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Born To Concrete
Paul Valéry once insisted that a poem could not be summarised.1 In 1897, Stéphane Mallarmé came close to disproving this. ‘Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard’ (‘A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance’), sees Mallarmé break his poem apart. Syncopated over multiple pages, white space and wild alignments combine to create a visual rhythm and form far away from mere text. William Marx described it as, ‘The founding poem of poetic modernity … the culmination of poetry in all senses of the term’.2 The poem’s second life as an artistic composition influenced many. Marcel Broodthaers famously obstructed all the text for his 1969 recreation of Un Coup de Dés, leaving it hidden behind black boxes that dramatically direct our focus to the compositional structure and white space. Looking back now, it is difficult not to see an interesting early referent of redaction in Broodthaers’ take. Appropriately, in its original definition, redaction means ‘to make ready for publication’, to edit in preparation for print. Presently, it means something vastly different, to remove from public view; to censor but not destroy, to conceal.
Broodthaers declared Mallarmé and Un Coup de Dés as the ‘source of modern art’, that Mallarmé ‘unwittingly invented modern space’.3 Broodthaers’ response was undoubtedly a reflection on Un Coup de Dés’s daringness. At the same time it related what was lost in Mallarmé’s action—of the denial of language. Mallarmé printed his version of Un Coup de Dés on three different quality of paper stocks. Broodthaers printed his on transparent paper, standard paper and on aluminium—extending his version’s capacity to influence by diversifying its applications. For Marx it was appropriate that the original Un Coup de Dés spoke intimately about a ship wrecked at sea. In Marx’s eyes, the original was ‘a disaster from which there is no return’, that it illustrated ‘the very impossibility of discourse … the closing in of language upon itself and its disconnection from the world’.4 The works featured in ‘Born To Concrete’ (and concrete poetry more broadly) are inherently built upon the shoulders of Mallarmé’s work. Before Broodthaers, Brazilian and Swiss artists had enthusiastically embraced Un Coup de Dés. In 1956, these young modernists declared a new movement—Poesia Concreta. Mary Ellen Solt’s index Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968) covered the Brazilians in great detail. At the time of publication, Sweeney Reed’s Strines Gallery in Melbourne had been open barely two years. It was not until 1969 that Australia saw its first solo concrete poetry show. That sole artist was Alex Selenitsch, who recalls the scene’s infancy at the time, in the publication accompanying Born To Concrete, ‘I am on my own, resigned to act out the Australian myth of the self-reliant pioneer who is nevertheless dependent on news from “overseas”’.5 Inhabiting the entire top floor of the University of Queensland Art Museum, Born To Concrete takes its name from the first Australian publication devoted entirely to concrete poetry. Incorporating 1960s and ’70s work from Sydney and Melbourne, the show was expanded to include Brisbane-based representatives. Initially conceived by the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2011, Born To Concrete’s extension to Queensland also rightly incorporates the work of a number of contemporary artists riffing on the legacy of poesia concreta.
The show opens daringly with a recent sound work—Situations–Eight Sound Sculptures (2008) by Eugene Carchesio. From above the entry to the Museum’s boardroom, a series of intermittent blips are heard. Our anticipation of the next sound shifts our attention towards the absence of it, the spacing. For Mallarmé, Broodthaers—and the Australian proponents of concrete poetry represented here—space and absence wield significant power. Examples in the show abound. In Selenitsch’s work monoton eeeeeee (1969) spacing allows monotone to also phonetically occupy monotony. Alan Riddell’s Radial Plea (b) (1969) is a blue, white and red text-based mandala presented on a canary yellow background. Spelling out the acronym SOS, the playfulness of the colours and composition belies the work’s apparent transcendental cry for rescue.
Townsville-born Riddell features heavily across the exhibition spaces. Mandala (a) and Somersault (a) (both 1969) carry the same format of individual letters recombined into symbols and shapes, this time on metallic, foil-like backgrounds. These works also highlight the maturing of print technology and practices at the time in Australia—artists and designers were increasingly able to push their work’s boundaries. Sweeney Reed is represented with a number of works, including Impounded Illusion (Horizon) #2 (1976), an embossed etching that spells out the letters HORIZON, cut across their middles with self-referential glee. Adelaide’s Richard Tipping also features—especially appropriate for Brisbane locals who know his public sculpture commission Watermark (2000). Spelling out the word flood in dark red powder-coated plate steel, Watermark was erected to commemorate the devastation of Brisbane’s 1893 and 1974 floods. The work also spoke to the city’s anxiety of the next natural disaster—a grave case of self-actualisation in 2011, when Tipping’s work became a literal watermark as flood waters swept into the lower levels of New Farm’s Powerhouse.
Despite Marx’s concerns for Un Coup de Dés’s legacy, the closing of one era allowed for the opening of another. The concrete poets, including those featured in this important exhibition, played a significant role in establishing the revolutionary mentality of the twentieth century. An era that Jean-Christophe Royoux describes as ‘a century of poetic experimentation that went beyond the limits of language’.6
Sweeney Reed, Rose I, 1977. Embossed etching, 16.5 x 15.5cm. Edition 7/10. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Gift of Pamela, Mishka and Danila McIntosh, 1990. © Estate of Sweeney Reed.
Alan Riddell, Radial Plea (b), 1969. Screenprint, 69.5 x 54cm. Edition 8/10. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Gift of Alex Selenitsch, 1989. © Ann Barr.
Alex Selenitsch, monoton eeeeeee, 1969. Plastic letters on enamel on composition board, 71.5 x 60 x 4cm. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Gift of Alex Selenitsch and Merron Selenitsch, 2011. © Reproduced courtesy of the artist, grahame galleries + editions, Brisbane, and Place Gallery, Melbourne.
1. Roland Greene, ‘From Dante to the Post-Concrete: An Interview With Augusto de Campos’, The Harvard Library Bulletin, Summer 1992, vol.3, no 2. Accessed online, http://www.ubu.com/papers/greene02.html
2. William Marx in Jean-Christophe Royoux, ‘Beyond the End of Narrative: Allegories, Constellations, Dispositifs’, Campagne Premiere, p.307. Accessed online, http://www.campagne-premiere.com/data/Text_royoux_beyond_the_end_of_narrative_cat_mdm
3. Museum label for Marcel Broodthaers, Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard, Museum of Modern Art, New York, for the exhibition ‘New to the Print Collection: Matisse to Bourgeois’, 13 June 2012–7 January 2013. Accessed online http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=146983
4. Marx in Royoux, op. cit.
5. Katarina Paseta, et al., Born to concrete: visual poetry from the collections of Heide.