'what makes this poem beautiful?'

Margaret Lawrence Gallery, VCA, Melbourne
29 May - 27 June 2009

Curated by Elizabeth Newman, ‘What Makes This Poem Beautiful?’ presented works by individuals and collectives linked by their relationship to the curator and to each other. As the nature of the relationships diverged from familial to professional, the web of connections presented the exact co-ordinates of the social location of the individual at the centre, namely Elizabeth Newman. A practising psychoanalyst, Elizabeth Newman’s visual art and writing are fortified by the weight of theory. But far from being heavy-going, Newman’s tone in all of her work is warm, engaging and affective. In the role of curator, Newman posed a question about the nature of art which precipitated a discussion, in her catalogue essay, about the source of creativity and the role of communities in art-making. Like a child turning over a rock to examine the life underneath, Newman put her own creativity community under a microscope and effectively used herself as a case study in her search for an answer.

The impulse to examine one’s social position is not unfamiliar to members of social networking sites, where the connections between individuals are publicly mapped and codified (‘How do you know Elizabeth?’). Like the data logged in Facebook, What Makes This Poem Beautiful? expanded in a web of insiders’ references to prior exhibitions and works. One example was Neon Parc’s contribution, Homage to Elizabeth Newman, MIR 11, a water cooler in a corner of the gallery with plastic cups free for visitors to help themselves, recalling an earlier work of Newman’s in which she provided a water-cooler to an office space whose inhabitants had invited her to exhibit a work.

Like a series of Venn diagrams, there were numerous links between the individuals included. Mick Douglas, who presented an installation originally curated for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, which fuses the experience of tram-travel in Melbourne with Karachi minibus travel, is the curator’s husband and the father of two children in the exhibition, Rachel and Lena Douglas. Rachel exhibited a drawing of different hairstyles, while Lena, in conjunction with her friend Laura, contributed homemade audio recordings she described as ‘just a few bits and pieces we put together for Mum’s exhibition’. Designer Neal Haslem presented designs completed for the Australian Centre for Psychoanalysis, of which Newman is a member. She met Neal through her husband, who now shares a studio with him.

Included in the exhibition were two independent groups—The Badiou Reading Group, and The Theatre of the Ordinary, lead by Al Wunder. The Badiou Reading Group, who meet fortnightly to read the work of philosopher Alain Badiou together, contributed a video looping photographs of their meetings alongside a taped recording of their discussion. A cluster of seats in the viewing space invited the audience to ‘sit in’ on the meeting. This formal collective was the inclusion that seemed the most distant from the personal, warm tone of What Makes This Poem Beautiful?, as the interaction between the speakers was relatively formal, and the conversation was no more engaging than that of most post-graduate critical theory seminars. Al Wunder’s theatre group perform improvised movements and exchanges. The video footage of this was both uncomfortable and amusing viewing, but ultimately proved that the value of improvisation goes to the performers themselves.

Stephen Bram, Marco Fusinato and Mutlu Çerkez each exhibited a piece of their own, but united their contribution with a joint statement written as a poem: ‘in Mutlu’s absence, the work we/ do (and he did) is the best remaining/ manifestation of our relationship./ even if he was still alive this solution would have been best’. This seems to get the closest to answering Newman’s question by suggesting that beauty exists in both the individual’s creative output, as well as in the genuine relationships that encourage the artist in their work and are the source of their creativity.

Newman herself contributed three works, one of which was Secret Poem (2009) an empty plywood frame. Looking at this made me realise that so much of this exhibition was invisible, existing privately in the bonds between the participants, the most private being that of the family at the centre of the network. The daughters, Rachel and Lena, would be at the age when one experiments with social relationships, as well as with creativity. They are lucky, I think, to grow up within such a supportive community. 

notes: 

What Makes This Poem Beautiful? included the Badiou Reading Group, Simon Boucher, Stephen Bram, Mutlu Çerkez, Maria Cruz, Lena Douglas, Mick Douglas, Rachel Douglas, Marco Fusinato, Neal Haslem, Neon Parc, Elizabeth Newman, Al Wunder and The Theatre of the Ordinary.