Brisbane Festival, Brisbane City Hall
10 September 2013

It is most intriguing. The quasi-biblical text on painter Ian Fairweather is Murray Bail’s 2008 revision of his tome, Fairweather; and his chapter on the artist’s hermetic late life on Bribie Island is accompanied by images of figurative work and unresolved speculation about the Aboriginal influence on this Scottish-born painter’s art.

At the Brisbane Festival, a multi-media team, initiated by composer Eric Griswold, verbalised by author (and narrator) Rodney Hall and illustrated by video artist, Glen Henderson, identify Bribie as the place where Fairweather absorbed the Australian landscape into his art as it became more and more non-figurative. An almost opposite viewpoint to Bail’s. Henderson in particular takes off from evocative photographs of mangrove spikes and what Hall delightfully describes as ‘up and down eucalyptus leaves’, and then morphs them meditatively into a painting like Gethsemane to add meaning to the key observation by Hall, ‘Each layer of his paintings was a life let go’.

But then perhaps the different creators were trying to achieve contrasting things? Bail’s Preface to his 1981 edition of Fairweather pronounces: ‘He was an autobiographical painter, often to a neurotic degree. Pinpointing with precision the fugitive whereabouts of Fairweather throughout his life is important not only in illuminating the development of his art. It is necessary in confirming many of the titles and datings of his work which have for so long been in doubt. There has been so much myth, hearsay and embroidery surrounding Fairweather it has overshadowed his art’.

Perhaps as a result of Bail getting such matters out of the way, Rodney Hall and Co have been able to come out from those shadows and attempt ‘the opposite of story-telling, to plumb the depths of his character and his alienation’ and delve into a bit of ‘myth, hearsay and embroidery’ in order to make appropriate links to his painting.

Sadly, for what they say were copyright reasons, very few paintings are actually there in Glen Henderson’s video images—whereas Bail seems to have had open slather and does not even feel the need to include a list of copyright clearances in his book. Hall also found the artist’s executor and nephew unwilling to allow him to quote as extensively from Fairweather’s copious correspondence as he wanted. ‘I’d have liked to build a work based entirely on his own words’, he explained, ‘for his letters were the springboard to his thoughts and troubles’.

Sad, then, that the nephew didn’t trust Hall, for the writer’s starting point for this whole exercise was his view that Fairweather ‘is the single most interesting artist who’s worked in Australia. I find more that is intriguing, teasing, reclusive and enigmatic in his art than any other Australian artist—if we can call him Australian’.

The intensity of Fairweather’s travel away from his birthplace is certainly emphasised in the multi-media piece, accompanied by a string quartet and the kotos of Satsuki Odamura. Japan may not have been on the artist’s itinerary, but the Japanese musician is a fixture in performances (while the quartet has rotated) and essential for adding an Oriental feel, wild waters for the infamous raft voyage to Roti, and meditative moments that enhance Henderson’s visuals. But rather than detail the Chinese, Philippine, Balinese and Roti experiences, the team has thrown its lot behind the remote mountain monastery in China where Fairweather isolated himself to learn Chinese and calligraphy, and perhaps learn not to be European.

Hall—or is it Fairweather himself—comes up with the memorable description of mastering the calligraphy that would later allow him to translate the classic tale of a 13th Century eccentric, The Drunken Buddha: ‘It was a language of images, and Ian Fairweather liked thinking in images. It was a journey manifested by the hand alone’—that linkage between the art and the journeying again. Some other facets of this lonely winter sojourn are less obviously successful—a pink-clad Thai monk cut-out appears irrelevant; and Hall makes seemingly tendentious claims, ‘China, where everything has happened and everything has been resisted. China the nearest place Fairweather ever came to home’.

But it was to Bali that Fairweather was trying to go on his hapless raft from Darwin. And it was in Bali that Hall noted his joy at ‘avoiding the British race’, a comment beautifully realised by composer Griswold, even though he lacks the gamelan that might seem necessary for that purpose. And then Hall finds the quote: ‘Bali was somewhere near to heaven—that boy made all the difference’. Later, on the raft, Fairweather’s hallucinatory memory recalls ‘those boxing boys in Bali’.

‘That boy’! Here we’re dealing tentatively with the notion that one reason (apart from escaping his Britishness) for Fairweather’s constant movement was his running away from a tendency to fancy young Asian males. Bail raised the issue delicately in his 2008 edition, using, at one point the summation, ‘Geographically, economically, sexually and socially he was deviant’. And, significantly, he extends the Fairweather quote above to a more equivocal, ‘Oh Hell, Bali was somewhere near to heaven’. Hall says he attempted to find some evidence of sexual deviance in Fairweather’s letters, ‘which were very personal, but there wasn’t a single reference to sex of any kind. It just may not have figured in his life. But I felt justified in including ‘that boy’—could it have been a genuine relationship?’.

Quite coincidentally, I have always been intrigued by Fairweather’s totally unresearched Darwin years—more than two years, much spent in an increasingly derelict boat on Dinah beach. How much Aboriginal art would he have encountered in the 1950s? Someone he did encounter was the ten year old Richard Koolpinyah Barnes—later to become a Larrakia land-rights figure and a painter himself. Some of his work has quite obvious feeling for Fairweather; he did indeed end up with some of the artist’s sketches after Fairweather left for Roti. But did he encounter any sign of sexual interest from the artist, I wondered? The answer was a definite ‘No; and none of the other boys around reported any impropriety either. But it might be an explanation for his reclusivity’, speculated Barnes.

Fairweather, it seems in retrospect, had many homes, most of which he only recalled with pleasure afterwards. Although a haunting photograph used by Glen Henderson throughout Fairweather is of the far-eyed artist on a Scottish cliff, dreaming his unimaginable future, there is much more in the piece about his 1st World War experience. It was not a glorious war! There were only three days of fighting before he was captured, then four years as a POW. ‘But there, he fitted in for the first time’, believes Hall, ‘giving him what he later called “the best years of my life”. For war had not only “showed him himself”, but allowed him time to sketch and draw morale-boosting cartoons, learn Japanese and make three unsuccessful attempts to escape. And he was free to dream. He knew the hunger of the soul’, suggests Hall, going over the top with Fairweather again!

And did that soul crave music? For one has to assume that this collaborative project—originally commissioned as text and music by the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) for their most recent showing of late Fairweather works, and subsequently augmented with video—is predicated on the association of the artist with the sounds that Eric Griswold has conjured. An earlier QAG exhibition, curated by Murray Bail in 1994, had a catalogue essay by composer Martin Armiger, ‘Fairweather and Music’, in which he suggests that ‘a vast quantity of musical instruments’ are used by the artist in his work—from the early figurative Musicians to the much more interesting Composition (1967), which evokes staves, bar lines and abstracted instruments.

But it is to Bali again we turn for the nub. Armiger sees Gamelan (1958) as a special work in which Fairweather ‘attempts an abstracted representation of the music, of its aural qualities, rather than a visual image of the orchestra. The composition resonates with the sound of the gamelan; one can almost ‘see’ the music in all its explosive power, its syncopations rising in tempo and pitch towards its climax. Long vertical lines run jaggedly down the work like the swishes and clashes of the gongs. At the centre of the painting, two blue lines echo each other and perhaps represent the kendang, which like most gamelan instruments, are both gendered and paired, male and female, one higher, one lower’. Of course, that music was a key to much Modernist composition in the West, from Philip Glass to Peter Sculthorpe. It was also, for Fairweather, a key to the people he loved: ‘They have the beat of music in their blood’, Armiger quotes him.

Glen Henderson makes musical connections too. ‘When I first saw his work, I read him as easily as jazz. There was an unfolding realisation that his lines don’t necessarily fuse with his washes—and every time you go to him, there’s the potential for the lifting of veils. His painting was a meditation, so surely viewing his work must also be a meditation. And, as a work may have sixty layers of after-effects by Fairweather, searching layers of calligraphic line over layers of flat colour like nature, I felt using cut-outs of figures to give my work movement was quite appropriate. After all, the video-camera wasn’t a feature of his life at all’.

Given Ian Fairweather’s mystery as a man and importance as an artist, Fairweather the show deserves both development and wider performance.

Fairweather, 2013. Multi-media performance, Brisbane City Hall. Composer Erik Griswold, Koto String Quartet Satsuki Odamura, narrator Rodney Hall, video artist Glen Henderson. Image courtesy the Brisbane Festival.

Fairweather, 2013. Multi-media performance, Brisbane City Hall. Composer Erik Griswold, Koto String Quartet Satsuki Odamura, narrator Rodney Hall, video artist Glen Henderson. Image courtesy the Brisbane Festival.