The conference Double Dialogues 5, Art and Pain, involved the presentation of a number of papers dealing specifically with the Visual Arts. The conference was supported by the Art Exhibition which not only included work by presenters but also interested artists from universities and the wider community.
With an interest in the relationship between text and image we asked a number of students, studying visual narratives, aesthetics and philosophy at Deakin University, to attend the exhibition and respond to the paintings verbally. The text which was used to frame their response was Antoine Exupéry: The Little Prince. The students were asked to view the artwork from the perspective of any of the characters in this text. Some of the art works chosen by the writers were:
Chris Berg, Painting: ” The Domino Effect”
Mark Canning, Painting: “Untitled”
Peter Davis, Photograph: “Ethiopian Feeding Centre”
Simon Fisher, Painting: “The Towers”
Ilona Jetmar, Painting: “Self Portrait”
Mary-Lyn Litchfield, Painting: “Departure”
Kate McCulloch: Photograph, “Untitled”
Ben Millar, Painting: “St George St.”
Gerra Tonge, Painting: “Distrust”
Tim Bathurst, Sculpture: “Swans”
Loss of innocence
In response to Peter Davis, Photograph: “Ethiopian Feeding Centre”
“Anything essential is invisible to the eyes; anything essential is invisible to the eyes; anything essential is invisible to the eyes; anything…..” the fox’s words became his mantra as the little prince stared in horror at the scene before him: an immense swarm of desperate humanity, slowly, hauntingly, edging towards the feeding compound. And the little prince raised his head and dared to look; first at one person and then another. He looked into their eyes one by one. He saw the mother and then the child; he saw the swaddled babe and the fearful toddler; he saw the desperate father, and he doubted the adolescent he saw even knew of the injustice he suffered: the rest of the world was not a feeding compound. And the swarming mass dissolved around the little prince and he saw what was essential.
And in his mind the little prince was transformed to another place he had once visited, and he knew the story was the same. This was a place where the leader of the land forbade its people to see what was essential; what was invisible to the eyes. A wicked land, where the inhabitants were permitted to see only the frightening hoard; a land where it was forbidden to see the distressed mother and the hapless child; the anxious friend or the forlorn lover. And to ensure that this was so, at the core of this lucky country, in the desert, a compound was created. A compound with walls so formidable and impenetrable that what was essential and invisible to the eye, remained ignored and hidden. For the wise leaders knew that to allow the inhabitants of this lucky, wide brown land to see what was essential; what was invisible to the eye, would risk unearthing truth, and truth’s partner, responsibility.
The little prince knew that what the fox had said was right: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes”, and he sighed with the realisation of the impossibility of it all. For if the vain man was to see beyond his own vanity; if the business man to look up from his counting, if the king was to cease his useless commanding and if the drunkard were to become sober; if they all stopped for a moment and dared to see what was invisible to the eye, then no longer could they ignore, pretend or escape. If they had the courage to raise their heads and look and truly see, they would be compelled to act. For before their eyes, the ugly hoards would dissolve and in their place would be the mother, the father, the child, the friend, the lover And they could not fail to see what was essential, and this recognition of the enormity of injustice in this world would be too much for any of them to bear. And the prince sighed with the impossibility of it all.
So it was, that people throughout the first world either refused to see or were prohibited from seeing that which was essential; that which was invisible. To do so would risk taming, as the fox had said. And to tame would mean becoming responsible. And becoming responsible would mean taking action. And to act would mean sacrifice. And the sacrifice was far too great. And so it was better not to see at all.
And the little prince lay on the grass and wept inconsolably.
In Response to Kate McCulloch, Photograph: Untitled
The piece I was drawn to most in the art exhibition was that of Kate McCulloch’s untitled train photograph. I immediately related this to that fearful absurd image in The Little Prince of the adults on the train who are drawn to their inconsequential destinations, the absurdity of their mode of transport being ‘express trains’, while children stare out of the trains at the journey, the journey of life, living more ‘in the moment’. The point made in the text of nobody being happy where they are was another fact I related to. These ideas all had personal meaning to me and encapsulate how I related to the pain in the picture of a man looking into a train, a train abandoned and ancient. There is no longer any mode of transportation in this train, no hope of going on apparent, so looking in it is absurd. Hope for a certain unified destination has become abandoned and destitute, the track ahead windy. As the little prince emphasised, the “old shell” of his body has no meaning, as is compliant with this old train. The point made is that of the journey, the experience, the ‘shooting star’ that is the soul of the individual so valuable on this earth. The destitute train is but an illusion, a modernist trap, where only the ‘child’ or enlightened adult encapsulating the innocence, the essence of the en soi, can truly look outside of the train and exist in and appreciate the journey in the present. But this man in the photograph gazes into and yearns for the train to start again. He has been set in an absurd position in the middle of a hectic life. His situation contrasts with that of the train, which, although dead and essentially a machine, has experienced ‘life’. The prince might meet this man at the railway station who is exemplifying another absurd preoccupation…
This train is cold and lonely, desolate and distressing. So much potential for this dark body as it sits and hopelessly stagnates. This train will no longer peruse the tracks ahead, it will no longer allow anyone the hope it once possessed, the hope of another world, of another life, that they could visit, even just for a while, where they could experience the most amazing change in their lives through journey, through knowing another land, or, is that really, travel to the necessary destinations of daily living. This train has no potential for life, to carry life, to hold life in its safety. The inside is dark and bleak contrasting with its dusty light grey panels, where once lights were lit inside, coal stoked its open heart and cheerfully it beamed as passengers endowed it with life force, with life potentials separate and yet combined to reach this common goal of travel, if only for one trip.
But this train was one day deemed worthless, no longer did it meet the needs of this world, not ‘time efficient’. Abandoned and unfairly treated, its windows, wide open, reveal the track ahead as if in mockery, but it has ceased, its heart no longer satiated by coal.
And now it is a skeleton.
It was only a machine. And perhaps people took it too seriously; this train represented to them their potential to make it to work on time, to meet their hair appointment, to start out a ‘big night’ as soon as possible: it is the train’s fault should it not provide them with a swift and capable journey to their destination’s goal for which they paid their money with cautious hands. They stare at their newspapers and their watches exacting the amount of time between stations and minusing this from potential minutes of their life; they hope only that the foliage outside blurs when they glance at the windows, a sign that they will soon be ‘there’. They rush, rush, rush,
Only the train knows the journey, these people know the destination.
The train has made its way across the most beautiful landscapes, past valleys, past mountains, past springs, boldly and excitedly it has forged on. The train has felt the gentle radiating sun caressing it. The train experienced while it enclosed its passengers, cautiously protecting them. The train provided for a while a trap. But the train is only a machine, a destitute engine created by mankind. It is what they wanted it to be…
The man watches the train in despair.
‘Where has the driver gone?
‘I have a business presentation at 0900 hours and I cannot be late. Perhaps if I had left five minutes earlier, but no time! After all the work I put into the report, Right! I need to rearrange this minute, Ok, if I get the engine going: I’ll get some coal, Wait, I don’t know a thing about how to drive a train, Ok, Plan B, maybe if I push the train…but I’ll never get there on time! This train is my only hope, if I miss this, if I miss this meeting, I lose my job, I lose my life, then I’d have plenty of time to sit around and wait for trains….oh it’s too late, look at the time!…ok, what do I do now? There’s no one around. I surely can’t be alone right now, not today. If I had someone else here they could share in this anguish and together we could find another way to get to our appointments, to get on with our lives…
‘To see this destitute train, essentially representing all I need right now, my only way forward to live my life, here it is destroyed, vandalised, who did this?
‘How do I get this train started again? Hopeless…
And yet as he lifted his head higher than the realms of that destitute train he saw across through the missing window on the other side, although far in the distance, a healthy strong elk tree…for a brief second he was seventeen once more and sitting there with Diana again on an autumn afternoon…he blinked again
Nowhere to go…
In response Ilona Jetmar , Painting: Self Portrait
Years after he returned to his home planet, the Little Prince was driven to travel once more. This time, it was after he’d faced the death of his beloved rose and the grief it had brought him. He had aged, and his face bore crevices and marks of the sorrow that had troubled him. So, at long last, after inhabiting his home planet alone, he set out on another journey, to rediscover the universe he’d met in his youth.
Early on, he came across a planet that was overwhelmed by people. This was the first time he’d met more than a handful of people since his time on Earth, yet this was not Earth. The people were smiling, moving, living; yet they did not understand him. They seemed not to use any sort of language – they did not speak at all. He tried in vain to speak to the people, on the streets, in gardens, in shops. The people, young, old, male and female, could tell that this was not a person of their own ilk – and the Little Prince could sense that some meaning lay behind the puzzling, gentle, ever-so-slight gestures they used towards him. Arms would wave, lips would twitch, feet would stamp and heads would quiver, but he still did not understand. They lived in a world without tongue, and the Little Prince had long since left a childhood where life could be determined by anything other than words.
He was led, with come-hither gestures and concerned looks, to a small mud-brick hut on a dirt road in a village that he had come to, after his nervous voice had alarmed the villagers. Inside the cabin, an old woman peered at the young man.
‘Why is it,’ said the Prince, expecting no answer, ‘that nobody speaks?’
The woman smiled, nodding her head, and replied, ‘Years ago, our planet decided to communicate only through movement and touch. Language is too easily misunderstood. It can be enforced on others against their will – they often have no choice but to hear it. Body-language, as we use it, is telling of the unconscious, it is revealing.’
‘So how is it, then, that you understand me, that you speak?’ asked the Prince, standing in front of the woman.
‘I am the last of this village to know human language. I am though,… er… rusty. For years now, we have taught stories through dance, and love through embrace. When we grieve, we do it physically. If you are to remain here, we will have to teach you to communicate, as you will neither understand, or be understood.’
The Little Prince had a lot to digest, but agreed.
‘Go out the back door of this cabin, onto the verandah. There is a girl who is… how do you say… posing. Study her, and try to … um, discern what she is feeling, what she is saying.’
To say whether the girl sat, stood or balanced would be inappropriate – she was curved over, her knees apart, resting on the porch, feet spread out behind her. She was effectively on all fours, but with her spine curled above her like a cat, and her neck pointing downwards, so that her head touched the floor, and her mop of red hair flopped forward. Sunlight filtered through the grill railing of the porch, highlighting the bare flesh of her arms, shoulders and back – every pore, muscle and sinew accentuated by the bright white-yellow light.
The Little Prince stood, transfixed by the girl. Her physique suggested that she could not be more than twenty. Apart from her steady breathing, she remained in her position, meditatively, and deathly still. He tried to see her face, but her hair and its shadows covered it.
He tried to speak to the girl, knowing it was useless, but even the simple sound of his voice did not register a reflex reaction, a movement from her. She did not raise her head, and her breathing didn’t deepen. Without the aid of having her see him, he had only sound to communicate with, and this she did not understand.
He decided that she was trapped in herself somehow, immersed in something by choice. When he went back to the woman inside the cabin, he told her that sorrow was the cause for the girl’s pose.
‘What else but melancholy and grief,’ he said, ‘could make one decide to shut out others completely, to shut down? To remain, it seems, blind and deaf to communication, on purpose? As she rests, it is impossible to ‘say’ anything to her, short of shaking her, and that would violate her personal space.’
‘Very good,’ replied the woman. ‘She has remained in that self-imposed state for a long time, communicating, as you said, her sorrow. Those who see her see the contents of her heart, that it is imprisoned by pain. Yet at the same time, by having no language, nobody can overcome her choice to be alone, to live within her pain.’
The Little Prince, thinking in adult terms, no longer the pristine child of his first journey, wondered about the girl’s right to shut others out so completely. ‘Surely, by abandoning words, we lose our hope of bringing others out of their cocoons? By closing her eyes, humanity is dead to this girl, because the sound of a voice means nothing. The absence of words is the easy way out.’
The woman looked mildly annoyed, but indulged the Prince further, sitting back in her chair as he sat across from her, continually staring out the back door, thinking about the girl outside. ‘Perhaps, but if we wish to understand others, we must observe them carefully, and closely read their actions, not just what comes out of their mouths.’
‘A simplistic view: we should make the most of all our senses to communicate. To speak, to write, to hear… these are important abilities. Surely pretending that we don’t have them is living a sort of half-life. The girl outside, I understand what she says, but she is the living dead.’
As he said the words, the Little Prince realised that he did not like this planet, though the ideas and motives behind speaking through movement were novel and well intentioned. No – it might be dangerous to speak, but it was more dangerous to choose not to understand words.
He did not remain on the planet for very long – his body language told of things he did not wish to say, and he could not forget the image of the sad girl, or of the last words the woman had spoken to him. ‘How do I know her? She is my daughter.’
In Response to Peter Davis, Photograph: “Ethiopian Feeding Centre”
After walking through the desert for some time, the little prince came across hundreds upon hundreds of people who seemed to be waiting for something. The little prince grew perplexed and asked himself “What are all of these people waiting for?”
He looked at the faces around him. The little ones looked far older than they should considering they were so little. And the grown ups that held onto the little ones, they seemed to the little prince to be growing impatient. Distressed and frantically in search of something. The piercing cry of one of the little ones rang in the little prince’s ears. It was this cry that answered his question. They were waiting for food. The little prince knew this cry. He knew that when his flower needed attention, she too would give a piercing cry. A cry that would send him in search of whatever it was that she craved. If the little prince couldn’t find what she craved, he too would become distressed and frantic. Just like the grown ups in front of him now.
These grown ups were different to the ones that he had seen before. They were not drinking or reigning over or ruling or making money off the stars. They stood before him in search of something that would satisfy something outside of themselves. They seemed to him to be much like the lamp lighter, they seemed to be the ones least ridiculous of all the grown ups that he had met so far, this was because of their concern for something other than themselves.
While considering all of this the little prince felt overwhelmed at the thought that after having seen no people on Earth since his arrival on this strange planet, he could now see so many of them in such a tiny space. All waiting for the same thing- food. This food was something that the little prince knew the children would love and appreciate more than the others that he met; they knew what it meant to have nothing. Having something, even anything would mean so much more to them than to the businessman who believed he had everything. The little prince often considered that the businessman with all the stars in the universe had nothing at all.
“It is strange,” thought the little prince aloud, “strange that so many here wait for food, grown ups and little ones.” While he scanned the masses of people he asked himself, “How do these people go without food on such a large planet that seems to have only very few people?” You see, this was the largest planet the little prince had seen, it was large yet it had so few people. How then were they without food?
The little prince, who was never one to give up on a question once he had asked it, went out into the masses of people to find an answer.
“Who am I to speak to? On every planet I have seen, I have only come across one person, but here there are many crammed into such a small space, do they even see me standing here?” the little prince asked himself. Just as he contemplated this he caught the eye of a little one that was being cradled by his mother. The big brown eyes on the little one spoke to the little prince. And the little prince wanted to hear everything that he had to say, but the pain in the little one’s eyes made the little prince frightened. But he still needed answers to his questions. The little prince never gave up on a question once he had asked it.
“Hello” said the little boy, looking down at the little prince from his mother’s arms. “Where have you come from?” the little one asked with his brown eyes growing inquisitive. The little prince replied “I have come from Asteroid B 612.” The little boy’s eyes grew with eagerness and recognition, “Ah, Yes!” replied the little boy, “I have heard of your planet, I hear that one of your inhabitants is an amazingly beautiful rose, do you know her? What is her voice like?”
The little prince grew perplexed even further. How did this little one know his rose? How did he know of his home? Without even asking these questions aloud, the little one replied as though the little prince had already asked for responses. “You see, we all know of your planet, we can see you in the sky at night when the sun goes away. Although the grown ups can’t see you. They tell us that there are some important planets and then asteroids…adults are forever having us explain things to them. It gets to be exhausting.” The little prince was happy to have met this little one, they were able to understand each other without too many words, sometimes words could cause misunderstandings. Yet the Little prince still wanted an answer to his question. “Why are you all here waiting for food?” The little boy looked at him with a puzzled expression, “Because we are hungry of course!”
The little prince continued to search for answers as he was never the type to give up once he had asked a question. “Of course” replied the little prince, “I can see in your eyes that you are hungry, but why are you waiting here? Why, on such a large planet, do you not have any food?”
At this question the little boy looked away as though he was ashamed to give the answer. After a long silence he replied “We have no food because we have no money. We have no money and we owe money.” The little prince then thought back to the businessman. He understood then the reason the businessman’s body was swollen and puffy. He gathered money from the stars to make him rich. Food for the businessman seemed to never be a problem.
The little prince had so many questions now. He wanted to understand how you owe money when you have no money for food, but before he could ask any more questions it was time for the little one to leave.
He felt sad to leave the little prince and said, “Your golden hair is beautiful, we never see hair like that here. Golden hair usually belongs to those that we owe money.” The little prince had no time to respond, before he knew it the little one was gone, he has swallowed into the crowd. It was almost as though he had not been there at all.
The little prince felt alone standing amongst the crowd that remained. He sat down in the sand and all of the screams around him melted away. He was alone and sad to have lost a friend. The little prince could not understand the pain in the eyes of the little one he had just lost, so he sat alone in the crowd and began to cry.
In Response to Mark Canning, Painting: Untitled
[Mark Canning’s untitled piece from the exhibition is of a young man sitting underneath what looks like an overpass, on a mattress. This young man is looking slightly downward, toward the ground, with an expressionless yet sad look on his face. The wall behind him is covered in graffiti, a mixture of letters and colour, without order or a sense of purpose. A shadow is cast from the overpass, cutting the image into a light and dark area. The young man is sitting in the darkened area on his mattress, while the lighter unshaded area is filled with trees, grass, roads and general human development.]
Who creates these rules of life? Who are they to impose their way of life on me?
They say I should get a job. They say I should get a car. They say I should save for my future. They say I should save for a house. What they want is for me to become one of them.
But look at them!! They rush around, rolling their rocks, stressing about the life they themselves have created, stressing about their jobs, their loans. Their crap. It’s all meaningless to me, it doesn’t make sense, their idea of living. They don’t know what it is to live anymore. They have forgotten the beauty and wonder of life, the joy brought by the small things that pass by them every day, the enlightenment found in their imagination. They don’t imagine anymore.
My life to this point has been rewarding, consumed with exploring both the world outside my mind and within. The wonders created within my mind have filled my life with purpose. It has taken me to worlds unheard of, worlds where all is possible. I have been outside the realms of this planet to far off galaxies, met wondrous creatures, and in the process, created an understanding of the complexities of my own world. I have found within my mind a well of inspiration also, which when drawn upon, enables me to express this understanding.
They call it hooligan’s graffiti. I call it Art. My art tells the story of being human, from my perspective. The story of Life, and what it is to be alive. Truly alive too, not merely existing, as they would have me do. But as my body ages, my right to explore my mind and my world, and to express how I feel, is being ripped from me by them and their pressures. It is no longer acceptable for me to investigate my world and give it meaning through my art. It is only acceptable to perform, to be a part of their act. So I have escaped.
I live alone now, as a fugitive, huddled under their constructions, in the shadow of these constructions both physically and mentally, watching them go about their lives with a false sense of purpose, watch them marvel at their senseless achievements. My once pure construct of the world has been violated. The sense of the world I once found easy to explain is slowly becoming more chaotic. My canvass, once perspicuous, is now a jumble of misshapen ideas and confusion, corrupted and broken by their constant demands to conform. Even here in my solitude, in my attempt to escape from them, I find no solace. This changing force, it would seem, is from within.
And so here I sit, in the shadows of their world, while the flame of youthful insight within me slowly fades. And as if in a show of defiance, I lay back and drift into my inner-world once again, and forget the troubles of my adolescence.
In Response to Kate McCulloch, Photograph: Untitled
It has been a while since I thought with my pen. The complexities of my whirlwind result in an ignorant lifestyle and snapshots of glee. Still, the questions remain; what’s next? Am I doing enough? Do I choose the right paths to my unknown destination? I keep these thoughts in check as I play the game with a lucid strategy, and kill time through amusing myself with the complexities of others. My evolution is not complete, although I fear that it is circular. I demand much more discipline – both social and of self, but with leadership comes broken chains, barely held by a weakened purpose. Substance inspiration is no longer substantial, as clarity provides a purer position. I am empowered by this state, as although the big picture cannot be seen from this distance, my life-like ability to decode allows AID to my sanity. Thus, I leave you with this:
I no longer desire what I used to admire. The ghost-train has left the station; I seek a new destination…
Nobody Inside the Box
I want to be with them but they don’t want me. They say that I am not like them. I don’t fit in. I do not belong. They say you have to be someone to be with them and I am nobody, and that is where I belong. Is that belonging? I don’t want to be with the nobodies. They put me there. Everything needs a place. They put us here. I stare at the people around me, sitting, standing. Everyone stares back but they don’t see anyone. Their minds are always holidaying in worlds other than their own. I sometimes follow them on the same vacation. It feels empty being on a crowded bus full of daydreamers, yet comforting also. I can’t be alone if I’m not the only one.
Still I don’t want to be here. Nobody does.
We want to be with those loved by the world, not rejected and unseen by it like the community we were seemingly born in to. Although, I have heard rumors that those who are loved and known were not born in to that position. It is said the majority of those people migrated there, even though they clearly have strict regulations in accepting foreigners, in allowing entrance to any nobodies.
On the street, there is a dirty hustler with a wide grin. He claims to have tickets to their world, tickets usually only available to the families of award winners. I think he might have killed some people to obtain them. Or maybe those were just sauce stains on his coat. I buy one with most of the money I earned cleaning windows everyday for the last two weeks. I clean the same windows that manage to get dirty on a daily basis. Well, there were many jealous people who looked from those windows.
“You won’t be disappointed,” the hustler assures me.
“Did you get in?” I ask
“I used to be one of them.”
I was confused. “Used to be? What happened?”
“They stopped loving me.”
“Why? I mean, why did they love you?”
This angered the hustler. “I don’t know.”
He turned away and I left him to sell the remainder of his ticket collection.
Then I wondered if I got there, would people wonder why they loved me.
* * *
The walls surrounding their community were made of glass, so people could admire and be jealous of them from afar. Every entrance was heavily guarded with security, large men wearing dark sunglasses. As I approach them, one snickers and another starts playing with his crotch. They have already made their judgments.
“Get out of here,” one demands obnoxiously. “Nobodies not allowed.”
Another looks at me as though I am stupid. “You should know that by now.”
“How do you know I’m nobody?”
“You haven’t smiled once.”
“Have you seen the way you walk?” another adds.
I produce my ticket, grinning deliriously.
“Who are you meant to be related to?”
It is easy to lie. “My brother, my special and loved brother.”
“Yes, but what is he known for?”
“How much did he pay for it?”
“He didn’t pay…”
The guards already appear unconvinced.
“It cost him a couple of thousand, I think.”
My lies, the only truth they want to hear, allows me access. I am allowed to stay for several days, they tell me. Overcome with excitement, I skip through the glass walls like a prissy dancer. I nod in greeting to some people nearby.
“Why would someone admire him?” I hear one of them mutter.
“Why would someone want to know him?”
“Who cares? Tell me again why you admire me.”
Ahead there is a group of well-groomed people gathered around a stage. Someone is about to perform. “Someone we love very much!” a girl in red sequence exclaims.
“I don’t think I know you,” a man beside me says.
“Does everyone here know each other?”
“Not really.” He tilts his head. “No, not at all.”
“But who are you?” another man demands. “Why should I love you?”
“Yes, what do you do?”
My job as a window cleaner discourages me to answer. I fiddle with a scrap of paper in my left pocket. “I like to draw.”
“What have you drawn that I know?”
“And how much money did you make?”
“I don’t know.”
They stare, grinning, and then repeat mechanically, “Why should we love you?”
I pull out my scrap of paper and unfold it. It was a rough sketch of a cube.
“Show us your work.”
They stare at my drawing blankly. “What is it?”
“It’s a box.”
“What’s inside?” The man pauses, breathes deeply. “Why should I love you?”
“Truth is inside.”
“My truth. I packed it away in a box and made a drawing of it.”
His eyes brighten as he clasps his hands together. “I love it! I love you!”
The remainder of the crowd hear his outcry and agree with him. I am loved. My drawing is loved. I am special. I am somebody.
Nobody even notices the performer as she comes out on stage.
My drawing is exhibited in museums. People flock to see a drawing of my truth packed in a box. People huddle around me, making me know why they are loved, why they are special, why their work is known.
I don’t care to listen to their delusions and they don’t really want to know much about me either. I made a famous drawing that people loved. That is enough information for them to talk to me. “You are worth talking to,” they say. “Do you know why I’m worth talking to?”
They say I am loved and special, but I don’t feel this. These people are not aware of the same love I am seeking. These people are only aware of themselves and just want everyone else to be also. I feel alone here.
“What will you do for your next piece?” someone asks, distracted by an oncoming cameraman. “Maybe we should work together so I can bask in your glory.”
“That won’t work.”
The next day I show them why. I unveil my new project in a grand and spectacular opening. It is a large box and I am locked inside.
“I don’t understand,” someone complains “It’s just a box.”
“Yes, what’s inside the box?”
“He has already packed away his truth. What more could he have to offer?”
“It’s nobody!” I yell through a small, punctured hole. “It’s nobody inside the box.”
There is a disappointed grumble and then people walk away.
I’m not spoken to ever again.
Black Holes and Swirling Vapour
In Response to Ben Millar, Painting: “St George St.”
[The painting I chose to write this story on was “St George”
by Ben Millar. An abstract piece, painterly in rendition, it is made up of brushstrokes that sweep across and down the canvas. The principal colour of blue and the sweeping brushstrokes are reminiscent of the movement of the universe – black holes and swirling vapour – creation and its opposite death.]
I imagined the pilot on his flight, forced to land in the desert a victim of a rationalist society, who can only, in a moment of death, realise the truth of life.
In the beginning there was nothing. The world was formless and desolate. Darkness, in a state of motion, abounded –whirling at ever-increasing speeds. Out of the darkness colours – blue, red, yellow – began to appear, and from these purple, orange and green were formed, and from these colours many more were made. They danced in frenzied undulations. And it was beautiful to behold.
But forming in amongst these colours were ideas, concepts, principles, morals and rationales on how to live a good and worthwhile existence. Life started to take shape and the colours and the whirling dervish that created them were soon forgotten. Words forced there way in front of the colours and life became bland and monochromatic. The echoes of the words could be heard throughout space.
Clean your room. Brush your teeth. Put out the rubbish. Do not covert thy neighbours wife. Right is might. Thou shalt not steal. Uncle Sam wants you. Time is money.
An anthem of words echoed out into the cosmos and into the hearts and minds of people everywhere – only the children saw the colours dancing on the skyline, colliding with the words.
A pilot – solitary – flew high into the vivid blue sky, through the clouds that puffed and floated on the wind. His plane looped, nose-dived and pirouetted. On the ground, the children watched this display and noted the way the colours marbleised as the plane flew in and around them. They watched, smiling to themselves, until the plane was completely out of sight. The adults watching the children wondered whether the plane would inspire the children to want to grow up to be pilots, aircraft controllers or inventors. And they smiled to themselves too.
The pilot enjoyed the freedom and solitude of flying. And while he was in the sky the words that echoed everywhere seemed to grow quiet. Not that he really heard the voices anyway – he had become so used to their sound. But he always felt a greater sense of peace when he was flying.
He flew across the desert, concentrating on his machinery, without noticing the way the light played with the shapes on the desert floor. But as the plane began to lose altitude, he was forced to consider the desert sands as he looked for a safe place to land. The light played on. The desert loomed closer and closer to the pilot until he … landed, safely. He was good with machinery.
The pilot climbed out of the plane and looked towards the horizon, turning in all directions – nothing. As far as his eye could see everything seemed formless and desolate. He was not trained to survive in a world without boundaries, without words, without form. He hung his head in despair. And in the middle of the searing heat, in the shadow of his plane he went to sleep.
When the pilot awoke it was night. The moon was full and lit up the desert giving it a luminous beauty. The sky was velvety indigo and filled with stars. Partly coiled before him, with its head raised as though to strike was a snake. The pilot did not notice the snake; he was too busy trying to count the stars. He had never seen so many stars in his life, and as he twisted and turned trying to take them all in he tripped on the snake, which struck him in response.
The pilot fell to the ground clutching his leg in agony. The snake slithered off across the dunes leaving a whip-like pattern in the sand. The words began crowding his head fighting to be heard.
How many times have I told you? Confucius says. Give Aunt Gladys a kiss? Children should be seen and not heard. Make hay while the sun shines. Collateral damage. Take no prisoners. Clock in, clock out. Eat of my body. Clock in, clock out. Drink of my blood. God is dead.
Words that no longer had any meaning filled his head. Empty, rudderless words swirled through his mind fighting to be heard, and in amongst the words the dervishes began to dance– twirling and swirling – creating colours as they moved. A myriad of colours twisted around the pilot as he writhed with pain. The words of the past subsided as the colours took over, and the pilot lived only for the moment of death.
All the years I have lived for tomorrow, for others, for codes of conduct and principles and all the time death has been waiting for me. I have missed my moment, except for this one, he thought.
In those last minutes of existence his senses came to life: he smelt the perfumes of the desert; he felt the coolness of the night wrap around him and soothe his sweating brow; he heard the animals, birds and insects as they sought for food; he tasted the moisture from the distant oases; and he saw the stars smiling at him. It was no use counting us, they seemed to say, and they looked at him and laughed. The pilot laughed with them – the moment his to enjoy – until his time came to an end. And all that was left was a shell.
In Response to Gerra Tonge, Painting: “Distrust”
Maayirr was born of her land. Like the trees, her feet drew from the energy of the earth that sustained her growth. Her land was an organism with which she grew and changed. She was her mother, and her mother was her.
Then the sectators came. They were drawn by the beauty of her land and the fruits that it grew. They came to name the land, divide it into definitions. At first, they arrived as few, and Maayirr watched them. She saw as they laid their nests in the forest, hollowing the trees for shelter, and she felt distrust. In their comfort they grew louder, echoing their definitions across the land, making the animals flee. And Maayirr’s distrust became anger.
The spectators multiplied. They defined the forest as a city, turning all the trees into dens, and Maayirr’s anger grew. They defined the lake as a reservoir and drank its well being, and Maayirr’s anger grew. They defined the fruit of the land as crops, collected them as harvest and left the trees bare. And Maayirr’s anger grew.
When they defined the mountain as a quarry, making holes in the earth, Maayirr’s anger turned to rage. She cried for them to stop, and although they heard her cries they did not listen, as they did not care for what they had not defined themselves. But they saw her crafts of praise and took them for their beauty, naively defined them as art and told her who she was.
But Maayirr knew what she was. It existed in the memories of her land. She cried for the forest they had turned into a city. She wailed for the rivers and lakes, now barren from the sectator’s greed. She screamed for the mountain, gutted and hollow, eroding in spite of her spirit. And her screams gave her power and told her who she was.
Maayirr screamed her anger across the land and her voice turned to a gale and her tears became rain. She screamed who she was and what had been done. She cried to her maker, the land that she was, and it heard her need for freedom. She screamed and the sectators listened, hearing her pain and sensing its power.
The sectators gathered, frightened of this rage, attempting to define it in order to make it subside. They analysed and evaluated the threat, postulated on its menace, but could not give it a name as they did not care to understand its origin.
And Maayirr continued to scream. Her scream was her own and she knew the source of its power was within her and her land. As she screamed her anger and sorrow she became a great, raging wind that blew throughout the land.
The wind blew its anger through the city destroying the sectators hiding in their dens, exhaling their definitions. The wind blew its sorrow to the trees, the rivers and the mountain and they grew from its power. It blew its blessings to the animals, telling them to return, and it blew its joy to replenish the land.
Finally, the wind blew rebirth. And Maayirr was what she had always been.
[I was drawn to the picture of the Aboriginal woman by Gera Tonge. It was named “Distrust” and it depicted a woman who seemed dis-empowered by her position. The disempowerment of the Aboriginal people and the taking of their land is, to me, the issue of most primary importance in Australia today. To the Aboriginal people, the land is their mother and this spiritual attachment is integral to their culture. European settlement has ravaged their land but, against all adversity their culture remains intact and their spirituality is still bound to their land.
I wanted to empower the woman in the picture so I turned her distrust into anger, an emotion that I view as productive and empowering. I wanted to communicate the authenticity of her culture. In western culture it is difficult to comprehend a concept of ownership as being a part of something rather than controlling it. Maayirr is part of the land and it is because of the atrocities committed against her land that she becomes its protector. The Aboriginal people have been forced into a reactive position, fighting an aggressor in order to protect their land and culture.
The story is a metaphorical portrayal of the plight of the Aboriginal people. Maayirr means wind in the language of the Kulin nation and that is what she becomes. Sectator is a Latin term meaning persuer, hunter or suitor. I wanted to use a Latin word to describe the invaders to represent western culture and what we view as civilisation.
I think there are similarities between Maayirr and the little prince in that they are both authentic. When faced with impositions they maintain their authenticity and remain themselves. As the little prince travels the planets he meets the businessman who deals in stars. ‘When you discover an island that belongs to no-one, it is yours’ (p55) he says, and this seems to describe the European concept of Terra Nullius. Put a name to something and you own it.
I used a style similar to The Little Prince as I wanted to write it like a dreamtime story. Like the existentialists I wanted to use a myth to metaphorically describe a social reality. I wanted to empower the heroine I saw in ‘Distrust’ as distrust is a passive emotion, while anger is active. I used her anger to create the wind that destroys the invaders and I think this is reflective of dreamtime stories that tell the origins of nature.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that this is a European perception of the struggle of the Aboriginal people. It is a story that reflects my limited knowledge of their culture and my interpretation of the invasion. I think that we need to portray the empowerment of the Aboriginal people, their activism and their fight. Australian history ignores the fact that there was a war here and hundreds of thousands of people gave their lives to defend their land, where are their names on the epitaphs? Maayirr represents the way I see these people who’s anger is their weapon and who’s fight needs to be heard.]
September Seven, Eleven and Beyond
In Response to Simon Fisher, Painting: “The Towers”
The little prince stared in amazement at the World Trade Centre towers. There was nothing this big on his tiny planet. “Why have they been built so high?” he asked. To this I replied, “So as to define the significance of New York as the world’s centre of economic power.”
The little prince seemed bemused by this explanation. He thought to himself that if he possessed such economic power, he would not create structures that reached to the isolation of the sky, but ones that acted as bridges across the land, so as to unite people around the world. He would also grow roses over the bridges to make them beautiful.
September 11, 2001
Amid the orange haze as the terrible plumes of black smoke arose from the towers, the little prince asked me “Why would anyone want to cause such destruction and pain?” His question was almost beyond my comprehension, but I attempted to explain that this was an act of terrorism by people who neither understood nor valued the way people like us lived. The little prince became upset and confused. “Who are the people unlike us?” he asked, “Are there two types of people in this world?” I was perplexed by his reaction. In his simplistic, child’s view of the world there was no division caused by politics, religion, race or power struggle. “We are all of the same maker and yet we are of many different types,” I explained. He contemplated my response for several minutes as the first tower began to topple. “If we are all of the same maker, then don’t we destroy ourselves a little each time we hurt others?” he asked. To this I replied, “Perhaps it is our destiny to hurt each other. Otherwise we would have ridiculous thorns like your rose to protect ourselves.”
July 4, 2002
“What are we celebrating?” asked the little prince as the banners waved. “It is Independence Day,” I replied “We celebrate our freedom and our becoming such a great nation.” He smiled as the crowds cheered and the streets were ablaze with red, white and blue. “Why do the people celebrate the falling of the towers?” he asked. Shocked by his question, I followed his gaze toward the group of tourists smiling against the backdrop of the gaping hole where the twin towers once stood. I imagined their holiday snaps, immortalising the denseness of the air hanging just behind their insensitive smiles. I could think of no reply for his question. “Perhaps they are celebrating the awakening of humanity now that the symbols of hierarchy are gone” he added. I began to cry as the dust of the lost souls enveloped us.
September 11, 2002
The names of each of the victims echoed through the chasm of ground zero as the memorial proceeded. The little prince clutched a rose as he watched the crowds of people, standing respectfully around the perimeter of the site. He thought of how the rays of sunlight passing between the buildings reminded him of the beloved sunsets on his own planet. This was indeed a strange planet. In the wake of such destruction, some people talked of more destruction as a result. On his own planet, he took such care raking out the active volcanoes, even though his planet was so tiny. Perhaps the people of this planet didn’t understand that their planet was also tiny in the greater scheme of things. Otherwise they would care for it better. He felt the solution was for them to do what he had done and travel to other planets, to see for themselves. And with that, he stepped forward and carefully placed his rose on the pavement and a sheep ate it. He smiled and continued on his journey.
In Response to Tim Bathurst, Sculpture: “Swans”
I arrive alone, awkward, clumsy, my belly heavy with sadness. I walk around intent on the art because I know that is the correct way to act and then I will feel inconspicuous. I circle trying to relax and let the walls do their work. I nurse a champagne, resisting the urge to skull and grab for another. I don’t though because there are not many people here and it would be noticeable. I read and am touched by the poetry parchments. But it is hard to absorb properly and I walk away dissatisfied. I stand in front of the grumbling, confronting machine spewing its message out at me. It is painful, I think, but I cannot interpret this. Then I see her. Instantly I feel compelled to touch. I stroke her long, sinuous neck lightly, daringly, as I don’t think I am meant to touch either but she is irresistible. She is cool, fragile and I draw back reminded of the scratch of a nail against a blackboard. The thought makes me nauseous. I read her name and am startled at looking directly back at her then quickly away as if I have done the wrong thing. Indeed the directive was not to look. I retort “stop looking at me, swan” and walk away to seek inspiration elsewhere.
I stand in front of a painting full of death, long trailing wisps of it that beckon, cajole, promise and definitely deliver. I can feel its breeze. I attempt conversation with a classmate. She tells me how she is here for a school assignment. I say, “I know I am in your class.” She gestures awkwardly. We are both embarrassed by now and abruptly turn from each other. I find myself standing by the swan again. Stop looking at me swan pleads to me. Hello I whisper to her. I feel my words penetrate her porous body. I am struck by her perfection and equally her utter and total wrongness.
Her perfectly rounded body, so pleasing to the eye screams at me “I have no wings. How can I be true without wings?”
She speaks to me with other’s voices. The room has filled and I am standing next to a young suited man talking with friends. I hear him say urgently, “Oh my God – my dad is here” and feel the pull of his body as he moves to intercept him. The voice and its rawness resound in my head. Tears have sprung to my eyes. I start to ask myself why then stop and gaze silently at my swan. I close my eyes and I look at her. She resists. Her perfectly rounded body is her terrible flaw. Her grace and beauty mean nothing. She is just a pretty paperweight. An enticement to draw attention to the mailing list. The biro rests against her white body; a sensible place to ensure it cannot roll away. I wince -it threatens to spoil with every touch, every movement of its nib. What does it matter to me anyway but as I ask this question I know it does matter to me.
Stop looking at me swan. But I can’t keep my eyes off you.
My swan has found me, wrapped her huge, soft wings around me and taken away my loneliness. Sometimes her wings flap at me, aggressively, their bird shit stench causing me to retch and stumble. I see the fleas and ticks that live off her crawling around on her pink, scaly body. They disgust me but she does not seem to mind. I think – should I find her and buy her but these are the times when I am tired and forgetful and have closed the curtains and the windows and the doors and then I remember that I do have her and she has me – in all our guises.
We are the Valkries swooping from Valhalla; Zeus intent on seduction and destruction; maidens casting off our skins and bathing our very souls; soulless hags ready to inflict great suffering on any who dare slight us – ah how many lives we have, how much joy we give each other. Her love and hate fill me and me her. We have found our beginnings and when I feel alone she whispers to me and flaps her stench ridden wings in my face and I remember and can walk around once more, looking at pictures, sipping champagne, revelling in the beauty and the agony that surrounds me, knowing I belong to it and am not alone.
Never, never stop looking at me swan.
A Flash of Yellow
In Response to Mary-Lyn Litchfield, Painting: “Departure”
“There was nothing but a yellow flash close to his ankle. He remained motionless for an instant. He didn’t cry out. He fell gently, the way a tree falls. There wasn’t even a sound, because of the sand.”
Silk seemlessly rippling. A gentle breeze. Outside is hospital starch sheets white. Inside; a green-tree frog. He croaks, mocking me. I stare back at him. This plane is not going anywhere.
I remember the Batman comic ‘yellow flash.’ The light-bulb brightness of it all. I could almost see the “KAPOWZA!’ And then nothing….. Nothing……………… Nothing. “What is the point?” What IS the point of it all?”
Alone, stranded in this camel, oasis desert. Without…..him.
Satin, creamy, souffle drifting. The curtain is free; it could leave when it wanted to. No memories, no lost…….friends. He remained motionless for an instant, and then nothing. The curtain could not possible remain motionless, the breeze entices it to dance and it obliges. We are all curtains. We are all obliged to dance, dance, dance, dance. The workplace breeze, the relationship breeze, the government breeze, we are merely following orders to dance. And we do. The breeze does not consider our broken and blistered feet, our snake bites. No. We dance. And we dance until we can’t cry out, and we fall like flowers or small shrubs or trees. Trees…Yes, Trees.
I wish I could fall like a leaf, maybe even a petal, or if I’m really lucky; a broken stem. But certainly not a tree.
But even after all that dancing, if we did fall…who catches us? Who protects us? The flower with four meek thorns could not protect herself from the fate of the un-muzzled sheep? No..I don’t think so. The breeze laughs at us and new curtains purchased on special…$249.95 from Spotlight. The workplace breeze, the relationship breeze, the government breeze they throw sand on us and they wear dying flowers on their lapel. Because that’s what you do. You kill the flower that can’t protect itself, you buy new curtains and then you wear the flower’s corpse on your midnight Peter Jackson suit.
I leaned on my windowsill, pitying my dancing curtain and I began wondering what had become of my fallen friend. Is he back home trimming the flower’s thorns and re-muzzling the sheep or has he turned into the sand beneath my green toes?
The man on the fifth planet filled my window with bright fireflies. I explained to my frog who was as green as I, that ‘this man is much less absurd than the businessman, the very vain man, and the drunkard.’ His work has meaning, beauty. My little prince was …so gentle…precious…perfect…he had tremendous beauty. Perhaps my lamplighter friend will help me find my love.
I decided to call out to him….”Excuse me, Lamp lighter man? Can you hear me? Do you know where my little prince is?
Nothing….again I bellowed, louder, over the deafening applause of the audience…. …..nothing.
My voice was muffled and drowned out by the furious dancing of the curtains. No one could hear me. The curtain had been given orders by King’s breeze to tap dance. Ra ta ta ta ta……I yell again….ta ra!..”Ah, ra ta, Lamp ra lighter, are you ta ta ta up there? Ta Ta TA RA RA! I’m stranded in my desert and I ta ta need ra to find my ra ra prince. Nothing…no answer.
So I sit hear at my noisy window with my green frog and both of us are wearing earplugs. It was the only answer, because of the constant chronic earaches we were burdened with.
The music deafening, the rumba, jig and highland fling…furious.
All sorts of breezes come and go, but they all want me marooned in my desert, looking out. The only thing between me and my princely freedom are…curtains.
I am all alone now; there is no communication with my green frog because we are both wearing ear plugs.
The Domino Effect
In Response to Chris Berg, Painting “The Domino Effect”
After I landed, I walked and walked and walked until I reached a grey stone building with bright curtains in the windows and a red door. The Lodge of Pain, it said in engraved letters on the highly-polished brass plate in the centre of the door. What a most peculiar name for a building I thought, and I read it again to be sure. The Lodge of Pain it said again, and so I waited.
It felt like hours that I waited but since I did not have a timepiece I could not be sure. Finally, the door opened slowly and three men peered out at me. They were dressed alike in black morning suits with top hats. Each of them had a monocle and a moustache. The one closest to me spoke.
“What do you want? How long have you been waiting here?”
“What planet is this? Is this Earth?” I asked and smiled to show I was friendly.
The one closest to me seemed surprised by this question and said “What planet? Why Earth of course. … I think you’d best come in.” And he swung the door open wide so I could enter.
There was a large oak-paneled room with a fireplace, portraits on the walls and a number of easy chairs alongside occasional tables. Two of the men sat and watched while the other stood before me. Finally, he spoke again.
“What planet are you from?”
“You do not know it,” I answered, “although we call it Planet X”, and I smiled to show that I was harmless.
He waved his arm in the direction of the other men. “That is E. J. Ziggy, a Doctor of Philosophy and that is P. T. Fonda, a Doctor of Arts.”
He grasped the lapels of his suit and pulled himself upright, in order to appear more academic.
“I, on the other hand, am the person you need to speak to. Isaac C. Messier, Doctor of Science at your service.”
Then he bowed so long and so low that I wondered if his top hat was glued to his head.
“Messier, Isn’t that a French name?,” I asked.
His brow furrowed.
“How do you know that if you are not of Earth?”
“I have been here before ….. many times.” I said, and I smiled to show that I was an experienced visitor.
He seemed to accept this.
“Yes my name is French, but I am Turkish. I changed my name since the scientific world seems to take the European far more seriously than Arabs. Being ‘Messier’ has opened many doors that would have otherwise remained closed. Follow me.”
With this he turned and walked through a doorway. I followed, and then continued up wooden stairs behind him. At the top of the stairs he opened a door and entered another oak-paneled room. I followed.
“My room,” he said simply and waved his arm around the cluttered space. Books and instruments of science filled every available surface. “Please, be seated.”
I sat and he sat, and I smiled to show that I was comfortable.
“So, where in space is this Planet X?”
“You would not know.” I said and smiled to show that I was shy.
“On the contrary, my specialty is astronomy. I am considered an expert in the secrets of the universe.” With this he passed me a large red leather book. On the front, embossed in gold, I read The Secrets of the Universe by Dr. I. C. Messier: An Expert.
I smiled, to show that I understood he was telling the truth.
“Are you familiar with 47 Tucanae?”
“Of course. A fine globular cluster, 16,000 light years away.”
“Yes”, I said, offering nothing further and we sat silently for a few moments.
“I met a man who had seen five-hundred-and-one million six-hundred-and-twenty-two thousand seven-hundred-and thirty-one stars. And he is still counting. How many have you seen?” I asked.
He did not appear to have heard me, and I was just about to ask the question again when he softly said, “One.”
We sat watching each other until he waved his arm around the clutter.
“But I have read all these books, and drawn astro-charts, and seen all the astronomical photographs,” he continued. “And I am an expert.” With this he again showed me his red book, The Secrets of the Universe, by Dr. I. C. Messier, An Expert. “It’s just that I have never seen them with my own eyes.”
Suddenly I understood.
“You’re afraid of the dark,” I reasoned. “You cannot go out at night, and yet you are an astronomer.”
He nodded. “Yes, although I prefer to call it Nyctophobia.”
“And that is why you are here in this lodge.”
He again nodded slowly. I smiled, to show that I sympathised with him.
“What about the others? Why are they here?”
He sat up.