Alexis Beckett, Heather Hesterman, Joy Hirst
2 - 18 June 2005
Opening the List to Meaning
The artists in Compendia 3 decided to have a show based around the idea of lists. These artists are, in alphabetical order according to surname, Beckett, Alexis; Hesterman, Heather; and Hirst, Joy. If I compiled this list according to first name, then Joy and Heather would have to swap places. Taking a lateral approach, A-B’s name is in alphabetical order, J-H’s name is in reverse alphabetical order (with the exception of the “I” which is a pronoun anyway), and H-H settles for a theme; that of the letter “H”. In terms of consistency H-H would be at the top of the list, in terms of orthodox progression and regularity A-B takes the cake, yet in terms of unorthodox continuity J-H can go to the top of the class. How then should I decide which artist to talk about first? What criteria should I use to order my list (of sorts), and indeed what would be the significance of this order? It seems that the list is an expression of the system used to construct it, and it follows that the list expresses a certain way of ordering the world, of coming to terms with it, of containing it, defining it, categorising and ranking it. Does this mean that the more universal the system, the more accepted is the hierarchy of the list, or could the list simply be a collection of things with common properties, defined by what is left out of the list, with no internal hierarchy? The alphabet itself is a list of sorts – A through to Zed – but why is it ordered in this way? It seems so arbitrary, a product of a forgotten convention. Nevertheless, the metaphorical use of ‘A through to Z’ (the alpha and omega, beginning to end; a totality), can describe systems and situations where a list is used as a metaphor for the very real order of things. What we have here is a list as a metaphor for a cultural practice.
“I’ve got a list as long as your arm,” a man said to me once. Does that mean the list changes its significance according to arm length? Is arm length the system used here? The list of systems that could compile a list is endless, but one thing seems to be clear; lists are everywhere. But what are they? What does it mean to have them woven through the fabric of everyday life, and what do they do? How do they function in our times? The artists in Compendia 3 are grappling with these questions, and their aesthetic responses constitute a corollary to something that could be thought to exist only in worded form. The name Compendia reflects this aspect: the plurality of the list, its predilection to multiply, but also the aspect of a list to be a collection of objects according to type. The list in this sense is one that is open ended and expanding, a collection of things gathe red together because they satisfy certain pre-set criteria. Now lets see how art, that cultural polyglot, gets in there to tinker with the nuts and bolts of ‘the-list-as-cultural-object’ to produce its eccentric translation.
Imbrication is a word I would use to describe Joy Hirst’s work. There is an explicit layering of name and place in Changing Place that opens itself out to an exploration of meaning. Trained as a sculptor, the made object is central to her material practice, and here it is used as a prism through which place names are intuited. Thus the hermeneutic perspex towers and the clear, clean slate they sit upon hover above a mirrored enclosure of names, an archaeological site of cultural meaning and association forming a bedrock of through which the everyday world is filtered and understood. Hirst is creating a theatre of meaning here, a theatre that rehearses at once the arbitrary relationship between the name and the thing named, but also the psychic quality that a name takes on once it is associated with a place. Can a place be understood outside of its name? What happens when place names are changed, as they have been in the Melbourne Docklands development that forms the inspiration for this piece and is part of an ongoing project for Hirst? Indeed, what is the function and interplay of the place name in culture and in private? These are the questions brought up by Changing Place. Surely the act of naming place serves to situate the landscape within a history and tradition?
This archaeology of cultural knowledge is schematised in Hirst’s evocative list, where colonial names are juxtaposed with traditional aboriginal place names and reflected off glass. This juxtaposition and reflection serves to illustrate the ‘wordiness’ of names, their reduction to serendipitous alphabetical arrangements. However their reflections also situate them in the world of objects, it associates them with the corporeal, and it gives them a form and identity as concrete as your face in the mirror. It seems to defy the normalising impulse of the list to order according to type, and instead it alludes to place names as something beyond linguistics and empirical categorisation. Instead they are something real and concrete, charged with psychic and cultural energy, and given individual agency.
Heather Hesterman approaches how meaning is constructed through the structural systems of lists and list making. 100 Words takes as its starting point two things: a list of the one-hundred most used words by primary school children issued by the Victorian Education Department, and a concept best summed up by Wittgenstein that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”1 So by taking the list as the formal basis and Wittgenstein’s theory as the concept to be applied to it, Hesterman simultaneously carries out a de-construction of the list as a system of knowledge, and its re-construction as an aesthetic enterprise.
There are 100 words, but they are cut from felt and arranged arbitrarily, in classic Saussaurian fashion, so that meaning arises between them. These 100 words all have four letters, and why not? Symmetry was inherently beautiful according to the ancient Greeks. What about the colours: 28 red, 36 blue and 36 black; how was a particular word assigned a particular colour, and how were these words actually chosen from the millions of possibilities? Just by chance of course, by personal intuition. Personally I couldn’t think of a more effective ‘system’ of elimination.
What is fascinating about Hesterman’s approach to lists is that she explicitly de-sytematises this process of categorisation. What seems to be happening here is a working backwards from a system, exposing its basis as arbitrary rather than universal, and revealing meaning to be contained wholly within itself. The list here is seen as an abstract process of creating meaning. However in100 Words it is performed as an artistic act, and in consequence the communicative possibilities of the list are opened onto an expanded and aesthetically enhanced field.
Noah must have been good at lists, but do you think he started with one or ended with one? I think it might have been a combination of both. Alexis Beckett thinks about the function of the list in our culture not only as a way to categorise – by totalising similarities and applying this as an abstract law of organisation - but also as a process where the thing being ‘listed’ inevitably alters and in some way has an influence on the structure of the system it is being assimilated into. Those familiar with Beckett’s previous work will recognise the familiar tropes of the interface between nature and culture in The Blue List, but their relationship here is configured on a model of exchange rather than just a one-way street.
Science is implicated in this piece through the use of images from an old compendium of Australian birds, but it is also aligned with literature and therefore wider culture as the phrases in The Blue List are taken from a selection of Beckett’s favourite authors. In this coalescence properties mingle that were formerly thought to be discreet: science becomes artful and literature becomes categorical. Through the foggy lens of culture literature blurs with science, which in its classical formulation is a meta-narrative of nature. Science in this sense is a system that orders nature into a comprehendible form, it defines it, contains it, and it does this through a powerful rhetoric of description, hypothesis, proof and dis-proof. In this way nature is acculturated, assimilated as a cultural object into our system of understanding through ordering and categorising practices. But the place of nature in culture, and particularly the bird - a favourite subject of Beckett’s practice – certainly runs deeper than that, through the myths and stories of innumerable cultures where the bird has considerable psychic and metaphorical power. Thus while the bird can be appropriated to symbolise something within that culture through an occlusion of any essential ‘birdness,’ the form of the bird infiltrates our cultural unconscious and it becomes imbued into an understanding of ourselves. A type of birdness then comes into our consciousness through the back door so to speak, a birdness that is an essential property of the very physical form and presence of it in nature - our environment. This interrelated aspect, this exchange between nature and culture is foregrounded in The Blue List through the substitution of the word ‘bird’ in various literary passages with the form of a bird. A compendium is thus achieved, but it is one that is open ended; subject to non-foreclosure; and really more like a dialogue between nature and culture – a rehearsal of the dependence of our language, culture and identity on the humble bird.
Hesterman, Beckett and Hirst have approached the idea of the list through the aesthetics of their artwork and the theoretical and social concerns unique to each that informs that aesthetic practice.
What should be clear is that this is not a definitive compendium of artistic responses to lists, but rather, like all artwork in a way, it is propositional and transitional. It is trying to get somewhere, to point to different directions and outcomes, and the artwork is the medium, the road these outcomes travel along. Ironically, this open endedness seems to go against the impulse that lies at the basis of the list: the desire to categorise and organise, because these creations do seem to point to different possibilities, even different forms that lists could take. Consider it a beginning. The list of possibilities, as they say, is endless.
Carl Williams is a student at The University of Melbourne, completing Honours in Art History.
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