A 2021 book of the year

Nicholas Jose in the Australian Book Review 2021 Books of the Year

Becoming a Bird: Untold stories about art by Stephanie Radok

A calendar year with its daily tour of the back yard and walks with the dog to the park as months go by. Artist–writer Stephanie Radok’s Becoming a Bird: Untold stories about art (Wakefield Press) is a marvellous book about the freedom of the mind to take wing from within the confines of a loved locality and a committed routine. Radok roams far and wide, remembering museum and art gallery visits around the world, books, places, and people, enquiring into complex things with a candid clarity of utterance and insight. ‘Who are you?’ a Prague cousin asks. The answer comes: ‘In this suburb in a room in a house in a garden in a book on a shelf behind a door in a cupboard, complete worlds are present and folded together.’ Not forgetting The Right to be Lazy by John Knight, a work of art the author saw in Berlin that consisted purely of weeds left to grow

A review of An Opening in M/C Reviews

Part art criticism, part philosophy, and part memoir, An opening: Twelve love stories about art is both informative and entertaining. Stephanie Radok takes her reader on an absorbing journey while seamlessly interweaving intense visual imagery, reflection and her own personal story. Radok is an artist, art-critic and journalist. She has contributed to Art Link, Art Monthly, The Adelaide Review and other publications. In 2011 she exhibited at Flinders University City Gallery and her works are found in many galleries. Her interests and knowledge are broad, but her main area of expertise is in Aboriginal art.

Much of the book’s charm rests on the inclusion of the author’s own story. She had an interesting childhood, living for some time in The United States and in Austria, and believes that the dislocation she experienced led to her passion for art. ‘Art became a kind of homeland for me beyond and between countries’ (69). Throughout the book, snippets of memoir are interwoven with information about art, and each chapter concludes with a short scene where Radok walks her dog through the suburbs, reflecting on what she sees.

An opening contains a considerable amount of information about art and the artistic processes. Radok describes her emotional reaction when viewing a plaster cast of a woman and dog who died in the volcanic eruption which destroyed Pompeii, and then goes on to detail the qualities of plaster and how an artist works with it. A description of two of Ah Xian’s work is followed by information about cloisonné, with which he forms his sculptures. And she does not confine herself to art; a discussion of Hieronymous Borch’s The garden of earthly delights leads to a history of dragon trees and their mythological meaning.

But, of course, Radok’s chief interest is in Aboriginal art. She tells of her first awareness of its extraordinary power when she viewed rock art on Groote Eylandt in 1974, and traces her own voyage of discovery. She provides a wealth of information about its development from its early, marginal days to its present central position in the Australian art world. Those works which she found particularly moving are described in detail.

Radok’s stated theme is that art is an experience; its significance is what it makes people think and feel. The overlapping of art and life in the structure of the book underlines her argument. It is also reinforced by her detailed descriptions of art works creating striking visual images in the minds of the reader as she describes her own emotional reactions.

A second theme is of the importance of connections, people and people, people and land. She illustrates cross-cultural connections by discussing the works of Lin Onus and describing the collaborative installations of Anne Mosey and Dolly Nampitjinpa. Radok seems to be living her own philosophy when she paints at Ernabella (now called Pukatja) in the Western Desert, the oldest Aboriginal art centre.

The main purpose of the book, however, is to support and promote the Aboriginal point of view; not just art, but also their belief system. ‘In Australia there is a turning point at which you suddenly really see or feel the land for the first time as Aboriginal land’ (133). Radok is not only sympathetic to this view but appears to have adopted it for herself, ‘the land is the people, the people are the land, they are one’ (140). And. as always, she illustrates her points and conveys her passion with detailed descriptions of art works.

For those already familiar with the works discussed, this book offers an interesting point of view. For new comers to the world of Aboriginal art, it could serve as an introduction. An opening is persuasive, informative and entertaining, and above all, readable.

Eileen Cooke in Media Culture Reviews

A review of An Opening

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


(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.)

Speech by Nicholas Jose at the launch of An Opening in 2012 at Greenaway Art Gallery

Many of you will know the artist Peter Tyndall’s long-running series A Person Looks at a Work of Art in which we see line-drawn gallery goers who look like happy families in a children’s story—Famous Five Go to the Art Museum. Stephanie Radok’s new book An opening: twelve love stories about art looks back at that person who looks—mother, father, child—and gives them a filled-in body and a mind, a history, a habitat, a set of memories. And a faithful dog. ‘A Dog Looks at a Work of Art’ the book might have been called. It is the dog that takes us out of the museum into a shared world, blurring distinctions between art and life, giving us a wonderful image for the way artworks leave their traces everywhere, just as exciting smells are left for the dog to discover. Art as fart. Well, not only.

An opening is a memoir wrapped around a discussion of art and a discussion of art wrapped around a memoir in such a way that makes the two indistinguishable. The attentive adult contains the experiencing child, connected by the continuing presence of things, their ‘shapes and colours and forms’, known through the capacity, as Radok writes, for ‘somehow both going inside them and putting them inside me’. An opening is structured as a calendar, a book of hours, month by month from January to December, as the author walks with her dog through her suburban, bush-fringe Adelaide world in changing seasons and environments and at the same time journeys mentally and emotionally to the works of art that have become part of her life, bringing them into her present and reflecting on their meaning for her, which becomes their meaning for us. The private acquires significance through an inquiring intelligence that positions things in the largest possible context. At the same time the work of art moves from rarefied space into the ordinary world. One way Radok does this is by attending to the way we find and carry artworks with us in our lives, in postcards and clippings that become tatty with time. That allows segues like this one:

I have a postcard of an interior painted in 1955 by Grace Cossington Smith stuck to the wall in the laundry above the old square white ceramic trough…. The whole work contains a lot of yellow in broad square panes of paint, like pieces of solid light pouring in to flood the room with radiance and a kind of dissolving energy. The postcard is next to the laundry window that looks out onto two plum trees and an olive tree, but it is the tiny painting that suggests an escape from domesticity which is nevertheless embedded in the domestic, the possibility of glowing visions in a lump of butter or a drop of light like a coin on a window sill. (page 19)

That is art writing of the highest order. Cossington Smith would have understood it. And what makes it so original is the lead in from a discussion of a woodblock print by Hiroshige that was given to Radok’s family at a dinner in Chinatown in New York in 1961 by a Japanese man who worked at the United Nations with U Thant. In those connections and traverses, Radok’s finely tuned global positioning device is always at work.

I did not know Stephanie Radok personally before An opening though I knew her name from the art journalism I’d seen here and there over the years and found sharp, fresh, sometimes provocative. I’d noted her as a kindred spirit and made a point of reading things with her name on them. Adelaide, in particular, is lucky to have such a good art writer, at a time when art writing is generally so dire in this country. She has found her own way of doing it, and her own venues, where she can remain independent and a bit marginal. She’s made those short review pieces into an art form of her own. So when I saw an earlier draft of this book I was truly excited. Reading it in the finished version now I appreciate how layered and subtle it is in selectivity and speculation and its beautifully crafted and situated style. It’s an extraordinary, ambitious work that belies its intentional modesty. Not your typical art book. Radok follows in the footsteps of another Adelaide artist-writer, Barbara Hanrahan, in her first book, The Scent of Eucalyptus, with a book of place and memory that is vibrantly alive to the colours and shapes of the world, as seen and felt by a practicing artist. I’m happy that the author and I like so many of the same things: Simryn Gill, Ah Xian, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Durer, Colin McCahon.

There’s a condition known as Stendhal’s syndrome in which people are overcome, swoon, faint, become feverish, by the intensity of their experience of a work of art. The love in Radok’s subtitle–‘twelve love stories about art’—is different. It is not a pathology. There’s a great moment of realization when the author goes to the Prado in Madrid to see for the first time in actuality a painting she has travelled with for years, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and of course does so in a crowd of other tourists, buying tickets and queuing. She writes: ‘Yet on this recent trip rather than being annoyed by the global nature of cultural tourism in the twenty-first century … I found it alright.’ ‘…our private obsessions belong to many other people as well … Thus the experience was solitary and individual but communal.’ Sharing is part of this love.

An opening is grounded in a longstanding and deep relationship with Aboriginal art, from which perhaps this recognition of the power and necessity of sharing has developed: an embodied and relational way of thinking about art. Her book rests on that understanding, and it’s what makes it radical, a critique and expansion of much else in the art world and its conventional ways.

There are many meanings that open up from the book’s title: An opening. An invitation, a door in the wall, an aperture, a Pandora’s box, a beginning, a hole worn through, an overture, or an opening like this one at which something new is introduced and celebrated. Let me conclude with another passage from the book:

‘The potential in every art exhibition, every artwork, is present at this point of opening, a point of potential expansion of the world, of surprise, celebration, learning and illumination.’ To which she adds in a characteristic startling leap, that her opening also refers to ‘the bright clear light that characterizes Australia which can be seen as potentially leading to an opening of the mind.’ We live in hope.

Read it and perhaps it will happen to you. I congratulate the publishers. I congratulate the author. It’s a very beautiful book. A revelation, a gem. Open to the public.