Anti-Material Functions

John Kinsella

29 Apr 2022

Copying, imitation, but not reproduction

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s my grandfather, Robert (‘Bob’) Heywood positioned himself in the Art Gallery of Western Australia and painted a copy of Hans Heysen’s 1921 painting (composed over a number of years) Droving into the Light.[1]

Bob was a signwriter who specialised in painted images, and a stickler for precision, compositional balance, the use of light and the capturing of texture. He was appalled by what he considered the ‘standardless’ auspices of modern art and constantly pursued an ‘artisan’ course of practice and ‘craft’. A lot of scare quotes here, but that’s only because modernist art was a great awakening for me in the same way it was a great challenge to his perceptions of what constituted ‘good art’ and art-practice.

As an experimentalist and one who comes divergently out of postmodernity, the slippages between generations of artistic perception have long fascinated me. This is to do with many factors, including the privileges of education and not having to work to help support immediate family from a very young age in the context of migration and the death of a father, and the desire and necessity of acquiring a set of skills that allowed for a kind of certainty and security. The world as represented.

Coming from a different set of experiences of belonging and unbelonging, I have my own set of disturbances, and because of this or despite this, my anti-aesthetic was and is alien to Bob’s practice. But I feel myself in dialogue with his conservatisms—an antithetical but at times generative dialogue—and it goes quite deep: seeing me being arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in the mid-‘80s on television caused him great distress, and he lost the sense of what I had socially and creatively (as a poet/writer in my case) become—he’d hoped that I would become a reliable lawyer-citizen and use my verbal skills to achieve a social position of certainty.

I didn’t. Even with music, of which he was a consummate performer across many instruments, my interests diverged from his—not only with regard to ‘rock music’ (punk in my case!) as opposed to ‘classical’, but within ‘classical’—avant-garde atonalism was vital to me while anathema to him. Still, he is part of my thinking and my rebellions, and a contrary value in my activism. One of the ironies is that while strongly influenced and driven by modernism, my environmental ethics in so many ways are in opposition to its tenets and focuses. Or, rather, the processes of modernism are vital to my practice, but idealisations that inevitably emerge out of its critiques are frequently counterintuitive to a pantheistic organicism that seems to manifest around the edges of my activist interventionist (pacifist) poetics. Art for me is practical, pragmatic and temporary, and is about being represented by ‘nature’, and not about representing ‘nature’.

Poetry is created out of contesting language, and through generating tensions between sign and signifier, and Bob’s material crafting is the concept I work through and against. He would be bemused to hear me say that ‘craft’ in itself is pointless, that it is only useful in serving to undermine the structures that have their basis in exploitation of the natural world. For me, poetry and art are anti-material functions, and it’s their ephemerality that is relevant: they should be recyclable and renewable and impermanent. Anti-structures.

As a poet, I always considered Bob’s vast painterly skills as pivotal to my understanding of what makes and can undo ‘the poem’, what can be resisted and embraced, and how a poem might turn against its external ‘look’ to perform many subversive tasks. Such ‘inheriting’ of a modus operandi as counterpoint also brings an inherent awareness as to how and why poems (or ‘drawing-poems’ as I am increasingly working in via my decades-long Graphology poems and poetics: poems of visual reification in which shape and colour stand for words) intended for one purpose can be used against their intent. This second-guessing, this awareness and ‘vulnerability’ (and sensitivity?) to context and consequence of reading ecologies can be essential in bringing out the most effective way of positioning an activist text.

In copying that painting painted in South Australia in the Adelaide Hills, painted so far away from its origins (which were far away in themselves from the land Heysen was directly painting in terms of his unseeing of Aboriginal markings and signings of land), Bob was honing his skills and enacting a homage via equivalence: what he’d seen in life was different from what he was reproducing/copying. But he had equivalences, and those ironically and disturbingly reside in the colonial matrices of seeing and unseeing, and equating place with place, with making generic. With very different eucalypts at the back of his mind than Heysen would have seen around his home in the Adelaide Hills, Bob was also enacting southwest Australia. The great river red gums that centre the Heysen painting are so different from the great flooded gums, jarrah and marri trees, even wandoos, of the southwest, but they speak across the divide of image and perception. But Bob’s aim was to copy, and copy he did, utilising ‘craft’ to render precision—verisimilitude is what we might be looking for, but he was looking for replication to show technique is consistent and can be learnt. I have been rereading Perec’s Portrait of a Man in recent times, but this is not forgery but homage with a declaration of respect for technique. The subject is secondary. Or is it? What inclines the artist to choose one image over another to copy: what offers to develop or affirm a particular technique/skill, or what fulfils this need while bringing some form of aesthetic satisfaction? Both, surely.

But I see aesthetics as destructive or an act of diversion from real-world needs, of biospheric collapse brought on by rapacity and…aesthetics. Bob would have questioned what it was I was looking for in life and art/writing. The answer: without a healthy biosphere art will collapse along with everything else. In that loop I work and resist.

The poem-drawing-concretion exists in the transference between life and acts of representation—it is a between art, to my mind. It lingers and disperses in the internal discussion over shifts in location, similarities and differences in experience, in the very lights of inside and outside a gallery and studio, in its plein air or imagined forms, between the observer and observed. These are all the coordinates I deploy in making a poem out in ‘nature’, composing in my head as I walk, speaking it and seeing it in my head to take back to my inside work space. The poem as the painting has to have a purpose for me, and that purpose is to stop ecological destruction. I take all the experience I have of reading, seeing and experiencing a poem to its making: I copy all around me, all I remember, and project onto the ‘canvas’. Poetry is too easily co-opted into capitalist consumerism,[2] and copies become bespoke, individualised, and configured as ‘new’ to maintain uniqueness as desirable, a triangulation of subjectivity and value,[3] so as to deny precedent, and that precedent is the biosphere: ‘indissoluble’ until the point where we have dissolved it.

Key to the technical poetics of Droving into the Light is obviously the use of light, the overwhelming presence of the large river red gum added as a balance to the painting late by Heysen goes to the core of compositional issues, of balance and suggestion and evocation through light and impenetrable objects, gleaming and glancing surfaces, effusion, mood. We might all want to experience the essence of light, but light hides as much as it illuminates and settler history is a historicising of disturbance through diversion and obfuscation. ‘Feelings’ are offered to smother the reality of colonial imposition. The pastoral poem is a similar diversion. I wish to change the nature of light in such structures to show the structure is not sustainable, is not just. I wish to highlight the contradictions of freedom to both land and the ‘stock’ animals that experience ‘droving’ (from Old English, ‘to drive’).

The act of copying is practice, and it is driven by a desire to replicate and increase skill as well as to have more items of the same to be consumed. Or, it is to gain the item with less skills and time than were used in making the ‘original’ (in itself, such making becomes an act of privilege of greater or lesser degrees)—to multiply for the sake of multiplication, to make available. This might also be an act of ensuring that possession of or access to an act of skill doesn’t remain exclusive—to share it among a broader audience—but that is also to put a value on the original it doesn’t really have. The natural world protected and preserved and respected offers all the material and spiritual content of a work of art in its ‘raw’ form. Collective, communal, shared, yes, but not elevated. A teaching tool, yes, but so we might learn about how to better appreciate and revere those ‘raw ingredients’.

Copying is also imitation—it is also departure by ‘mastering’ a materialised subject so you can not only use its techniques but sidestep or depart from them if you wish. You can’t change without understanding. And the simulacrum is the median with change, and this is where I dwell as a poet drawing a manifesto—questioning the act of composition, and the spatiality of the poem with regard to the effect of light on it, or shadow, or the lack of light completely, of inflorescence and chemiluminescence, of glow and trace, of absorption of all light and how that manifests as dynamic change.

I remember back during his schooling that our son Tim wrote a creative piece on the Heysen painting that was as much about the trees and their life as where the drover is going, the circumstances of his life. That’s because Tim has been brought up amid ‘nature’, while learning to question the construct of nature by vested interests, by capital and social conformity, and his concerns are as much about the non-human as the human. The act of writing an image is a school exercise, and a valid one, but using words to tell a painting or possibilities from that painting is only one approach.

Every copy, especially a copy of a copy and so on, loses and gains, and it’s this process that interests me in making drawing-poems of this copy by Bob of a ‘famous’ Australian painting of settler self-validation. These are poems working with all the influences that writing poetry for almost five decades has given me, but they’re also a conversation across generations and circumstances, and an effort to see how close the most distant copy is to what I make at such a distance (conceptual, material)—a demonstration of the absurdity of ownership of art, of the ‘nature’ it purports to imitate, of the people it requires to experience it.

And what are ‘precedents’ for a copy of a work that didn’t take primary contexts into consideration? How much was Heysen conscious of the ancientness of the traditional ways of seeing of the Peramangk and Kaurna peoples, of their knowledge of presence and custodial possession of the spatiality of place? I know Bob wouldn’t have been considering Whadjuk Noongar presence as he was painting place in a different place. The scene is presented as generically ‘Australian’ in the gallery space, and to an English migrant (of Huguenot ancestry) it would have seemed both familiar and alien even in its generic contextualising. Who is seeing is the question, and how does the text select and privilege certain seeings, essentially colonially unseeing those who know land, air and water in their cosmological tellings.

This is not the inevitable return to Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and his observation:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence[4]

Walter Benjamin

because reproduction is the only value art can have that exists outside the capitalist fetishising of uniqueness and value, and also outside the belief that aesthetics is both a satisfying and just end in itself, and also a political tool. As art relies on nature in the context of its material making and the act of imitation, it also in a capitalist sense and a state authority sense (the inevitable yoking) exploits the materials of the natural world to be made.

But it doesn’t have to, does it. This is not a question. Aboriginal desert sand painting is one example in which a custodial-respect relationship to Country can intersect with a variety of cultural, tribal and personal concerns to make art of repetition that shows repetition as different from certainty—that in the mechanics of the hand, of the body, of an intense ‘artisan’ skillset (ultimate ‘craft’), narrative, spirituality and cartographic pragmatics literally interact with land to make the unique reproducible. And all the more so because of its temporary nature, contesting the ephemerality of individual memory with the longevity and intensity of communal memory constructions.

We reproduce perfectly by being imperfect, and change comes over slippage through time and changing natural and communal/personal conditions. Every reproduction is unique and not unique, as much as the ‘original’, which in itself can never be an original if you don’t believe in epiphany (and usually then it comes via intervention of some perceived external ‘force’).

Maybe I come back to my grandfather ‘Bob’ and the issue of artisan skill—the apprenticeship he served, the utility of his art for work and the personal skill-enhancement that served interior and exterior needs in his life. As a signwriter, copying was his art—lettering was lettering, and perspective perspective and clients expected the rules to be followed. But he was often hired for his ‘artistic flair’ as well as his intense reliability to see a job through, and he could superadd qualities that appealed to his sense of ‘art’ and his idea of work and responsibility. He aimed to be a copyist as good as a photographic reproduction, but he also wished to add that quintessence that was his, and usually concerned with perceptions of light and colour. He took great pride in painting massive portraits of Matthew Flinders mapping Australia (displayed on the Barracks Arch) and Queen Elizabeth on her coronation. When I went to university from the country, I stayed with my grandparents during my first year (before ‘going off the tracks’), and he and I constantly disagreed not only over the politics of such colonialism but over how and why art should be used. His pride was in his skill.

A poem is an act of copying in exponential and often counterintuitive ways. If I copied out a Shakespeare sonnet from memory (as opposed to from page to page), aiming to reproduce it accurately (and ‘authentically’), and made errors, I would be delighted, as that seems the most relevant form of copying. And then remembering the wrong copying sincerely and introducing more erosions and so on till the poem bore no resemblance and certainly no correlation in meaning…it becomes what the circumstances of remembering necessitate, inflected by a politics of the moment with a gesture of ‘the original’ that was never original anyway. Shakespeare understood these things in making his plays as well as anyone. Tangentially, I can recite Milton’s ‘On my blindness’, but I can also misrecite it, and that’s more generative, at least from an activist’s point of view: it adapts to the condition and necessities of utterance and the central conceit slips across the crisis of the moment.

In many ways, the mechanical reproduction issue of now is obviously (and ‘self’-consumingly) a digital one, and the newest installation of capitalist greed-enhancement that has also been dallied with by capitalistic-communist (the paradox that keeps on subtracting) governments is Bitcoin. There’s a relevance in the issue of the apparent immutability of blockchains and the issue of the same bit of currency spent twice, or which currency deal comes through first when a user illegally tries to use the same currency to purchase an item. Within ‘the chain’ is the record of spending to prevent this, and yet it can be hacked. The desire for security in the process is its validation (in its own terms), in the same way energy use (through ‘mining’) is justified through the ‘necessity’ of economic activity, and its claim to being a justifiable means of exchange and accumulation.

Being opposed to all monetary economics and notions of ‘property’ (believing all materials should be held in common other than where they have a sacred importance to a particular group of people or where Indigenous connection creates a different set of understandings about ‘ownership’), I see Bitcoin as an exemplar of digital art: eminently reproducible by protecting its value through copyright, permissions,[5] agencies, scrutineers, watchdogs. Art as economics. I deplore the analogy, but I more greatly deplore the ability to make such an analogy: it’s feasible.

But art is copying, is imitation, is reproduction, but the politics of these graphological drawing-poems ‘after Bob’s after Heysen’s use of light’ is to show certainty and commitment still lead to shifts and loss, or gains and changes, and instability in reproduction or in surveillance (quality testing!) is where the hope exists: slippage as generative force for positive change because lapse becomes prospect for change, and change from rigid systems of perception is a form of adaptation to conditions possibly best suited to contesting tyranny and oppression.

Then there’s the issue of ‘subject’…again. The drover is both a white Australian myth-structuring, a colonial fillip, and also the oppressor of animals, the facilitator of their mechanical demise. The irony here is that so many stock workers all over the continent have been Indigenous. But there’s a separation in the pre-1970s poetry of Australia, as exemplified in the propaganda of ‘connection’ between settler culture and land via Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ and ‘Clancy of the Overflow’. I use the term ‘mechanical’ above in the context of the patents and administration of empire, of colony, of federation, of the rules of conduct embodied in the law of state.

From a vegan’s point of view Droving into the Light has a specific meaning. For a person who has suffered from dispossession through colonialism the painting has a different meaning, and there are cascading semiotics of exclusion caught up in the solitary nature of the rider heading down into the circumstances of light. But semiotics are the open door of analysis and reflectivity, and a painting is always a construct, as is a poem, and as such they are tools that will be used for political ends.

My concern is the shape of these politics and how copying affects potential for, in my case, a leftist pacifist application that enhances community interactions and respects. It’s more than a translation, it’s a participation in seeing, in reconstituting the artwork to reflect social and ecological needs. Copying the painting is contingent on a desire to do so, an intent to do so, affected by technique and correlative mechanisms. To me, the painting shows itself in shapes and colours, in spatial co-ordinates in which I slot word-cues. I am certain my grandfather wouldn’t have contested the ‘settler validations’ of Heysen’s painting, and wouldn’t have tried to shift these, but his different social emigrational experience necessarily would have, in the same way that being a Londoner as a child (till he was twelve and migrated to Perth) with Huguenot escapee heritage would have affected his entrenched sense of belonging and personal displacement in migrating.

But the original painting’s sublimated politics do concern me, which necessitates all sorts of interventions in both perceptions and technique in creating a reproduction of a reproduction, and Bob’s degree of separation from the original is part of my journey, as it was when before the pandemic I snapped a photo in the newest incarnation of the WA Art Gallery. Reproduced. As Bob’s is also reproduced. Copyright tells me the photos are different. They are, but not because of copyright, which I reject. Art is politics and my politics are of holding goods in common while respecting traditional Indigenous ‘ownership’. And as Benjamin finishes his much reproduced and sometime profited from (and often not, as it thwarts ownership, including the claims of those who own the translation when it has escaped the work-pay labour relationship of the translator into whichever language):

‘Fiat ars—pereat mundus’, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art’. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.[6]

Walter Benjamin

Communal anarchism—as I understand it—responds by liberating art, opposing fascism, and refusing the idea that copying is anything but an individualised act of community, of consensus, of sharing.

Here is the first of the Graphology drawing-poems I mentioned above—‘Graphology Copy of a Copy of Into the Light’—that loops (a form of boustrophedon with all the irony of plough lines and rending the earth via industrialised agriculture which is the inheritor of this reconstructing of light and place) in a series of copies that will lose contact with the original as a political obligation to de-aestheticise, and to reconfigure light so it emits across multiple spatial and temporal points of contact and repair:

And this is the second (copy of a copy of a copy) drawing-poem, entitled ‘Graphology Copy to the Power of Semantic Bleaching’ ad infinitum. This ‘copy’ contains ‘lost’ or obscured words such as ‘semantic’, ‘bleaching’, ‘destiny’, ‘fortune’, ‘shaping’ and ‘awesome’—semantic loss on the level of the written word becomes a form of visual image ‘gain’. Or exchange that cascades in all directions of the wind rose, across dimensionality, and through duration on 3-D temporal matrices. One dimension in the line meets visual two dimensions and three dimensions of event, act, consequence. The poem is made up of what comes before and contributes to what will follow—distorted, altered, and contesting its own conditions of making. The series continues ‘Graphology Copy to the Power of Semantic Bleaching’, ‘Graphology Copy Lightsource Shift’, ‘Graphology Copy Light Collapse’, ‘Graphology Copy into A Priori Light Source’, ‘Graphology Copy Consequence’…:

The slippages are obviously intentional, but over time I hope a form of scribal error[7] will lead me to misremember the original and the copy. In some ways this is not possible because I have been familiar with it literally all my life, but a familiar motif in a poem can easily become defamiliarised by even slight misrememberings that change the nature of the motif and, say, a refrain, and the working of the poem as a whole. These drawing-poems are acts of punctuating and unpunctuating verbal flows into illuminations, and punctus simplex, versus and elevatus become points where lines begin and end, where a pencil stroke pauses, where a speech within the ‘drawing’ comes in and out of focus. I see these copies as repunctuated originals as well as ‘versions’ or ‘interpretations’ or ‘allusions’, wherein the original punctuation is missed, avoided, revamped.

Unlike medieval monks copying manuscripts and missing words or parts of words or mixing up names or places, or maybe even incorporating marginalia into the main body of the text, my aim is creating this ‘error zone’[8] for generative reconstruction, to create possibilities for tangents of repair and healing, especially because textual history in all its forms is demonstrably connected with technological and ultimately industrial consumerism. How to retain text and lessen impact, how to bring the restorative and respectful ‘oral’/’aural’ paths of knowledge, observation and conveyance into material forms that aren’t damaging to the biosphere. This is what interests me.

If foul papers bespeak the privilege of letting one’s script run its private course before it reaches ‘fair copy’ and the ‘public’ zones, it also blurs the lines between process and presentation. For me, I wish no such lines. When I was a kid I, like so many others of my era, photocopied my hand (others photocopied their face) on the school machine, and what fascinated me was how much it wasn’t my hand. And I photocopied that photocopy and changed the settings to alter it further. It didn’t even seem to represent my hand, and the ‘size and shape’ could have been someone else’s—it seemed more like a poem to me. And a poem I wrote and spoke was never mine once it was written and spoken—it was the page’s, the place’s in which it was heard…sometimes as a form of fusion, sometimes as a blight, often as a form of silent letter.

This bothered me, and it still bothers me. Rather than COPYright, my concern was around the effect a poem of mine might have on something or someone (be it annoyance, approval, or even that intense act, indifference). And that was because I believed even the most ‘perfect’ machine could never truly ‘copy’, and that a copy didn’t exist.

In the 1980s there was a poet who walked around the port city of Fremantle selling his poems in small, handwritten, hand-sewn books. He used brown paper for the pages and cereal-box cardboard and the like for covers. I remember being fascinated as to whether or not there was much variation between writings of the same poems (or if, indeed, each item sold included completely different, unique offerings). I had some political issues with the few poems I read, but I admired the process and still do.


[1] See the original Hans Heysen painting here.

[2] All the more for seeming to be of little commercial value—poets and their operatives put a lot of effort into proving the ‘worth’ of poetry, when that is irrelevant if you believe its purpose to be one of intervention.

[3] Consider René Girard’s ‘mimetic desire’ and mimetic theory in this case.

[4] Walter Benjamin.

[5] Did Benjamin have permission to quote Valéry as epigraph to his essay, and if so did he have to pay a fee to an agency likely never to have read the quoted text or the essay it was to be cited in? (‘Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art’, Paul Valéry, Pièces sur l’art, 1931; Le conquête de l’ubiquité).

[6] Walter Benjamin.

[7] For a definitional bonanza, see Peter Beal’s A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[8] See my Disclosed Poetics: beyond landscape and lyricism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

About the author

John Kinsella

John Kinsella is the author of numerous books of poetry, criticism and fiction. His memoir Displaced: A Rural Life was published by Transit Lounge in 2020. He is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He wishes always to acknowledge the traditional and custodial owners of the lands he comes from: the Ballardong Noongar people, the Whadjuk Noongar people and the Yamaji people.

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