Saturday, November 25, 2017

LEAVES OF ABSENCE launch at the Melbourne Athenaeum Library

With Marguerite Brown, Manager, Print Council of Australia

Yesterday evening, after a terrific opening address by Marguerite Brown, Manager of the Print Council of Australia, followed by a few words from me, LEAVES OF ABSENCE was launched at the Melbourne Athenaeum Library. Thanks to Marguerite, the library's Business Manager Sue Westwood, librarian Tom Coleman and all who came along to toast the launch of the book, it was a truly memorable night.

Marguerite has kindly offered to send me a copy of her speech, which I will most certainly be posting in the near future. In the meantime, below is my own effort, followed by selected pictorial highlights of the launch.

I’ve long been interested in fairy tales, to the extent that several years ago, I wrote some of my own, subsequently mustering them together in a small volume titled There was once… (In fact, shortly after its publication in 2009, I gave a talk about it in this very library).

LEAVES OF ABSENCE is a very different kind of book. For one thing, it’s an artist book, limited to an edition of only 10. For another, its narrative is purely visual. Like some of the best-known fairy tales, however, it started with a journey into the woods – in the Victorian goldfields town of Newstead in June 2015, to be more precise. 

On that occasion my partner Shane Jones and I were visiting two dear friends, Leigh Hobbs and Dmetri Kakmi, who were staying there in a little cottage - also the stuff of fairy tales. After lunch, they suggested a walk. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the equivalent of that long ago boat trip on the Isis River in Oxford that the Reverend Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) and his friend took with Alice Liddell and her sisters, but it feels like that to me, because on that day, although I didn’t know it at the time, LEAVES OF ABSENCE was born, and with it an entirely new direction in my work.
Some months later, I made my first foray into digital prints in Not Born Digital, a Goldfields Printmakers portfolio that explored the historic connection of the Victorian Goldfields with China during the gold rushes. The portfolio was presented at IMPACT 9, the international printmaking conference at Hangzhou, China in September 2015. 

Initially I declined the invitation to participate. Aside from having no prior background in or knowledge of digital printmaking, I’m primarily interested in reclaiming women’s histories, and this was a period from which Chinese women were conspicuously absent. In 1861 Chinese immigrants made up 3.3 per cent of the Australian population. The vast majority (38,337) were men, compared to only eleven women. 

For the men, separation from their families was a source of abiding sadness. Their unjust treatment is well documented, but almost nothing is known about the women who remained in China. 

In Newstead alone, there were over 3000 Chinese miners. The Eucalyptus leaves in LEAVES OF ABSENCE were sourced there because of their significance to the project but also because of their singular shapes - in part the result of interventions by my 'insect collaborators', the Eucalyptus tip bugs. So invaluable was their contribution, they rate a special mention on the book’s colophon page.

In my work, silhouettes are principally metaphors for marginalization or invisibility. The most recent examples, some of which are on display here tonight, are hand-painted onto pressed Eucalyptus leaves that were plucked from saplings in Newstead. These are the raw material for the archival pigment prints, AKA Phemographs, in LEAVES OF ABSENCE

The enchanting fairy tale films of German born silhouette animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger (1889-1981) are a key influence on all my work with silhouettes. Influences entirely specific to this project include early photography and silent film. Contrary to popular belief, not all of the first moving images were in black and white. In many cases, a series of coloured filters were applied, usually to indicate mood, while other directors, including one of the masters of early film, Georges Melies, employed artists, usually teams of women, to painstakingly hand colour his films frame by frame.

The seemingly obvious links to the Chinese traditions of paper cuts and shadow puppetry in LEAVES OF ABSENCE were, at least at first, a case of serendipity. My initial research included a study of historic Chinese women’s hairstyles. Reduced to shadow forms, however, the women could equally be from any place or time, including the present. 

After that first visit to Newstead, I was to venture into the woods many more times, both literally and figuratively, and, much like a character from a fairy tale, I sometimes lost my way. Despite straying from the path on several occasions, however, I never met any truly big bad wolves. In fact, I encountered some wonderful people, as well a team of creative insects, who helped me on my way.

'A fairy tale ending' is popular term for a happy ending - although many of those ancient tales were very dark and ended badly. Not so this story. A number of the people from the journey that started in Newstead are here tonight and I'm grateful to the Melbourne Athenaeum Library for giving me this opportunity to say thank you - beginning with Leigh, Dmetri and my partner, Shane, who have been there from the very beginning.

Margeurite Brown, thank you so much for that fantastic opening address. Thanks also to Cathy Leahy, for your words of encouragement when the project was very much in its fledgling stages and to my dear friends Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison for your sage advice, support and friendship. Thank you to artist Sophia Szilagyi for introducing me to master printer Luke Ingram, who printed the images in LEAVES OF ABSENCE and taught me such a lot besides. Without Luke, I very much doubt if this work would have come to fruition. Thank you, Tim Gresham for technical aid. Thanks to Jimmy Tang at Whiteslaw Bindery. Keith Lawrence and Tim Bateson from Tacit Contemporary Art have also been enormously supportive – thanks, guys. (A substantial amount of the work I made after completing the book will be shown at Tacit from Wednesday, 29 November - Sunday 17 December). Thank you to the Melbourne Athenaeum Library for having us. Huge thanks to Business Manager Sue Westwood for initiating the acquisition of LEAVES OF ABSENCE and for inviting me to be the Melbourne Athenaeum Library artist-in-residence during Melbourne Rare Book Week in 2018.

And finally - before this starts to sound like one of those interminable Oscars speeches - thank you all very much indeed for coming tonight.

Hand painted eucalyptus leaves, the raw material for the images

LEAVES OF ABSENCE with selected page views

With Shane Jones

Introductory remarks by Sue Westwood

Marguerite Brown delivers her opening address

...followed by my own response