We recently conducted the first in a round of interviews for The Distribution of Voice, joining Sydney artist and curator Ruark Lewis at his Paddington apartment, to discuss his work and the many years he spent collaborating with Martin Harrison. Lewis is an engaging interviewee – not only is he endowed with a dark sense of humour and mordant wit, he relishes talk just as much as Harrison, who was a famous conversationalist, and who was never happier than when locked in discussion with one or more interlocutors. Indeed, one of the stories Lewis recounts in our interview is of the vigorous discussion and readings that would occur in the house Harrison shared with his wife, Rosamunda Droescher, which frequently continued until the sun was up and all the wine was gone.
Lewis was one of Harrison’s oldest friends, and has been an integral part of the arts in Australia for decades. He is a significant pioneer of multimedia arts, and, at times together with Harrison, has helped to shape Australian cross media arts both with his curatorial flair and his own creative output. That creative output is extremely diverse – Lewis paints, draws, and constructs installation pieces, he writes, performs, and produces audio-visual works. He also passionately curates and promotes the artwork of indigenous Australians. It is for his language-based pieces, however, in which the visual arts are fused with poetics, and, frequently, with politics, that he is perhaps best known. In many of Lewis’ works, language is treated as a physical material, which might be mined for its own figurative characteristics of pattern and contour. The shape of letters is emphasised, of words and their articulation of meaning, as well as their articulation with meaning structures, whereby the viewer is asked to consider each aspect of the communicative relationship. Language is broken down into its formal and physical components – sometimes phonemically, in audio material, at others it’s the figuration that’s foregrounded – and in the process, our assumptions to do with lexical tradition and exchange are brought into question. It is interesting to consider this reformulation in relation to Harrison’s keen attunement to linguistic and literary histories.
Lewis and Harrison became friends in the 1980s, and their friendship, continuing up until Harrison’s death in September last year, proved to be extremely constructive for both of them. In the mid 1980s, Lewis was curating programs at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Harrison began working with him on projects at the gallery around 1988. They collaborated on many exhibitions, working together to program a broad variety of events at the gallery. One interesting insight to come from our interview is the way in which the creative differences between Lewis and Harrison became one of the most fertile aspects of their collaboration. Harrison, a compulsive reader and autodidact from an early age, received a classical education at Cambridge, and was frequently drawn to more classical aesthetic forms. Lewis, on the other hand, was drawn more toward works and artists who questioned and reinterpreted established formal structures. The result was a diverse programming format in which traditional and non-traditional poets and artist were juxtaposed, resulting in new patrons and points of emphasis for each. This breadth of engagement is one that characterised Harrison’s later approach to pedagogy, and to poetics generally, for although he clearly had his favourites, one thing that marked his teaching was the way he emphasised the value of all traditions.
There is no doubt a great deal of reciprocity of influence between Lewis and Harrison. In our interview, for instance, Lewis describes Harrison’s take on the push/pull of abstract painting, the way in which the image generates depth of field, and how Lewis began to experiment with some of the systems Harrison was describing. Likewise, Harrison was surely energised by the palimpsests and object poetics of Lewis’ work, as well as Lewis’ emphasis on newer, experimental poets. ‘He would often read to me,’ Lewis comments at one point, ‘he was such a beautiful reader.’ Anyone who has attended a Harrison reading will agree – he was an unparalleled reader of poetry, having not only a voice of remarkable timbre, but the training provided by his years at the ABC.
We hope to detail those years in our next interview, when we discuss them with his colleagues from the national broadcaster. If you’re interested, there’s more information on Lewis’ work on his website, as well as some interview and curatorial material on youtube.