Neil Roberts

Anderson, Nola, Brennan, Anne, Kenneally, Cath and Roberts, Neil,

The Plait, the Tatt and Baudelaire's Rope, catalogue essay, Adelaide: University of South Australia Art Museum, 1993.

Nola Anderson, Anne Brennan, Cath Kenneally and Neil Roberts

Artist’s preface

The structure of these essays needs some brief explanation. I wanted to instigate a process of writing that could parallel my process of working – that is, a search for connections and meanings across disparate objects and various territories. Each writer (in Adelaide, Canberra and Manila) was given a catalyst from which to write, each thing being for me an emblem of my early concerns or aspirations in the working (something about a hair plait; something about a tattoo; something about Baudelaire’s short story of 1869 called “The Rope”, in which a functional length of rope used in a suicide approaches the state of a fetish through being sold in short lengths as a macabre souvenir). Each writer was also asked to pass something of what they wrote along the chain of geographies and personal histories that existed (or, in some cases, did not exist) between us. Beyond this, the structure carried no predicted outcomes, as the work itself remains variously intended, and resolved or unresolved. My thanks to each of the writers for their efforts.

Neil Roberts

June 1993

The Plait

A hank of hair and a piece of bone.

What survives us? Scratchings on paper, debts, clothes, tools and utensils; children, for a while.

My cups and plates and crockery are mostly collected from the places where those things go to die or start a new life: ‘opportunity’ shops. (In French, ‘sale’ is occasion: your big chance.) Op-shop haunters want to meet ghosts. And not only to observe what survives but to have a hand in the process. Buying someone else’s former giant tea-cup is something you do, not just because you’ve always wanted one, but so as to be a link in the chain, a loop in the rope, a lock in the braid: to connect, rather than accumulate (though things do accumulate).

Connectedness is what little boys are supposed to unlearn – each man to be a self-forged miracle of erased and discarded origins. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. Object-relations theory for boys: Object to your relations.

Women tie up loose ends, pour oil on choppy waters, sew and spin, knit and weave. Men make other sorts of connections. They make ‘contacts’ in the out-there world you have to leave home (day after day) to live in. Men figure out connections: they wrest them from the unforthcoming phenomenological world, un-covering causality, revealing ‘laws’ of ‘nature’, boring through layers of mystery with the gimlet-gaze of the empiricist.

Once we bought the contents, sight-unseen except for a tantalizing glimpse through the dusty side-window, of a workshed on a ‘deceased estate’ outside Hobart…bottles and jars and tins of bluer-than-blue copper sulphate crystals, mace, gum arabic – and a set of tiny glass cylinders with cork stoppers full of ‘Fairy’ dyes. Names like ‘nigger-brown’, ‘saffron’, ‘fern’ and ‘rose’.

Our washing-machine was a hand-me-down, as well. An old Pope monster painted yellow and named Vostok II by Sean, whose new obsession was painting cloud-patterns over the Derwent from his living-room window. Vostok mixed dozens of already-recycled baby-clothes, singlets, Indian-cotton skirts and T-shirts with the Fairy colours; the dusty pinks and greens were the best.

My garden tools are from junk shops. The pitchfork has a lumpy iron tumour home-welded over a weak joing (but the sharpest, shiniest prongs).

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

- early egalitarian sentiments in a Middle English lyric.

But note that Adam digs and Eve weaves. So the story goes. Women actually do most of the digging as well as most of the other work in the world. Do politics drop away from objects left behind? Can dwelling lovingly on connections blind you to fractures, disruptions, divisions, forced alliances, mismatches?

My daughter has made me a book full of stick-on bits of yellow notepaper you lift to see drawings underneath: they all have labels such as ‘family’ (underneath: ‘Mum Dad girl boy baby’), ‘life’ (drawing of a heart, labeled ‘hart’), ‘love’ (another heart with ‘life’ inside), ‘home’ (a cup with a heart design and the word ‘tea’). She’s breathed in the Universal Instructions for Girls with the air – bonds, ties, kinship, nurturing; she’s busily braiding herself into the coils of connectedness as ‘naturally’ as I braid her hair every morning.

Actually, I had to learn how to do braids. And she had to learn the names of different knots and how to tie them when ‘home’ was only broken bits: blood. mess. waste. disiecta membra.

Wallace Stevens: ‘The waste remains. The waste remains and kills.’ Bitter residues. Poisonous dross. Congenital contamination.

But some kinds of leavings you can build new shelters from. Havens. Or monuments. Or both.

Cath Kenneally

Adelaide, 1993

The Tatt


It lies across my lap like a gun. It is big, as big as my thigh. It is a strongarm. There is a faint sharp smell of sweat. The hand lies palm upward on my right thigh. The hairs are long and reddish, the skin white. Almost in the crease of the elbow I see it, the irresistible point. It is a small brown nodule of flesh, connected to the forearm by a thready umbilicus. My finger nudges it. It wobbles, like a little button on a jacket. I take it between thumb and forefinger. It is soooo thin, that little thread of flesh. I twist it experimentally, anticipating a snap, like my mother breaking thread with her teeth. Suddenly, madly, desiring that break at all costs, I pull upward, hard. The arm jumps, the hand turns and slaps my thigh. I feel its heat through the cotton of my dress.


I have been given an image. Out of the darkness of the background a white form takes shape, a forearm disembodied. Between the twists and knottings of veins lies a mark, a few centimetres long, a braid, eternally winding and unravelling between the place where two pulses beat. It is a paradoxical image. The forearm is large, powerful and masculine, but its disembodiment, and the fact that we are looking at its soft white underbelly, so to speak, make it vulnerable, poignant. It is like the moment in seduction where you see it, something powerful blindly stretching itself out, allowing itself to be taken up, consumed.

And what of this mark? It is at once a braid, and its individual constituents, each inseparable from the other, continuously in a state of making and unmaking, echoing the ebb and flow of blood beneath the surface, in a constant reiteration of its own nature, a drawing indelibly inscribed on flesh, a drawing which chooses its own disclosure.


I have been left something which I had forgotten - a cane made of glass, a twisting spiral, hooked at the top like a bishop's crook, the spiral entrapping within it a perfect channel of air which gleams like mercury.

It had seemed the perfect joke for my father, this enchanting paradox of a toy, too fragile to carry out its function. It lay on the palms of his small neat hands, as he turned and admired the barley sugar twists. He wielded it all day, then put on his ambassadorial top hat, and tucked it under his arm in a pastiche of Fred Astaire.

My sister and I found it in a trunk, carefully wrapped in tissue. It was diminished somehow by my forgetting: a joke which had had its day. We made a kind of padded splint for it, and wrapped it in bubble plastic for its long trip home. It's amazing it's in one piece really.

Anne Brennan

Canberra, 1993

Baudelaire’s Rope

I also know a story. It is about an artist and a shovel. I will relate the story exactly as it was told to me, so that you can judge for yourself whether we have been cheated. I have seen the shovel and I have seen the artist, although neither are now in this country, and I will set down the facts as I know them to be.

The artist had traveled to this country to seek out its people and the things that made the land different to his own.

Each day he would set out along the city streets looking for objects. (This was his practice, to select objects that held for him the secrets of the land. Some of the younger ones had seen this done before and those of us who were older could grasp the concept since we knew about transformations of different kinds).

After a few weeks of collecting there was one thing that he still lacked. I don’t know why he had at first wanted a shovel, although as this is a city of labourers the shovel is as fitting a symbol of resilient effort as could be found. I had thought the broom would be better, and he had indeed collected sixteen of those, but he was intent on having the shovel as well.

According to the artist’s rules the shovel had to be an old one and it had to have been honestly used. We could have told him that this represented just about any shovel in the country, since this a land of poor people who can never buy shovels and who certainly never throw them away. (For this reason a shovel never loses its value). The acquisition of such a shovel would be difficult.

The artist used an interpreter. He knew that anyone trying to disarm a labourer of his tools would undoubtedly be met with suspicion. His plan was to offer a swap, a new shovel for an old.

The bargaining did not go well. From the first it was evident that the artist saw more value in the old shovel than was at first apparent to the labourers. If both shovels did the job, then both should have been valued the same. It was a trick. On the other hand, the chance of gaining a new shovel was not to be squandered, and on face value it did appear to be a normal shovel. The foreman was called, since none of the labourers would take either credit for the deal or responsibility for the fraud, whichever it was to be.

I do know that the shovels were eventually exchanged. I have seen the artist’s shovel. It was in an exhibition in this city. A number of other people saw it too, and some read of it in the newspapers. It could have been sold for a great deal of money. But I saw that the artist had added his own design to the shovel which would have made it useless anyway.

So I ask you, who was tricked? The labourers, the artist or us? I have argued that no-one here would have bought the artist’s shovel, and people in the other countries always buy new shovels. Who’s to know? I’ve kept the new shovel, just in case.

Nola Anderson

Manila, 1993

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