IN NOVEMBER, Inverloch artist John Mutsaers invited local writers to take part in his forthcoming exhibition at Artspace Wonthaggi.
He’d already commissioned Inverloch musician Mark Finsterer to compose the soundtrack for “The Infinite Birdcage”. Now he wanted local writers to engage with his work, which is based on the theme of freedom.
First he buttered up the would-be writers by declaring that writing was the highest form of art. An outrageous claim but a smart move! Then he issued his challenge:
“Writers, using my artworks as a catalyst, are invited to share their understanding of freedom in 2000 words or less,” he writes.
Mission accepted, John. I’ll give it a go.
I skip the opening of the exhibition. Too many people and they’ll stand in front of the paintings and talk about them. Yikes!
I sneak in to ArtSpace for a quick look. Not as sneakily as I’d hoped as there are other people there doing the same thing. I’ve seen the paintings online but they’re much bigger in life than I’d imagined. All but two depict birds. Four of them are caged. Ravens feature in five paintings. There are only two humans, both clad in black. The paintings are ominous, full of stormy skies, birds, cages, traps, clouds and ruins.
I study the paintings online. I already have my favourite: a woman in a heavy black coat eyes the viewer defiantly as a raven builds a nest of sturdy twigs in her hair.
View the paintings at ArtSpace Wonthaggi or online at The Infinite Birdcage. Written entries close on March 30. Email to John at firstname.lastname@example.org. Three finalists will have their entries published in Gippsland Lifestyle magazine and later in a book featuring “The Infinite Birdcage” series. The overall winner will also receive a framed original drawing from the exhibition.
I gaze at the woman and the raven and … honestly, I haven’t got a clue what they've got to do with freedom.
Wish I’d gone to the opening and eavesdropped on the know-alls.
The biggest work depicts four cockatoos playing amid the leftovers on a starched white tablecloth. Bottles are upturned, fruit has fallen on the floor. A marionette lies abandoned. A raven watches unnoticed.
I’m intrigued by the work but what the hell does it mean?
I visit the paintings once more. Just write something! Anything! So I write what I see. My words are banal, obvious, unsatisfactory. Damn it! This feels like homework. Or those essays they set us as schoolkids: “A day in the life of a 10 cent piece”.
“Are you writing something for John’s exhibition?” we would-be writers ask one another warily.
I don’t tell anyone I’ve already tried and I can’t. What have a cow and two ravens got to do with freedom? Beyond the obvious – birds and cages – I have no idea.
I visit Mark Finsterer. You think writing about paintings is hard? Mark’s been asked to compose soundtracks. Holy hell! Where would you even start?
We talk about the paintings, and what a funny, brilliant bugger John Mutsaers is. Playful. He’s messing with our heads, I say.
I’m annoyed to find Mark has noticed things that went right over my head. He’s written six of the works and lets me listen. They’re mesmerising, dreamy. Except for the soundtrack for the painting of the cockatoos cavorting over the table, which is staccato and stormy. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of the painting that way.
Driving home, I muse on the abandoned lunch.
I don’t know if it’s Mark’s music but I finally write something. It isn’t clever or insightful but it’s a smidgeon of a thought. It’s the first thing I’ve written that hasn’t depressed me with its lumpenness.
I write some more. It’s mostly crap. But in the process of writing – naming what I see – I start to see more. The paintings convey a sense of menace but John was having fun when he painted them. I relax.
I promise myself 10 minutes with the paintings as a reward for washing the dishes. An hour later I’m still playing with an idea. It feels like a meditation. Hey, I quite like this.
I wake to the thought of the dark lady and the apple. The solitary egg rattles me. And that bloody hen! Why has she turned her head away?
Damn you, John Mutsaers. Are you messing with my dreams now?