Reading An Opening: twelve love stories about art feels like climbing inside the head of a visitor at an art gallery – in this case a knowledgeable and impassioned visitor – and getting to experience firsthand the flow of images and ideas that come to them as they wander through its halls. Impressionistic and meandering, the book consists of 12 chapters, each of which revolves around a different theme from the life of artist and author, Stephanie Radok.
With an international upbringing spanning Australia, the USA, and a brief stint living in an Austrian castle, Radok is a kind of everyman viewer, able to relate to and describe art in a way that is jargon-free and universal. She guides the reader through some of the artworks which have influenced or inspired her as a critic and artist. These range from a French still-life she saw as a child which gave her a moment of respite from her family’s tensions, to huge, awe-inspiring installations of Indigenous art in galleries around Australia. The book embraces works from Hieronymous Bosch and Byzantium to Marcel Duchamp and contemporary video installations, but it is Aboriginal art to which she returns again and again.
It’s a gentle and intimate book, full of small observations that are imbued with big ideas. Radok is adept at finding the lovely in the banal – describing how art might connect with everyday experiences such as walking the dog, eating a loquat, or even looking very closely at a small patch of ground. Whilst the book would have benefited from the inclusion of pictures, the descriptions of the artworks are still vivid and powerful.
An Opening is a hard book to classify. It’s a kind of memoir, but it’s not organised along chronological lines. It’s also art criticism, but it doesn’t advance any one argument about the nature of art or what our relationship to it should be. Instead, it presents the reader with a network of seemingly disparate art works, impressions, and memories, showing them ultimately as deeply interconnected. Again and again Radok takes an image – for example a glimpse of endless sky – and finds it in many places; the work of Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, the poetry of Les Murray, the oeuvres of a number of Aboriginal artists, an impression of the sky seen from a car window, and a German folksong she leaned as a child.
This ‘drawing of correspondences’ which structures the book is echoed in the philosophies of various Indigenous cultures – the Anbarra people’s Rom, the Mogei people’s kanamb – which she examines. Philosophies that, like the book, emphasise the interdependence of seemingly separate elements, and the dissolution of distinctions between the observer and observed.
Although at times it is slow and overly-detailed, the revelatory picture of interconnectedness presented in An Opening – between different times and places, different cultures and artworks, and most significantly between life and art – make it a meditative and enriching read.
(Sarah Braybrooke works in publishing in Melbourne. Originally from London, she has lived in Italy and the Middle East, and written reviews and articles for a number of publications.)