ART - AUSTRALIAN - PETER LYSSIOTIS - REVIEW
Before the number of
dead U.S. troops topped 2,000. Before the flattening of Faluja. While
the Weapons of Mass Destruction still had a half-life of justification.
In those distant days of March 2003, there was the looting of the
Baghdad museums and libraries. Embedded journalists saw nothing worse to
Among those relics and
debris sauntered an Iraqi lad desperate for something to sell. His name
was Yabez Al-Kitab, which refers to the Arabic for “person of the
book”. He picked up a scroll of pages, some pockmarked, some
water-stained. Some had images, others bore script. He could not read,
so he did not know they were already out of order. Indeed, a few were
Nor could he know that
they had been the work of a boy his own age, and with the same name, a
boy who had worked with the English artist, David Roberts, in
Mesopotamia in the 1840s. Roberts published a three-volume set of his
engravings. This boy had taught himself to draw images, an act forbidden
by the faiths of both his Jewish father and his Islamic mother.
Remnants of his images
have been granted a new sanctuary. Melbourne graphic artist Peter
Lyssiotis has had them digitally scanned and reproduced on a flat-bed
press on Italian paper, bound into a limited edition of ten. One is
reserved as a gift to the Iraqi Museum of Antiquities, god willing. Five
layers of gold emboss the title “A Gardener at Midnight: Travels in
the Holy Land” onto a replica of a 1840s binding. All the titles are
from David Roberts. The sites selected reverberate with recent events.
The finished volume
reclaims a time before art and craft had been severed. The precision and
splendour of the book-making honours the co-workers in the printery,
David Pidgeon and Bernie Rackham, and the binder Nick Doslov.
The pages that blew out
of the Baghdad Library and have now been made into a volume that now
finds its place in the rare book shelves at the State Library of
Victoria. Last year, Lyssiotis received one of its first Creative
The working materials
for the culmination of this cycle of creativity are on display in its
Murdoch Gallery until 12 February, and can also be approached on the www.slv.vic.gov.au.
Most of the above is a
beautiful lie. The boys never existed. David Roberts did. And the second
Gulf War really happened. Much else was invented by Lyssiotis as the
latest instance of his integration of image with text. Novelist Brian
Castro contributed the second installment about Al-Kitab.
Around 1900, Parisian
dealers encouraged their artists to illustrate the poets. Out of this
collaboration came the artist’s book, limited editions designed by
Lyssiotis began as a
photographer and poet to become the most proficient and polished maker
of collages in the country. A collage is achieved by addition, like a
jig-saw. As he remarked: “Whoever said that the pen is mightier than
the sword forgot the scissors”.
Having reached the acme
of this practice of combining, he decided to work in the opposite
direction, to advance by erasure.
He took the same raw
material as he would have cut up for collage, mostly magazine
photographs since the 1970s. With one of those white-grey rubbers that
he had used at school, he began to remove the inks and the details from
the glossy pages.
To open the
elephant-sized tome is to be absorbed into realms of colour. The
intensity justifies Lyssiotis’s determination to confine his imagery
between covers. The pale of gallery walls would bleach the power that
each turn of a page has to take away one’s breathe.
To report, for
instance, that the image of the Dead Sea is blue is to miss the layers
of stillness that Lyssiotis suggests rest beneath the surface. A lemon
tone brings life to the sand and stones. The same shade carries glare
into crevices. Another page seems blackened. This storm might evoke
shock and awe, but that equation would be misleading.
In what sense, then,
can such fine art protest against war? Nothing in the volume even hints
that the viewer is being asked to take sides. There is no slogan. No
mangled corpses. The Gardener at
Midnight fulfils the precept that T. S. Eliot set down for
transforming an emotion or an opinion into an artistic expression. The
poet or painter must find an objective correlative for the feeling or
Opposition to the
invasion was where Lyssiotis began. His triumph is that in making this
masterpiece, he has established contexts for the lives of the Iraqi
people. The fables about the two boys make the multitude into persons
who remain at risk. The book demonstrates that there is a reality
outside the library text, and a vision beyond the images of mass