Tribute to Ian Burn

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 13:06 -- damien

One thing Ian never showed us was how to be productive creative in anguish. Which is something we have to invent.


To think about Ian is to think about the most unlikely of things.


When I heard he had drowned I remembered his affection for and sense of the tragedy of that great radical cartoonist Claude Marquet who drew for the labour movement through the 1917 General Strike in Australia and then that same year drowned in Botany Bay.


Retracing final conversations seems to be a way of remembering his way of thinking. He had talked about the Balkan war and the war crimes trials planned for the Hague, and that he'd been through there looking at Mondrian's with Mel Ramsden and Paul Partos in the mid-1960s. Recently he was thinking a lot about the 1960s, as a moment when a radical politics became possible for artists. It was why he found the exhibition Mao Goes Pop interesting, for some of the artists were reworking the Mao effect and, as an ex-New York Art & Language Maoist, he hadn't previously seen ways in which that particular legacy could work in this age of lost socialist ideals. The show which he curated earlier this year, Looking at Seeing & Reading, which was intended to frame, or be framed, by the retrospective of his Minimal-Conceptual Work, was. part of this line of thinking. Ian didn't particularly like the curating business but he wanted to make certain arguments about perceptions and politics which could only work in a gallery. For instance, he wanted people to engage with the possibilities created by placing an Ad Reinhardt black square beside one of Reinhardt's union leaflets. Ian wanted this work of the '60s to make sense of contemporary local art, because he was critical about the idea that interesting ideas came from elsewhere.


Ian's writing exists in many forms-part of the material of his art, his books, letters, lectures, union publications, reviews and, for those to whom Ian was so generous, the side notes made to open up the writing of others. He considered contemporary Australian artists to be, by and large, not well served by their art historians. While it was not his career, and mostly he wrote after work, on the side, at night and weekends, he was Australian art's most creative writer. Appropriately the final line of his acknowledgments in the landscape book reads: "the book owes a great deal to Avril, Daniel and Rebecca for whom it was a long and dull summer." It's hard to remember how much has changed, how much Ian changed, and how much he made things change over the sixteen years since he came back to live in Sydney. I was very much in awe of him when he came to visit Melbourne in May, 1977, to do, as the gang of three, a workshop on "Cultural Imperialism" at Preston Art School where Charles Merewether and I taught 'Art Theory' and published The Great Divide. He raised serious questions, from the inside, about our cultural politics, a local v~rsion of avant garde activism. Two years later we were drawn to Sydney by Ian's desire to seriously change the values and practices of the artworld, through the media action group, later known as Union Media Services, through the Artworkers Union, through teaching and rewriting Australian art and labour culture and through making art. And so began many collaborative projects, like that of 'the model', our name for that seemingly interminable project began in 1979 that became the book, The Necessity of Australian Art.


Each summer holiday when the Burn family made the trip down the Hume Highway to Geelong, Ian would scour regional gallery collections to build up in his own mind a sense of visual culture. He made us see in ways no one had made us see before. He explained how he came to write about art as a painter at the beginning of National Life and Landscapes:


Many people have influenced my understanding of Australian art and the structures through which its history might be argued. In particular at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, Alan Sumner conveyed to me the sense of being part of, and thus in context with, a long tradition of art in Australia. John Brack, in a time of expressionist excesses, confirmed the importance of an intellectual and critical tradition of art in Australia, and Fred Williams showed me how the surface of a painting becomes the real site for arguing a history of art.


He then refers to that remarkable shift in his life: "My involvement with conceptual art during the late '60s and after, shaped a more critical relation to the history of modernism." More recently and no less remarkably he was working through the insights of postcolonial writing to prise apart the dualism and certainties of European modernism. He was convinced that our locality " ... where the Western vision has been disturbed long enough by other cultures" held the possibility of a 'peripheral vision' "which 'cuts across' cultures, producing moments of (seeming) clarity when conflicting cultural traditions see eye-to-eye without appearing to look at each other." To write with him was to have the exquisite pleasure of seeing intuitions and half grasped ideas subjected to a profound logic. Recently with typical breathtaking modesty Ian spoke about his new exhibition, Collaborations, as being, amongst other things, about making his writing more vulnerable to the visual. He made more sense of the world than anyone else I knew and it is very hard to think, or think about seeing, without him.