus of the scene is not the mansion of the title cropped on the far left but the cluster of fields, houses and outhouses. The houses are ridge-roofed and mostly double storey, but of variable size. Most are taller than they are long but the largest are wide and only have windows on the upper level. Is livestock or farm equipment stored beneath? They taper on a horizontal strip near the water’s edge but it is difficult to estimate from their size how far they recede in depth on the right. A local would know, and the painting was made for locals. I won’t pretend to know whether these buildings, as Denis Cosgrove writes of early American settlements, ‘refer back to European antecedents – barns, fences, farmhouse types… in a promiscuous mixing of European styles and an overall simplification which, if materially comfortable, offered to sophisticated European eyes a rude and unfinished prospect’[1] – but I suspect so.

But observe the fallacy of dividing the subjects of these paintings into ‘wild’ and ‘colonised’ too starkly. So unspoilt are the forests of the Adirondaks that there is almost a featureless redundancy about them in Doughty’s painting. The calm weather and pair of recreational boats have reduced sublimity to unthreatening proportions. This is not a Salvator Rosa. Human habitation cannot be far away. (There is a measure used in American national parks today called ‘the wilderness effect’ that determines how much wildness visitors can be exposed to before they are endangered.) Even the transition from forest to lake is graduated by boulders of human scale diminishing in size as they enter the water. Like most of the sublimity of the Eastern States, of which writers like Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson would write, this scenery does not possess the tremendous and awe-inspiring quality of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. However, the third painting in the exhibition, Thomas Cole’s rendition of James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans depicts a more threatening wilderness effect based on the Hudson River area.

In Doughty’s painting, a fisherman stands in blood red trousers (to which our visiting lecturer, Kenneth Haltman, brought his wonderful erudition on predation to bear). His rod is a fashioned version of the jagged skeletons of dead trees whose branches stab the sky to the left of the lake. As he balances himself, his rod curves with tension from a taut fishing line. The rocking boat sends out concentric circles that break the surface tension of the steady lake. He’s caught a fish! That, and the sailing yacht in the distance, is the only sign of human drama, but they endow the scene with an extractive connotation and a promise of future settlement that I shall expand on in due course.

Thus turning back to other painting, we see that Groombridge’s settlement scene cannot be extricated from its defining opposite any more than Doughty’s wilderness scene can. The view is framed by rougher terrain in the foreground. The abrupt hillock disfigured by erosion and cropped on the right is a sharp reminder of the similar repoussoir that leads the eye across and into such Dutch-inspired paintings as Thomas Gainsborough’s Landscape with a Wood, Cornard, 1750 (held by National Galleries Scotland; recently displayed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales). Groombridge interpolates us looking onto civilisation from the perspective of wilderness. From terrain that is rougher than arable land, the prospect of ordered settlement unfolds on either side of a wide road that curves through fenced fields towards trim houses and outhouses and back to wilderness in the distance again. And, as with Doughty’s unsettled lake, oblique violence attends the spectator’s optical entrance into compositional space, for in William Dunlap’s account of the genesis of the painting, the artist is reported as saying: ‘I will dash a watermelon to pieces, and make a foreground of it’.[2]

I shall stay with the Groombridge for a while longer because its anomalies help to establish a larger ideological framework for the problems of representing newly occupied lands that helps to define their emotional effect and purpose. None of our visiting lecturers claimed to be experts on Groombridge’s work, but neither had they seen anything quite like it in American collections. We all remarked on its relative gaucheness: the shapeless mess of the foreground boulder (compared with Doughty’s graduated stepping stones); the fanciful twirls of foliage – like doodles in faded brown blood – on the foreground hillock; the clumsy wide angle at which a mysterious built structure is set across the foreground to the left, sealing off settlement from wilderness. Is it a wall or some kind of building? Is it made of stone or wood? What is its scale? Why is it doubled? One would simply have to know what it is. The wonky mansion in the middle distance, sunk in another expanse of bare earth like a railway siding (but rhyming with the natural) erosion of the hillock on the left), is worthy of Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective.

It barely stands up. Yet for all its faults, the painting conveys a common sociality and expansive freedom, culminating in the joyous transcendence of the soaring pink sunset. It produces beauty from incompetence that repeatedly delights. My heart leaps time and again when I see that sky from any distance in the gallery and makes me wonder from what distance and in what building it was originally intended to be seen. The effect has something to do with the minutiae of everyday humanity sanctified by natural grandeur and finite order shot through with infinity: the dialogue between settlement and wilderness in another key.

The drawback of ‘great’ paintings is that you can’t recognise a visual problem once it’s been solved. Everyone relished this painting’s curious oddities and anomalies. But it might also be addressing an ideological problem of the utmost importance for colonial endeavour. The problem is arguably concentrated in the bent form of the farmworker who trudges from left to right with his lower half occluded by the rough terrain of the rising foreground, that margin between settlement and wilderness again. So what is the problem of painting new lands that these and most of the other paintings in the show attempt to resolve in their various ways? We earn more impact points if you read the answer in the next thrilling instalment….

Emeritus Professor Richard Read is a full term Associate Investigator with CHE, and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. He was formerly Winthrop Professor in Art History in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Art at UWA, and has published in major journals on the relationship between literature and the visual arts, nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and Australian art history, contemporary film, popular culture and complex images in global contexts.

[1] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (London Sydney: Croom Helm, 1984), p. 170.

[2] William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834; reprint ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), vol. 2, pt. 1, pp. 47-48.



Guest Posts

Everyone has the chance to be an art history student this semester when UWA run a new unit in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Western Australia and members of the public are welcome to join! 

As part of the landscape exhibition ‘Continental Shift: American and Australian Nineteenth-Century Landscape Paintings’ opening at AGWA in September there will be 20 lectures at the gallery spread over Tuesday mornings throughout August and September.

The gallery is not open on Tuesdays so this is a very unique opportunity to learn in front of the grand landscape paintings while the gallery is closed to the public. 

Here are the deets;

When – Tuesdays commencing 2nd August: lectures 9-11am

Where – Art Gallery of Western Australia 

Cost – $305 for 20 lectures (What a bargain!)

*Applications close 22nd July!




Dr Peter John Brownlee is Foundational Curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago. In addition to serving as co-organizing curator of Picturing the Americas, he recently organized the exhibitions Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, and co-organized Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North and Art Across America. He is the author of many books and catalogues on American art. Copies of his Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape (2008) are a core text of this unit and will be distributed in week one.

Associate Professor Rachael Z. DeLue teaches American art at Princeton University. She is a leading authority on the history of American art and visual culture, with particular focus on intersections between art and science and the theory and practice of knowledge. Her latest edited volume Picturing (University of Chicago Press) was recently launched at a symposium on ‘Rethinking Pictures’ in Paris. It is the first volume in the Terra Foundation Essays of which she is editor-in-chief, and brings together authors who have ‘questioned the purely visual nature of images to consider them as objects that possess agency or vitality in and of themselves. Pictures are now understood as inviting complex experience in which the entire body, not only the eye, is solicited, and as invoking multiple temporalities, by collapsing past and present.’ Amongst other works she is the author of George Inness and the Science of Landscape (2004) and Arthur Dove: Always Connect (2016) and she co-edited Landscape Theory (2008) with James Elkins.

Professor Kenneth Haltman is H. Russell Pitman Professor of Art History, University of Oklahoma. His numerous academic honours include Fulbright-Hayes, Andrew W. Mellon, and Henry C. Luce Foundation fellowships; research awards from Winterthur, the Huntington Library, the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities; Senior Research fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Frick Art Reference Library; and, most recently, a Terra Foundation Visiting Professorship in the History of American Art at Freie Universität Berlin and now UWA, Perth. In addition to critical translations of major works by noted French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard and scholarly essays on the history of pictorial representation in the United States ranging from antipastoralism to the art of the early American West, his publications include American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, co-edited with Jules David Prown (Michigan State University Press, 2000), Looking Close and Seeing Far: Samuel Seymour, Titian Ramsay Peale, and the Art of the Long Expedition, 1818-1823 (Penn State University Press, 2008), Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript (Abrams, with the American Museum of Natural History, 2015), and, most recently, a critical edition and translation of René Brimo’s classic study of American patronage and art collecting, L’Évolution du goût aux États-Unis, d’après l’histoire des collections, originally published in Paris in 1938 (Penn State University Press, forthcoming). He is currently completing Artists and Hunters: Figures of Predatory Looking in Nineteenth-Century American Art, a collection of essays. His teaching at OU has included introductory and advanced courses in American Art History and the Art of the American West, Undergraduate Methods, Graduate Methods, and a suite of rotating seminars in Visual Analysis, Material Cultural, and Critical Issues in Recent Art History at the core of the graduate curriculum. He has played a central in developing an innovative new team-taught Introduction to Art History in his Faculty.

Melissa Harpley is Senior Curator of the European Art at Art Gallery of Western Australia. She has been curator and co-author of many exhibition catalogues at the Gallery as well as a principal educator of its collection.

Emeritus Professor Richard Read is Senior Honorary Research Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture and Visual Art, UWA. Educated at the Universities of Cambridge and Reading, he taught literature at the University of Melbourne and art history at the University of Queensland before teaching several genres, geographies and centuries of art history at the University of Western Australia from 1990 until his recent, partial retirement. He has published in major journals on the relationship between literature and the visual arts, nineteenth and twentieth-century European, American and Australian art history, contemporary film, and complex images in global contexts. His book Art and Its Discontents: the Early Life of Adrian Stokes (2003) was the winner of a national book prize. His major research project on The Reversed Canvas in Western Art was funded by an ARC Discovery Grant and is already partly published in several major journals. In recent years he has also taught and lectured at the University of Bristol, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the University of Aberystwyth, Tate Britain, University of East Anglia, King’s College, Cambridge and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Durham. He is currently working on the Heritage of Molyneux’s Question in Romantic British and American Painting and Art Criticism.

This exhibition and related courses are a collaboration between the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the University of Western Australia, and the Terra Foundation for American Art, which is also recognized for its generous support.

Join us in a unique learning collaboration between ALVA, UWA, AGWA and The Terra Foundation for American Art culminating in an international symposium bringing together distinguished speakers from Australia, UK and USA. With a focus on 19th century landscape painting from North America and Australia, students are invited to explore the vexed relationship between environmental change and aesthetic innovation as settlement replaced wilderness in both countries and across the globe. The collaboration is generously supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enrol in a one-off unit taught by international professors in front of fifteen actual American nineteenth landscape paintings specially imported from the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago alongside high calibre Australian paintings of the same era at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in semester two, 2016.

The unit will culminate in an international symposium on the exhibition ‘Continental Shift: American and Australian Nineteenth-Century Landscape Paintings’ at the Art Gallery of Australia on 27 and 28 September 2016 (FREE ENROLMENT FOR STUDENTS).

If you would like to be involved use the code HART3390 to enrol here.

Applications close 22nd July.



Agnes Martin and Time-Piece at Tate Modern

Guest Posts

Our brilliant guest blogger Dr Richard Read is back from 6 months in Europe and has written this enlightening review for us on Agnes Martin and Time-Piece at the Tate Modern.


In a six month trip to Europe I must have visited scores of art exhibitions in the UK, France and Italy. I don’t like to talk in terms of bests and favourites, as if the whole world had to be graded like a GDP, but what bubbles to the top of memory is a large retrospective exhibition of paintings by the American twentieth-century abstract artist Agnes Martin at Tate Modern, which is still on as I write. It still blows my socks off, if that’s the right term for such an intensely visual and contemplative experience of ‘low-powered’ art. (High and low powered are just different types of art, not value judgements.) 

I already knew I was supposed to like her work,  knew what it was supposed to look like and must have seen a real work or two by her across the globe, but I wasn’t expecting the reality. The reality. She’s supposed to have turned her back on one kind of reality:

The modern world left her cold; in the stark New Mexico landscape she found a spiritual clarity unmarred by material entanglements. Daily life was Spartan. Though she liked classical music she never owned a stereo; nor did she have a television. She had no pets. One of her obituaries reported that when she died – in 2004 at 92 – she had not read a newspaper for 50 years. Two years before her death she allowed a persistent woman film-maker to shoot a documentary about her: it was entitled With My Back to the World. Leaving no survivors, she directed that her estate be used to fund a foundation for artists but insisted that it not bear her name.” 1

Of course turning your back on the modern world means turning your front somewhere else, in her case the New Mexico landscape and her studio abstracts. It so happened that I rushed to see this show on the Sunday before I returned to Australia and got to the Tate at about 3 pm. I was unaware at the time that a huge political work, ‘Time Piece’, in which a friend of mine was a key player, was taking place in the Turbine Hall, on the big concrete entrance slope of the gallery. I’ll return later to the issue of whether an activist engagement with the art political world can actually belong to the same category of art as Martin’s back and front-turning work based as it was on schizophrenic isolationism with Buddhist overtones. Hence her beautiful but alarming dictum:

“We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered a grievous and dangerous condition. So I beg you to recall in detail any times when you were alone and discover your exact response to those times.  I suggest to artists that you take every opportunity of being alone, that you give up having pets and unnecessary companions.  You will find that the fear that we have been taught is not just one fear but many different fears.  When you discover what they are they will be overcome.  Most people have never been alone enough to feel these fears.  But I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone will perhaps be serious workers in the art field.”

Even more alarmingly she said that babies come into the world with a dagger in their hand called ego that they use to cut the world up to make a space in it for themselves. Although she adds that the infant’s interactions with its mothers take half of that murderous egotism away from them right from the start, her goal is for us to get rid of the rest of it and enter a permanent anti-egoic state. That’s against my current experience of a little grandson who radiates as much love on the world as he receives from it. He restores my faith in human nature, but I’ll return to the art squabble later. 

Up there with her works on the third floor I had one of the most intense illusions of oneness with the universe ever. Here are three impressions from it, though it’s crazy and off-putting to post images from the internet with them, for nothing gets through.

Grey Stone.png 
Agnes Martin, Grey Stone, 1963

There was a six-foot square work called ‘Grey Stone’, 1963, which like so many of her works sported an unaccountable rift between means and effect. The means were a yellow and blue wash on an infinitely small grid of hand-drawn graphic lines. Step back and you have the undulating loveliness not of a skimming stone itself but of the surface of such a stone, as if it had been alluvially washed over millennia. The skin of the children in a bass-relief by Agostino di Duccio would be a parallel experience, but there the means and effect are at one with each other.

Five Angels.jpg
Agostino Di Duccio, Virgin and Child with Five Angels 1450-60

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On a Clear Day, 1973, by Agnes Martin..jpeg
Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day, 1973

There was a corridor of initially unremarkable little prints called ‘On a clear day’ (is the link with Delorean’s book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors accidental? No! The prints begin in 1972, the book is 1979.). They are ‘just’ grid patterns of the simplest and most uniform kind, printed with the assistance of machines ‘to straighten out her lines, which she said she could never paint straight enough’, but as each one passes before your mind the whole universe seems to take on a different structure. Would they work if they weren’t shown together? She said this of them: ‘These prints express innocence of mind. If you can go with them and hold your mind as empty and tranquil as they are and recognise your feelings at the same time you will realise your full response to this work’ (1975).

Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1979

Realising your full response to the works is the gist of the matter. When one of the Guardian critics moved past the ‘60s rooms ‘all the heat seems to leave the galleries’ for her. When she gets to the room given over to The Islands I-XII (1979) … a group of seven almost-white paintings … which the curators deem to be among her “most silent works”’ … I experienced them as something muffled, frustration and boredom in fierce competition to hurry me from the room.’ Oh dear! I think she’s missed something absolutely basic for which a placard in the gallery prepares you much better. It tells us that these works ‘invite concentrated looking over time in order to see their very fine lines and subtly nuanced surfaces.’ But this still isn’t it. These works, and these works together, are not about their surfaces but about finding our optional relationships with their after-images. Wherever you look your eyes push an area of grey around their surfaces that you cannot get away from, however adamantine their resistance as flat walls of paint. You’re in a subjective relationship with them and bring your life to them whether you want to or not, once you become aware of this optical relationship which knowledge alone drives away. They have to come alive because you and your eyes are. But if you never find this relationship they are going to stay dead. It requires the vigilant passivity that for her was a quasi-religious outlook on everything.

It’s this which makes it difficult to put her work in the same compartment as the oppositional art protest that was taking place unknown to me below. On the video clip which was the main record of this event (featured in an earlier Super Minimal posting), people spoke of the eeriness and beauty of staying up all night in the turbine hall after the graffiti had been written, the make-shift kitchens and toilets installed and the custodians resisted, but somehow that is letting politics and aesthetics fall into successive compartments. Where Martin turns her back on the corporate world (she was a schizophrenic for chrissake), a large part of these folks’ performance was engaging with police and gallery staff and creating the enormous wave of publicity which followed. There is something collectivist about Martin’s stance too, but as a sometimes Buddhist she believed that everything in existence has its purpose, even what reactionaries do, so render unto Caesar, political activism would seem impossible for her. The planning and agitating of the time-piece warriors, however, was hardly egotistical and was indeed exactly timed to coincide with ebb and flow of tides, finding its way back to a putative universal that way. Did what was happening on floor three and in the basement therefore belong to the same conceptual box called art? Probably not, but again, why choose?



1. Terry Castle, ‘Travels with My Mom’, London Review of Books, 29: 17, 16 August 2007, p. 13.

Felix Cafe

Guest Posts

FELIX CAFÉ, ANTIBES, Saturday 25 April 2015

I’m sipping a coffee outside Felix café on the corner of Rue Aubernon and Boulevard Gullard, perpendicular to and parallel with the harbour, respectively. I try to brighten the screen so I can see to write but instead find taking my sunglasses off more effective. I can see the port through the arch of the Roman wall a few metres away. A tall man with a shabby blue jacket, matching blue trousers and a kind of mullet haircut is walking around the fountain talking to people who aren’t there. He’s very relaxed and very drunk, with a bottle of fancy yellow liqueur at the end of his gangly arm. Is he schizophrenic as well as drunk? We wouldn’t have asked that question a few years ago, just as when we were thirsty we wouldn’t have described ourselves as ‘dehydrated’ and reached for bottled water.

Across the road a black man in a wheel chair his fifties holds animated conversation with a slightly tubby man in his thirties wearing a pale blue t-shirt and jeans beneath a brown hat with three holes in the side for ventilation. They point all over the place and sometimes jab each other. Big clapping handshakes and arm holds that twists the black man around in his chair as they part, both full of joy. Now he’s rolled across the road and addressed the group of English men who introduce themselves as ‘David and Ross’. I don’t think he knows them and has now rolled off.

A pigeon flies down to the rim of the fountain in an indignant way, does not stop to drink but hops down to the pavement to search for crumbs dropped from the table, head shooting backwards and forwards as it walks a circuitous route beneath the chairs and tables. The round plastic tables are red, the chairs are covered with a kind of silvery grey weave of plastic wicker strands and bright silver arms that curve down to the floor. Two little bushes grow from the architrave of the rusticated pedestian’s entrance to the port. Beside them is a group of little yellow flowers, all clinging to the rock. Traffic weaves through the larger arch by the side of the pedestrian tunnel, mainly grey and white cars with a blue Lambretta or two. More are coming in to the vieil ville than leaving it. Now the major colour of the cars has turned to blue and dark grey.

There are a plethora of prams pushed in either direction, pushed by almost as many fathers as mothers. Is it because of Catholicism? I am reminded of the father of a new baby on the cycle path between Cagnes sur Mer and Nice who was rollerblading the pram along at a breakneck speed while the baby lay fast asleep. Is that an incredibly irresponsible thing to do? (he had no crash pads or helmet, and neither did the baby of course!) It didn’t seem so at the time. At the time it seemed he had found a temporary way of combining the responsibilities of fatherhood and remaining a young blade. Do you think the mother knew?

Directly opposite and above me the face of an old satyr with ears like wings or cabbage leaves spouts water through a metal pipe (PHOTO 1). The man in the shirt has just washed water over his head. Now an African selling sunglasses and hats walk by (PHOTO 2). Does anybody ever buy them do you think? According to my body weight I can only drink a maximum of four something cafes au lait a day (or 11 cups of instant coffee, which would be sacrilege round here). Sometimes a big car rolls in heading for the really big yachts. The swanky car of choice at the moment is the Merceds SE 350 Bluetec. Up the road is the Blue Lady pub where young people who crew the yachts drink out their money. An average wage would be AUD 3,000-3,500 with up to 1,500 or more a week in tips, but the maximum age is supposed to be about 28, so what do you do then?

A crowd of elderly tourists walks past. I don’t think they’re French. One of them thinks my café is worthy of a photo on his ipad. My green tea has arrived. A solitary tourist in her fifties takes an ipad photo of an old lampstand fixed to the roman wall that I had not noticed before. What did John Berger say about photography? ‘Seeing this is worth recording.’ What is that book of essays? Art Historians who have Changed the World? or something like that. Someone complained that John Berger wasn’t in it and I thought ‘je m’en fou’. There is something about Berger that makes me ill, something tendentious and relentlessly trendy and pseudo-socialist because so irremediably upper class in how he writes and thinks. But I bet if I sat down and read everything I’d find brilliant stuff. Better than Fuller at any rate, whose probably better than me.

Sometimes some old geezers wearing lycra churn past on good-looking racing bikes. The way they stood on their pedlles and take off up the hill to the fortifications the last time I was here three years ago made me think they had somewhere wonderful to go to that I didn’t know about, and that is what persuaded me to hire a good bike for three weeks this time round. Now I know where they were going! Round the Cap and on to Nice. The road hugging the cliffs between the Cap and Juan le Pins is indeed very beautiful, full of lightly used public beaches and old tower on broken stone piers and occasional old fishing boats. There are photographs in the back of Felix café of Antibes harbor full of fishing boats, but now there are only ten licensed fishermen with rowing boats with lamps suspended on the back to attract the fish at night. Picasso shows them in the Nightfishers of Antibes at Vallurois, but nothing else there is good enough to make me go there again, so I won’t.

A woman walks past with an E cigarette. Cars mostly black for a while, though parked across the road is a convertible red VW golfe. The French grandmother of an elderly friend of mine in England came over to the emerald isle, saw a field of cricketers and remarked with an indignant hough and a tendrilled hand: ‘ha! Le golfe!’

Who the hell was Marechal Foch? His names all over the place and I bought a postcard of him which the vendor joked about as if I knew who he was. My guess is that he was someone in, or against, the Vichy government. I must go for my bike ride soon.

I googled him. Marechal Foch was the leader of the allied forces credited with brining the first world war to an end, but he was also held responsible for numbers slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme. He said if Germany wasn’t crippled after the war then it would invade France again in 20 years time. He was a few months out. He maintained the old school of Napoleonic tactics. He once said ‘my centre is yielding, my right is in flight. Excellent situation! Time to attack!’ He is unrelated to the incompetent Irish military strategist who just says ‘Foch dis, Foch dat.’ There is an Irish pub up the road, which is feeding me these stereotypes. Irish pubs keep Abbot in speeches.

There has just been a loud altercation  between a cyclist and an older pedestrian with trendy long silver hair, shouting at each other across the street. I would imagine that the cyclist didn’t want to stop for him at the crossroads out of sight around the corner. They were going at it hammer and tongues holding up the traffic on either side of the road when the cyclist in bright blue lycra suddenly road off. I saw the pedestrian fuming in unappeased anger with no one to inflict it on. Always embarrassing that. Then I saw that the cyclist had turned back to confront him again in the pedestrian street of Boulevard Augillon, satisfying both their appetites for venting. Maddeningly the sign of the next restaurant in all it’s pedantry – ‘PALANGRE meuniere avic son beaurre a l’ail 28E, ST PIERRE entire grille ou roti 35 E NOIX DE ST. JACQUES  a la provencale 26E)’ – got in the way so I could only see their legs and hear their voices escalating. I was amazed how quickly two uniformed policemen walked up to cool things down, which they did very diplomatically, as if heightened emotions were the norm. The blue cyclist departed for good, leaving the pedestrian continuing his fulminations to the gendarmes, who clearly weren’t going to do anything. Both of them will be thinking about that for several hours afterwards. How much of it was what happened on the street and how much what had been happening in their lives beforehand?  Jason, the gay boyfriend of my host, has a theory that the same people who shout at cyclists from cars are the same people who shout at drivers on their bikes. Well what would his view of this situation be?

Another cyclist has arrived to fill his waterbottle at the fountain. Moorish complexion, bright white hair, 60s. black bike and lycra. Looks very calm and powers off after fixing me through his sunglasses for a moment. A Yellow van! A plump woman with the photograph of a much younger and thinner woman on her t-shirt walks across the road. What was she holding in her hand? I shouldn’t have looked at my screen while I was writing. The woman who took the photo of the lampstand has walked back. She is eyeing the fountain but no photo this time. She has splayed feet.. I must go and ride my bike. The cars have gone grey and white again. A man in a white suit walks by. He has slid back his bunny head with its pink ears and looks serious. Oh he’s just walked back the other way wearing the bunny head. I think it’s him, I can only see him from the back. Could there be two of them? I should say that while all this is going on there is also a traffic of random French phrases passing through my mind without any relevance whatsoever: ‘Calme toi!’ – ‘Mais c’est MARRON, ca!’ (the word Marron does not exist as an adjective) and ‘Faites vos jeux!’. A man with a thick beard and a shaved head wearing red trainers and ear phones. The satyr’s head keeps spouting, looking straight ahead. A man starts to read a book on the bench against the Roman wall. He’s only got a few pages left. That’s always a funny feeling. The drama always thins out at that point because reality is going to replace it. It looks like a library book.

There is a biblioteque up Rue Aubernon which is only open a couple of hours a week. Perhaps it’s from there. He has a blue parrot on his t-shirt and is half blocked by the tall square stem of the fountain. I have just done a quick count and there are about 40 people in view, including the ten or so seated at my café. 4 grey cars and one white one. Two Renaults, a Nissan and two Mercs, two of them SUVs. I’m looking for a child. Lovely little girl with a maroon dress, wriggling from side to side from her mother’s hand. Absolutely no one glamorous in view now. For a brief moment there is no traffic. There next car will be … a blue Lambretta! Just occasionally a very well-presented and dignified old man will walk by with a well-fitting jacket and a matching tie. Looking after themselves. Three little boys look for fish in the fountain but don’t find them. Why do I assume they’re looking for fish? Mum walks on with the pram. The motor of a scooter revs up unnecessarily under the arch of the wall like an annoying bee. A man in his forties with a black moustache fills a red metal bowl with yellow flowers with water from the fountain for his dog. His wife holds the dog on its lead while it drinks. She wears glasses too. I’m sorry to say I don’t know what kind of dog it is, but a white poodle on a pink lead takes scant interest in it, and the first dog is too interested in the water. Five years ago, was it? – behind the roman wall is where I waded into the ocean with my first mobile phone in the pocket of my trunks.

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FELIX CAFÉ, Monday 27 April.

It is 12.15 pm and there is NO ONE on the streets, and just one other customer. That’s because it’s pouring with rain so I’m having to sit under an awning in front of the café enclosed by large plastic windows (PHOTO 3). The other day I felt so much in the midst of things around me that I felt overwhelmed. Now there is only a thin gap of real space looking out onto the roman wall in which I can see passers-by with any clarity (PHOTO 4). Otherwise they are patinated by vertical beads of raindrops clinging to the transparent plastic, turning silver where the light catches them. Just this narrow vertical window on the world and smeared sheets either side. Amidst all this rain the water gushing from the pipes stuck in the mouths of the faces on the fountain does not seem so exceptional. They just add to the downpour. On the sliver of street that is all I can see clearly there are series of momentary V-shaped flashes where the raindrop fall. They are interspersed with bubbles bursting after moving slowly to left or right after car tyres have splashed by. Now there are a few more people on the streets, but of course they are not milling around as there were in Saturday’s sunshine but are intent on their journeys, heads down and preoccupied. The African tradesmen have left their boards of sunglasses and sunhats behind today, and have stocked up on umbrellas, but there are far fewer people to sell them to. I shouldn’t be amazed that they have access to weather forecasts. I wonder where they sleep? Another customer has arrived to sit on the other side of the plastic from me. He was carrying a wine glass of beer and what looked like a shell full of cigarette butts to his table, where he now stands smoking. In fact the shell contains peanuts. I would not like a cold beer on a day like this.

There is a lull, except for the occasional traffic. The damp has brought a skein of cracks out on the plaster of the roman wall. They are not quite the shape of fields seen from a plane. The cement in the limestone of the passenger gate looks darker n places where water has found its way down or lichen has dampened. The shadows in the rustication of the gate itself looks darker too. Perhaps the plants on the architrave are growing. Joanna, the nice waitress, has arrived, without protection from the rain. She can’t live far away.

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I thought I’d try a different time of day to see if the rhythm is different. Sunny again. A girl with glasses, her hair swept back, swings her finger backwards and forwards in the water of the fountain, fascinated. What is she looking at? She’s surrounded by schoolfriends. Wouldn’t they have got out of school much earlier? Oh the girl with her finger in the drink is after all a burley bloke, now fascinated by his mobile phone instead. A rather masculine black girl wearing a check shirt  has a shock of green yellow hair springing out in curls beneath her trilby hat. She sometimes embraces another girl with more conventionally arranged hair but also green. She fights her off, but later they’re on the parapet talking. The finger swinger is now pacing around the group trying to talk to people who ignore him. He tries a bloke with similar hair who’s massaging the shoulders of a girl in blue denim, but the finger swinger is ignored. So he taps the back of another guy, who joins him.  Hello, I think the girl getting her shoulder massaged has twigged me, but if so she’s soon forgotten. I look at all their shoes. Mainly pumps, a few running shoes, one stocky girl glued to her phone wears elastic sided suede boots. Oh, there’s a goth amongst them with studs over her Doc Martins and stockings with lace patterns behind them going up to her knees. She’s all in black and has black hair.. Oh, they’re still a school group. A schoolmaster has just come round counting them, with a faun jacket and balding hair and leads them off. They’re Italian!

An African comes round with hats and sunglasses and for some reason picks out the women sitting at the next table, who refuse his offers. One of them has tats of bamboo and Japanese mountains going up her upper arm and a mystic symbol below the nape of her neck. Long black rather stragglyhair matted into beads at the ends when it doesn’t give way to split ends. Her friend in blue jean shorts just has a tat behind her ear in a semi-circular pattern of teeth or nails. She has very frizzy hair pinned back with a pencil. Could come in handy. Her dog is tethered by a lead under the metal leg of her seat. They’re drinking beer and eating peanuts and the first one is smoking. Oh the other one has a tat of a bat on the back of her hand too, but she is not as extensively tattooed as the first. How many people are smoking at the moment? Just her. No an Asian man of short stature has just gone past sucking on a fag.

A bevvy of white and grey cars. Two tall chaps walk past. How do I know they’re English. Their haircuts I think. I wonder if they ARE English. They look yachty too. A huge unleashed dog trots by with a silver collar on. Don’t know the breeds.

A jogger! A dark-skin woman stands and rubs her leg with the other leg reading the military inscription on the fountain. She lets her leg down and moves off.

The stage I have before me is quite a short walk for the performers, it’s less than 180 degrees. I’m going to time the next walker moving at a regular pace, not strolling or dawdling. Oh I see that measurement depends on age, as an old man walking briskly is still slower than an earnest jeune with places to go. I just measured an active middle aged woman, short statue, bustling past and smoking as she does so. 20 seconds from the corner of Rue Aubernon and out of sight.

A middle-aged fellow on a very old, but very clean white racing bike rides past and up the hill, leaning down to change the gear on the diagonal down tube. That’s how I know it’s an old bike.

A tough-looking old local in a grimy t-shirt washes his hand in the fountain. He’s carrying fruit and shouts hello to the people in the restaurant. I thought he would.

A pram! There haven’t been so many of them about this time of night.

A bright orange Lotus has gone past, small, weird and wavy-shaped. When did Lotus lose their sense of style?

Wow, here’s a good one. White hat, green jacket, flowery yellow shirt,, bright orange trousers, white sneakers with a flash of black on them, long white hair and whiskers, opening a packet of Marlboro.

A lot of kids on bikes.. A tiny little girl on a tiny green bike with her grandparents.

Someone who looks like a barber standing on the corner of the other side of the road. It’s because of his clean white jacket I think so. Maybe he’s a cook having a rest. Sunglasses, rap attention up the street where I can’t see. Pulls out some Marlboro and threw the foil away without looking. He’s ambled off under the passenger tunnel.

Lots of dogs on leashes about. Must be dog-walking time after work. For a second the area was almost empty, with someone just leaving and someone just entering. No traffic either. That would have been a wonderful moment.

A tall unhappy teenager with long ginger hair walks by. The jogger’s come back and thanks a car for stopping for her. Another jogger with a yellow shirt, listening to music. A very erect old man with red rain jacket, dark brown trousers (possibly corduroy) and blue deck shoes comes past, pausing to look at his watch.

It’s 6.38 and the owners are beginning to take the metal chairs in and place red oil lamps on the two big barrels beneath the umbrella that lead the customers in for the evening meal.

What shall I have tonight? Moving into the café, I’m looking at the fountain head on. The evening light sharply cleaves the face of the bas-relief satyr that is now directly facing me into light and dark. The silhouette of the satyr in profile to the right looks as if it’s blowing water out of a cigar. On the left the silhouette is incoherent. It looks like a lump of uncarved marble, and the mouth that holds the water pipe is out of sight. Oh they’re NOT proper oil lamps. They have electric bulbs and the cap where you would pour the oil in is the switch you use to turn them on. Good imiations though. I had basil pasta.


Guest Posts

This list needs culling, yet is irritating in missing out the best examples I can’t quite think of:

Waiting for computers to do things. Getting trapped by computers finishing things when I have to go somewhere. It’s rude.

Someone you want to check out walking the opposite direction on the other side of the road getting blocked by a tree or a pole.

People in front of you walking into the shop you want to go into and lengthening the queue.

People turning right in their cars.

People taking their time to start at traffic lights when with a bit of good timing we could all start off together before the lights change.

Anxiety waiting for the ATM to decide if you can have some money when you know it’s probably going to.

People trying the toilet door when you’re in there.

People being in there when you’re trying the toilet door.

Single socks

Darryn Hinch

Cyclists when you’re driving.

Drivers when you’re cycling.

Pedestrians when you’re cycling on footpaths.

Cyclists when you’re walking on footpaths (presumably, I wouldn’t know).

Pedestrians when you’re driving

Drivers when you’re walking

The experience of hypocrisy in moving between any of these categories.

Meryl Streep

Woody Allen

People who recognize you when you don’t recognize them.

I don’t mind it the other way round, I just stay quiet.

Michael Parkinson


Not writing



Car parks

People who spend much more time than they save compiling minimalist emails, especially when they’re all lower case without punctuation (that must take ages) I really could throttle them especially when they’re some kind of big wig trying to make yourself feel up yourself for using capitals when we all do most of the time

Alan Jones (no, he’s beyond annoying, makes me murderous)

Women who assume I’m sexist just because I’m old and might be a bit.

Men in their forties

People who say ‘do, this, do that, THANKS’ (actually I think that’s funny)

People who say ‘I need you to …’ especially when they’re not police or army or something. Why do they think I need to know what they need? I need them to know they should FUCK OFF

Margaret Throsby

Straight art history

Hip art history

‘Theorists’ who don’t KNOW anything

Positivists who can’t THINK.

Coercively pretentious intellectual snobbery, e.g. (sent me from a colleague in London): ‘Re. my paper, I really like your outline Fabio. The only problem with my collocation is that I will talk about time-images in relation to the spatiality of post-war Rome and the emergence of a modernist aesthetic stemming from  Rome’s cityscape. In other words, it’d be more bergsonian and deleuzian than warburgian and benjaminian (though of course there is a filo rosso which links Benjamin and Warburg to Deleuze and Bergson). I’d propose to change the focus from Warburg/Benjamin to ‘Anti-linear Temporalities’. In this way the concept of the panel should sound more inclusive, but let me know what you all think.’

People who constantly inflict their problems on you but never have the guts to seek the therapy they need.

People who accept your curiosity in them as a God-given right without ever seeking to return it. (I call them ‘one-way valves’)

Tydeman Road, near the port here. I will drive miles to avoid it.

Being ignored when you walk into a shop.



Couples who lavish excessive affection on each other when they’ve been together for years, especially in the company of singles who haven’t had partners for years. What are they trying to prove?

People who take offence at a deliberate exaggeration when explaining it makes it far less funny than it was in the first place.

People who gossip about other people so viciously you’re sure they’ll do the same to you (I’m thinking particularly of …..).

Left wing academics from the University of Melbourne who brag about how few hours teaching they have to do.

People from Melbourne and Sydney who shit on Perth’s parochialism when they haven’t been to Paris, Rome or New York.

TV celebrities I’ve never heard of who show no particular talents when they’re interviewed.

English people confidently pronouncing on the inadequacies of Australia.

Increasingly, English people.

People who pronounce themselves Citizens of the World when they haven’t seen much of it.


People who are always annoyed.

People who think that knowing their own faults exonerates them.

People who apologise for doing things they needn’t have done in the first place.

Blokes who assume I share their low opinion of women.

Barristas, as opposed to people who just make good coffee.

Too much coffee

People who don’t see the good in dim people, including many dim people.

Roads you can’t cross because of an interminable stream of widely spaced, fast-moving traffic.

Science programmes that draw out the suspense of a story that could be told in about three minutes.

Newspaper features on the Anzacs, the Battle of Britain, the Nazis.

The Australian Newspaper

Chris Allan

Michael Cathcart (I used to know him)

Philip Adams saying Gladdies and ‘this little radio programme’ and being excessively flattering to ALL his guests

Michael Parkinson for priding himself on disliking any of his celebrity guests when his only cause for fame is interviewing them (badly, for the most part).

Certain British radio programmes, chiefly Songs of Praise, which is not just annoying, but soul-destroying.

Bruce Forsyth, and yet I saw a rather moving ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ in which he ‘owned’ a more than slightly fraudulent ancestor who was a brilliant landscape architect but constantly abandoned women who cared for him and died living by himself in a hotel just before he ran out of money. He acknowledged certain of his own characteristics in him and placed flowers on his wholly untended grave while continuing to express disappointment in him and in himself. It made me think he had chosen the wrong career but I don’t know what the right one would have been.

It annoys me that I’ve been meaning to make this list for years but could only think of one or two items at a time and now it’s all come flooding out but a lot of these are in a different category from annoying and now even thinking about it is getting too serious. It should be things you hardly notice, not go to town on like some weirdo obsessive compulsive. Annoyance is not the same as dislike.

People who piteously blame themselves in lieu of changing.

People who seek refuge in cynicism on the delusional assumption that it’s a more objective state of mind.

Unconvincing optimists.


Most student essays, especially conventionally competent ones, safely covering the ground, unless I’ve discovered their authors have been doing something significantly more interesting in their spare time (I mean interesting to me)

People judging people all the time.

Frieda Khalo (mostly)

Salvador Dali (mostly)

Val Doonican

Christopher Pyne

The decorative feature that surmounts the Melbourne opera house (and probably the one on the Canberra Parliament)




Telling anecdotes you’ve told before without catching yourself, particularly to certain people you don’t know very well yet and sometimes just to certain people however well you know them. Not knowing why I do this or what is it about the people that make me do this.

The Poetica programme on ABC radio with the footsteps theme tune.

A lot of period dramas, unless I like them.

Most of the 7.30 Report, and having to wait for segments I want to see after the dross.

Losing the 7.30 Report ‘cos of government cuts

An aweful lot of interviews with men in suites who are good at their jobs but probably nothing else whose ‘terms of reference’ implicitly exclude any other ways of looking at the world.

Most sport commentators, including, eventually, Roy and H.G., who, to be fair, probably got fed up of themselves.

Flacko, eventually.

Far too many Americans for the quietness of my conscience.

Jeans that work their way down my thighs all the time.

Quentin Hogg

People who don’t know who Quentin Hogg is.

Petula Clark (maybe not)

Jimmy Edwards

The Goodies

What’s his name: Humperdink, Engelbert

Tom Jones (maybe even the novel)

The Elvis cult

The Da Vinci Code (and whoever wrote it)

A lot of English departments and an awful lot of the novels their staff write The Book Show and the woman that runs it and the bloke she’s married to, especially after that ghastly quizz show he ran, what was it ‘Rankles’ or something

Renault cars


Most new housing estates


Stretch limmos

Generation Y

People who go bonkers when their cars get bumped in car parks, and who get out and walk around them, accusationally.

‘The Middle East’

The Royal Family

Clive James

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Getting to quite like Jeremy Clarkson despite myself.



Travel Lies: 1

Guest Posts

The taxi driver at Newcastle airport was amused to hear the reason for my delayed arrival: fog at Dubai.

Presumably the joke was that only places like Newcastle had fog. It was a bright Sunday afternoon, at about 4 pm. We put the bags in and started off on the half hour trip to Trevelyan College, Durham University. He’d been holding a printed sign that must have used a lot of ink, where everyone else’s was hand-written: Professor Richard Read, as if he were me and I were a complete stranger. He was about my height and looked very English. He had a brown coat and a beard that might once have been ginger but was now wizened and the funny thing was that the hair around his mouth, on the moustache above and the beard below was white except for the very tips, which were minutely blackened, as if he’d been eating liquorice or drinking cocoa or something. Odd.

He was very confident and treated me in his Jordie accent like a complete equal, which was a relief. When I told him I originally came from Wolverhampton he said I didn’t have an accent so I told him that my mother had cudgeled me to prevent me ever getting one and he roared with laughter. We were friends after that, but I was a bit suspicious. He worked for ‘Carefree Cabs’ but he eventually revealed that he would probably be taking all the fellows from the airport, and could name some of the people who worked for the IAS (Institute of Advanced Studies, my host). Was he a ‘plant’ by the IAS to make a first assessment of me?

Sheer paranoia. He could have been a military man at some stage, having an erect bearing. He was very careful to tell both sides of every story so as to conceal his politics, which I suppose was only being polite. His father had gone down the mines but got out of them after joining the army and would never allow him to go down. All sorts of communities had lost their jobs (when Thatcher closed the mines) but what kind of a life was mining anyway?

We passed Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, the figure standing on the hilltop with aircraft wings massively outstretched instead of arms. I thought it was magnificent, especially as the motorway curved round beneath it. He didn’t seem to mind it but was more interested in explaining that it was originally funded to help elevate the depressed brother town of Gateshead, but instead became the Angel of the North which went against its whole purpose. I didn’t see why, and indeed someone I spoke to today who lives in Gateshead (the nice part, she said, so it must indeed be a dump) said she liked the aura that the title gave as an entrance statement to all that is Northern. He argued that the trees we were driving past should be thirty feet lower so as to show the Cathedral we were approaching to be advantage. It is indeed magnificent, balanced on its precipitous river bank. He uttered one unambiguous value judgement as we approached the student union beyond the bridge and at the bottom of the long road up the hill that passes through the rest of the university.

‘It’s built by the same bloke who built your Opera House, but whereas he did a good job there, this is an absolute disaster, just ugly grey blocks doing nothing, an absolute disgrace.’ I really liked it but decided it was best to keep my opinion to myself in case he burnt my head off. He wasn’t going to change his mind and clearly thought this was one opinion that no one would disagree with. Even so, he managed to be even-handed about Utzon too – did a good job on your Opera House. (Actually, why would he like that but not this?)

We bantered on, I can’t remember what about, and as we approached the college he started joking about wives, for I’d explained that mine was arriving in six weeks time.

‘You’ve got plenty of time then. What you do here stays here.’

‘I’ve heard that one before, and anyway, she’ll be here and winkle it out of everyone.’

He roared with laughter and as I shut the passenger door to let him take off, he laughed so loud that a jet of yellow flame about a yard long shot from his mouth and flattened itself against the passenger window. I was so startled that all I could think of was why it didn’t set fire to the plastic around the window or the felt on the roof, but as he roared off I saw what make it was and all was explained. The brand name on the back made it clear he was driving a Hyundai Asbestos.

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Durham University Student Union Building

Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North

Richard Read – Retirement Speech 2014

Guest Posts

One of our guest bloggers Richard Read retired yesterday after 25 years of teaching at The University of Western Australia. His farewell was held last night at the University’s Cullity gallery where it was announced there will forever be a prize in art history in his name. Here is Richard’s speech from the night; this isn’t one of those mundane retirement speeches – instead it’s one worth reading! 

It’s all true. No thank you very much for those ludicrously kind lies, Simon. It’s a long time now since I first met you looking a bit like Hamlet and at that time keeping plans for a stellar career close to your chest. It’s really kind of you to put on such a wonderful spread for me.

Good speeches should be short and sharp. This is a bad speech that will last well over twenty five minutes so charge your glasses. At last a subject dear to my heart that some say I have always lectured on: MYSELF. 

There is good news from UK. Finally the craze for playing Monty Python’s ‘look on the bright side of life’ at funerals is over. But now there’s something far worse. The deceased are employing actors to impersonate themselves at funerals. Now I am full of admiration and gratitude for those elegantly designed programme cards – thanks to Roger Garwood for the unacknowledged photograph on the back – but I cannot help noticing their uncanny resemblance to a funeral programme. ‘Having reached the venerable age of twenty five, Richard Read, 1990 to 2015, died peacefully in the bosom of his Faculty.’ If I hadn’t been an academic I would probably have trod the boards as a thespian. Now I can combine both professions by playing myself at my own last rites – hence the macabre t-shirt.

Continue reading

Due to the wonders of technology the voice of Dr Georgina Downey was beamed into the room of listeners from a galaxy far away (or possibly the University of Adelaide).  You can read Georgina’s contribution here.



Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

Guest Posts

Captain Beefheart is one of the most serious weird musos of all time. He and his Magic Band were promoted to be the next Beatles (he does a wonderful parody of Strawberry Fields Forever’ and they were more interested in him than he ever was in them), but his musical and theatrical imagination was so strenuous that he soon pissed off the major companies, and since he was in the habit of signing every commercial contract he was offered, he soon got hamstrung and was ‘rescued’ for a tour by the second weirdest US musician, Frank Zappa, who reckoned he was doing the poor man a favour but in fact was getting the best vocalist with the widest range and most powerful ideas on the scene. Beefheart was also an obsessive artist who constantly made satirical drawings of Zappa on the tour which drove Frank into towering rages.


I saw Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in Birmingham Town Hall in the 1970s. He was very late starting in the packed and darkened hall. Then a pencil spotlight focused on a ballet dancer who performed politely. Cat calls from the audience. Then more darkness and boos. Then another spotlight beam on a BELLY dancer (Beefheart, also a fabulous poet, would have liked the pun on ballet/belly).

More darkness for a very long time. Then a spotlight beam on … what was it? A silver TOASTER. The beam broadened to show that it was strapped to the head of the bass guitarist, Zoot Horn Rollo, who then did a ten minute solo cavorting up and down the stage in a painful looking duck walk for ten minutes before the great man came on in his commanding cape. At another concert in Cambridge I saw Britain’s most important (still) living poet seated in the audience, J. H. Prynne, clutching his knee and grinning. 

One of Beefheart’s best and strangest albums is Trout Mask Replica, a double LP here improbably shown in the hands of President Obama. According to president Obama, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band encompassed everything that he believes is great about this country: resolution to express the truth through illogical imagery, creativity in the face of all prescriptions to be practical, and “the craziest fucking time-signature changes” ever heard in rock. He cited John “Drumbo” French in particular, whose breakneck drumming and arranging of Beefheart’s music “perfectly encapsulates the potential for exploration and job growth that I see in every young person in America every day.” WHAAT!??.


Despite the complexity and spontaneity the album was drill-routined to perfection by the Captain who had kept the band in virtual house-arrest with very little food for a whole year. It was recoded straight out in an incredible four hours. In his later years Beefheart abandoned music to pursue a financially and artistically highly successful career as an abstract artist after being diagnosed with MS.

In John Peel’s brilliant film about him and the band (Peale was the BBC’s alternative music guru who started off on the pirate music station Radio Caroline that all British teenagers of the 60s were glued to), he looks silently out at the camera for ages like a very old, senile man, then he raises his palm just like the album cover of Trout Mask Replica. The thing about his art and music is that he looks like he comes from the cauldron of the city, but actually he’s inspired by his native Californian desert, the surprising things: buzzards, rattlesnakes, lizards and tumbleweed: ‘The sun is a big, black shiny bug’. If you hate his music first time then don’t try again, for you’ll get hooked in to his bizarre, unprecedented but often kindly world, peopled with children, elderly eccentrics and octopi, despite threatening his band with a loaded cross bow on occasions. Ry Cooder was an early recruit who got out while the going was good wondering what on earth had happened to him. Here are maybe some desert lyrics from Trout Mask Replica:

Light floats down day river on uh red raft o’ blood
Night blocks out d’ heaven like uh big black shiny bug
Its hard soft shell shinin’ white in one spot well
It’s hard place dat I’m livin’ but I’m doin’ well well
The white ice horse melted like uh spot uh silver well
Its mane went last then disappeared the tail
My life ran thru my veins
Whistlin’ hollow well
I froze in solid motion well well
I heard the ocean swarmin’ body well well
I heard the beetle clickin’ well
I sensed the thickest silence scream
Then I begin t’ dream
My mind cracked like custard
Ran red until it sealed
Turn t’ wooden ‘n rolled like uh wheel well well
Thick black felt birds uh flyin’
With capes of solid chrome
With feathers of solid chrome
‘n beaks of solid bone
‘n bleach the air around them
White ‘n cold well well
Till it showed in pain
The hollow cane clicked like ever after
Its shadow vanished shinin’ silence
Well well





The Lift Project: not to be missed/mis-placed.

Guest Posts

Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr Permangelo E. Regularis, curator and art agent for a small but significant stable of established and emerging Australian artists. I am proud to present them to you here – they are Nola Farman, Nora Fleming, Desirée de Kikk, Noel Farina, Victoria (Vicky) Versa, Flavia Dejour and Marco Smudge. 

One of my artists, Desirée de Kikk, who is both a writer and performance artist has asked (dare I say demanded) to write our first blog.  She insists that she has something rather urgent to bring to the attention of your readers – a matter of significance and pertinence to the state of contemporary art in West Australia – and beyond. It concerns the fact that the Art Gallery of Western Australia is planning to de-accession The Lift Project (by Nola Farman and Michael Brown) from its collection – an iconic artwork first shown in 1983, that has been acclaimed internationally (it received an award at Ars Electronica) and influenced a generation of West Australian artists.

In Desirée’s words: ‘It has just come to my attention that the Art Gallery of Western Australia plans to de-accession an iconic artwork made by Nola Farman and Michael Brown in the early 1980s. After a brief conversation with Nola, I understand that the reasons given for this act of de-accessioning make it clear that the institutional memory of the Art gallery has faded with the change and passing of staff. It is now claimed that it takes several weeks to install the Lift. In fact with the use of an operating manual provided by the artists, Michael Brown (the designer of the piece and an award-winning industrial designer in his own right) tells me it takes only five days (or less) to assemble. It can then be demounted and packaged in one day. Once put together, upon installation, the Lift will then automatically switch itself on with the daily opening of the Gallery, set all its own systems to the ready and wait for the first lift rider to arrive, push the start button and open the sliding doors. It then swallows the rider and “transports” them in a tantalizing 10 minute experience of vertical travel!  As I recall, it is like a kind of Tardis with an ever-expanding internal space – the space of fear, displacement and the imagination. 

‘It is also claimed by the gallery, that the technology is outmoded and cannot be operated without being upgraded. Not true! The original system is functional and appropriate (even vital) in an artwork that is in essence a self-reflexive machine, tailored in an historic sense to its time and place. A dedicated computer coordinates the doors, lights, sound and images back-projected onto the walls by three slide projectors. In fact the old clunking sound at the change of slides was deliberately conceptualised as an integral element in the sound track – a reference to the machine. This exemplifies one theory of the lift phobia, that we have a terror of placing ourselves in the power of a machine. The sequence of this lift experience, traces an audio-visual passage through an anatomy of a phobia to a kind of epiphany or sense of “flooding viva”. 


‘To complicate and deepen the experience, the Lift telephone, conventionally used to escape entrapment in the case of machine malfunction, in this case its audio sequence makes reference to a primal slip into the subconscious or a passage to Hell. As the late Jill Bradshaw wrote in the Lift catalogue, “… the lift telephone provides the passenger with the knowledge or information which will enable him/her to traverse the terrors of the psyche unscathed, just as the golden bough gave Aeneas immunity in the Underworld. Armed with this verbal talisman – the awareness of fears, anxieties and phobias which constitute the basis of the rites of passage – the traveller has the power to name and therefore to vanquish the perils encountered in the journey towards self-knowledge.” Jill writes on: “The lift is in a sense a journey and it is in a sense the shortest possible journey one can make and yet which can be psychologically the equivalent of a major displacement in time and space. Few people will remain unchanged by the experience of the lift-piece because of its manifest power to evoke the sequeilae of the rites of passage during a brief moment of displacement.” 

‘This complex work was arguably one of first of its kind in Australia – even before early audio-visual systems were commonly used. To my mind it has a unique place in Australian art history – it is special for Western Australia. If anyone reading this blog was fortunate enough to have experienced this artwork in the 1980s (or even if you wish you had) I urge you to write to Jenepher Duncan, the Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, to ask for at least one more viewing before the artwork is dismantled. Adding to this, I have heard that there is some discussion in Sydney of a large retrospective showing of the works of Nola Farman. The re-exhibition of The Lift project could be a significant West Australian contribution to such an event.

‘In the end, ideally, The Lift Project would be located in a collection. However its sheer size and the number of packages involved could be daunting for the conventional collector.’





Hypnagogic Art Mummies: Die First, Buy Later

Guest Posts

Cathy Wilkes was up for a Turner prize. Her gallery installation Non-Verbal (2011) reminds me of a childhood episode. It was the first time I ventured to the bottom of the road by myself and turned onto the busy main road at the bottom, which was out of bounds due to the heavy traffic. After proceeding along the pavement as far as the corner shop I turned back towards the safety of my own road. Suddenly I had the uncanny impression that all the grown up pedestrians walking towards me were all robots programmed to pass me at that particular point, as if there were officials in trilby hats with clip boards and stop watches hidden round corners telling them go so they would pass me at exactly the right time. It was a world stripped of accident. Nothing was left to chance. And though nothing  threatened me, there was an overwhelming sense of loneliness in a crowd. The nearest I have ever come to anything like it was the beginning of The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey is growing up unawares in a completely pre-planned ‘(ir)reality show’. I was the only person in the universe under my own steam.