On the ashes of the stars...

Stéphane Mallarmé: A celebration
Monash University Gallery, Melbourne

Q: What does an origami squid have in common with a dead French poet ?

A: A sense of occasion.


Stephane Mallarme's (1842-1898) quest is also a 'contemporary' one-that of overcoming the distance between abstract thought and actuality, and sensation and object. Mallarme's solution was, in part, transcription of abstracts into form via the use of contingent variables, and an erasure of authority which resulted in the creation of a new order, a new method of recording the occasion; new formal solutions. The occasion under scrutiny here was a salute to the dead poet, a scholarly exhibition guest curated by Michael Graf at Monash University Gallery.

The exhibition was impressive in the range of ideas it presented through the works of twenty-two artists. It set out to achieve the curator's aim of expressing: 'the nature of living with Mallarme for the last hundred years'.1 While Graf did not attempt to gather a group of mallarmists, he did bring together works by artists which he felt addressed a Mallarmean sense or feeling of the arbitrary nature of meaning, or which contributed to a particular Mallarmean textuality.

Most of the chosen works did comply with this discourse in a pleasingly playful, non-intellectualised fashion. Mallarme's work stressed the idea, in its sensual rather than intellectual manifestations, through a self-supporting formal system. This stylistic and conceptual melding was presented in the exhibition through works like Susan Norrie's elegant sculptures which 'form themselves' from their embodied ideas, or Bea Maddock's rhythmic recordings of the passage of a specific time. It also was elegantly presented in the selection of etchings by Henri Matisse (commissioned in 1930), which illustrate certain images drawn from Mallarme 's evocative poetry.2

Mallarme's generation of self-conscious avant-garde innovations was in part the product of the massive social changes in post-Haussmannised Paris. The changed structures of any society result in newly invented forms of (self) expression. The inclusion of the (constructed) chance element in artmaking became the key of understanding the process of giving form to an idea. Rose Nolan's work in the exhibition, The Present Series, employed a similar practice for the construction of meaning. Stephen Bram's site specific painting also relied on the arbitrary to construct the form, and thus the process contributes to the meaning of the work.

Unfortunately, none of the works included in the exhibition displayed a 'feminist' textuality- which could have been a further interesting play with the Mallarmean textual model as a model of (capitalist-patriarchal) language-as illusory, a babel.

Tokyo-based artist Yasuhito Nagahara's allegories of Erik Satie 's scores, Ginsberg's babel and Mallarme's attempted glossography of the world, offered a beautiful but ultimately shallow doubling of language. Nagahara's works aspired to Mallarme's intervention in the realisation of meanings in his work, 'Un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard' ('A throw of the dice will never abolish chance', published 1897), but conceptually were quite stiff in their obvious redemption/adoration of the styles of visual poetry. Formally, Nagahara's Mallarmean connection was stronger, with allegories of a play with vision, via the use of stereoscopic viewers and a mirror piece, reminding the viewer of the importance of Mallarme's developments in the visual placement of things, and how the spacing of things affects sensory and cognitive perception. This seems obvious to the contemporary viewer, familiar, for example, with the work of John Cage, or with performance art which attempts to give form to space through the figure and its imaginary, constructed, or desired discourse.

The Mallarmean textual model offers a way of thinking of the possibility of an equality of relations in the world, as it destroys the stability of given objects, and given meanings. Perhaps the closest sense of the Mallarmean legacy of a playful and yet deadly destruction of the stability of signifiers was found in a work by the Melbourne artist Graeme Hare. The work played a classic Mallarmean 'un coup de des'. Taking his cue from an exhibition invitation of 1883 for an Exposition des Arts Incoherents, which depicted an origami Eiffel tower, Hare turned one of his own large abstract photographs into a sculpture-an origami squid. Hare's photographs have in their lineage Mallarmean spatiality, and concrete poetry's capacity, like all abstraction, to present an awareness of something-be it an object, idea, emotion, history-without presenting the actual 'thing'. The use of origami offers one of the perfect models for thinking about art practice, as origami is the art of folding and shaping to make a new, hybrid form – an art based on tradition, yet capable of innovation and invention. Expression is unlimited in scope. It is this ability to delineate sensation without proscription which Mallarme's work valiantly attempted to capture.



I. Michael Graf, 'The Coffin's Empty!', On the ashes of the stars ... Stephane Mallarme a celebration, ex. cat., Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, 1998, p. 4.

2. These works are further described in Fiona Caro, 'Henri Matisse- Stephane Mallarme, Poesies', On the ashes of the stars ... , ex. cat. pp. 25-33.