Becoming a Bird: Untold Stories about Art
by Stephanie Radok
Published January 2021
One night in the winter of 2013 I was in a hotel room in Wellington, lying in bed reading, when the building began to shake. I looked up from the page and watched as everything, in that disconcerting manner, moved; and what we assume to be the solid world turned out not to be solid at all; or was solid no more. I wasn’t afraid. I grew up on the slopes of a volcano so I’m familiar with earthquakes. They don’t frighten, so much as intrigue me. Would this be the big one? How long would it go on for? Would there be damage? Bits falling out of the ceiling, perhaps, the lights going out? Would I have to get out of bed? In the event it was not a particularly large shake and after it was over I returned to my book: An Opening: Twelve Love Stories about Art by Stephanie Radok.
An Opening was published in 2012. Much of it concerns the author’s responses to, and knowledge of, Indigenous Australian art; but it is not just about that. Nick Jose, who launched it, said:
Art wants to enter our lives, yet it is a rare art writer who lets it do that. Writing with full personal disclosure, Stephanie Radok lets us in on her secret. Art can inspire love, and a whole host of other unruly emotions. An Opening is a confession, a provocation, a celebration – a highly original, much-needed book in a field that too often prefers to be off-putting and hermetic.
Jessica White, taking a slightly different tack, wrote that reading it was ‘like digging into your grandma’s collection of old jewellery and coming up with fistfuls of sparkling beads, the odd random coin, and smooth feathers.’
Now, almost a decade later, Radok’s next book, Becoming a Bird, subtitled untold stories about art, has arrived. There are rhymes with its predecessor; it is like the second panel of a diptych. Both consist of twelve chapters, each with a title and a theme, though in fact they follow meandering paths, analogous to the way a dog trying to pick up a scent, or scents, wanders; both also use walking the dog as a recurrent motif. Both employ a largely autobiographical narrative to pursue subject matter which is emphatically not autobiographical; advancing details of the life as a field upon which, and from which, the author’s mind can stray. I say ‘mind’ but Stephanie Radok is a writer whose senses – not just sight and smell but taste and touch and hearing as well as the indefinable sixth – are as fully engaged as her intelligence.
Prehistoric and Aboriginal Australia, foregrounded in An Opening, is backgrounded in Becoming a Bird – but only in the sense that deep time, human as well as animal, vegetable and mineral, backgrounds everything we do. As well as informing, ineluctably, the future we may or may not be going to have; and which, if we are not, the planet and the other life forms it hosts will continue to have without us. One of the interesting things about Stephanie Radok’s writing is the way in which, while absorbed in the present, she admits, without nostalgia or anxiety, the far past and the unknown future; yet declines to indulge in the catastrophism so typical of our time.
The scope of Becoming a Bird is international; from her base in Adelaide, Radok wanders in time and space and through the larger world. Her main cities here are Venice (where the book begins), Oxford, Berlin, Koenigsberg, Prague, Rome, New York, Ottawa; in most of these (Prague is the exception) she is alone but never lonely. She makes surprising discoveries everywhere she goes, and those discoveries include friends who might turn out to be dogs or birds, not just human beings; plants and gardens; art works and the museums in which or near which they appear; weather and skies; and many other things. The twelve-chapter structure is monthly, from January to December; but not, it seems, in any given year; unless it is the year of the composition of the book.
She is not writing memoir, but amongst the riches of this account are fragments of the story of Radok’s parents, their travels out of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, first to the Americas, later to Melbourne, and finally to the house and garden in Adelaide where she still lives, amongst the growth, the accretions, the memories and the ghosts of several lifetimes. This is the soil in which her meditations grow; the wealth of accretion, random and otherwise, is one of her concerns; as is home; its contrary, away; and the means by which art witnesses and adds to these accretions. Characteristically, she does not seek to solve the mysteries of her parents’ lives, and especially that of her father’s temperament, so much as to evoke them.
There is a long history of artists who are also skilled writers, going back as far as Hildegard of Bingen (1080-1179); or Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571); and including, for example, Vincent van Gogh; but Radok found inspiration elsewhere. ‘On a summer day in the seventies in Adelaide as an undergraduate student hiding from the heat I found a book by Marie Bashkirtseff in the bowels of the Barr Smith Library.’ Bashkirtseff was a Ukrainian painter who died of tuberculosis in Paris, aged 25, in 1884. Her writing is notable for its candour – ‘When I am dead, my life, which appears to me a remarkable one, will be read. (The only thing wanting is that it should have been different).’ She was indeed read widely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and inspired others, like the English naturalist and diarist W. N. P. Barbellion, who also died young, but not before publishing The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919).
Stephanie Radok has antipodean contemporaries too. Both in her art and her writing, she recalls the work of New Zealander Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003), not well known in this country, whose posthumous reputation nevertheless continues to grow. Although their work does not necessarily look alike, they share subject matter and a sensibility which focusses on the detailed and the near at hand while never losing sight of the far reaches. Both insist that the main concern of art is working out how to live. Another thing they have in common is that they do not distinguish between their different activities in any definite way: you can be an artist who writes as much as a writer who makes art. They are each a part of the same enterprise.
This is not trivial. We live in an era in which the balance between the verbal and visual has tipped decisively in the direction of the word. You can’t go to a gallery these days without being assailed by wall texts, catalogues, audio guides and the rest. Most contemporary art, it seems, cannot be understood without someone explaining what it means; these explanations, which are often also obfuscations, precede and succeed the work and the implication is that, without them, it will remain incoherent. The irony is that these writings are themselves frequently incoherent. There are two sides to this. Many people now feel they cannot look without being told what to see; others refuse to engage at all. ‘I went to the show,’ someone said to me, about an exhibition of contemporary art, ‘and there was nothing there.’
This tendency is pervasive and includes, along with their potential or actual audiences, those training to become visual artists. Daisy Dunn wrote, in a piece about the decline of art schools in the UK:
Students today typically have to write lengthy dissertations or manifestos justifying their concept for a piece before actually making it . . . no student can honestly scrutinise their own work when they’re having to assess how well it matches up to what they’ve written. It’s not painting by numbers, more painting by words. The art itself is self-emulating rather than naturally evolving.
It’s also the case, though Dunn does not say so, that visual imagery and written language are complementary and may enrich each other. Remember every good children’s book you ever saw.
It is, precisely, the ‘naturally evolving’, that is central to Radok’s work, as a writer, an artist and a looker at art. But what does this mean? Dunn is, I think, talking about the kind of art which grows out of an engagement with materials as much as with subject matter; which explores what might be done with clay or wood or steel or fabric as well as with paint and canvas or pencil and paper. In Radok’s case, at least insofar as her writing is concerned, it is her thought that evolves naturally through her engagements with the world (which includes engagement with memory). She usually sets out with a plan but that plan may not necessarily come to fruition. Her path might lead her elsewhere.
Chapter Three, for instance, ‘Looking for the Foot’, starts out as a quest to find a giant foot said to inhabit a room, all by itself, in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. ‘I never found it,’ she writes, ‘but the idea of it was like a dream drawing me on, a vision, something to walk towards, something to imagine – inching around the walls of a huge gallery circumnavigating a giant foot.’ She finds instead the Pergamon Altar, which leads her on to a consideration of the work of Thomas Struth; thence to his teachers, the husband and wife team, Berndt and Hilla Becher; thence to Candida Höfer, another of their students, and her photograph of the bust of Nefertiti; and thereby back to the Egyptian room in the South Australian Museum in Adelaide; which reminds her of one her own works, The Weight of Words (2003), consisting of twelve books cast in plaster. All this in half a dozen pages, which include far more than my summary of them here does.
The direction of indirection, or the discipline of indiscipline (to quote Frank Moorhouse) gives her writing a flow that is beguiling as well as relaxing. It suspends questions of interpretation and replaces them instead with interactions: the meaning of a work of art, whether from the Renaissance or from last week, is not to be written down like the answer to a question posed in an examination; it is found in our relationship to it, what we do or don’t do with or around it. For Radok, the glory and the strangeness of the Pergamon Altar has a specific association: twice she dropped her cloakroom token there, and twice found again ‘that little piece of plastic with my life invisibly attached to it. I realised my hands must have opened unconsciously to let it go, twice. What did that mean?’ A question she does not have to answer.
Daniel Thomas praised Radok’s work for its celebration of what is on the margins; which might be disputed by pointing out that what is marginal today could be central tomorrow. In another sense, however, he is absolutely spot on. Radok in her wanderings keeps a weather-eye out for what grows outside galleries, beside footpaths, and in public gardens of all descriptions. Everywhere she goes she looks for weeds, sometimes defined as plants growing in the wrong place. Sometimes, too, what we call weeds are plants with uses we no longer know, or no longer employ. Where I grew up certain plants were ubiquitous along the sides of the roads; they included, among others, yarrow, plantain, broom and, often enough, hemlock and foxglove too; though these, which are both poisonous, were more likely to grow, along with rosehips, in the paddocks. Nevertheless all of these plants have uses and some, yarrow for example, are favourites of Radok’s too.
Her love of weeds is echoed in her love of trees and there are many fine passages here about trees. One stand-out is her account of the olive groves planted in a great belt around the Adelaide hills and flourishing during the mid-century years; memorably painted by Dorrit Black in 1946. Another is her description of an artwork she saw in Oxford, The Ghost Forest Project, featuring the stumps of ten giant rainforest trees, all of different varieties, collected by artist Angela Palmer in West Africa. And then there is Empress Livia’s painted garden she finds in Rome, which ‘resembles my inherited garden and I am not sure if this is deliberate or it simply happened.’
Another of her qualities is that she can write intelligibly, indeed unselfconsciously, about her own work; something that is easy to do badly but hard to do well. Towards the end of the book there are some luminous pages describing a work she made for her father, consisting of six large paintings, with words in, on, or behind them, gathered under a title drawn from a line in Thomas Nashe’s 1593 plague song: Brightness falls from the air. She seems sometimes to be preparing to join the ancestors herself.
Wherever I go in the world I see doppelgängers for dead writers and artists. Patrick White was playing tambourine in a whirling dervish band in Istanbul last time I saw him. Louise Bourgeois sits outside the pub smoking. W.G. Sebald often walks out of talks or is seen leaving the supermarket with a plastic bag. Rosalie Gascoigne is studying plants in a nursery.
The significance of the title doesn’t become apparent until the very last lines of the book during which, in conversation with her dog, she canvases the idea that they might both end up becoming birds. The cover of The Opening has a woodblock print of a dingo upon it; this one features an uncredited blue outline of two birds, doves perhaps, maybe the Nicobar pigeons Radok encountered one day in the Adelaide zoo. Nicobar pigeons are related to the Dodo, one of whose skeletons she saw on her travels in the northern hemisphere. Her new dog (it is one of two in the book) is not named but on their walks together she asks for the names of other dogs they meet along the way; and, when she gets home, writes them up on a blackboard. These, she remarks, often make her laugh out loud.
When we read any writer, we are interacting with their nervous system through the medium of language; in some books, that feeling becomes acute; as it does in Becoming a Bird. The mind of the writer seems to be extended, through her perceptual faculties, and her skill with words, generously and without reservation, onto the membrane of the page; where it is met by our own eyes, which are of course an extension of our brains. This modest yet far-reaching book, complete as it is, and entire unto itself, is not to be a read so much as experienced. I don’t doubt that it would, amongst much else, see you through an earthquake.
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