Review: Tom Melickon rīvus

B is for Book

rīvus: a glossary of water is a 572-page book published to accompany the 23rd Biennale of Sydney. It’s described on the biennale’s website as ‘a substantial publication presented as an artist book, a scholarly reference and a beautiful object’. It costs $79.95 before postage. It’s also accompanied by a Spotify playlist. In a one-page introduction the editors write that the book is an ‘aquatic artefact, it expresses intended meanings in terms of the nature of the entries it brings to print’. I count 93 terms, ordered alphabetically, and over 150 colour images. The colophon tells us the book is printed on reclaimed paper, ‘salvaged from waste stock before it is recycled, saving energy and water from the environment’. It’s heavy, as you would expect, and its spine is exposed and dyed blue, revealing the binding. It opens nicely, without cracking. The book is an ambitious attempt not to represent, record or explain the works in the exhibition – which features 89 participants, including eight rivers, with each venue conceived as a ‘conceptual wetland’ – but to invite (again from the editors) ‘creative submergences into water’s knotted and rippling figurative, material, and aesthetic modalities’.

What happens, in that moment of encounter, when a book states its intention, pre-empting the act of reading it? This question intends to make a little room to consider the relationship between book and exhibition, between writing and art, between reading and looking, and, if I can get there, between what is presented to us when we engage with large exhibitions and their books, and what we actually need, or desire, during that engagement. I also ask this question with an appreciation for the enormous labour that goes into making books like this. The care and attention they demand; the many sets of eyes that pass over their pages; the considerable desk-and-screen-time; the schedules and budgets; the image lists; the typographical tinkering; the emails and phone calls; the corrections upon corrections; the logistics of print and freight; the waiting; and the doubts and questions that linger somewhere in the margins, invisible but present.

Any book is the culmination of a set of decisions. Most books pass through stages that have been decided in advance, regardless of subject or content. A seasoned editor working for a global art publisher once told me that a lot of books are just like bathplugs or bathroom fittings. He was suggesting I loosen up, not take the book I was working on so seriously. It’s your job to make another bathplug, he said over a beer, not to invent a new device for blocking water from going down the drain. Bathplug books, to extend his analogy, can be found in almost every museum shop, not far from the dangling trinkets and colourful socks. Open these books and you’ll find glossy colour images and short captions. When they take the form of exhibition catalogues, you’ll see a brief note from the director of the museum up front followed by a dutiful catalogue essay by the curator. Such writing has a habit of coming across as though it were written to be written, not read. In what might once have been a vehicle for the exhibition to travel beyond a museum’s walls or record the coming together of different artworks and their stories, such books (if they are made at all) often seem to function as justifications for the exhibition itself or the works on show, or more simply merchandise that the museum feels it’s obliged to produce.

Are museums worried we won’t get what they’re up to, I sometimes wonder? Do they fret that we’ll miss what’s most important about a collection of works? Contemporary art is an anxious space of production, and that anxiousness is often amplified by a museum’s ego defence: rationalisation. New buildings are built, rebranded, but what changes take place inside? As I learnt recently, in one of Sydney’s major institutions, museum guards are prohibited from talking with the public about the art they mind. What a missed opportunity! What is this nervousness, if it is nervousness? And how does this seep into the writing and reading that occurs alongside the art? What a difference it makes when a wall text doesn’t begin with ‘this work is about…’, my friend once said, but instead begins with a small detail about the material, the making, how the work came to be. Bewildering terminology blocks curiosity, while explanation extinguishes attention. As John Berger pointedly wrote way back in 1966: ‘Anybody who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity, whilst the phenomenal sales of fifth-rate art books reflect the consequent belief in Self-Help’. Berger was writing against handling artworks as property (handling knowledge as property, too), and he called for an imaginative effort to free art from mystique. Let’s see artworks as living things, he might say, rather than ‘finished achievements’.

Books like rīvus aspire to the incompleteness of the artwork, or at least consciously depart from what George Kubler once called ‘the stock-taking’ convention of art history. The exhibition catalogue as we know it inherited nineteenth-century conventions regarding the categorisation of artworks, whereby art is slotted into a concept or argument, or made to perform for a single interpretation, just as art historians and anthropologists have historically sought to neatly organise objects and images into styles and movements. This biennale’s emphasis on artworks as unfinished and embedded in ongoing, situated and different knowledge systems and struggles is an exciting proposition. The curators have sought to include, in the exhibition and the book (see the entry on ‘Rights’), a variety of Indigenous-led movements involved in successfully affording rights to rivers and other waterways as living entities under different constitutions (see, for instance, Whanganui river in Aotearoa/New Zealand; the Ausangate in Peru; the Atrato River in Colombia; or the Yarra River in Victoria). The anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena uses the term ‘earth-beings’ to describe such objects, sentient beings that do not reside in but are soil, rivers or mountains. Writing about the ways in which these beings demand a reconfiguration of what has historically been partitioned, de la Cadena reveals some of the ways that earth-beings, recognised as having personhood, become ‘contentious because their presence in politics disavows the separation between “Nature” and “Humanity”, on which the political theory our world abides by was historically funded’. Informed by conversations with runakuna or Quechua people living mostly in and near the Andean Mountains, she argues for a ‘pluraversal politics’ where nature becomes public as a complex multiplicity, and where conflicting views co-exist. If the image of a single, unified world works in tandem with a politics that is based on a tradition of partitions and allocations (not to mention dispossessions and violations) then a multiplicity of worlds accepts ‘ontological pluralisation’ as its program. Here, plurality is different to its more familiar meaning within identity politics, describing instead a multiplicity of worlds that do not close but remain open, partially connected over, say, a river.

It is, perhaps, partially for this reason, that rīvus the exhibition seems uncomfortable with the closed format of the biennale, insisting on sustainability not as concept but as practice. Wherever possible, the exhibition incorporates reusable materials, such as the metal scaffolding that holds up the screens in the venues, or of course the reclaimed paper that the glossary of water is printed on. Book and exhibition therefore pose an important question as to the viability of such activities even as they recreate them. A note from the editors at the back of the book makes this point: ‘It is full of histories and images related to rīvus, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, but is not the catalogue of the exhibition, as it not only unpacks issues related to it but also expands well beyond the scope of the show’. There is no reason to doubt this book is a reflection of ‘a lifelong interest in rivers and other bodies of water and the ecologies they sustain’, as the editors write, as well as the many Indigenous ways of knowing and caring for rivers and waterways that it presents, but books can easily escape the aims of their makers, just like artworks and exhibitions can get away from an artist or a curator (not necessarily a bad thing, as the editor of this review reminded me). The works are made, the exhibition is planned and installed, the texts are written and edited, the book is printed, but something just doesn’t happen. Why? Does the pressure to produce a spectacular object or event undermine its communicative potential? Trust is the glue that binds what is offered to what’s received; trust in the act of looking and reading, and what may or may not follow from that trust. What comes to be known by those deeply invested in a subject is rarely, if ever, truly present in how it appears. Exhibitions and books always take a different form from their object of study, and this seems acutely apparent when our attention and imagination is asked to consider all things water. As D. Graham Burnett wrote in his mammoth book on whales and whaling in the twentieth century, ‘if it is whales you want, you have to go to the sea.’

It was a cold and stormy day when I visited the different exhibition sites of rīvus with a friend, an artist. She wondered aloud why certain spaces worked and others didn’t. For her, the skill of curation is in its disappearance, like a trick the curator’s hand vanishes, letting the artworks speak: for themselves, with other artworks, and to the person looking and listening. This is a difficult skill to describe or define. Luck surely plays a role. When something does happen, you might find yourself in a conversation about the work in front of you, but it will likely not be conceptual (the most expedient way to kill a conversation about art, in my experience, are again those deadening words: ‘this work is about…’). Can the same be said of a book and the act of reading? What books on your shelf do you open and fall into? What books take you directly into their warmth? Like artworks, words either lead us into or away from things, ‘like a fragile makeshift bridge’, wrote Italo Calvino, ‘cast across the void’. Sometimes, I fantasise that all publishing could operate like cartonera books do in Buenos Aires (and other Latin American countries). These books began in the wake of the financial crash of 2001, when artists and writers sought to create a different model for collaborative publishing outside the logic of the market. Cartonera books contain either unpublished content (from both known and unknown authors) or photocopies of previously published material, and are bound together from recycled cardboard bought from cartoneros – ‘cardboarders’ – and then hand-painted and sold on the street at the cost of production. What is made is made to be read, passed on, shared, and read again. My friend from those parts sends me pictures of these books from time to time. Their colourful painted covers, honest and direct, are more compelling than any design I see in bookstores. The last photo she texted me was from a bus, the latest book in her lap. Two orange, cat-like eyes stare out at me, painted on cardboard. It’s the latest story, she writes, ordered and made like a pizza!

Later, when I get home, I cook dinner and turn to the pages of the glossary; a collation of information, poetry, myth, theory, fiction. A is for Aab, the Farsi word for water, a poem by Forugh Farrokhzad; for Absorption, on the waterways of lutruwita (Tasmania) by Julie Gough; B is for Barka, or Baaka (also known as the Darling River) by Barkandji elder Badger Bates; for Bayou; for Biophony; for Bioplastic; C is for Canal, a poem by Brandy Nālani McDougall; for Casiquiare; for Chthulucene (compound the Greek khthōn and kainos) by Donna Haraway; there are entries on Interspecies Collaboration; on Mimesis and Moon Tides; on Phosphorescence and Puddle; Rewilding; Sounding and Splitting Water; on the Tank Stream, the former fresh water tributary of Sydney Cove that was modified by settlers using Indian vernacular technology, and by 1826 was an open sewer, and much much more. As I read, changing fonts jumble the eye, and I find myself thinking, what if design played less of a role? What if the book let go of its beauty and wore its salvaged biography more comfortably? Would I sink further into the languages (and knowledges) of water? Because, earlier that day, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe’s acrylic paintings on handmade mulberry paper seemed to almost sing – with their simple forms, the pleasure they took in colour, and the vitality of their expression in a language I didn’t know – I went looking for the artist in the glossary. Under ‘Flood’, page 202, I find a story in Hakihiiwe’s voice, as told to Luis Romero. It’s a sad and beautiful story about drought, thunder, rain and flooding in the Parawa/Orinoco river, which runs from the Guiana highlands in South America to the Atlantic Ocean. The works, too, are reproduced in colour. But something is missing. The story, it seems to me, has been swallowed by the book. The powerful smallness of it overdressed.

It may seem odd to focus on the form the book takes, and not simply its content, but the two are always entwined, like an artwork. One shapes the other. I go looking for that word– rīvus– and find it on page 427. Water and conflict. Rivers and legal regimes. The entry reads like the spark of the exhibition and the book: ‘Words carry suppressed and forgotten meanings and are laden with histories’, I read. The word river comes from the Latin rīpa, roots in Proto-Indo-European, ‘to scratch, tear, cut’. ‘Rīvus, meaning a brook or stream, gave birthto the word rīvālis, which evokes a primal moment in time when sharing the waters quickly turned into a confrontation’. It goes on: ‘Another meaning of rīvālis wasthose who share the same lover’. We are all bodies of water, as is the planet where we dwell; shall we ever learn to share the loving caress of the precious liquid that is us?’ This paragraph is the book that wants to be read, I think. When I sit down to write the review, I know it’ll be difficult, because the book is caught between wanting to be a serious resource in a time of colliding ecological calamities, a multi-vocal re-imagining of environmental ethics and, despite what it says, a catalogue. It ends up somewhere in the middle. This is neither good nor bad; its proposition is to rethink what’s expected from large-scale exhibitions and their accompanying books, and that contraflow can’t be done with a single work, exhibition or book. The book, in this sense, may be an artefact of its own struggle to contend with institutional and publishing conventions. Maybe there are photocopies and scanned PDFs of sections of the glossary of water already in distribution, for students who can’t afford it? Maybe the curators of the next biennale or large-scale exhibition will take the questions posed by the book, knowingly and unknowingly, and extend them into their work? I ask all this without shirking my own responsibility in the matter. I once saw a note stuck to the wall above a librarian’s desk, a Latin saying, which the librarian kindly translated: ‘According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny’. They are, in this sense, always unfinished.

Works Cited

Marisol de la Cadena, ‘Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond “Politics”’, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, issue 2, pp. 334–370.

John Berger, ‘The Historical Function of the Museum’ (1966), in Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer, London: Bloomsbury, 2001.

D. Graham Burnett, The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Italo Calvino, ‘Exactitude’, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Geoffrey Brock, London: Penguin, 2016.