Opening speech by Professor Brian Dibble
It is daunting to be asked to open any art exhibition which has a theme
– in this case water, or water medicine – for one has to try to find various
quotations and allusions and then manufacture relationships between them
and the works on display. Or, alternatively, if one has some special experience
with the theme, then one can speak from that point of view. Alas, I feel
particularly disadvantaged with respect to the latter possibility, because
I am a closet hydrophobe – in this context, perhaps a "water-closet
hydrophobe" – something I neglected to tell the gallery people who
kindly invited me to speak tonight. I will, however, also say that my
experience in coming to Australia more than half a lifetime ago included
a misapprehension relating to water which perhaps culminates in relevance
tonight: in 1972, looking at the map of Western Australia, the million
square miles which constitute Australia’s western third, I was quite impressed
with the large number of lakes scattered all over it and just assumed
that their dotted rather than solid outlines testified to that fact that
Australian map-makers were just as laconic as outback Australians were
reputed to be. I did not know until I got here, in other words, that those
icons represented lakes that annually went dry...
There is nothing more soothing than listening to a running stream or
watching a seascape, unless it is comparably to experience fire, or the
wind in the trees, or to smell the earth or to see a well-ploughed paddock…
Inevitably the classical four elements assert their complementary natures.
And yet we are always aware of their power and danger, for an excess or
defect of any of them is devastating – drought or flood, freezing or burning,
becalmed or demasted.
In some ways, however, water seems to fascinate us most. We are all familiar
with the frequently made claim that we are 99 percent water and a teaspoon
of minerals not even equivalent in value to the metal in the smallest
coin of a third-world country – I suspect this observation is one made
by a scientist who is either a closet hydrophiliac or one seeking an image
as arresting as Yeats’s description of a person as "a paltry thing,
a tattered coat upon a stick."
I find it much more intriguing to contemplate the fact that we spend
our pre-partum nine months in water, in utero, demonstrating (if my university
biology is still true today) that phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: that
is, we develop from a foetus with gills and fins into a human being with
lungs and limbs. And it is sobering, even comforting in certain frames
of mind, to realise that we spend all of our post-mortem time replenishing
the world’s store of its four elements. I am reminded of seeing a Melbourne
politician’s election brochure with a map of his electorate, labelling
the local cemetery as a "passive recreation area" – reading
that as a "passive re-creation area," I decided he was more
correct than he knew!
During the middle third of this twentieth-century we have considered
Australia in terms of the paradigm in Geoffrey Blainey’s book about the
tyranny of distance. Increasingly it seems clear to me that the last third
of the century might well be explained in terms of Australia’s tyranny
of water. "Our land is girt by sea" we say (as if land could
be girt by anything else), and it is water as much as land that makes
every Australian say that she or he is so far from everywhere else. Our
major cities huddle separately around the coast as if seeking to be equidistant
from one another, and the great waterless and sandy centre constitutes
another form of isolation; but it is water which separates us from Asia,
Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere. It is one of the greatest ironies of
Australian history that the clearing of its land for farming purposes
first contributed to its desertification while now that same clearing
of land is causing water tables to rise, bringing dissolved salts to the
surface: the Australian land is now becoming wetter with new and expanding
boggy saline areas. If Australia is naturally girt by limitless sea water,
the increasing salinity of the land itself is a phenomenon made by humans:
much of our effort in the new millennium will be concerned with water.
As a Professor of Comparative Literature, primarily working in the area
of Creative Writing, I sometimes challenge my students with the pseudo-cynical
statement that Michelangelo’s accomplishment in sculpting the "David"
was not so great, for all he did was take a hammer and chisel and chip
away the excess marble. I am trying to get them to understand what technique
is, namely the process of reducing the chance of the failure of an idea.
When my students fail to understand me, I liken teaching to writing on
I am better at talking about technique with my students than accounting
for "genius," "intuition" or "vision." With
respect to any well-done painting, composition, song, dance, or building
I am always somewhat speechless. No doubt, that is in part because literature
is unique among the arts, in that analysis of literature is conducted
in the same medium – words – as the medium in which that art is executed.
Thus, as someone has said, talking about art is like dancing about architecture.
Nonetheless, as we also say, when we don’t know what else to say, I know
what I like: tonight I very much like the way in which some of the works
on display here have taken ordinary things – bits of metal wrapped in
cloth, watering cans and water pistols, a Coolgardie Safe, water bottles,
pieces of fabric, exposed film, soft drink cans and bicycle parts – and
found ways of having them interact with or around water in order to produce
items of beauty; and I am taken with how some of the artists have taken
extraordinary things, like a cymbal (symbol?) or elegant ephemera or,
mirabile dictu, lachrymatories, and have caused us to focus on
them in ways we never could have imagined. That is what intuition or vision
in art does: it causes us to focus on things in ways we never could have
imagined, considering them more closely, seeing more of their possibilities.
I think, by the way, it was the lure of the exotic lachrymatories that
caused me to disregard my hydrophobia and to be here tonight.
Since the visual artworks are so well explicated by our curator Kevin
Murray, and since I am a literature person, it is perhaps my duty to speak
to at least one of poems. I am particularly taken by William Hart-Smith’s
"Kellerberrin 6410": to suggest how subtle also are the ways
of literature, I will tell you (from having discussed the poem with the
poet) that the lines within quotation marks are from the point of view
of an elderly ex-Kellerberrin woman living in Perth who had a child by
an American servicemen during World War II and who now feels that she
cannot return "home"; and the other lines are from the point
of view of her son-in-law married to that daughter. And what of water?
Kellerberrin was physically and metaphorically a dry place – "One
longed for someone to come...."
Beyond what I have said, I am otherwise speechless but nonetheless in
awe of what these artists have done with their materials and texts. I
commend you to enjoy and to contemplate each of the pieces on display
– they use water itself, the idea of water, the effects of water, to make
art which is a kind of medicine: this is water medicine for the eye and
for the intellect and ultimately for the psyche or soul.
Brian Dibble, 16 September 99