by Bella Li
Published February 2017
Theory of Colours
by Bella Li
Published August 2021
The copyright permission notes might be the most interesting section of Bella Li’s Argosy (2018) and Theory of Colours (2021). With text and image selections ranging from Goethe to Elena Ferrante to the films of Park Chan-wook, Li’s work is not dissimilar to the sample-based work of the Melbourne band The Avalanches and the video-art duo Soda Jerk. Between DJs and memes, digital and analogue forms of cut and paste, the work of art in the age of technological reproducibility is the assemblage of the technologically reproducible. The capacity to source, slice, splice, and recombine visual, audio and textual material from anywhere in the world is made possible through the wonders of photocopying, printing, downloading, scanning, samplers, sequencers, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Ableton Live, the Internet, and so on.
There is something rebellious about an art form that takes as its central problem where the edges of objects should be, and why they can’t be elsewhere. Some collages might have borders so smoothly blended that the resulting image appears to be a photograph taken from real life, even if the scene is obviously a fiction. Some collages don’t aspire to realism, and their charm lies in the roughness with which moments from a range of ephemera have been patched together, things bound together in clear unbelonging. Such collages also interrogate the idea of photography’s correspondence with reality, and resemble, in spirit, other visual languages such as illustration, sculpture and painting. Collage is the art of using existence to question essence, of taking what already exists to reimagine what we think things mean, are, or do.
Argosy, published by Vagabond Press first in 2017 and reprinted in 2018, has 166 pages of poetry, the majority of which comprise visual collages. According to the notes, some of the poetic phrases in Argosy are from literary and film sources, spliced with hand-drawn vintage illustrations from state and university library collections. Theory of Colours, published by Vagabond Press in 2021, is 149 pages long, and it is also primarily visual, and also draws from pre-existing texts and images, although here, the images are mostly photographs.
A recurring motif in Argosy is the displacement of the face. The superimposition of non-human material, such as plants, conch shells and bird faces, on human bodies, troubles the boundary between the human and the non-human. Animals are not spared, with various plant and insect matter replacing their heads. Deer with moth heads, birds with snail heads. The casually faceless portraits gesture towards a multi-creature, manufactured subjectivity. Evoking Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, these visual poems are arguments for ‘pleasure in the confusion of boundaries, and for responsibility in their construction.’
The shared facelessness feels like a statement about faces. The text of the current ‘Face to Face’ exhibition website of the National Museum of Wroclaw reads:
The exhibition addresses the subject of the human face as the easiest recognisable and most exposed, and thus the most vulnerable, part of the human body. This subject is of particular relevance in the era of advanced digitalisation, and the growing role of artificial intelligence in public space, in which the face becomes the most important factor of personal identification.
Automated AI art platforms might get a lot of things right with unprecedented quickness, but they stumble when it comes to hands and faces. The face might be regarded as a marker of authentic identity, a link between something you say and some stable thing that you are, feel, or believe. But Instagram and Snapchat filters, and the increasing ease of access to injectable cosmetics and body modification procedures, point to the plasticity and mutability of this realness. As any actor, model, makeup artist, or gender-non-conforming person knows, the face is a fiction. ‘I’m real when I [Photo]shop my face,’ sings the late trans icon SOPHIE. This might also be why politicians, corporate executives and fragile white women career literary editors, are so invested in the act of face-saving: reality can sort its murky self out, but fantasy requires repetition, salvation, and believers.
Theory of Colours opens with a reproduction of a black and white film photograph of upper-middle-class-coded middle-aged men, with prisms refracting light over their faces. Two pages later, the colour spectrum is repeated, this time over large spheres that obscure the figure of the photographer, leaving only the image of a large-format camera mounted on a tripod. This reads like a metaphor for the way the photographer’s intentions, worldview or subject position are often obscured from the story of the images that result from a sitting session. It is easy and tempting to look at photographs and assume they represent the truth. That the thing that appears to have happened, has happened. That the photographer witnessed it. That the photograph enables spectators who weren’t there to continue this witnessing for the duration of the photograph’s existence. Through the photographer, the spectator takes on a vicarious relation of knowingness towards the photographed subject. Laura Mulvey called out how cinema-goers are pulled into identification with the heteromasculine gaze of classical Hollywood film; similarly, viewers of still photographs are placed into a position where the only option is to look at the photographed subject the way the photographer did. In being compelled to look and to see in specific ways, viewers come to experience modes of enjoyment that normalise unequal relations of power beyond the photographic frame. In their review of Theory of Colours in Cordite Poetry Review, Rory Green writes of the early uses of photography:
Photographs were purported to depict an empirical truth that was frequently used to justify notions of racial superiority and the wider colonial apparatus. When ethnic or Indigenous minorities were represented on film, it was typically either as evidence for racial science purposes or as an idealised exotic figure to export back to the white motherland.
The structure of collage disrupts this enjoyment. By introducing visual elements from other sources, the original image becomes a caricature of its former being. The original experience is no longer the only way to encounter what is in front of the viewer. Collage defamiliarises, and in so doing, enables a flexibility of perspective. Li says it best, in the poem ‘Coloured Shadows’: ‘This use of a camera as a time machine/ If we suddenly pass from one state to another.’
The original images in ‘mercredi DANS LE SANG’ in Argosy are illustrations of naked Aboriginal bodies. In Li’s treatment of these images, the figures are blown up to the size of the page, presented as larger than life: larger than a tree and the boat and the ocean. Shells and plants are placed over their faces, in a gesture that reads simultaneously as ironic (to be so naked and still so unseen), but also as dignifying, not so different from the crucified Christ being given water to drink, briefly interrupting the long routine of public humiliation before death. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman writes: ‘[The] body is exposed, but she withholds everything. The body shows itself… yet does not give itself.’ To be depicted bare in the pencil strokes of the colonial artist, but to be withholding, to be represented but to constantly thwart revelation. The self is neither given, nor a given. This body is an archive that resists discovery.
The faces return in a separate part of the work. In ‘vendredi LES PRESAGES’, two scenes are juxtaposed: in the first, white colonial settlers are hunting around a lake. In the second, a man rises from the lake from the mid-chest upward, the largest shape in the collage, eyes cast sternly but calmly into the distance. In the pages that follow, a community of blackfellas sit at the beach, watching an incoming boat. Next to the boat, a mask emerges from the water. Here, the water appears not as uncontained force of nature, but as its own kind of keeper, a gatherer of secrets and stories beneath the seemingly tranquil surface. Something lies deeper. The invisible is no less real. ‘White Australia has a blak history’ is a phrase I often spot on placards at Invasion Day rallies. Likewise, the images in this series depict the blak history of this continent. In these remixes of archival documents, history and the present-time co-exist simultaneously. Sutured together by collage, their boundedness to each other is explicit.
In ‘mardi PAR AVION,’ the birds are faceless. A mallard in the water has a tulip covering its eyes and beak. On its back is a boat with white men rowing. They are rowing air but seem not to know, carried forward not by their own action or agency, but by a force beyond their comprehension. The mallard swims on towards an unidentified destination. In the next page, a multi-species assemblage comprising a parrot, leaf and snail dangles one of these colonial white men from its beak. Opposite this scene, another parrot is perched on a branch, snail on its head, with a wooden house precariously hanging off the smaller branches. In the final spread for this section, a pair of black and white portrait illustrations of white men in colonial military dress are given colourful parrot faces in the place of human heads. ‘I love it when the birds talk, you gotta listen to them,’ says Jason, Gomeroi/Kamilaroi custodian and Commonwealth Environmental Water Officer, cited in a statement by the Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective in their February 2023 Overland article. Birds are already worthy of attentiveness, existence, and preservation. In these visual poems, the birds exist with effortless grace, secure in their power, taking up space in baffling arrangements.
Li’s scenes are composed with such casualness, one could almost forget that they might be imagined any other way, which is probably how the original images dawned on the original spectators. This is the seductive power of photography, or of any representational visual media. Animals were catalogued as part of Western anthropological discovery projects that included Indigenous people as the subject of scrutiny and scholarly interest, but never equal humanity. The representational art forms of illustration and photography were deployed to justify exploitative and extractive colonial relations.
Beyond the initial pages of Li’s Theory of Colours, landscapes and architectural photography take centre stage. A waterfall on a city rooftop. Spidery lightning bolts breaking up the darkness, skeleton fingers across the night. A black and white photo of a mansion interrupted by the vibrant colours of a garden. Miniatures of the same luxurious interiors, repeating all throughout the page. Outer-space planetary close-ups. Rectangles everywhere, on blank sheets of colour, over ornamental hallways and salons. Animals, human or non-human, are nowhere to be found. The edges are sharper and cleaner here. In Argosy, the assemblages set a range of unlikely objects and creatures side by side, resulting in a curated series of ironic provocations against recorded history, drawn from white colonial archival sources. Theory of Colours is darker – literally, with more saturated colour tones, harsher contrast in the monochromatic pieces. It is, perhaps contradictorily, also more suffuse with lack. Empty rooms, empty rectangles, environments beneath a wide open sky, objects against the vastness of space. What is it to say, ‘there is nothing here?’ Physicist Karen Barad writes, ‘Ontological indeterminacy, a radical openness, an infinity of possibilities, is at the core of mattering… Matter in its iterative materialisation is a dynamic play of in/determinacy. Matter is never a settled matter.’ Like the task of remixing found objects, noticing the spaces for openings is the beginning of combination, recombination, attachment, detachment, displacement, losing, finding, and redefining the ways we get to be found. Patricia Elliott writes that psychoanalysts who work with trans patients recognise that transitioning is ‘a creative project that includes both surgery and narration.’ In some ways this is not too different perhaps from the craft of cutting and pasting a snail over a human head. In Vibrant Matter, the scholar Jane Bennett points to Althusser’s suggestion that ‘political events are born from the chance meeting of atoms.’ The same might be said of the poetic event.
Elsewhere in the Sydney Review of Books, Prithvi Varatharajan cites timely critiques of white Anthropocene discourse: ‘Ellen van Neerven… emphasis[es] that Anthropocene is a ‘dugai’ (whitefella) term; they imply that it imposes a Eurocentric worldview on Aboriginal peoples, who have rich ways of understanding humans’ relations to more-than-human life, and to ecologies under stress. Gilbert Caluya has elsewhere argued that there is a universalism at the heart of Anthropocene discourse, and that it risks reinstating the white liberal subject of the Enlightenment.’ It is perhaps not wrong that Reason, Civilisation, and other fantasies of human self-importance belie the life-affirming processes of vibrant matter in our bones and organs and the common minerality we share with other species. But Reason and Civilisation have always been categories built around fantasies of white upper-middle-class abled, cis-masculine supremacy. In his analysis of recorded, disembodied ‘posthuman voices’ in black popular music, Alexander G. Weheliye argues that ‘[i]n proclaiming the moment of the posthuman, we might do well to interrogate ‘other humanities’ and not just discard this category wholly… or equate humanity with the white liberal subject.’ We are already collages, assembled from matter, reason, spirit, flesh, bone, memory, archive, space-dust.
The colours in Li’s Theory of Colours are mostly muted, with occasional bursts of brilliance streaking across a few pages. In What Colour is the Sacred? anthropologist Michael Taussig cites Goethe’s treatise on colours: ‘Men in a state of nature, uncivilised nations, and children, have a great fondness of colours in their utmost brightness.’ Ideas about what’s classy, civilised, and cultivated are entwined with blandness, sterility, and restraint. Taussig contrasts Goethe’s thoughts with the approaches of Walter Benjamin, William Burroughs, and Marcel Proust, who recognised the sensuous aliveness of colour as the source of its power, beauty, and sublime energy. The colour palette across these two books, between Argosy‘s easy-on-the-eyes pastels and Theory of Colours’ more pronounced, intense tones, the back and forth from monochrome to bright streaks of post-rain prisms, reflects the tension between these thinkers’ views. As a point of stark contrast, I recall my recent visit to Paul Yore’s WORD MADE FLESH exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, wherein the classically white surfaces of the contemporary art exhibition space were painted over with bold red, with hand-stitched quilt collages stretching out from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, emphasising the vibrant, subversive, expansive energy of queer, feminised, minoritised forms of artisanship, characteristic of an artistic direction taken by many younger creatives, myself included.
This enquiry into the problem of the disparities and affinities between the original artefacts and the final objects in Theory of Colours and Argosy is at the heart of Li’s poetic project. As Abigail Fisher writes of Theory of Colours in Overland: ‘There’s something about the gap, the space, the moment of failure in which the fantasy is revealed for what it is: a desire for things to be other than they are.’ What makes poetry exciting – and perhaps analogous to revolution – is the same thing: the promise of an other world within our own.
- Barad, Karen, What Is the Virtue of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice (Ostfildern: Erschienen im Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012)
- Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
- Elliott, Patricia, Psychoanalysis in Transgender Studies Quarterly, Vol. 1: 1 – 2 (2014)
- Fisher, Abigail, Alchemy, Allegory, Spectres of Light (Overland Literary Journal, vol. 248, 2022)
- Green, Rory, Rory Green Reviews Theory of Colours By Bella Li (Cordite Poetry Review, 2022)
- Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 2012)
- Hartman, Saidiya, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019)
- Mulvey, Laura, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Screen, vol. 16: 3, 6 – 18, 1975)
- Taussig, Michael, What Color Is The Sacred? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)
- Varatharajan, Prithvi, Archives of Loss (Sydney Review of Books, 2020)
- Weheliye, Alexander G, Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music (Social Text, vol. 20: 2, 21 – 47, 2002)
- Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali Collective, Winaga-li Gunimaa Gali: listen, hear, think, understand from our sacred Mother Earth and Our Water (Overland, 2023)