Update: James LeyWeek in Review

19 December 2014: the book council


Peter Kingston, Original work for the Phantom Show invitation, 2014, Gouache and pencil on paper, 25 x 18 cm. Courtesy Australian Galleries.

The announcement last week of the inauguration of a ‘new but rather hazily defined’ Book Council did not include the information that it will be funded by a cut to the Australia Council of $2 million per year for three years. This is about half of the Council’s traditional literature budget  –  a massive hit. The Australia Council was informed of this just a few hours before the budget announcements on Monday, and is still working through what it will mean, in a practical sense, for the funding of literature. A spokesperson said:

The budget reduction will be applied across the Australia Council’s new grants program and strategic projects to reduce the impact in any one area.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reminded us on Tuesday, in May the Government cut $6.4 million from the Australia Council’s Get Reading! campaign, which is now one part of the Book Council’s role.

The Book Council is to be an ‘industry’ body and will be administered by the Arts Ministry – that is, from George Brandis’ office. Its duties include the gathering of statistics and dissemination of information. Despite Melbourne University Press director Louise Adler’s upbeat assessment –

The Book Council . . . recognises the need for a whole-of-industry approach to the future. The Book Council declares to the nation that Australian writing matters and that building future generations of writers and readers is vital to a civilised and free society

– this looks like another Abbott-Brandis act of chicanery, of a piece with this sorry government’s plundering of the foreign aid budget to fund war in Iraq. The oddly monikered Georgia Conduit, Director Arts Communication, Attorney General’s Department, is the person to contact if you have any further questions.


One of Australia’s most venerable art awards, the Blake Prize, is in trouble. It is seeking a major sponsor and, if help is not forthcoming, may cease to exist. It needs about $60 000 a year. The Blake Society, which administers the prize, was founded in 1949 by a Jesuit priest, Michael Scott, and a Jewish businessman, Richard Morley, initially in order to motivate the making of art that could be hung in churches and other places of worship. They also hoped that the establishment of the prize would encourage artists of disparate styles and religious allegiances to create significant works of art with religious content. The Blake Society, named after the visionary artist and poet William Blake, is a non-profit organisation which ‘implements and manages the annual Prize and Exhibition program for contemporary art exploring the themes of spirituality, religion and human justice.’ Seven years ago, the annual Blake Poetry Prize, administered and managed in partnership with The NSW Writers’ Centre, was instituted.

The 63rd Blake Prize of $25,000 was won by Melbourne-based artist Richard Lewer for his work entitled ‘Worse luck . . . I’m still here’, a digital video animation of black and white drawings depicting the true story of a failed suicide pact, in Perth, between a man and his chronically ill wife. Lewer said:

I’m interested in how extreme life can be and how loving he was to do that for her. It’s also about faith and belief and sacrifice . . . spiritually it asks probably more questions than it answers.

This year’s Blake Poetry prize, for which the late Martin Harrison was one of the judges, was awarded to Dave Drayton for his poem Threnodials.

Meanwhile, in Tasmania, the 2014 Glen Harwood Poetry Prize has gone to Tim Thorne for ‘Fukushima Suite’, with ‘For Length of Days’ by Alex Skovron as the runner-up. The Judges Report also commended Chris Andrews’ ‘My Day for Spilling Things’ as ‘a rollicking and energetic poem about the moment of waking that delights with its completely unexpected jumps of thoughts’.


An exhibition at MOMA in New York, their first contemporary painting survey in 30 years, appears to have taken its title, without attribution, from a Cold Chisel song. Jerry Saltz wrote in the Vulture  that

‘The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World’ at the Museum of Modern Art arrives, curated by Laura Hoptman, at a moment when painting is in an astonishingly conflicted but promising abysm of wakefulness.

That ‘promising abysm of wakefulness’ highlights one fascinating aspect of the debate about what painting today is doing – I refer to the inventive language that has come into being around the art. Earlier this year, Walter Robinson, an artist himself, coined the term Zombie Formalism:

Formalism because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting . . . and Zombie because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.

I am not sure if Robinson can also be credited with the neologism ‘Crapstraction’ but it too has entered the lexicon.

The other beguiling term that has surfaced around the MOMA show is ‘Negative Content’. Saltz uses this to characterise art whose primary content is what it’s not:

These are all familiar signals that say to viewers and buyers, ‘I know I’m an abstract painting, but the fact that I know that means that I’m cool and you knowing that I know it makes you cool too. Plus, I’m not crass like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Like me.’ . . . and it’s a startling statement that this negative content is so appealing to people (collectors especially) right now.

John Berger, in an article published in the Guardian, has some thoughts upon the generation of language and the ubiquity of what he calls the mother tongue:

a language cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases. Nor can it be reduced to a warehouse of the works written in it. A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.

Nevertheless, we are always adding words to the language or amplifying upon those we already have. Australia’s word of the year is not so much a raid upon the inarticulate as a celebration of it: shirtfront.


This week Sydney Review of Books features James Ley’s review of Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, an account of the murder trial of Robert Farquharson. Surveying Garner’s other major non-fiction works The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Ley argues that in her interactions with the legal cases documented in these books Garner is enacting a profound battle between the emotions and the intellect. Garner, he writes,

always brings to her task a novelistic intelligence – which is to say, she is seeking, quite explicitly, to understand events not simply in a narrowly rationalistic sense but in an empathetic way. She is interested in the intricacies of personality and psychology. Her work is drawn to the often fraught dynamics of interpersonal relationships and what she describes in This House of Grief as those ‘excruciating realms of human behaviour, where reason fights to gain a purchase, and everyone feels entitled to an opinion’. Where her writing touches on political or ethical issues, they are invariably interpreted in this light, and in an important sense subordinated to the more intimate concerns of her work.

Our second essay is Maria Tumarkin’s brilliant response to Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast’s book is about the last years of her aging parents’ lives, and therefore about the whole of their lives together and, concomitantly, her own relationship with them over the course of her life so far:

Chast burrows into this feral old age and draws it out with uncanny, page-expanding, emotional precision. It is not reporting from the trenches, or a facing-down of the last frontier, but something else. Chast is giving over a whole multi-tracked, multi-voiced, sensory feast of a book to something – something barely bearable sometimes, and infused with pain and dread always; something that gets sprinted past, or poeticised to within an inch of its life, or else chronicled with a deadly, breathless earnestness (in these matters earnestness can be deadly) – and she does it in such a way that I could not tear myself away from her book.

From the archives this week features Ben Denham on James Turrell, whose major exhibition, simply called James Turrell: A Retrospective, opened last week at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and will continue until 8 June 2015. In 2010, the NGA commissioned and installed a Turrell work, within without – ‘part of a series of works called Skyspaces that Turrell started producing in the 1970s’ – which is the focus of Denham’s essay about the unique experiences Turrell creates.


Our image this week is co-curator Peter Kingston’s original artwork for the invitation to The Phantom Show at Australian Galleries, showing the Ghost Who Walks doing something unspecified but certainly clandestine and possibly illegal on Sydney harbour. This is the fourth Australian show dedicated to the Phantom in forty years: there are those, myself included, who grew up thinking he was Australian.


This is the last Sydney Review of Books newsletter for 2014. We will be returning in late-January. Thank you to all our subscribers and readers throughout the year. May you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.