APP Editors’ Introduction
It is a rare thing for an Australian artist, writer, or musician to be truly edgy, experimental, avant-garde or even modern, let alone post-modern or post-post-modern (whatever that is). There have been very few, sometimes botched, sometimes ignored and other times ridiculed attempts at modernism in the broadest possible sense, revealing Australia as a reactionary backwater, brimming with unacknowledged talent who if they do succeed invariably have to make it overseas before making it at home. It appears Australia is a nation which has virtually no progress out of the past, the present eerily in lockstep with the history of cultural achievements 100 years previously.
One rare avant-garde artist was Ern Malley, a fictitious poet and the central figure in Australia’s most famous literary hoax. Ern Malley and his entire body of work were created in one day in 1943 by conservative writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Let it be noted that these august gentlemen are now entirely forgotten except for their involvement in the hoax.
They created what they thought was atrocious, modernist-styled verse, submitting sixteen poems to Angry Penguins. Editor Max Harris and the rest of the Heidi modernists fell for the hoax, enraptured by the poetry, devoting the next issue of Angry Penguins to Malley. The hoax was then revealed. Angry Penguins was a farce and modernism lampooned. Yet Ern Malley outlived them all, the poems later celebrated as a successful example of surrealist poetry in their own right, now more widely read than those of his creators.
James McAuley and Harold Stewart had been part of Sydney’s Bohemian arts world. Their ‘Ern Malley’ style was to butcher their own poems in the dada style of cut-up-and randomise, then link them together with syntactically correct but nonsense phrases, lifting words from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, and a dictionary of quotations: “We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse and selected awkward rhymes.” Modernism in Australian writing received a severe setback, and the conservative element was undoubtedly strengthened. Yet Sidney Nolan credited Ern Malley with inspiring him to paint his first Ned Kelly series (1946–47), saying “It made me take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object.”
Another utterly strange object to fluoresce against Australia’s bleak lack of modernism was the not quite as fictional Robot Wireless, a liberating creation of Robert Whyte, not to leapfrog the modernism of the Robert Whyte of Negative Thinking, Planet Press Brisbane 1978, but just to add another persona to his publishing efforts. If anything, the works of Robot Wireless were more collegiate and explanatory than those of his creator. Robert Whyte was playing a more-or-less lone hand as a modernist, inspired more by James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Boris Vian than Salvador Dali, with something of the Ern Malley flavour in 1972 with the production of an entire parody magazine based on Myopia, the real underground literary magazine he was editor of at the time, writing all the content and supplying all the illustrations, printing it, like Myopia, on a Gestetner machine. Being the work of an insider turned outsider individual, rather than a cohort of artists with moneyed patrons, this effort was entirely ignored. Negative Thinking ISBN 0 908193 02 5 followed in 1978, with prose pieces featuring a cast of characters like “The Locksmith”, “Militant Swans”, the “King of the Theatre” and “The Resuscitating Angel”. These came from a volume of such pieces (The Courtesy Zone, unpubl.) mapping an imagined society in an imagined world, in an attempt to restrict the scope of the writing to self-sustaining fictive tropes not connected in any way (beyond linquistic conventions) to the physical world humans inhabit. They were accompanied by hand drawn line art or collaged illustrations.
More blatantly visual-art style pieces, like All they can do included here, caught the eye of Geoffrey Dutton then poetry editor of The Bulletin magazine, a national slick. This collage probably remains the most experimental contribution it ever published. Not only were the words and phrases cut up and randomised, they were drawn from quite particular sources including texts on schizophrenia and related psychological problems; scientific articles on new technology; and everyday news. Since everyday news is created to order, chosen autopoietically according to not so hidden biases and is therefore already cut up and randomised, it can be used to represent the ongoing disintegration of society, the mind and the world around us. The action is set in a state of quasi-emergency, albeit an unusually optimistic one which believes in a rosy future for the so-called free world and never mind the apocalypse. The text was also literally cut up and glued back down, in the form of a ransom-note style collage.
The texts for From Inside the Asylum came to the attention of Cheryl Adamson, erstwhile partner of poet Robert Adamson and editor of New Poetry. She asked Robert Whyte and Robot Wireless to contribute to New Poetry with prose poems and reviews. The book From Inside the Asylum came out under the rubric of “Brou-Ha-Ha”, a publishing offshoot run by Cheryl Adamson, under the name Cheryl X. Creatrix. It was entirely the work of Robot Wireless, aka Robert Whyte.
A 3-D Glimpse of the Hearing Process was a hands-on collaboration between Robot Wireless, Cheryl Creatrix and Hugh Ramage, a Sydney artist and sculptor. The style of Robot’s collaborators was distinctly grunge, while Robot continued with hand-drawn line art and standard, if surrealistic, prose.
Life and Works of Robot Wireless (Wireless Flames Underwater) was a very short run of a very small book, entirely based on flattering comments the French artist Edgar Degas made about himself. For example “A robot of uncompromising integrity and an artist of genius who worked to the most exacting standards, I was a commanding figure in my day.” Robot Wireless adopted Degas’s self referential narcissim and flaunted it with images of “Nobody Believed Her,” giant clockfaces, underwater welding equipment, a flautist, boy scouts and empty safes. The Robot Wireless collection includes Cricket how to play, watch and avoid, a serious book by Robert Whyte, and a book with square pages called Topor which appears to have no words other than captions for the images.
From inside the asylum/ by Robot Wireless South Sydney Brou Ha Ha Books, 1980 0959321306: https://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn1408597
A 3-D glimpse of the hearing process/ by Robot Wireless South Sydney [Brou Ha Ha Books], 1980: https://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn1409135
Life and works of Robot Wireless/ by Robot Wireless South Sydney Brou Ha Ha Books, 1980 ISBN0959321314: https://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn2931572
Manacles / a novel by Robert Whyte Melbourne Paragraph of the Senate of Pataphysical Representatives, 1985: https://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn1907975
Interview with Robert Whyte: https://remix.org.au/interview-robert-whyte-on-the-artist-run-impulse/
Negative thinking: https://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn1478643
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