In the library, a herd of Superb fairy-wrens

Feathered and complete

Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison
Prattle, scoop, trembling: a flutter of Australian birds
2016
Artists' book, unique state, featuring 15 individual collages on cabinet card with pencil additions, 15 pencil drawings on Fabriano Artistico 640gsm traditional white hot-press paper with metallic paint trim. Housed in a Solander box with inlay collage.

Perhaps it was because it was so unassuming, the end, that I failed to notice it. We had finished the last part of our artists’ book, Prattle, scoop, trembling: a flutter of Australian birds, without recognition of the fact; we finished it without fanfare. And this is as it should be, with one stage rolling into the next. This is but one part of the process. And so there was no cry of ‘yee-haw,’ no ceremonious last feather glued in place. In fact, what was the last step? Ah, yes, the cutting down and subsequent pressing of the twenty text pages still gently curled from their hot print roll. As finales go, this was perhaps fitting. First came the collage, followed by the drawings, and finally the words, which thread it all together. Beneath the resting wing of a red Solander box, three linked components of a whole.

Working from home, much of the making of this book has been shared on instagram. Working from home, all of the making of this book has been an exercise in squirreling; Lenni is still learning to be a studio cat and, like all cats, he likes to bat objects from the table to the floor with a tap, tap, tap (crash!) of the paw. As such, we’d not seen the work in its entirety. We’d seen components, not unlike those squared views, and we’d pieced them together in our heads. Until yesterday, that is. Yesterday, we took our book wrapped in its cardboard box transportation nest to the State Library of Victoria for an airing. Yesterday, it dawned upon us both, our book was completed. Enter phase two, where, from a place of remove, one must be able to talk about the work. You are no longer working on a book about Australian birds, you have finished a book about Australian birds. And before things flip to, ‘what’s next?,’ just what is it we two have made.

Prattle, scoop, trembling: a flutter of Australian birds began in response to a handsome series of cabinet cards acquired from our beloved secret source. The original cards were from one woman’s collection. She had a penchant for fashion, and so her collection featured the full figure in the photographs. No head shots, all bustle. To split her collection seemed wrong, and so, following the train of our previous artists’ book, Closer to Natural, we decided to make a work where the collages played leader and set the composition for the drawings. A Painted buttonquail (Turnix varius) upon a garden plinth in the top left of a collage meant that it would need to be in the same spot in the drawing. And so the pencilled buttonquail appears contemplating crossing a stream to the foreground. Without the figure, the birds have more wing space, but they are still tethered by the rules set by the collage, and by the landscape they have been given. Upon closer look, the Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) appears to have a domestic garden setting for a backcloth. Closer to natural, but not quite, this wilderness is tame. As our pockets of wild grow smaller and smaller, how greedy and thoughtless, the human animal.

Cabinet cards, as name suggests, were suitable for displaying upon the cabinet, and to ours, we’ve added new winged (and suitable, beautiful) inhabitants. This time, our Salvaged Relatives are not in the borrowed threads of the Ballet Russes, but with nature domesticated and brought indoors. From Superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) to Brown falcon (Falco berigora), the indoor garden is house-trained not fierce.

Seeing all fifty pages in one swoop at the library was a real thrill. Seeing the work removed from our own domesticated studio setting, we saw it anew and not just whole. We were no longer looking for typos within the text, raised beaks in the collages, thin patches in the hand-painted gold sides, or foliage to deepen tonally, we were looking at something done. Pencils down.

From here we are looking forward to installing or rather, releasing into the wild of the gallery, the book at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, as part of their forthcoming celebration of the bird in Australian art. Alongside our print, Underneath Soane's 'star-fish' ceiling, the library at No. 12 proved anything but quiet, we have really enjoyed making work for this exhibition. (The original collage was created especially for the Creating and Collecting: Artists' Books in Australia issue of the State Library of Victoria's La Trobe Journal (No. 95, March 2015), guest edited by Des Cowley, Robert Heather, and Anna Welch.)

After the exhibition, near summer’s close, Prattle, scoop, trembling will fly to its new nest in Mackay. We are delighted that this artists’ book has been acquired by Artspace Mackay. It will go on display in the front gallery alongside other works in their permanent collection. Artspace Mackay also recently acquired our artists’ book, Closer to Natural, when it was on display as part of the 2016 Libris Awards.

Though for me, collage and the written word are arguably more compliant than the spoken word, Louise and I will be on the radio tomorrow, talking about our bird book. Tune in to Arts Weekly on 3MBS (Saturdays 10am – 11am) to hear more.

 
 

Birds: Flight paths in Australian art
2nd December, 2016 – 12th February, 2017
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Civic Reserve, 350 Dunns Road (corner of Mornington-Tyabb Road and Dunns Road), Mornington, Victoria

 

Image credit: Queens Reading Room, Melbourne Public Library by Barnett Johnstone (1832–1910), signed in lower right, 'Btt Johnstone Photogr.' Notes: "The Trustees invoice for 15 photographs, 1 stereograph and two frames for £16.10.0, is dated 25 May 1859. The south wing which with the central part of the Library formed the Queen's Hall was officially opened on 24 May 1859. It is most likley that the interior photographs were taken either on that day or the day after." (State Library of Victoria)