Alice Springs
Wagga Wagga
Lake Macquarie

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 water...

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



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