Ekphrasis as ‘Event’: Poets Paint Words and the ‘Performance’ of Ekphrasis in Australia

By | 1 March 2017

Accordingly, the second stage of the ekphrastic process could be termed reading, as the poet attempts to take their comprehension of the visual work beyond the sensory and into the realm of the intellectual. Fagan’s process included, ‘reading up on the artist’s life and scanning some of her old, handwritten letters’ to undergird her response in something other than the ‘humming’ of the painting’s material surface.

As the accuracy of their reference comes under scrutiny during the simultaneous comparison between word and image, the poet should be attentive to the intention of the painter. The interpretation of an artwork can be best understood as ‘retrieval’ of the artist’s intentions (Carroll ‘Art Interpretation’ 118). Noël Carrol’s intentionalist argument for the best interpretation of art considers:

all the relevant contextual information, including knowledge about the art-historical context, about the genre in question, about the author’s past works, and, in addition, common, publicly available information about the life of the artist. (Carroll ‘Interpretation and Intention 79)

Considering the ‘author’s past works’ as part of this second phase, Fagan describes Cossington Smith as an artist, ‘who’s work she had long admired.’ For Jones, the previous work of Olsen was crucially influential in her process. Jones recalls organising a function for the NSW Ministry for the Arts in the hall where Olsen’s work Salute to Five Bells was exhibited and suggests this knowledge tempered her reaction to Life Burst as a work of comparable size and scale (pers. comm.).

Viewing an artwork as an intentionally created object offers an insight into what I believe to be the fundamental distinction between an ekphrastic poem and a poem of any other type: that both artwork and poem are artefacts. Therefore, the content of the poem’s reference is not natural, but an ‘intentional manifestation of mind’ (Wollheim ‘Art, Interpretation, and Perception’ 134). Likewise, in the act of writing the poem the poet is not simply viewing, but viewing with the intention to create some new artefact of their own. Therefore, in a case like Poets Paint Words research conducted into the painter’s process is vital to the finished poem.

A landscape differs from a painting of a landscape and analogously, an ekphrastic poem differs from a pastoral poem because the landscape that a pastoral poet is describing is not mediated through an external intentional agent. As philosopher Richard Wollheim suggests, ‘if we are interested in painting as such or individual paintings, we must start with the artist’ (‘Painting as an Art’ 36). To display a discernible link to the original artefact, the ekphrastic poem is in part a retrieval of intention. Therefore, if intention is fundamental to interpretation of artworks in general, it is of particular concern to the ekphrastic poet.

Ireland’s poem speaks to the intricate balance between affect and interpretation:

Consciousness is not the only node
responding to this inoculation of meaning – 
the body catches flame, also.

Such is the embodied nature of ekphrasis, as the creation of an original artefact in response to an artefact created by another person in another medium, that the poem must be attentive to the dynamic of the poet ‘walking-along-with’ the painter; not just describing what they see, what they felt, or what the painter intended, but that their experience of the painting is contained within the process of creating their own original artefact.

I see the process of each poet in the exhibition as being a personal event, where through an ‘individualisation’ of the painting they arrive at a new (arte)fact, highlighting process as lived narrative.1 It is clear through the site-specific nature of the exhibition that Poets Paint Words was an Australian event, but what I wish to interrogate is how a theoretical framework applied to this second use of the term, the private event, can adumbrate an Australian ekphrasis.

Barbara Bolt in Art Beyond Representation suggests a ‘critical distinction between the work of art (as a verb) and an artwork (as a noun)’ (111). When considering the bringing-into-being of an artefact, whether that be a poem or a work of art (or a poem about a work of art) what we are talking about is the lived narrative of that process: the ‘work’ of art, that shows the event as an emergence. Bolt references Heidegger’s assertion that, ‘lived experience is the source that is the standard not only for art appreciation and enjoyment but also for artistic creation’ (85). Yet temporally for the ekphrastic poet, the experience of appreciation and interrogation is simultaneously also the experience of creation. Dual function of the lived experience is unique to the ekphrastic poem, given that it is an artefact created in response to an artefact, but also because of how this lived experience manifests in the poet’s newly created artefact. The ‘process’ is co-emergent with the final ‘product’. Bolt has asserted this type of work as ‘performance’2 for which she offers the following definition; ‘performance produces real or material effects. It produces rather than represents reality’ (136).

Bolt’s adapts this approach from the work of Paul Carter in The Lie of the Land. Methexis is a term used in Greek theatre to denote audience participation and improvisation, but it is used by Carter to describe Aboriginal rituals as ‘an act of concurrent actual production, a pattern danced on the ground’ (96). Bolt sees the practice of Art in an Australian setting to be at the mercy of the glaring sun that forces one’s head down to watch what one’s feet are doing. The ‘patterns danced on the ground’ that Carter alludes to are the performative actions of the artist immersed in the lived experience of the event. Too, from Ireland’s poem, we see how ‘the body catches flame, also.’

Bolt suggests that Methexis ‘is a performative model where the ‘landscape’ emerges through the tracing of patterns on the ground’ (‘Shedding Light’ 209). Whether these traces are considered original or whether one is following ‘paths others had trekked before’, Bolt ventures, ‘One always kept one’s eyes to the ground in order to be sensitive and aware of the folds, the contours, the inclines, and the mess of the landscape’ (‘Shedding Light’ 208). This demonstrates the difficult balance for the ekphrastic poet in creating an artefact that is both original and referential. Here though, Bolt confirms that both reference and referent are simultaneously and continuously interpretive and creative.

Given that both poet and painter display their own Methetik trace, it is appropriate that process features in the Poets Paint Words poems, indicative of this contemporary Australian ekphrastic mode. Robert Adamson recounts Brett Whiteley’s process creating Summer at Carcoar, intimately understanding the process at various stages of the painting’s emergence. ‘You could see them (Whiteley’s paintings) grow in the studio’, Adamson says, revealing that during the research phase of Whiteley’s painting, Adamson would travel to Carcoar with the artist (Harari 28).

In regards to the intentionalist framework, Whiteley’s narrative is Adamson’s own. As Adamson hints in the poem to the highway that ‘curves outside the frame’, it is this additional information that helped him to arrive at his response to the painting. Adamson suggests an inability to gain contemplative distance, as evoked by the line, ‘patterns so right you believe the painted world’. He suggests as the painting was brought out for his viewing, ‘this whole part of my past was revealed as well as the painting’ (Harari 28). To distinguish past from painting Adamson reacquainted himself with the materiality of Whiteley’s painting. Therefore, it is fitting that Adamson’s poem mimics the shape of the river (the predominant shape in Whiteley’s imagery). In this case, the pattern that one dances into the ground the pattern danced by the other. The function of Adamson containing his process within his product creates a discernible link between poem and painting.

  1. In an ekphrasis, the painting itself metonymically stands in for the intentional creative process of the painter, as a personal creative Event passed. The (arte)fact is the poem, but essentially it is the ‘narrative’ element that we understand as the process of the poem’s creation. This procedural link between Event and (arte)fact accords with the model of individualised variance espoused by Paul Ricoeur in Time and Narrative, who treats the Event as an ‘invariant’, before framing this concept: ‘fact will then be circumscribed as one variant engendered by the individualisation of these invariants’ (Ricoeur 148). This suggests that the Event of the painting, is ‘individualised’ through the lived narrative of the poet, specifically their process of making the poem, that then emerges as an (arte)fact.
  2. ‘Performance’ is used by Bolt in a manner originally derived from J.L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, and adapted by Brad Haseman in A Manifesto for Performative Research.
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