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25 July 2014: Gordon Bennett, the Man Booker Prize

Gordon Bennett (1955-2014)

Home Decor cropped

Gordon Bennett, Home Decor (after M Preston) #19, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 182.5 x 152cms, courtesy of Sutton Gallery

Gordon Bennett, who passed away unexpectedly on June 3 this year, was a major Australian artist who, over a relatively brief period of time – about 27 years – produced a body of work that is one of the great achievements of our time. His work was widely exhibited and collected in Australia, and acclaimed internationally as well.

Bennett was recognised both here and overseas for his powerful perspectives on the post-colonial experience, with much of his work mapping alternative histories and questioning racial categorisations and stereotypes. As a way to expand his oeuvre, Bennett adopted the persona John Citizen – an invented character who existed as a type of disguise which plays with the rhetoric of identity.

Bennett was a consummate painter and a graphic artist of formidable power. He had, too, in the late 1990s, begun a dialogue with the work of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat; the New York artist was seen by Bennett as someone outside Australia who shared both a similar Western cultural tradition and an obsession with drawing, semiotics and visual language.

His close friend, colleague, and acclaimed author, Ian McLean, in a recent ABC online obituary, wrote that Bennett would be remembered for

the prominent role he played in mission impossible: smashing the racist complexion of the Australian contemporary art scene, which before 1990 had been an exclusively white zone . . . Gordon didn’t just play a leading role in breaking an embargo two centuries in the making, he also scaled the very heights of the artworld, receiving a level of critical recognition rarely achieved by any artist.

No artist so acutely and forcefully inserted Aboriginal history into our consciousness . . . This feat had little to do with his Aboriginality, which is why he consistently played it down . . . He saw himself as a postcolonial not an Aboriginal artist, and abhorred the backhanded racism implied in the claim that his Aboriginality, rather than his vision and sensibility, lent his work its authority . . . There was nothing specifically Aboriginal or even Australian about his art: rather Gordon addressed the universal existential condition of humanity through the frame of an interconnected world.

The difficulty in believing that Gordon is no longer with us in person is not just that his paintings are still so alive, but that we feel in them the movement of his thought. Those who knew Gordon personally understood that there was much more to him than his art, but at the same time it was impossible to separate him from his art. A man of few words despite his lucid pen, a man who shunned the limelight and invitations to speak, he wanted to give all the space to his paintings as if they were his life.

This week we are proud, and also saddened, to reproduce an image of a Gordon Bennett artwork from a series that was first exhibited in the prestigious international exhibition, Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany (2012), and which is due to be exhibited at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne in November this year. This image has been kindly made available courtesy of his lifelong partner, Leanne, and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

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A series of free public lectures titled Reading Australian Literature kicks off at Sydney University on Monday August 11 with Michelle de Kretser’s take on Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River. She will be followed by Drusilla Modjeska on Randolph Stow’s Visitants (September 1) and Fiona McFarlane’s reading of The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White (September 22). The series is co-presented, in the Law School Lounge, by Sydney Ideas and the School of Letters, Arts and Media (SLAM) at the University of Sydney. You can register online for this series in which

each writer will discuss a favourite Australian literary text. What has led them to these books? What do they find remarkable about them? Have these encounters with Australian books left an imprint on the speakers’ own writing?

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Jeannette Winterson and Malcolm Fraser, Claire Wright and Geoff Dyer, Bob Brown and Tim Flannery are among the guests at this year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival (August 1-3), which this year has a strong focus upon the twin catastrophes of history (‘A Work in Progress’) and the environment (‘Are the Oceans Broken?’). The following week, down south, the Bendigo Writer’s Festival (August 8-10) will be showcasing the talents of, among many others, Blanche d’Alpuget, Les Murray, Sonya Hartnett, Raymond Gaita, Hanifa Deen and Andrew McGahan.

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The longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced this week. This is the first year that the prize has been open to English language writers regardless of nationality, meaning that (somewhat controversially) US authors are now eligible. Among those longlisted were some notable American authors, including Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers. Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the only Australian writer to make the cut (read the SRB’s review of his longlisted novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Also making the list was English writer David Mitchell, whose highly anticipated new novel The Bone Clocks will be published in September. Mitchell has just finished tweeting a 6000 word story, The Right Sort, in 280 instalments of 140 characters or less. You can read The Right Sort on the twitter website (and re-tweet it if you wish) .

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For those with a taste for noir, Belinda Neil is hosting a literary luncheon at the Four Seasons hotel on July 29. Belinda was a homicide investigator, undercover drugs cop and hostage negotiator with the NSW police force. Her memoir Under Siege ‘reveals how the daily trauma and stress affected Belinda’s roles as wife and mother and how she fought back against the terrifying post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted.’

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To return to the fine arts: this year’s $75 000 Archibald Prize was awarded to Fiona Lowry’s haunting portrait of architect Penelope Seidler ‘painted in muted greys with her distinctive airbrush technique that produces a fine mist.’ Lowry painted Seidler in the garden of the home in Killara which she designed and built in the 1960s with her husband Harry. ‘I wanted to show her against a background filled with memories and history,’ Lowry said. The decision was a popular one; indeed, it may have been unanimous. Seidler’s own comment was brief and to the point. ‘There’s no controversy,’ she said. [Weird. – Ed.]

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Finally, I have to hand a volume called Impresario: Paul Taylor, The Melbourne Years, 1981-1984. Edited by Helen Hughes and Nicholas Croggon, it is ‘a constellation of texts orbiting around Paul Taylor, the Australian editor, writer, curator and impresario’. Many of the contributions are derived from a symposium held at Monash University in September 2012; others are resumed from the archives, especially those relating to Art & Text, the magazine Taylor founded in the early 1980s. It is a fascinating assemblage of art historical documents and, while often repetitious and sometimes exhibiting fifty shades of solemnity – albeit fenced about with as many varieties of self-deflecting irony – it nevertheless contains essential readings of that particular moment in time and, consequently, of much of what has passed in the discipline (I mean art history) since. It is nicely, if economically, produced, has a pink cover with iridescent scarlet lettering, a photographic section and was co-published by Surpllus and Monash University Museum of Art in an edition of 1000 in 2013.

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This week, SRB features essays on two of the year’s most talked about books. The first is Knox Peden’s consideration of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a work credited with reintroducing the issue of inequality into debates about political economy. In his reflections on this important work, Peden considers it within the context of other studies that have adopted a long view and highlights the questions of historical perspective the book raises, arguing along the way that Piketty’s ‘antidote to previous abstractions is not recourse to the concrete, but a new, different set of abstractions.’

The second essay is Delia Falconer’s review of Only the Animals by the South African-born Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey. Falconer peels back the many narrative layers of Dovey’s fiction to consider the way it unsettles our assumptions about human-animal relations. Dovey’s intention is, Falconer proposes, ‘to make us entertain exactly the kinds of distractions and second-guessing that took hold of me while reading the book.’

In keeping with the philosophy of animals theme, From the Archives this week features ‘Prophet of Gloom’, one of our most popular essays from last year, in which Richard King undertakes an extended critique of the work of philosopher John Gray, based around Gray’s most recent book The Silence of Animals.


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