POPPET-HEADS, PLATFORMS, AND A DESCENT

Jorge Luis Borges begins his essay ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1941) with a critical evaluation of the ‘visible lifework’ of the early twentieth-century avant-garde writer Pierre Menard. He then turns to Menard’s more important ‘invisible’ work. This ‘interminably heroic production’ consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter. According to Borges, Menard dedicated his life to writing ‘a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.’ [1] This aim required Menard to convert to Catholicism, study seventeenth-century Spanish for many years, attempt to forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918, and fight against ‘the Moor or the Turk’. [2] In short, Menard aimed to literally become Cervantes so as to write the Quixote, not another Quixote, nor a simple copy or transcription.

Stephen Garrett’s project is not unlike Pierre Menard’s. The Poverty Gully Project is a ironbark timber poppet-head, designed and built by the artist for the purpose of lowering himself into a disused nineteenth-century mineshaft on the goldfields near Castlemaine in Victoria. A poppet-head (or ‘tipple’ as it is called in the United States) is the frame at the top of a mineshaft to which pulleys and ropes are attached. In the nineteenth century these makeshift structures were usually roughly constructed from wood. Few, if any, early poppet-heads survive, but contemporary photographs, such as Richard Daintree’s Mineshaft at Quarry, Victorian Diggings (1861), depict them stalking the goldfields.

Richard Daintree’s Mineshaft at Quarry, Victorian Diggings (1861)

Poppet-heads are an integral feature of the landscape of nineteenth-century mining, both here and abroad. The best-known examples, at least to art audiences, are probably the Pennsylvania coal mine tipples that Bernd and Hilla Becher systematically photographed in the 1980s.[3] Their photographs document the evolution of the simple wooden tipple into a large, industrial structural type. It is no coincidence that as a child Garrett frequently played on the decommissioned West Wallsend Colliery Poppet Head near his home in Newcastle, an imposing steel structure that closely resembles those depicted by the Bechers. Garrett’s Monument is therefore triply allusive: it revives the simple equipment of nineteenth-century Australian mining, it refers to a post-war art historical tradition, and it recalls a childhood memory.

The Poverty Gully Project also reflects Garrett’s long-standing interest in the apparatus of sculptural practice. The simple wooden platform that Auguste Rodin erected in his garden at Meudon to judge the effect of The Burghers of Calais (1889) when elevated, for example, has something in common with the Victorian poppet-head depicted in Daintree’s photograph. Both were intended as functional, supplementary structures, practical tools rather than aesthetic objects in their own right.

Garrett’s structure is, like the nineteenth-century poppet-head, a unique, if rudimentary and ad hoc response to the exigencies of local conditions and topography. It is a site-specific machine designed for a single, unrepeatable purpose. The Poverty Gully Project thus extends Garrett’s own practice, which for some time has been determined by the idiosyncratic conditions of specific sites as well as their measurement. [4] Garrett’s Project is also suggestive of his long-standing interest in elemental substances and materials, many of which require excavation, such as salt and gold. [5]

Victorian poppet-heads, Pennsylvanian tipples and Rodin’s platform are all ‘parerga’ in the sense that they are the subsidiary and forsaken byproducts of a larger project. In the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s definition, a parergon is ‘neither work (ergon) nor outside the work [hors d’oeuvre], neither inside or outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work’. [6] The parergon’s condition is one of effacement. When one looks at a painting, for example, the frame might seem to belong to the painting’s exterior (the wall). However, if one looks at the wall, the frame is more likely to be understood as belonging to the painting. Frames, as parerga, thus occupy a liminal, nearly invisible space—or interstice between spaces—never quite attaining visibility or identity.

 Through the process of duplicating and exhibiting what was a functional, contingent structure Garrett accomplishes something similar to the Bechers. His poppet-head becomes a kind of ‘anonymous sculpture’ as in the Bechers’ photographs (which were quickly claimed for Minimalism). As Charles B. Wright writes in his foreword to the book Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples (1991): ‘For most of us, the rudimentariness of the tipples’ construction makes them particularly close to forms of individual expression. The tipples have an aura about them like craft, or art’. [7] That may be so, but what Wright calls ‘aura’ requires an aesthetic vision or artistic agency. Prior to the Bechers’ documentation of the Pennsylvania tipples they were unnoticed and relatively unknown—the defunct equipment of a redundant industry. The same point might be made about Garrett’s construction of a poppet-head. There is an equivalency between the reductive monochrome photographs of the Bechers and Garrett’s wooden structure. In both instances, a ‘parergonal’ structure is transfigured and made visible.

Garrett’s Structure is, finally, the record of a physical act. Like its nineteenth-century prototypes, the structure had to be capable of supporting Garrett’s body weight. It also needed to be rigged in such a way that he would be able to safely lower himself into a mineshaft. The structure is in the first instance, therefore, a work of simple engineering or technology before it is a work of art. Its simplicity should not, however, obscure the fact that Garrett’s personal safety depended on the efficacy of his design. The mineshaft is well over thirty metres deep.

 Just as the final ‘transfigured’ wooden Structure alludes, not only to the history of technology and mining, but also to art historical precedent—from Rodin to Becher—so too does Garrett’s physical descent invoke the long history of real and imagined descents into the earth, besides those of miners. Ovid’s account of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, medieval notions about the subterranean location of Hell, or the seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher’s investigation of the crater of Vesuvius (he had himself lowered by rope into the active volcano) provide three among many possible examples. Jules Verne’s science fiction novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) is, of course, contemporaneous with the diggings depicted in Daintree’s photograph.

Borges (fortuitously) describes Menard’s achievement as a ‘subterranean’ one. According to him, it is a ‘revelation’ to compare Cervantes’s text with Menard’s. The latter’s style, for instance, seems perversely archaic. More importantly, however, their respective texts, although superficially identical, are radically different in meaning. Cervantes’s statement ‘…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and the future’s counselor’ is a mere platitude. In Menard’s text, however, the idea is ‘staggering’. For Borges: ‘Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened’.[8]

Although Garrett may not have followed Menard’s exacting method to the letter—he makes no attempt to become an historical digger—The Poverty Gully Project might be said to coincide with its source in much the same way that Menard’s few laborious pages coincide with Don Quixote. Garrett’s structure is, like its predecessors, a unique solution to a site-specific problem.

Yet it is not a copy. Today the image of the poppet-head and the mineshaft may provoke a quite different, even more troubled response, than it would have in Daintree’s period. We live in an era of anxiety about what was described in a landmark exhibition of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs at George Eastman House in Rochester as ‘New Topographics…Man-Altered Landscape’ (1975). The open mineshaft that Garrett chose for his descent is located in the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, a tourist landscape, but one that is pockmarked with the scars and detritus of its nineteenth-century exploitation. The anthropomorphic poppet-heads of Daintree’s photograph may, from this perspective, begin to seem more like an advance party than benign curiosities from the history of technology.

Luke MorganMelbourne, September 2012

[Download Original Exhibition Catalogue here]

[1] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), 90.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] See Bernd and Hilla Becher, Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1991), and Bernd and Hilla Becher, Mineheads (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 1997).

[4] See, for example, his exhibitions Experiment For Better Living (#4), Newcastle Region Gallery, Newcastle, 2004, and Room, Cast Gallery, Hobart, 2008.

[5] Untitled (2007), for example, was a block of compressed salt that corresponded to Garrett’s bodily dimensions. Strata (2007) was a similar block, this time corresponding to Garrett’s body weight. The former was shown at Area Gallery, Melbourne, and the latter in the exhibition The Raw and the Cooked at Blindside, Melbourne, both in 2007. Garrett’s collaboration with the French artist Marie Jeanne Hoffner has focused on gold rather than salt. Their joint works include Goldrush (Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2009), and After the Goldrush (Espace Art Contemporain, La Rochelle, 2009).

[6] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. G. Bennington and I. McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 9.

[7] Charles B. Wright, ‘Foreword’, in Becher, Tipples, 7.

[8] Borges, ‘Menard’, 94.

© Luke Morgan 2012  

The Poverty Gully Project was kindly funded through Arts Victoria