Seven Questions for Alex Selenitsch
Anne Kirker: On the occasion of your exhibition HORIZON at Noreen Grahame’s in Brisbane* it gives me the opportunity to ask about your interest in Concrete Poetry and the visual impact of text. When did you start producing work in this manner?
A.S.:I began in the mid 1960s. I was an architectural student in Geelong, and Vision in Motion by L. Moholy-Nagy was a design studies reference. The second half (really two-thirds) of this book is devoted to what he called ‘integration- the arts”, with a huge section on literature. Here, I discovered Apollinaire, Marinetti, El Lissitzky, Hans Arp (as poet), and Kurt Schwitters. I didn’t realize at the time that these were all madmen, and completely outside of conventional ideas of literature, but I was bitten, and began sketching, and pasting cut-out letters. My first published work in this genre was on Broadsheet no 3: the up/dn poem. Interestingly, this was inspired by looking at the notes on the staircase of an architectural plan, but removed from architectural concerns.
A.K.: As a producer of a diverse range of Artists Books and a respected writer on them in this country, having researched and authored the publication Australian Artists Books for the National Gallery of Australia in 2008, could you outline how you approach this field in your own practice? For instance, I note that you showed “treated text” in your Open & Closed show at the ICON Museum of Art at Deakin University in 2006, using already existing books, bringing an historical and political cast to them through the way you altered their codex form and through the way you titled them. In HORIZON, there are “folder” works that can be seen as part of the genre.
A.S.: My concrete poems are page oriented, where the space of the page becomes a semantic field, and where reading becomes a matter of scanning that space. This goes against controlled flow and conventional syntax, and in my case, got me interested in stasis. But I also have an interest in duration, particularly how it is used in music (I am an amateur musician), and I discovered that the book was an object that collected pages, and therefore collected moments, separate moment by moment.
I also became intrigued by the way that text and book had been fused in conventional understanding, and was keen to show how the two were separate things which in practice ignore each other. I also noticed how the book is a controlling, pervasive influence as a structure; hence all of my book mutilations. For these, almost any book would do, so I began using found books – remainders, throwaways. In many of these, the book, which is an embodiment of time, is stilled and frozen, and sometimes paradoxically opened up at the same time. But books also have a double page opening, a LHS and RHS, and there is a link to the human body and to print, which is often a positive/negative touch of ink.
So it’s inevitable that there should be some ‘folded’ HORIZONS. There is the pseudo-accordion fold where the word has been letterpress printed into a folded sheet, which you can then pull out to a much wider zig-zag black and white (indented) print of the word. Then a little book, in which the function of the word has been taken over by the stitching of the booklet: the HORIZON as a binding, a piece of string going in and out of holes. My favourite is the little folded blot piece, which doesn’t mention the horizon at all, but has earth and sky written in ink on the paper, and then the two words folded onto each other, each word leaving a blot on the other’s space, and smudging the original clarity of each word. I like it because it is so low tech and simple, with wonderful suggestions for interpretation. (Although, what is so low-tech with a Swiss fountain pen, and perfect office paper, to say nothing of the digital photos the work now exists in?).
A.K.: How exactly did the HORIZON works evolve?
A.S.: They began from the observation that scanning a horizon and reading a line of text, or even a longish word, might be similar. The word itself was in my mind because of Sweeney Reed’s versions, in particular, the metal one which I installed in Ruth Cowen’s apartment. My HORIZONs are a continuation of Sweeney’s, even though he probably never considered his own poems as an unfinished set.
I began with a group of HORIZON pieces for a travelling show called Script, curated by Angela Cavalieri. My rule was to make three new works for each venue, which I did for five venues after the first showing at Mass Gallery, Melbourne, in 2002. All of these works were images of reading from left to right, placed across a flat surface. Some used the word ‘horizon’, others implied one through a scatter of letters and numbers.
Later works move the word into three-dimensional space. Instead of reading across or along the HORIZON, they ask the viewer to read around, over to, at, towards and through the HORIZON. Materiality has also been influential. Vinyl, perspex and access to laser cutting, a project at the Melbourne Museum of Printing involving a large letterpress machine, the easy copy/paste/alter functions of the computer: all of these have pushed the horizon further and further away, or perhaps, have revealed new horizons to scan. The closer you get to a horizon, the further it moves away. I no longer see the project as a set that can be finished, but as a continuous project, with completion always out of reach. Having put this exhibition in place, even more HORIZONS have emerged.
A.K.: You mention Sweeny Reed, but who else has prompted your creative work?
A.S.: This is a wide-ranging question. In general I am inspired by artists who have mixed genres or worked across them: Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Marcel Duchamp, Herbert Bayer, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Dieter Roth, Donald Judd, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ed Ruscha. I like looking at and thinking about their works, for different reasons in each case. I’m also fascinated and inspired by artistic movements that have attempted to bridge different disciplines like De Stijl and those that have ignored them, like Dada and Fluxus. I’m not sure that I have a favourite artist, poet or architect, although geometry and classical composition seem to be most resonant in my work. Nick Zurbrugg once commented that he thought my work was ‘classical’, and immediately said he didn’t mean that in any negative way. I take it in a completely positive way, knowing that the ‘classical’, since neo-classicism deals with the social and political, not the personal.
There is another kind of influence, that of the group of artists and intellectuals I mix with. When I was young, I hung about with Trevor Vickers, who introduced me to Mike Brown. I like the idea of a composition having ‘not enough, or too much’, to paraphrase John Cage, and these two artists exemplify those outer edges. In the 1980s, I mixed with frowning, serious Melbourne architects like Peter Corrigan and Howard Raggatt. Lately I have been meeting with Tony Woods and Petr Herel for coffee on a regular basis. I also have a small group of non-artist friends who provide me with lots of ideas, particularly academics Greg Missingham and Peter Downton. I teach with woodworker Hamish Hill, and have done so for years: we have collaborated on works and exhibitions.
But there are also the comments offered by casual acquaintances and contacts, where people may not be aware that they have set off an idea. There’s an example in the HORIZONS project: pilot Brian Smith commented that, for him, horizons are curved, and why did artists always show them as level and straight? I had hoped to stop making HORIZONS with the monotone set, but this recent observation has begun another stream of horizon poems – of course, none of them with a curved arrangement of the letters, but all with a curve related to reading, material supports, medium of making etc. Many people have given me ideas for works: I always credit them. I had a quick discussion with Ron McBurnie and Normana Wight about curved possibilities at the opening of the HORIZONS show, and something might come of that.
A.K.: And with your background in architecture, how do you think this might have informed your visual poems and books as well as sculpture?
A.S.: There is the faintly architectural derivation of my first published concrete poem, and the indirect influence of Moholy-Nagy, who claimed to have brought the Bauhaus to the American Midwest. Over the years, the architecture has emerged from the background, and come to join my family of arts. Years ago, Melbourne poet ∏.O asked me whether there was any connection between my poetry and my architecture, and at the time, I said no. But then, like other prompts from people (see the previous answer), I thought maybe I should find one. My solution has been to invent a spatial spectrum in which to work: poetry, graphics, books, objects, furniture, architecture. In most of my projects, or groups of works, I work across three or four of those genres. I’ve only done one project where it went across all of them, and that was my 1 to 9 project, which was done in the 1980s. HORIZONS is also unique in that it is just in the poetry, and maybe it drifts into graphics and objects, but not as strongly as in other projects, as it is so closely linked to a specific word.
My architecture has been the discipline to change the most because of this grouping. I don’t practice to commissions any more, but work on fictional architectural schemes which involve poetic occupations and concepts. The House of a Missing Family of 2005-2007 is one such work; currently I’m working on a Language Factory, which will emerge as a bunch of sculptural models and map-like drawings. With Greg Missingham, I designed a Chinese scholar’s garden for an Aussie suburban block in 1999. I am reticent about putting words on a building just because the walls might be bigger pages; I would prefer something more spatial and tactile.
A.K.: In HORIZON, the sculptural element is strong as vinyl letters on perspex and woodblocks suggest much larger works. Have you had the opportunity to increase the scale of them and if so where?
A.S.: As it turns out, yes, in Brisbane, and as a HORIZON! There is a large HORIZONS work in the upstairs lobby to the four Dendy cinemas at Portside in Brisbane.
There is also – only just – a work called YARRA/ARRAY, (using those words), which is a huge ventilating screen in the loading bay of the World Trade Centre in Melbourne, sited on the banks of the Yarra River, of course. This was won through a tendering process, installed in the 1980s, then re-painted by the owners in the wrong colours, and is about to be demolished along with its host building. There is a tree using the letter Y in the grounds of Heide MOMA in Melbourne. Ian de Gruchy took some of my small letraset things and projected them on the back wall of the Palais Theatre, St. Kilda, for one of the arts festivals.
In general, though, I prefer working in the scale of the tactile human body, even if the idea relates to much larger things, which it usually does in my case. I prefer to work with a model or fragment that shifts the imagination to much larger spaces. Ian de Gruchy’s projections ‘sculpted’ this effect into real space.
A.K.: You state in James Stuart’s on-line 2007 anthology The Material Poem that you have become increasingly interested in translations across languages. Could you elaborate?
AS: English is my third language after Russian and German, and apart from the different alphabets and vocalisations, there are cultural and historical differences of significance between them. So, growing up in a milieu of differences, with residues of the disaster that was the second world war, when my three language groups were enemies, allies and enemies again, has made me see the different genres of ‘art’ as similar nationalistic or ideological groups. This is without even going into the ideological spats that occur within specific genres. I mean languages in the loosest possible way, where specific sets of relationships are embodied in material, and are intended to mean something. The crucial thing is the translation, or re-location or refiguring the same relationships in different materials, forms and so on. Most discussion on translation concentrates on European language to European language, but there is a huge gulf between English and Chinese, for example, but then not such a slip between moving the same idea from a graphic to an object or a piece of architecture.
If you look at the spectrum of genres I listed above, they have different discourses, materialities, histories and so on, as well as some that are common. How they are related is a matter of interpretation, and I do it through spatiality as the common element, but use the difference in materiality as a creative factor. For an idea to be an idea, it must be capable of being expressed or embodied in different matter, at different scales etc. And yet I also note that the material itself can be the idea, so that the idea might change when shifted to a new materiality. The most ambitious project of mine in this regard has been to make works out of Dante’s Purgatorio, which seems to describe the europeanisation of Australia centuries before it happened. Set in the southern hemisphere, it mentions magpies, the Southern Cross, flax and greetings by an ‘ancient’ in the very first canto, then in the next canto, talks of white ships coming across the horizon with souls from the northern hemisphere. And so on. I may one day do a verse/syntactic version of the books, but so far the project has produced a scheme for a little building, a suite of furniture, some sculptures, some watercolours, and some typewriter works. I would see these as translations from verse to spatial models, to useful objects, to watercolour effects, to typewriting/word-processing programs.
To take the HORIZONS as an example: obviously there are a lot of word works or poems. I can envisage some books using the word and its properties, yes, some graphics, objects, but furniture or architecture using reading, scanning, and looking? Maybe it can be done, but I haven’t been drawn into it as yet. Although now that it’s been brought to my attention, maybe I will. I wonder what a full-size HORIZON, somewhere on the real horizon, but still understood as a representation of something, could be like.
*grahame galleries + editions, HORIZON, 26 October – 23 November 2013
Conversation conducted by e-mail on 31st October 2013