1st January, 2004#

Invitation for Seoul Book Arts Fair, Coex Centre, Seoul.

Dianne was invited as part of the inaugural international visitors to participate through exhibition and by presenting the keynote lecture for the 2004 Seoul Book Arts Fair, Coex Centre, Seoul. 4-9 June 2004.


1st July, 2001#

Dreams and Swords: The Artists Books of Dianne Fogwell

The American poet, Amy Lowell (1874-1925), once noted that “All books are either dreams or swords” and in the case of Dianne Fogwell’s artists books, they are both.1

In Dianne Fogwell’s voluminous and varied oeuvre, artists books occupy a significant position. Although her earliest extant artists book may date from about 1978 or 1979, and consists of eight long strips of Magnani paper stapled together at one end, all of the others, about fifty of them, date from the past twelve years, between 1989 and 2001.

Johanna Drucker, in what has become a landmark publication, argues that the artists book “is the quintessential 20th century art form”. 2 In the art of Dianne Fogwell, the artists book does not slot into some convenient definition. In some of her more accomplished pieces, such as her Voyelles – 24 years, 1988, with the exquisite letterpress printing by Thierry Bouchard, and the lavish Orpheus. Beyond the poem before the memory fades, 1996, one can think of the classic tradition of the livre d’artiste associated with such names as Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiller, but these limited edition, beautifully crafted books are very much the exception in her practice.

The overwhelming majority of Dianne Fogwell’s artists books are one offs, unique creations, frequently assembled from scavenged materials in response to a particular situation. One prominent artist described them as being characterised through their “ragged and improvised informality”. 3 They are diaristic and self-reflexive, at times caught up in outpourings of angst, frustration and anger, on other occasions full of erotic passion or lost within a labyrinth of daydreams. When looking through these highly personal objects, the viewer not only senses a great intimacy, but there is something voyeuristic about the experience. It is not a totally comfortable feeling, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder as if to ask whether it was alright that I was privy to these intensely cathartic creative moments. It is as if many of these objects were created at moments when the artist felt that she could confide her most passionate dreams only to these silent witnesses.

In one book, Family portrait: ‘Words are in the air’, 2001, she writes “On any day it starts the same. Nothing changes. Nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes. Nothing changes, nothing changes.” Accompanied by Polaroid colour family snaps, taken by her eleven year old son Reuben, who is a frequent collaborator in her artistic projects, this concertina book evokes a palpable tension as the drama of nothingness unfolds. It is a carefully crafted object of miniature proportions which slips into its own case.

In another of her artists books, The night is crowded, 1993, we are introduced to the intimacy of love making, where erotic gouache and pen and ink drawings are supplemented by a Letraset text with such pillow murmurings as “be gentle” and “even as i dream i can’t hate you”. On occasions we encounter whole journeys of discovery into the territory of penis envy, as in her She wears it, 1991, where the study of penises and of pubic hair is in the form of pen and ink sketches accompanied by collage and cut-outs. This tiny book comes complete with its own brown paper envelop.

Juvenile punk humour erodes any possible seriousness of intent in her It’s my party, 1993, where within a triangular box, neatly screwed into a party hat, is a series of rubber balloons with their cheeky greetings. In another, undated piece, Get the gun and run, the sexually quirky is united with wacky humour, as within a cloth covered box lies a candle, gold ring, and matches together with digitally manipulated images and a Letraset text.

In a number of her other artists books the erotic daydream gives way to the avenging sword of frustration and feminist anger. In the beautifully presented The price of service, 1999, the book adopts the form of a box a cutlery. Inside the box a text announces: “She glances up …”, while on each of the cardboard knives, the inscription reads “and so she cuts”. The play on words, games with concepts and expectations, are all characteristic of this artist’s work. If in her prints, which now run to about 268 limited editions, there is a whimsicality in which a Chagallian fantasy world collides with other realities, in her artists books dreams and swords combine to form a mirror of the intimate workings of the soul.

As with a number of artists who make artists books, Dianne Fogwell is quick to assert that rumours concerning the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. What is less predictable is the shape of her books. In her work, ‘books’ which appear suspended within a plastic compact disk cover easily outnumber those composed of sheets of paper which obediently live between hard covers. Wonderful tactile handmade papers by Katharine Nix or pieces of rag and cloth bound together by the subversive stitch, not to mention rubber balloons, bra wire, butterfly wings, flower petals and recycled plastics, all take precedence over the more conventional art papers. Finger prints, Letraset, rubber stamps, spilt wax, inks and dyes are some of the preferred mediums of expression. Covers for these books include a recycled ‘Metho burner’, a snake skin, stitched cloth sleeves, plastic containers and boxes of all shapes, sorts and sizes. There is a certain urgency about her books, an impatience to be born, combined with a country girl’s gift for improvisation, where an unlikely marriage of materials and techniques frequently gives birth to a fragile innocence which asserts its right to exist.

Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo in a famous essay on the artists book as a culinary delight, have a wonderful passage dealing with the book as desert. “As we enter the post-modern, post-literate, post-humanistic, post-avant-garde, post-mechanical age of electronic technologies, the book as we have known it may become archaic and anachronistic – a dinosaur, so to speak. Executives of corporate communication companies know that if their book division continues to be losers they will be disposed of or reformed. Yet, to its lovers, a book is a wonderful thing. An embodiment of spirit, it is a totemic object that requires a personal, intimate involvement to unlock its mysteries and reveal its pleasures. Is it possible that this visual, literary, intellectual memory device, this commodity of the soul, this mojo of Western civilisation is facing the scrap heap of history? Is this a bad dream or an opera? Enter the artist as tenor. It’s the last scene of the final act and he has just stepped off the top of the citadel. On his way down, he sings his concluding aria: ‘There are more producers of artists books than there are consumers. It’s true democracy and bad business.’ Stage left, one can make out the shadowy figure of the Muse, who points an enigmatic finger at the words projected on the scrim over the badly painted sunrise: ‘The book as it will be is yet to be discovered.’” 4

Dianne Fogwell in her artists books is hinting at some of these possible future forms, while at the same time leaving behind in a beautiful, articulate and audible voice a trace of phantoms and passions which have now vanished like a dream.

Dr Sasha Grishin
Canberra, July 2001

1 It has become a general convention to write artists books without the apostrophe, see Stefan Klima, Artists books: A critical survey of the literature, New York, Granary Books 1998.
2 Johanna Drucker, The century of artists’ books, New York, Granary Books 1995, p 1.
3 Robin Wallace-Crabbe, introductory essay in Artist’s books, Criterion Fine Art Gallery, Braidwood 1997.
4 Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo, “The artist as book printer: Four short courses”, in Joan Lyons (ed.) Artists’ books: A critical anthology and sourcebook, New York, Peregrine Smith Books 1987, p 164.

1st January, 2001#

Signature Songs

Sisters. Friends or not, like other family relationships, our lives are entwined for a lifetime. Those lives are punctuated by ritual, we gather at birthdays, Christmas, funerals. These sisters were invited to a different ritual, a creative project by the youngest. They began to narrate their own lives. Conversation was recorded, photography and video captured the moment, and these have formed the basis for Dianne’s story of herself, her mother and her sisters. A portrait in a sense, of women who have each played a part in the lives of the others.

Dianne, like others in her generation, have been driven to explore this relationship. The last decade has seen several anthologies on the theme published. Feminism has shown the relationship between sisters to have been an overlooked, perhaps threatening relationship ‘ [which] like that between mothers and daughters, comes to us shrouded in silence and ignorance.’ 1 In the great novels of Jane Austen, for example, marriage-brokerage has been considered the primary narrative dynamic, but equally the novel is one about the bonds between sisters. It almost provides a case study to the claim that ‘…siblings go out of their way to be different because it is in their Darwinian interests to do so. Diversity reduces competition for scarce resources.’ 2 Despite the shared gene pool, (designer-baby dealers beware!) each sister demonstrates different feminine attributes. Competition, and collusion, is enacted in every scene and each has her own kind of victory.

But what happens when ‘real sisters’ become a story?

Soundtrack for real life

Being with our sisters there is permission to revert to childhood patterns – some comforting, some confounding. In the snippets of family storytelling the past surfaces in the shared laughter and the rehearsed punch line of a favourite anecdote. However, memory, if often triggered by, is not like a photograph.

Memory is tricky. Memory changes. First there is the incident, the snapshot, the feelings at the time. Add the extra flesh that comes with superimposed retellings. Scrap the details that don’t support your recall in the now. Memory is a paradox because, although false from the moment of inception, it does have an essential truth at its centre. 3

Dianne searches amongst the images and words for the essential truth. But this will not be singular, as in the literature of the past. It is a composite. It is as much the small objects remembered by the youngest in an all-female household, as the song which now conjures her sister for her. It is this sister’s characteristic expression, as much as the formal photograph of her, the projected self-image of the elusive present. Time shifts, we change, our sisters remember.

Our sisters remember the childhood pages where we rehearsed a signature that would reflect our emerging character. They remember our fumbling teenage trials at casting ourselves in the movie of our choice: that dress, those shoes, the hairspray. We remember the tyranny of hand-me-downs, the times we were told how much we were alike. There will always be a residue of that time, but the grand innocence of it will be lost to all but our siblings.

Dianne’s sisters are the daughters of the transistor radio. Musical taste, like hairstyle, is part of how we construct our persona. Dianne draws from blues to rock to cabaret, and sings each song. The songs then form another, more poetic text, in which submerged messages appear. As we gaze at the faces, pondering on the mundane attributes, we hear each sister, hear her soundtrack.

Same song, different tempo

I went to visit my four sisters, carrying a tape recorder and my imagined map of the family. It was unsettling to learn that each sister has her own quite individual map of that territory: the mountains and the rivers are in different places, the borders are differently constituted and guarded, the history and politics and justice system of the country are different according to who’s talking. 4

The Gene Pool takes a gentler metaphor than the hard terrain of landscape. Water by its nature accommodates difference. Each sister may slip into the pool, and her shape will be embraced. Certainly, the rest of the pool will be altered, as we are by our sisters. There may even be turbulence, but the politics are of negotiation. Dianne went to visit her sisters with a tape recorder. She also carried her printing tools, and her recording studio. It is she who speaks of her sisters, and it would be a different story if told by another. Like one-point perspective, the image will change, but we’re looking at the same thing.

Love is like blood.

Merryn Gates, 2001

1 The Sister Bond: a Feminist View of a Timeless Connection, ed. Toni A.H. McNaron (UK: Pergamon Press, 1985), p. 5.
2 ‘Born to Rebel’ by Frank Sulloway in Brothers & Sisters: Intimate Portraits of Sibling Relationships, Joan Sauers, (Random House, 1997).
3 ‘Rene’, Cherries on a Plate: New Zealand Writers Talk About Their Sisters, ed. Marilyn Duckworth (NZ: Random House, 1996), p. 251.
4 Helen Garner, “A Scrapbook, An Album’, ed. Drusilla Modjeska, Sisters, quoted in Sauers.