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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 29, No. 1, Mar 2006

Artists’ Books in Australia

by Sarah Bodman

Focus on Artists’ Books 3 – Artspace Mackay, Queensland, Australia, February 2006
A series of exhibitions, masterclasses, displays, workshops and conference.

I was honoured to be invited as one of the six international speakers for the Focus on Artists’ Books conference, and to stay on for a two-week, artist’s residency in the Visual Arts department of Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW. Artspace Mackay hosts this annual event with 132 delegates from Australia, Germany, Republic of Korea, USA and the UK, attending this year. Artspace is in the heart of Mackay town, surrounded by coconut palms, which fill up with noisy yet endearing, colourful lorikeets each evening. The gallery plays a significant role in the community, spreading the word about artists’ books to an interested and very amiable neighbourhood.

Focus on Artists’ Books is part of Artspace Mackay’s ambitious programme to promote the book arts throughout Australia, with events, exchanges, exhibitions and the annual conference, which attracts practitioners, curators and commentators from the field of artists’ books. This year’s event – which also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Print Council of Australia and Imprint Magazine - saw artists, academics, gallerists and collectors invited to present papers, join discussions, show their artworks and run classes and workshops throughout the five-day event.

This was also Artspace Mackay’s third anniversary. An initial collection of artists’ books by the librarian at Mackay City Library inspired Robert Heather, the director of Artspace Mackay to concentrate on this specialism. A purpose built, architectural masterpiece houses the gallery, which also includes the superb resource of the Tate Adams Reading Room for reference publications on book arts.

The keynote speech: Book Arts in Society by the American artist Marshall Weber from the Booklyn artists’ collective, New York (www.booklyn.org), provided an inspirational overview of contemporary artists’ publishing in the field of popular culture and artists’ books; from political publishing, poetry and zines, to oral culture and performance-based works. Weber’s speech was a call to all artists and academics to embrace the multiplicity of contemporary artists’ publishing in all its forms. Weber applauded librarians as the new ‘cultural anarchists’ in their efforts to collaborate with other departments within education to promote artists’ books and utilise them as tools for literacy and the arts.

The launch of The 1st Libris Awards: Australian artists’ books prize and exhibition included an enormous display of Australian artists’ books with over 180 entries (twice the anticipated amount by the organisers). These included well-known artists such as Jan Davis, Stephen Spurrier, Diane Fogwell, Diane Longley, Tim Mosely, Tomasso Durante and Judy Watson as well as less-established and student artists. The Mackay City Council National Artist’s Book Award, an acquisitive prize, judged by Roger Butler (curator of Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) deservedly went to Clive McGill for They Burnt My Boat. I also particularly liked Janis R. Nedéla’s Codex No. 5 a sculptural bookwork with tiny nails through each letter of the double-pages text of an opened book; the head of each nail colour-coded for the letter in the text it had skewered. Scripta Manent an exhibition of large-scale linocuts by Angela Cavalieri was also on display, and galleries in Mackay showed works by artists including: Glen Skien, Adele Outteridge, Wim de Vos, Juli Haas and Tate Adams to accompany the conference.

The first panel was a response to Johanna Drucker’s (much debated) essay Critical Issues/Exemplary Works in the e-journal The Bonefolder (Vol 1, No.2 Spring 2005 www.philobiblon.com/bonefolder). The panel including: Noreen Grahame (Grahame Gallery and Editions, Brisbane) Des Cowley (Rare Books Librarian, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne) Ron McBurnie (Monsoon publishing, Townsville) and Scott McCarney (artist and lecturer, RIT, Rochester, NY, USA) discussed their own and others’ reactions to Drucker’s essay. It was agreed that it even if people had not agreed with Drucker’s views, it had at least got people to start talking about how the field can move forward. An interesting aside from the panel was the importance of the internet for viewing examples and documentation of artists’ books as a critical means to expand the knowledge of this field. Digitising collections has also recently been suggested in the UK as a research and viewing tool, and many librarians are keen to do this once issues of copyright have been resolved.

The second panel centred on the Sufferance: women’s artists’ books exhibition. This project was developed by the State Library of Queensland, an involved eleven artists being commissioned to research the library’s archive of women’s suffrage in Queensland, and make a work in response to their findings. The project commemorated the Centenary of Women’s suffrage and the 40th anniversary of Indigenous Peoples gaining the right to vote. The resulting exhibition was held at the CQ Gallery, Brisbane last September; it included a beautiful set of sculptural metalwork books made as a collaboration by the jeweller Barbara Heath with Malcolm Enright, and the sobering suite of etchings: A Preponderance Of Aboriginal Blood by Judy Watson, which was also on show at Artspace Mackay as part of the artists’ books exhibition. Catalogues from the Sufferance show are still available from the State Library.

Meet the Artists sessions allowed a glimpse into the current practice of eleven artists including Ron McBurnie who showed a selection from his Ruscha- inspired documentary studies of elaborate roadside crosses and memorials for people who had died in car crashes on the Bruce Highway. Noreen Grahame’s Monsieur Le President flipbook was a gut reaction to hearing President Chirac announce on the television that France was going to resume atomic testing in the Pacific. The concrete verse runs in one word throughout as a series of increasingly emphatic ‘non’s. These sessions were a very enjoyable end to each day. A series of masterclasses and workshops with Australian artists including Juli Haas and Glen Skien, and visiting artists: Keith Smith, Scott McCarney and Narae Kim, also ran before and after the conference covering: papermaking, leather bindings, coloured etching, conservation, Asian-style bindings and boxmaking.

The whole event was a wonderful opportunity to gain an insight into artists’ books practice in Australia, there were too many papers to discuss individually, but Des Cowley’s paper on collecting and the Mirror of the World exhibition at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, was a visual feast, as was Andrea Stretton’s (Art and Australia), and Des Malcolm Enright (collector and artist, Brisbane) and Nola Farman (artist, Sydney) each gave wonderful presentations, with inspirational examples of works from historical design and altered books to installation works. Australian delegates were shown examples of current practice in book arts from the perspectives of the Europe, USA and the Republic of Korea, but I felt very lucky to have been able to find out more about artists’ books in Australia and to have met with such a wonderful group of artists and curators.

The conference papers will be published online by Artspace Mackay which also hosts the Artbooks email list, publicising artists’ books events in Australia and providing a discussion forum for related issues. The list can be joined through their extensive website at www.artspacemackay.com.au

— Sarah Bodman, CFPR,
University of the West of England Bristol, UK.