Work in Progress
In the early 1980s, while employed at the Sydney Opera House as an usher, I was working a recital given by the renowned Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. At the end of the performance, Rostropovich stood grasping the neck of his cello and sang, unaccompanied, what I recall to be a Russian folk song. It was a very moving gesture of vulnerability and personal sadness on the part of a great musician who was at the time living in exile in the US. I was struck by the courage it would have required to intervene thus in a performance governed by the expectations of a classical music audience. A couple of years later, as the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, Rostropovich flew quietly into the city with his instrument, placed a chair in the street at the base of the wall, and played Bach to the people of Berlin.
The integrity of Rostropovich's actions arose from a deep personal connection with the events and politics of the Cold War. Since then, global events have become more urgent, more complex and more accessible. The debate between the virtues of the active versus the contemplative life is an old one beginning with Aristotle, taken up by Thomas Aquinas, and vigorously contested throughout the Renaissance to the present day. I have often wondered how an interest in politics and world affairs could be integrated into an art practice which takes as it focus questions and issues that are arguably the antithesis of such matters.
This project brings together the two sides of the debate as it occurs in my life as an artist. Part 1 consists of drawings made during a recent residency in Paris. It acknowledges the reality of my career as an established professional artist with no teaching position, reliant on the sale of artworks via gallerists such as Jonathan Smart in Christchurch. Part 2 represents the subtler, harder to define aspects of art making. It is interactive and less predictable, governed by commitment to ideas and aesthetics, both practical and introspective in nature. Part 3 is the practical application of Part 2 using the model of the Parisian street artist. In the spirit of Hegelian dialectic it offers a synthesis of the active and the contemplative, in an event that I hope can provide a small practical benefit.
The first part of the exhibition comprises drawings and watercolours made in Paris at the Cite Internationale des Arts, where I worked for three months as recipient of the Moya Dyring Bequest in early July 2006. I arrived a week before the start of events now referred to in Lebanon as the July War. The bombardment of Lebanon officially ended a month later with a ceasefire on August 12.
I made these drawings from web reportage of the conflict that killed over 1,500 people, many of whom were Lebanese civilians, severely damaged Lebanese infrastructure and displaced over 900,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis. In Lebanon, repair to damage of airports, roads and civilian housing, and the resumption of rural industry is being severely hampered by unexploded bomblets, estimated by the UN to number more than 100,000. The views I have chosen are distanced, reflecting the feeling I had sitting at the computer watching events unfold, a distant echo of the men standing on the hilltop looking down on Beirut.
The work is the product of my concentration on these events, of my focus on the daily coverage which I found horrifying, compelling and frustrating: feelings familiar, I am sure, to most of us these days regardless of one's politics.
The second part of the exhibition will be the accumulation of drawings made during the first week of the exhibition. This work will relate to a series of paintings I have made of friends and acquaintances over the last two years. In each instance the sitter posed for the painting with their eyes closed, the idea being, as the eyes are traditionally considered the "windows of the soul", that this might in some way reduce or neutralise the subjective force of the portrait.
Contrary to expectations each portrait seemed to convey a definite sense of interiority, as though the subject were thinking or listening intently. At the same time, the sittings were interesting. The absence of a reciprocal gaze, or at least the potential for one, had a marked effect. I felt a sense of intrusion or voyeurism not usual in a normal portrait sitting, as when observing someone unawares. I also felt a strong sense that the act of looking without return was something granted to me as an act of trust on the part of the sitter.
The project will involve inviting people to sit for a portrait, which, for a donation of $150, will be theirs to take at the end of the exhibition. Those interested in participating in the project, will be asked to sit for a period of not less than an hour with their eyes closed, remaining as motionless as possible. The money collected will be directed to a fund (yet to be identified) reserved for the removal of unexploded cluster bombs in Lebanon.