by Vivienne Cutbush
1: to catch the breath convulsively and audibly (as with shock)
2: to breathe laboriously
: to utter in a gasping manner
I can’t remember the last time I gasped. Perhaps because nothing much surprises me these days.
Or perhaps it’s because I’ve become disconnected from the world. Each morning I wake up and reach over to my bedside table to clutch at my iPhone 5 and scroll through Instagram, check emails, refresh, open Facebook, refresh. I spend hours upon hours staring at the tiny screen – on the toilet, walking to the studio, waiting for the bus, whilst I cook dinner or drink coffee.
This is not how it should be. Despite being continually plugged in, I’m adrift. Anaesthesia of the gaze. A flux of information. And I open another tab.
Art retains its capacity to make me GASP. To make my chest tighten or my cheeks flush a deep hue the colour of dried blood. Art has the ability to make me gasp in awe, desperation or inspiration.
Art is controversial. Shock of the new. Shock of the enormity. Shock of the explicit. David Walsh’s Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) has built its reputation on its power to elicit a gasp. Penises and guts. Bloody rituals. Pagan sacrifice. The stench of faeces. Slaughter art.
But art does not need be grandiose, nor made up of flashing lights to make one gasp at the sight of it. Art can also be small, mere marks on a page, discrete movements of a body across the floor or words and punctuation out of place. Not all art aims to make you squirm or lose your breath from confrontation. Art may simply make you look again. Look up. In. Around and about. Look deeper. Further. At yourself and the world around.
Art as remedy for the chaos in our lives.
Art as antidote.
When applying for the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre Residency in Glenorchy I requested the location of Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP) – I wanted to write about art. But that first day, when I pulled on my coat, left home and walked around the park along the Elwick Bay foreshore and past a red-‐flowering succulent ground cover, there was no art that hit me in the face or heart, only a north easterly wind that was cold and wet. I returned home with nothing much but an empty notebook and stiff fingers.
An artist’s observation is not just a question of his using his eyes; it is the result of his honesty, of his fighting with himself to understand what he sees.
Selected Essays of John Berger
This could also be said for the artist who writes, or the writer who writes about art. How can you transform the experience of art – a sensory embodiment of feeling, thought and reaction – into words on a page? Is it possible for letters and punctuation, language and sentences, to convey the way we feel, think and breathe in art?
A blank page. A struggle. A broken pencil or shitty pen.
April 5, 2017
Whilst out on the boardwalk at GASP, I lean over and take a photograph of the water moving beneath. I am reminded of Roni Horn’s series of photographs Another Water. Looking down at the River Derwent I can see why Horn is so fascinated by the dark silky element – its moods are constantly in flux, reacting to the changes of weather and light across its surface.
Roni Horn thinks of water as a verb, as something one experiences in its relationship to other things. And I think, this has everything to do with GASP.
People talk about looking and seeing, experiencing and touching art. But it sinks deeper than skin. We form relationships with art.
May 7, 2017
I am sitting in my worn velvet chair from the South Hobart tip shop. Today, the energy storage capacity of the River Derwent is at 42.9%. I download 42.9% of the hydrographic score, Fall of the Derwent (2016). The score forms a part of a larger public artwork by artists Justy Phillips and Margaret Woodward, commissioned by GASP.
The score is written to be read aloud, but I am not in the mood to listen to my own voice and so I read on, silently.
Tell Me. How does it feel. Fall. Fell. Falling. English cheddar on wholemeal rye. Mouth feel. Better still the golden syrup. Your teeth. So little do your mumbles make. Caah-‐tah-‐cah-‐caw. So little. Does your mouth.
J. Phillips & M. Woodward,
Fall of the Derwent
There is a permanently installed QR code at Wilkinson’s Point in Elwick Bay. It is an invitation to for the public to access the hydrographic score on-‐site, beside the continual flow of the River Derwent. Instead I am slumped in my golden chair beside the coil heater. Not moving. It’s brilliant.
Phillips and Woodward took 3 weeks to write the score. However, it was a year-‐long process of walking, writing, mark making, listening, recording and publishing.
Writing as Experience. Writing as Art. Writing as Process.
At an event at Contemporary Arts Tasmania in Hobart on ‘Art Writing and Writing and Art’, artist Justy Phillips talks about writing as experience.
Does this mean if we write about the experience of art, then the writing becomes art itself? And what of the experience of not writing?
I email the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre and push the deadline out for the first draft of this piece. The Friday night before the Monday when the first draft is due, I drink a whole bottle of cheap shiraz beside the fire in my backyard and am unable to get out of bed the next day except to re-‐heat apple pie, watch The Honourable Woman and chastise myself for being so hung-over I can’t write a single word.
Writing as Un.
Public art can tell us many things – about the history of the place, the artist and their intentions. But it can also show us new ways to look and to see, whereby to see means to understand. Art is also has the capacity to show us how we see. I see art differently from the way you see art as perception is formed from the lived experience of our own lives – our privileges, education, class, race, gender and more.
When I first saw Matej Andraž Vogrinčič’s artwork Herba Ostrea (2016) I thought of shell middens and creatures from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away. To me, the sculptures dotted along the foreshore look like a clan of the Muwinina peoples, looking out over the land and clouds and gulls.
Herba Ostrea (2016) are totem-‐like structures, otherworldly plants rising up out of the ground of GASP. They guide passers-‐by to stop and look out over Elwick Bay. There is something about their shape, their stance on the water’s edge inviting people to stand as they do, and look out, to take a moment and breathe it all in – the sky, the water, the mountains.
Nothing is permanent.
There is a sign nearby which says the artwork will be removed from GASP in March 2017.
It’s April now and it is still standing. Sometimes stuff sticks around a little longer than intended.
We live in a culture where everything is made to be temporary – phones and laptops and fast food. Everything can be bought anew, updated and upgraded. Temporary no longer brings with it a weight of value, a signal to slow down and appreciate the instant, the event of the moment.
But art is made to stick. Even that which is ephemeral, fleeting and gone in the blink of an eye holds on to something within us. Art has persisted throughout the history of humankind. Art has something to say.
We should seek out art. Sit with it. Enter into conversation with it, as you would with a friend or lover.
GASP stretches from Montrose Bay to Wilkinson’s point on Hobart’s Derwent River.
see 42.8248° S, 147.2800° E
The clouds are low.
I’ve come to know GASP through conversations with dog walkers, listening to gulls, attending art shows, wandering along boardwalks. There was no tortured heart or honeymoon, only cold fingers eating hot chips crusted in oil and salt whilst looking out across the water.
A friend gently suggests I ought to locate this piece more, provide more descriptions of ‘the place’. Too late. ‘This place’ is tangled up in a relationship with thoughts and scribbled notes, conversations, walking and the wind.
GASP as a verb –
you can’t ask that,
rumours, $2 beer,
soggy toilet paper, broken bones, public art, pubic hair, strangers in the dark, icy water,
asthma, bloody rituals,
Psychogeography is a term
coined by Marxist
Guy Debord in 1955.
It’s about the idea
that place affects
the way we feel and behave.
But let’s be honest
the Muwinina peoples
knew this tens of thousands of years ago, long before
the white guy.
There’s something about the sight,
of GASP that forces you to take heed, to look about. Whilst it is not all-‐at-‐once overwhelming, there is beauty in its sparse and shifting nature. It is a site for walking and contemplating, akin to a Rosalie Gascoigne sculpture.
GASP is an interstice, a gap. It is an intervening space between the art world, Muwinina peoples past and present day Tasmanian Aboriginals, industrial and colonial histories, Glenorchy residents, an overflow car park for a Wiggles concert at the Derwent Entertainment Centre or the Greyhound Racing Club adjacent. GASP is an in between space, a crack. An opening.
Throughout the month of May, before I can put pen to paper, I frequently wander up and down the foreshore of Elwick Bay with my camera in hand. Usually I take photos of handwritten signs and shop windows, reflections and objects. These are the things that catch my eye. But out at GASP it is all concrete and native grasses and oyster shells.
I’m learning to look anew.
Place affects who
hot donuts filled with jam that burn your tongue,
a girl alone on an island, sea hawks, the sound of whales heard
no more, float,
you can’t swim there
And so where to from here?
A park of course.
Pack a picnic and your dog, or your neighbour’s dog. Call a friend – old or new – to see if they’re about. Meet them there. No need to check the weather, you’ll go anyway. Whether it’s wet, blustery or bright.
When you get there, take a wander with no purpose, nor aim. No direction. If you have a thought, share it – with your friend, a dog, or even the wind that passes by.
Sit down on a rock, or an uncomfortable concrete slab, or the grass – look up. Look about. I mean really look.
As for the art?
You’re allowed this time.
Smell it. Don’t be shy.
The world is yours.
Oyster, is it?
Lick it if you wish.
How are you feeling?
What do you think?
Say it out loud to a friend, stranger or dog. Listen to what they have to say.
Let their words sink in.
Deeper than your own.
Who is it for, this art?
it is for you.
In 1971, Jane Cooper an 18 year-‐old from Melbourne came to Tasmania
to live on De Witt Island for a year.
She was in search of solitude and wrote poetry.
As yet, I haven’t been able to find any poetry written by Cooper. It is possible she didn’t write it down, but learnt from the ancients and created an oral canon about the Big Witch, salty winds, dark coves, kelp and gulls. Anything is possible.
A man stands by the edge of the Derwent and points out to the zinc works, and across to where the old paper mill stood and once the Cadbury factory. The man turns to me and says he’s driven down the Brooker Highway for 23 years and never stopped here, until today. He’s never noticed the park and the water lapping fierce against the rocky shore with its moods, and the wind that sweeps across and cuts through the a walkers, joggers and gulls passing by.
Most of the people who come to GASP are walking with purpose. They’re not ambling or meandering. When was it we lost the ability to while away time? To look with attention, not glance across the surface.
GASP is full of dog walkers, kids learning to ride bicycles and teenagers learning to ride motorbikes. Young women catch up and compare Fitbits and get fit. Elders, with a slower gait, walk dogs and talk dogs. Sometimes, a passer-‐by admires the oyster shells stacked up or pulls out a camera to snap and click at the concrete construction or water reflections.
This place is an intersection. A place where people meet the outside world meet architecture. It’s a mishmash of humanity and history. But isn’t that what art is, at its core? GASP was created to be an ‘art park’. Art after all, is what brings us together, whether it is in the form of film, paper and pen, public sculptures, dance, voice, thread or ideas. Art provides community, shared histories, a moment to connect amidst the disconnection we’re unwittingly cultivating through the flux of social media and new technologies.
The way we live now is on the surface – screens and likes and comments. Even the experience of art is not immune. I often find myself walking into a gallery, watching a performance piece, listing to a gig or spoken word night and it is being documented via Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or a poky phone video camera. Social media niggles away at my soul. My objections aside, this flood of visual images are not necessarily a bad thing. Ephemeral art – temporary sculpture, performance art, dance – in some ways needs a form of documentation to be accessed afterwards, long after it has been disassembled or finished. We now have the ability to curate our own lives, but I worry we’ll lose our ability to look beyond the surface.
I approach a woman who is walking across the point, keeping one eye on her son who is across the way, learning where the sticky point of the clutch is on an old dirt bike they’d brought from home. We talk about pagan rituals, motorbikes and the film Chocolat. Then I make circles around Matej Andraž Vogrinčič’s Herba Ostrea (2016) whilst thinking about the lives of oysters, not writing, the wind at my neck.
On the way home from GASP I visit Bunnings to pick up some materials for the kitchen shelves I’m building at home. I walk past the paint swatches and stop to read the titles of the colours. They come in sets of three.
I grab a stack of the colour cards and tuck them in my pockets – Grecian Lime, Yellow Lettuce and Sprite Glade in the left, Misty Seascape, Sweet Pea and Minty Green in the other.
Colours in sets of three, remind me of John Ruskin’s word paintings. Ruskin, the 19th century British artist, thinker and writer, said that in order to remember a moment and to be truly attentive to the beauty of that moment, we should make word paintings; that is, detailed descriptions of a scene.
I like this concept, word paintings. But I admit, I am guilty of using my phone camera when struck down by the beauty of this world – an electric pink sunset, a rose crinkled brown at edges, reflections of the grey sky in the river. Click. Click click. Am I really looking if through a camera lens? Susan Sontag writes in On Photography about the idea of ‘aesthetic consumerism’ – that we feel we must take a photograph in order to enhance or prove the reality of an experience.
The artist who writes sees things in a different way from the writers who write about art. It’s not only that they see the process from the inside, they feel it – the art, the artist’s hand, the underbelly of art making. A writer of this kind sees colours not only a different hue, but colours on a different spectrum altogether from writers who are not artists. For these kinds of writers, colours are tied up with emotions and memories, pencils that have snapped and oil sticks dried hard. Raw feelings and simple words.
I am looking at Herba Ostrea (2016).
It is a collection of oyster shells, threaded and attached to vertical steel fence posts, stabbed in to the ground. The way the oysters have been assembled, with wire and rusty steel posts, contrasts with the incredibly delicate shell necklace making traditions of Tasmanian Aboriginal women.
I am looking at Herba Ostrea (2016). I see a family, a mob perhaps, a community. They’re looking out over Elwick Bay and talking about what’s for dinner or how the weather is changing. Actually, maybe they’re not talking at all. Perhaps it’s an occasion where it’s not worth cutting the air with voice.
It reminds me of the scenes around the kitchen table in Nathan Maynard’s play The Season. Banter and catch up. Family dynamics.
Why do we need the poetics of art?
Siri Hustvedt argues that the experience of art – our reactions and responses to it – are embodied subjective encounters. In other words, we feel art before we understand it.
It makes sense then to say that if we experience art from our own perspective, from the way we each encounter the world, then we all have different reactions to art. I don’t like this and I love that. This is ok. But it’s even better to learn to ask, why?
Dig deep and try to spit out words. Listen to other people’s words. We do not have to like art to be affected by it. But we must recognise its importance in affecting us nonetheless.
I’m out at GASP. My fingers are frozen like grape-‐flavoured icy poles and I try to seek shelter behind the concrete walls – I think of Anne Carson’s poem Wildly Constant.
I read The Fall of the Derwent (2016)
and feel the bending of language
I run my hands across the oysters of Herba Ostrea (2016) but I am looking at Jonathon Jones’ white shields from his work barrangal dyara (skin and bones) I saw last year at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.
We all make different links,
whether it be from poetry to oyster shells to falling down to The Fall to skin and bone.
And it is the way we make these links, what we see when we feel art and what we feel when we see art, that shows us who we are.
After GASP I head to the Glenorchy YMCA swimming pool. It is the last day it’s open before closing for winter. I swim up and down, up and down. Motion follows emotion. Or is it the other way around?
I think about what I am going to write about for the Young Writers In the City of Glenorchy Residency.
I want to write about writing about art, but first I need to get out of the water I am swimming in.
The light is different here, brighter, but also harsher.
John Berger, Selected Essays of John Berger (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001).
Anne Carson, “Wildly Constant” in Float Jonathan Cape: London, 2016).
Roni Horn, Another Water (Göttingen: Steidl, 2011).
Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking (London: Sceptre Books, 2012).
Jonathan Jones, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) (Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2016).
Justy Phillips & Margaret Woodward, Fall of the Derwent: A Hydrographic Score (Lenah Valley: A Published Event, 2016).
Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).
Matej Andraž Vogrinčič, Herba Ostrea (Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park, 2016).