Update: Rachel MorleyWeek in Review

Primavera and university deregulation

In Flow Still 1
Ben Denham, In Flow (still) 2010, single-channel digital video, colour, sound, 3:41 minutes, courtesy of the artist.

Since opening in 1991, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has developed a reputation for supporting young emerging artists. This is perhaps best represented by Primavera, an annual exhibition that showcases the work of Australians aged 35 years and under. Now in its twenty-third year, Primavera has featured artists who have  gone on to become some of the nation’s top practitioners, including Shaun Gladwell, Gail Hastings, Hiromi Tango, Rebecca Baumann and Kate Mitchell.

Our feature image this week comes from one of Ben Denham’s works in the 2014 exhibition, which opens on Tuesday 23 September. In it ‘we see the artist by the riverside, calmly filling a bucket with water and then hiking up to a higher point of the river to pour the water back down the stream’. Denham, who moonlights as an occasional contributor and Digital Co-ordinator for the Sydney Review of Books, is one of thirteen artists to feature in this year’s exhibition, which also includes work from Nick Dorey, Marian Tubbs and Emily Hunt. In an interview with Broadsheet Sydney, Mikala Dwyer, curator and feature artist from the inaugural Primavera exhibition in 1992, said she was

looking for artists who have an understanding of the world we are in – the rubble of capitalism. Artists who were really trying to re-imagine things from the ground up, rather than some sort dystopia far off in the distance.

This year’s exhibition features a comprehensive program of events including artist and curator talks, guided tours, school activities and an after hours special Artbar event.

Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, whose work will be familiar to readers of the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, is currently in Australia. This week, he presented a paper on the subject of ‘Criticism and the Reading Public’ at Melbourne University. Next week, on Tuesday 23 September, he will be giving a public lecture at Sydney University entitled ‘What’s Happening to Universities? Historical and Comparative Perspectives’. Collini has been an outspoken and trenchant critic of the deregulation of the university system in the United Kingdom, and his lecture is sure to be relevant to the present situation in Australia. As Ben Etherington set out his Sydney Review of Books essay ‘Universities and the Block’ back in May, the effects of deregulation in the UK have been drastic and suggest some of the likely consequences for Australian universities should the federal government implement its proposed reforms. The lecture is free and open to the public, though prior online registration is requested.

Also on 23 September is the launch of Literary Commons, an initiative of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, with the support of the First Nations Australia Writers Network. Literary Commons aims to foster cross-cultural exchanges between literary cultures and in coming months it will be taking some prominent Indigenous authors, including Anita Heiss, Ellen van Neerven and Alexis Wright, to a series of literary events and universities in India. The launch will be held at the Gadigal Centre, 27 Cope Street, Redfern, from 5.30-7.30pm. RSVP: Dr Mridula Chakraborty: m.chakraborty@uws.edu.au

This week Sydney Review of Books brings you essays that explore the work of two fascinating writers from the early decades of the twentieth century. ‘Render it Barely’ by Jeff Sparrow considers a new edition of Lesbia Harford’s poems, recently published by UWA Press and edited and introduced by Oliver Dennis. Harford was an Australian poet, novelist and political activist. She died in 1927, leaving behind three full exercise books of handwritten poetry, which are now held in the Mitchell Library. After several decades of neglect, Harford’s work slowly found its way onto the Australian literary landscape. In 1941, Nettie Palmer brought her poetry to critical attention with The Poems of Lesbia Harford. Four decades later, Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer published an expanded collection under the same title. Dennis’s new Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford brings even more of Harford’s work to a new generation of readers. But while Sparrow congratulates both the publisher and the editor for bringing Harford back into the Australian consciousness, he is less enthusiastic about Dennis’s characterisation of the poet, which he sees as ‘unpleasantly gendered’. Sparrow argues that Dennis diminishes Harford as an artist and an intellectual by downplaying her involvement in cultural life and misrepresenting her approach to writing. He writes that Dennis’ suggestion that Harford ‘privileged “life” and “feeling” over “art” positions the poet as an untutored naïf, a kind of manic pixie dream girl driven by instinct rather than intellect’.

Our second essay, ‘Comrade Tressell’s Problem Novel’ by Richard King, offers an energetic re-reading of Robert Tressell’s classic novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), a work that is widely considered a preeminent work of proletarian literature and which is now celebrating its centenary year. Tressell completed the 1600-page handwritten manuscript of his only novel in 1910, but it was rejected by three publishing houses. It was only at his daughter’s insistence that an abridged version was published after Tressell’s death in 1911. King’s essay traces the publication history of the novel, but more importantly considers its contemporary relevance. He reads it in the spirit of its revolutionary ambitions, which make it a ‘problem novel’ (one that explores a social problem), as well as a novel with some problems. He encounters a work enlivened by some exciting and rare qualities: ‘righteous anger and irresistible logic of a fine and passionately engaged intelligence’. Kings finds that the anger and logic ‘is ‘not always helpful to Tressell’s novelistic ambitions … But it is, in the end, the anger and the logic, and the attempt to novelise them, that I find thrilling.’

From the Archives also returns to the past and another twentieth century classic, though one belonging to a very different genre.  Peter Craven’s essay, ‘Cast as a Spy’ examines the novels of John Le Carré, in particular his signature work The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). Craven’s essay revisits the fabled history of Le Carré – a ‘man who did more than anyone else to invent the way we think of Cold War cloak-and-dagger stuff, the novelist who invented the Father Brown of the spook trade, the saintly George Smiley’ – and, fifty years on, he finds The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to be a work of ‘great moral power’, ‘full of complex, ambivalent emotion and a sense of the supremely pitiable, maybe even tragic, nature of human life’. Craven’s essay also looks at Le Carré’s most recent novel A Delicate Truth (2013) – ‘an absolutely up-to-the-minute in the evocation of the kinds of anxieties and undecidables that hover around the Edward Snowden enigma’.

Last week’s tribute to the late Martin Harrison prompted a letter from one of his former students. Thank you to Suneeta Peres da Costa, whose heartfelt reminiscence of Harrison’s inspiring generosity as a teacher can be read on our correspondence page.