Peter Lyssiotis
The Gardener at Midnight: Travels in the Holy Land

Age, A2, 31 December 2005, p. 10.

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 report.

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 missing.

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 Fellowships.

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

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 their illustrators.

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 idea.

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 deception.