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Words Lachy McKenzie
Photography James Tolich

Museum selects five books to read now

Advice for bibliophiles.

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Baldessari sings LeWitt by Troom Tragel

It’s tempting to view Baldessari sings LeWitt as the juncture of two giants of the conceptual art world—their names leap from the marine blue cover promising all sorts of depths of genius. Indeed, Sol LeWitt’s presence strings itself over Sydney in the form of an enormous installation paired with the grand foyer of Harry Seidler’s Australia Square building.

When you listen to the performance however, you find something quite different. Baldessari sets LeWitt’s carefully contemplated artistic vision from 35 Sentences on Conceptual Art against his own po-faced, poorly sung renditions of traditional American songs. He even interjects with a “doo-dah” when singing along to Camptown Races. The aim is to conflate the academic and conceptual with the popular and intuitive—by no means to positive effect.

While he claims this is done as a tribute to “bring these sentences to a much larger public,” Baldessari’s ironic rendition feels at once an irreverent homage and a loving piss-take. This songbook of the performance double-dares you to sit down at the piano you don’t have, gather an audience you never invited and perform your own version of this awkward artwork—knowing full well you never will. As Baldessari sings (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne): “For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.” Like so much Baldessari, it is a wry record, aware of its own futility.

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Muttering for the Sake of Stars by Jon Roffe

This 2012 collection from Melbourne philosopher (and occasional poet) Jon Roffe collects the lost fragments of thought that sieve through even the best-trained mind, as well as the bold aphoristic declarations we make in an attempt to reclaim them.

Wrought by insomnia and alcoholism, philosophy as perceived of by Roffe is difficult, not only in terms of content, but also as way of trying to live. Philosophy goes out of its way to manufacture the problems it then seeks, and fails, to resolve. For Roffe, “consciousness [is] the hangover of nature” and physical hangovers are manifestations of “your neurosis moved up from your soul and into your body.” It might be better to think less, or nothing at all, but that is seldom conceivable. Because of this, Roffe seems unwillingly thrust into dialogue with himself, and his tragedy becomes our uncomfortable comedy.

Delightfully pessimistic, remarkably quotable, and enjoyable in spite of itself, Roffe’s little blue book succeeds in presenting what he might call: “a rigorous analysis of the sigh.” Brief, exasperated, cathartic, and contagious.

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Wank Bank by Rural Ranga

Earlier this year the artist and memoirist Rural Ranga held a Wank Bank masterclass, an insight into the art of wanking (yourself or others) by a trained Taoist genital masseuse. He was imparting the skills he put to good use in New York, having quit a low-paying MoMA job and started giving happy endings to support himself. His soft-cover book, Wank Bank, is proudly “100% made and financed by flicks of [his] wrist.”

The beauty of this “tell-all memoir” is, surprisingly, in its concision. Ranga does not go into every event in lurid depth. Instead, clipped prose and a meticulous eye for important details sees tender and terrible experiences alike summised in neat paragraphs. He describes a couple as having “matching zits of their butts,” a man as having a penis “like a hungry little caterpillar.” There is a matter-of-factness to both his drawing and writing style that seems more convivial than taciturn. Amazingly, even the horrible experiences (and there were some horrors: “a rotting smell came from the folds of their flesh”) are drawn with a clean, kind and emotionally-honest line.

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HOW TO BE A PERFORMANCE ARTIST (THE ULTIMATE GET RICH QUICK GUIDE) by Roslyn Helper

Roslyn Helper is all about the money. Not just for herself, she wants to help you get excessively, unethically rich as well. Her inverted pyramid scheme HOW TO BE A PERFORMANCE ARTIST (THE ULTIMATE GET RICH QUICK GUIDE) is a virtual guarantee to make you (at least) $75,000 per annum in the hard-to-navigate culture of performance art. If you need any more proof merely refer to the stacks of $1 bills on the front cover, or the three dollar-signs on the rear that serve as a suitable blurb.

Helper is co-founder and co-directed of zin, a performance art duo based in Sydney, who were recently selected for the élite residency program of Marina Abramović on her 2015 papal tour. With references like these she has no enemies, only “haters,” who are covetous of her imminent promotion to CEO of her own soul.

Her book, complete with step-by-step business plans, comforting advice (“allowing you to have ideas without the guilt of having had them”), and commendations will help you be more than the best you can be: “you could be the next Richard and Maurice McDonald.” That’s two very rich people. As Abramović famously chants:

An artist should not make themselves into an idol.
An artist should not make themselves into an idol.
An artist should not make themselves into an idol.

An artist should make herself money. The rest, idolatry included, takes care of itself. That is, of course, if the contemporary artist-as-product can possibly self-brand.

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Not my blotting tissues by Tim Moore

Beginning with the title, Tim Moore tries to distance himself from the artwork in his book. Even his name is obscured, folded across the spine. The delicate tissues that make up the volume—a single, disposable square per page—belong to him only in the sense of collection. They were initially the waste product from his time served as assistant to Del Kathryn Barton, where they were used to blot the watercolours of her paintings. Moore says he found them “surprisingly beautiful” and hoped to preserve them as a gift for her, and some of that personal affection remains in what would otherwise be artistic flotsam.

The tissues themselves are part afterimage, conjuring up what work they may have spawned from, and part Rorschach test, enticing some sort of closer personal reflection. The photocopied layout, designed by Mark Gowing, accentuates the topographical landscape suggested by the crinkles and creases, a landscape sometimes stark, and sometimes surprisingly violent. Perhaps, in belonging to no one, in lacking intentionality, they open themselves up to interpretative play.


All books listed were found by the author at Volume: Another Art Book Fair, held at Artspace, Sydney this year.

Lachy McKenzie is a writer, researcher and editor from Melbourne. He is currently undertaking a PhD on contemporary poetics, a chapbook on inconsistency, a series on the weather in 2204 and other incompletable projects.

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