Words take shape on the printed page

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jaya Sav­ige

Type­writer Art: A Mod­ern An­thol­ogy Edited by Bar­rie Tul­lett Lau­rence King Pub­lish­ing, 176pp, $39.95 Aus­tralian Po­etry Jour­nal, Vol­ume 3, No 2: #Con­crete Aus­tralian Po­etry, 90pp, $25 Mar­i­onette: A Bi­og­ra­phy of Miss Mar­ion Davies By Jes­sica L. Wilkin­son Vagabond Press, 122pp, $25 HAVE used a se­ries of Macs that have run out of pro­cess­ing power, run out of up­grades, blown their power sup­plies, or just re­fused to turn on any more,” writes Bar­rie Tul­lett, graphic de­signer and lec­turer at Ed­in­burgh’s Lin­coln School of Art & De­sign, in Type­writer Art: A Mod­ern An­thol­ogy. “My 1934 Underwood, how­ever, al­ways starts first time.” Fea­tur­ing 180 il­lus­tra­tions of works by more than 90 artists and poets, Tul­lett’s paean to the artis­tic po­ten­tial of the type­writer wears its ana­log aes­thetic well and truly on its sleeve.

For more than a century fol­low­ing the in­ven­tion of the Rem­ing­ton Stan­dard in 1874, the man­ual type­writer en­joyed near-myth­i­cal sta­tus for the writer, whose life it rev­o­lu­tionised. “Take a writer away from his type­writer,” quipped poet Charles Bukowski, “and all you have left is the sick­ness which started him typ­ing in the be­gin­ning.” That was in 1986.

This book charts a lesser-known af­flic­tion. While 20th-century scribes were sweat­ing blood on to their platens with Hem­ing­wayesque ap­pli­ca­tion, a small yet ded­i­cated band of ‘‘type­writer artists’’ were push­ing the bound­aries of what was pos­si­ble with the ma­chine.

The re­sult is a re­mark­able body of work, brim­ming with wit and in­ge­nu­ity, that blurs the bound­aries be­tween word and im­age and fore­grounds the ques­tion of art’s re­la­tion to tech­nol­ogy. The sheer va­ri­ety of ma­te­rial hand­somely re­pro­duced here is a tes­ta­ment to the seem­ingly lim­it­less ca­pac­ity for in­no­va­tion by artists work­ing with this uniquely limited medium.

Ex­am­ples range from con­crete po­ems such as Scot­tish poet Ed­win Mor­gan’s clas­sic Un­scram­bling the Waves at Goon­hilly (1968) to ab­stract de­signs in­formed by the Bauhaus and de Stijl move­ments of the in­ter­war years, from fig­u­ra­tive ‘‘type-draw­ings’’ that “ap­pro­pri­ate the ver­nac­u­lar of needle­point” to mon­u­men­tal multi-pan­elled works such as Cana­dian Steve McCaf­frey’s Car­ni­val (1965-75).

That half of it has been pro­duced this century re­veals the ana­log medium’s con­tin­ued ap­peal for dig­i­tal na­tives. A life com­mit­ted to pro­duc­ing orig­i­nal art with “the most reg­i­mented of medi­ums” ev­i­dently re­quires a cer­tain de­gree of ob­ses­sive­ness. Take for in­stance ec­cen­tric Bene­dic­tine monk Dom Sylvester Houedard, widely con­sid­ered the chief ex­po­nent of the art form.

A Bri­tish Army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer dur­ing World War II, Houedard (or ‘‘dsh’’ to ini­ti­ates) found he oc­ca­sion­ally lacked suf­fi­cient ma­te­rial for his req­ui­site 16-page re­ports, so be­gan fill­ing the space with cre­ative flour­ishes of the type­writer. For much of the sec­ond half of the century he re­fined his tech­nique, tap­ping away long into the night on his cher­ished Olivetti Let­tera 22, much to the cha­grin of his fel­low monks in Prinknash Abbey, Glouces­ter­shire. The vast se­ries of type­writ­ten ab­strac­tions (dubbed ‘‘type­s­tracts’’ by Mor­gan) he left at the time of his death in 1992 are con­sid­ered un­par­al­leled for their mas­tery of the medium.

Tul­lett’s an­thol­ogy up­dates the clas­sic in its field, Type­writer Art (1975), edited by Aus­tralian expatri­ate Alan Rid­dell, a rel­a­tively un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated fig­ure in Aus­tralian po­etic his­tory. A Townsville-born jour­nal­ist turned poet and cu­ra­tor who sought cul­tural nour­ish­ment in swing­ing Lon­don in the 1960s, Rid­dell be­came a key player in the in­ter­na­tional con­crete and vis­ual po­etry move­ments be­fore his sud­den death in 1977 at 50. As Andrew Belsey re­marks in one of six in­ter­views with con­tem­po­rary artists in­cluded here, Rid­dell “must be cred­ited with sep­a­rat­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing type­writer art as a sub­cat­e­gory of con­crete po­etry”; when asked if he ever felt part of a com­mu­nity of type­writer artists, Belsey poignantly pon­ders: “There might have been one if Alan Rid­dell had lived.”

In­spired by last year’s ex­hi­bi­tion co-cu­rated Aus­tralian Po­etry Jour­nal, Vol­ume 3, No 2: #Con­crete, Mar­i­onette: A Bi­og­ra­phy of Miss Mar­ion Davies Type­writer Art: A Mod­ern An­thol­ogy, by the Heide Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and Univer­sity of Queens­land Art Mu­seum, Born to Con­crete, the lat­est is­sue of the Aus­tralian Po­etry Jour­nal high­lights Aus­tralian con­tri­bu­tions to in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ments in con­crete and vis­ual po­etry of the past 50 years.

One of the en­dur­ing strengths of the jour­nal un­der the stew­ard­ship of poet and edi­tor Bron­wyn Lea has been its the­mat­i­cally fo­cused crit­i­cism. Ar­ti­cles by three of Aus­tralia’s fore­most con­tem­po­rary prac­ti­tion­ers in the field, Pi O, Alex Se­len­itsch and Richard Tip­ping, con­tinue this trend.

Pi O feis­tily con­tends that an­other ex­pat, Jas H. Duke (not Barry Humphries), lays claim to be­ing ‘‘Aus­tralia’s only dadaist poet of any note’’. Se­len­itsch gives Rid­dell his due by de­scrib­ing him as “our miss­ing pre­cur­sor”, while also not­ing con­tri­bu­tions by Michael Cal­laghan, Mike Parr and Pete Spence.

Tip­ping, ar­guably Aus­tralia’s most im­por­tant vis­ual and in­stal­la­tion poet, opens the win­dow on to his cre­ative process, “loop­ing from ty­po­graph to in­stal­la­tion and back” in three re­lated pieces, Earth Heart, Hear the Art and Hearth. Tip­ping’s debt to Scot­tish poet and artist Ian Hamil­ton Fin­lay is ev­i­dent through­out; his nu­mer­ous com­mis­sioned in­stal­la­tion pieces have ap­peared in Mel­bourne, Lon­don, New York and, mem­o­rably, on the shores of Lake Mac­quarie, in a large-scale work that he claims is clearly vis­i­ble on Google Earth. (It is. I checked.)

The jour­nal’s se­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary work is di­verse and en­er­getic, and its clean and pro­fes­sional lay­out, an­other hall­mark, is no

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