A tribute to David McComb
As far as love stories go, I hadn’t realised mine until I was in the dark of a movie theatre, the Astor in St Kilda, Melbourne, watching ‘Love in Bright Landscapes’. It will screen again at the Astor on 21 June 2022. I already have my ticket.
It began nearly 40 years ago, one stormy night in Perth, Western Australia, in the latter half of 1984. There was a small underground music bar through a single street-door off Hay Street in Perth’s centre, down a long, narrow flight of stairs. The bar was on the left on entering, dosed in a sober light. On the right was a stage saturated with the dark of expectation. Both were equally inebriating.
This evening, a band in which my boyfriend sang was supporting The Triffids. Unbeknownst to me, he had arranged for The Triffid’s sound engineer to instruct me on how to mix sound. Once the support act was over, I attended the mixing desk for instruction. The Triffid’s sound engineer was not the garbed groupie I expected. Instead, his pristine attention was more akin to that of an eager young architect than a devotee dulled by a subculture’s condiments. He wasted no time in pointing out parts of the mixing desk. Life, at that moment, felt extraordinary. I was about to hear The Triffids newly clad in their over east fame, for the first time; and I was about to learn how to tame any tearaway sound frequencies. Then my boyfriend interrupted with something urgent to tell me.
He ushered me through a black back door into a vacated room stacked with the splayed carcasses of two bands’ musical-instrument cases. Here, he told me of his affair; she was a musician; it wouldn’t happen again; we were to go on together, as usual. The storm I earlier mentioned suddenly spilled its worst torment, even though the night sky remained free of any meteorological event as we headed into another cloudless summer.
Then the Triffids began to play. I returned alongside the sound engineer, who continued with his instruction, little noticing I was not the same. My attention faulted, though, then flunked as it clung for dear life upon every word by David McComb as he sang.
Red pony, it’s a gift from me/from me to you
— I am sure he sang ‘Red Pony’ that night;
Ride it well my love, hold your head up high/across this land
— the contrast could not have been starker between this love and that of the room I had just departed. One spoke of giving and possibility, the other of taking and treachery;
Sand in your eye, sun upon your back/Next to you my love/all colours turn to black. (The Triffids)
David McComb chaperoned the betrayal I had just experienced into a pit that no longer existed. The more I sought his attention with a stare too full of relief, the more he seemed to look the other way. Though the sound engineer could see. He gave up on any further instruction. Then the music stopped, the lights turned on and I was left with nowhere to go. I said my thanks and sought to hide amongst the crowd queuing at the bar. While everyone poured past, I stood still. Gently, though, I heard my name. I turned — it was David McComb. Our exchange was brief. He then walked away, and my life forever changed.
The next day I decided to leave Perth, my friends, my family, and everything I had ever known. During the following few weeks, I was alone in my decision and the anger it caused in others. Yet I would return to that night down those steep stairs to reconnect with my resolve and find it still standing there, each time, steadfast and strong. I would try for Vic college, an art school in Melbourne. Relief from the dread of what such a journey would entail on my own arrived when, a few weeks later, an art friend I had known since high school decided to come along too. Fear turned into an adventure.
It wasn’t retribution that sent me across the Nullarbor. It wasn’t revenge. It was defiance. It was the freedom to find — instead of being defined. It was the freedom to define myself. It was the realisation of a different type of love that took the stage that night in David McComb, which he humbly enabled. A love that isn’t a means to an end but an end in itself. A kingdom of ends, as they say in philosophy (thanks Jon Rubin in reference to Emmanuel Kant). One isn’t to use a fellow as a means to reach an end, to reach a goal in life, but to treat the other as an end in itself, if not to cherish them. This other love is the love of David McComb, a love far brighter than any sun-straddled landscape.
In the first ten years after graduating from Vic college, I exhibited artworks striven with this other type of love. Within an art world punctuated by treachery that outstrips my earlier experience, I expect these works came across as naive, if not embarrassing. Others perhaps thought me a romantic fool and my art boring. Admittedly, with the distance I now have, I am equally surprised I had the gumption to pursue it. Until you have experienced a room’s space sapped by a supposed lover’s words, then, in the next breath, return tenfold through another’s — it is hard to realise how momentous this other type of love is. Or whether it ‘is’ at all.
In the dark of a movie theatre, the Astor, not long ago, I was ashamed to discover I had not stood by this love when it still stands, steadfast, in the music of David McComb.
From me to you,
Loom for Love 1990
A page ripped from a Mills-&-Boon type book was sent as the invitation. It listed the date, the time, and the place — Store 5. Upon entry, the space was empty of any art on the walls. That’s not common. A love chair was at the centre. In fact, a tête-à-tête chair. There is a difference. A tête-à-tête chair is s-shaped so two people can face each other while speaking. A love chair is a slightly wider armchair so two people can sit close. There is a plinth on either side of opposite sitting positions. Thirty years had passed since sculpture first touched the ground without the symbolic significance of a plinth to declare it art. On each plinth, a LoveSwept book is replete with a romantic couple in a full-colour embrace. In opposition to the colour of their embrace, the remaining artwork is in black and white. In opposition to the embrace’s fullness, the story inside is of empty pages made from a paper stock reminiscent of pulp fiction. In opposition to the book’s symbolic position on top of the plinths, the artwork is in the everyday place on the ground where viewers can sit on it. (GH, 2022)
From flower power 1960s/1990s 1993
Five watercolours comprise the various rooms in this set of watercolours. From the viewpoint above, it is possible to see the pattern underlying the layout of rooms in each. Each is prompted in its own way by the childhood game of pulling petals off a flower while reciting ‘He loves me, he loves me not’ in the hope the last remaining petal fulfils the wish that ‘He loves me’. However, when inside a room, one would be unable to see the alternating pattern and, consequently, an alternative to the room. For instance, in this one of the five watercolours, the rooms are without windows or doors. One would be able to realise there is another possibility to the room they are locked in.
The set of watercolours formed the beginning of what has since become the Primavera collection at the MCA. As MCA curators Isabel Finch and Clare Lewis explained in 2008: ‘The development of the MCA’s Collection began in 1967 through the University of Sydney’s JW Power Bequest which preceded the opening of the Museum in 1991. The decision to acquire the work of Primavera artists began in 1993, the first purchase being a suite of works by Gail Hastings, an artist included in the inaugural Primavera exhibition.’ (GH, 2022)
To make a work of thoughtful art 1995
In 1993 I received the University of Sydney Power Studio residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for six months that I took up in 1995. While there, I travelled to Düsseldorf for the first time to build and exhibit ‘To make a work of thoughtful art’. The artwork begins with a watercolour page for the Encyclopaedia of Thoughtful Art reproduced on the gallery’s announcement card sent to prospective visitors. In the reproduction, we don’t see the page straight on but slipping from the two-dimensional plane to span the vertical and horizontal planes that form the coordinates of three-dimensional space.
On visiting the Encyclopaedia at the gallery, the page takes up the entire three-dimensional space. However, there is a process the Encyclopaedic page has had to undergo to become a work of thoughtful art. In other words, although everyday space is automatic — it already exists when we wake up and continues to exist when we sleep at night — the created space in these artworks isn’t automatic. Instead, it has to undergo a process to become ‘real space’; the artwork’s contents listed on the page outline this process. While the last step records the process as having taken place, the crucial moment in the process is step four, where, after anger has been extracted from a thought, the space of the artwork occurs by extracting its understanding from the thought’s remaining love. (GH, 2022)
Encyclopaedia of Thoughtful Art
To make a work of thoughtful art please follow the guidelines below:
- From the square above cut out a thought into a shape and lean it next to number 1.
- From this thought cut out its anger and place it on the plinth at number 2.
- From this anger cut out its love and place it at number 3.
- From this love cut out its understanding and return it to where the thought had first been taken, at number 4.
- Now ask a passer-by the time (21:57) and the date (Freitag 13.10).