For anyone who has a bit of a taxonomy fetish this show, with all its catalogue systems, faded paper and old type text, will most certainly hit a spot. It’s not that often that Melbourne get to see works by such 60s and 70s conceptual heavy weights as Allan Kaprow, On Kawara or Joseph Kosuth (although there is a major show of his coming up at ACCA). To see the early work of these grandfathers of conceptual art makes real and immediate an art practice too often hidden in complex barriers to understanding.
You really need to take some time to engage with these works. Their value hinges on being read and puzzled out, but once you get the swing of there thinking it becomes joyfully and playfully clear that these artists, with their words and pieces of paper, were documenting a desire to engage directly and meaningfully with the world around them and with the very idea of experiencing ‘living’. Days, clouds, clothes and chairs are observed for the great things they are. Archeology, meteorology, codes and topography each become measurable systems by which the artist tries to capture some essence of the moment.
Curator and publisher Seth Siegelaub’s letter requesting artists to create works for the artist book March 1 – 31 1969 captures this notion perfectly. Each artist was to write back telling him what they will do on the day allocated to them. Their replies included such intentions to climb the roof, to take a series of photos of the same view at allocated times, turn over rocks,or to think about what the other artists are doing at that given time. These sentiments are both poetic and steadfastly practical in their creative, flexible and observant intentions.
In a way Rooney’s works appear secondary to the rigor of thought present within the work of his American counterparts and in many instances he ends up sitting somewhere uncomfortably between obsessive and juvenile. Garments, 3 Dec. 1972 – 19 March 1973 lists each item of clothing worn over a period of months with almost reverential self interest, while Scorched Almonds Jul – Aug 1970, in which he measures the size and quantity of his nightly chocolate indulgence is just down right silly. As an Australian artist in relative isolation from the goings on of Europe and America you sense his longing to be ‘like’ his contemporary idols and the painful awkwardness of Australian cultural cringe. As a collector though, he is to be commended. Thanks to his writing fan letters and inquiries to his overseas counterparts Rooney managed to amass a wonderful and sensitive array of important conceptual works and enriched Melbourne’s arts community.
A small aside in the exhibition is the enjoyment of reading about Melbourne’s small contemporary art scene at that time. Pinacotheca is a name I have not heard for some years and it made me smile to image a quiet, kind of daggy and lonely Melbourne of 1970, dreaming of one day becoming an arts capital.