Jack Mac (and the homelessness of Ocean wealth)
Jack Mac, as she is known amidst friends, is an artist who now lives with her two boys, dogs and partner, high on a Tasmanian hill surrounded by forest. She is hard to find, enclosed by red gums, and hard to make visible, as she doesn’t display herself in her work. Her work quietly but persistently responds to a complex world by examining others: others leftovers, their marks, their lullabies, their memories. What she shows in her work is the lives of others as seen, heard and felt by her, but she remains behind her trees.
When I met her at art school in Melbourne she was breaking bottles and gluing them back together again. To me the reassembled bottles looked so much like transparent versions of our most fragile selves, so broken and fixed, with fault lines and cracks both precarious and telling, histories and damage resplendent and futures uncertain and delicate.
“The bottles… Ah the bottles. This was a painstaking process that involved breaking about 80 bottles (very carefully and one at a time) and reconstructing them to their original shape give or take a few pieces that wouldn’t fit. This took months to do and the final result was 80 cracked vessels of varying shapes and sizes grouped on glass shelves. Each had their own unique shape and to me they looked like fractured but beautiful little people some with holes some without, some very elegant and some very plain, some comical and some serious. I also made a film of the bottles spinning on the air pre breakage, during breakage and also filmed the glassy shadow play at work when the bottle spins.”
One of her most recent works is a large piece called Ocean of Wealth.
“The oceans artwork came about as a result of wanting to explore peoples perceptions of their memories and reflections on their past. People who had lived to an old age who had seen so much change on every possible level in their life times, were have they come from? What have they seen?
From a questionnaire they recounted there memories from early childhood to now and hand wrote them on to normal lined paper before transcribing the same text onto large strips of paper. It seemed fitting that this should be somehow married to the idea of a body of water and from these ‘memory strips’ the artwork evolved.
I was most struck by the calibre of handwriting and of course all the variation that existed between the writers. One lady in her 90s had the most beautiful and perfect cursive handwriting while others were so faint and shaky and barely there. Some people had very clear recollections while others were on the brink of dementia. One lady also in her 90s had only one memory of being a young girl and riding her bike to the dance many miles away with her fancy frock in a backpack so it would be clean on arrival for the dance. Her writing was fragile, shaky and barely there but it was the most special and exquisite piece of writing. Not long after, this memory ceased to exist as she increasingly became lost to dementia
There is no doubt that when viewing this work you get a sense of the fleeting poignancy of memory as evoked by the shaky and almost historical handwriting, and then also by the fragments or phrases of words themselves.
These strips seem like ribbons of thought that are in peril of being submerged back into time, and lying one on top of the other they suggest the haphazard and fragile nature of memory, the passing of time, the passing of experience and the strange floating sense of all this as felt, held and lost by those who are where we will one day be, towards the end of life. I found myself feeling indescribably sad and touched as I stood in front of this work. Is this what our lives amount to? This ungrounded fragment of memory? It is a call to live now, because of the way it reminds us not only how very soon now will be gone but also how very gone now will be.
It is a work that would speak to anyone, and yet, or perhaps as a result of this, and of its wondrous humanity, the work is now lying in bubble wrap In Jack Mac’s son’s bedroom. I have to wonder out loud why? Why has it not found a more salubrious home where it can be seen and experienced by everyone? Is it because as a work that is made out of the words and writing of old people, of community, it isn’t valued as an artwork? Or is it because there is an established route, (through reputable galleries in large cities,) that a work and artist takes to find its place and this path isn’t always one an artist wants or is able to take, particularly if they live in a remote corner of the world surrounded by tall trees. I am sure a lot has been written about what makes art art and I don’t propose to add to the canon, but it does seem that art is anything as long as it is seen as issuing from an artist and it is only once you have garnered this title that almost anything goes, and until you do, it’s best to stick to landscapes etc
And make sure that they will fit on walls.
“This artwork is substantial in size and a good example of the conundrum that can often accompany this way of working. It toured the libraries of Hobart and has since been in my son’s bedroom in bubble wrap. It is an artwork that has been offered to numerous institutions but as yet is still homeless, despite it reaching people on an emotional and fairly poignant level when it was displayed.”
Reasons given by the numerous institutions were
“It’s too big? Who are they? Is it community art? Is it contemporary? Who are you? It doesn’t fit policy guidelines. Who owns it? We don’t allow things on the walls. We are not collecting this kind of thing at the moment. Or no response. Effectively I can’t give it away?”
It appears institutions are afraid or not interested in what they can’t own, calibrate, name, fit into policy, or fit on their walls. And yet it strikes me that this is exactly what art is, something that cant be named, that wont fit, that wont be designed because instead it’s a vital response to exactly what is uncertain, and unfathomable in life. Why should it matter who made a work? Do we care which cave man painted his caves when we consider the value of that work?
With only piece meal funding and no interest in marketing, Jack Mac emerged from the Victorian College of the Arts to commence on a long, financially unsupported history of work which evolved as a real and vital ongoing engagement with the girt and heart of life, work and people. Her work may be slow, quiet, meaningful and entirely unpromoted and uncommercial, but it has been a nonetheless constant and dedicated practice.
“My artistic transition over the years went from discovering, documenting and interpreting that which already existed in terms of detritus from my immediate material world….”
Images from Kaleidescopes made with floor scrapings, dirt and grot from studio.
“….to working with peoples ‘leftovers’ from my own community….”
Telephone marks: leftovers from a shared house
‘The Marks held a potent raw material about what can unconsciously come from the human hand and what that can say about someone. They seemed to encapsulate a particular energy and even the temperament of the person who made them. Some were quick and careless, others careful, there were marks that were lovely, neat, messy, elegant, random, bold, sensitive and considered . I loved that each of these little marks represented a human exchange, a conversation between two people or whatever transpired when that mark was made.”
This then lead to exploring and working with images from my own history.
Snap Happy. Recycled portraits of self featuring eyes and mouth.
“It is after all a shot of joy when one smiles for the camera but the eyes on the other hand seem to speak of a much deeper truth ranging from sadness to fear to boredom to joy( depending on what was happening in my life at the time)”
Looking at camera
Smiling for the camera
Eye piece: Family snaps through the lens of a microscope
“A fathers watch, the side of his glasses, a distant dog running on the beach, a number on a letter box, my sisters bendy back knees, fathers hand, his tattoo, a floral pattern from a frock, buckles on patent leather shoes, the bellows of an accordion , a light shade, a glass of beer, a packet of Rothmans cigarettes, my hand , a man’s tie, a milk jug, dog paws, favourite dress, phone book, my knees…”
Even reading this description of the details reads to me like a poem, or like a catalogue of the telling details of a story, a life… Here memory is magnified, stripped bare, frozen.
“Now I am exploring what is going on for others and what it can reveal about us as human beings.”
Jack’s interest in human beings is very apparent and engaging. She is amused, touched and intrigued by the various versions of human that the world delivers. In working with them she validates and allows the strange originality, intent or common humanity of their experience by reframing those experiences and giving them a place.
“I first saw Graham 5 years ago outside the art space at Cosmos. He was standing holding up a flag and seemed to be intently observing how the wind was making it flutter. At other times he was raking up the leaves as they blew around the garden, which given that it was autumn seemed like an endless task but he seemed more interested in the movement of the leaves.
One day Graham came in and I asked him if he ever liked to draw? He replied that he could show me some of the study he was doing. He got out a large piece of paper and proceeded to draw his ‘Ps’. His hand was shaky, but he concentrated and persisted until the whole page was full up with his Ps. At first I thought that each P was more or less the same but on closer inspection I discovered that each P was slightly different. The Ps were Graham’s version of handwriting and each one was different to the next.
Graham’s ability to engage in drawing his ‘Ps’ over and over again with such care and determination struck me as really quite amazing. His patience, his skill and his absolute belief in the importance of the Ps was really inspiring.
When the possibility to work with an artist with a disability arose 5 years later I immediately thought “I want to work with the man that draws those Ps” and the good news is that he wanted to work with me, so together we started exploring the ‘Ps’.
“Graham’s hands are wrinkled with fine brown skin and delicate bony fingers. His hand is very shaky which at times bothers him but it doesn’t deter him from his ‘P’ study. Sometimes his hand would eventually ache which meant downing tools and having a cuppa and cake. He would either call it a day or resume after a break. He knew when he’d had enough but his capacity to keep going never ceased to amaze me.”
The P Chair
“Finally at the opening the P chair was set up in front of the P movie playing on the telly in front of the P picture on the wall. In the spirit of reverence to Art and art gallery etiquette no one dared to sit on the P Chair. No one that is until Graham arrived and marched straight over to it and sat himself down on it. It fitted him perfectly and he held court from this spot for the duration of the opening as people approached him to ask him about his ‘P’S or rather his ‘study’. He reminded me of a king.”
“Graemes P’s are beautiful, lyrical, frail, shaky, ephemeral, determined, present, knowing, compulsive, authentic, heartfelt, beautiful, and truly unique.”
“ Now I find myself exploring and documenting what exists for others and interpreting this on a level that encompasses an almost scientific process of evaluation before becoming an artwork. I am seeking to find what is authentic and inherently good in people beyond what is expected of them or prescribed for them and how this can translate into an artwork. What is there? What is free? What is trapped, tempered? Quashed? What form does it take? Who are they? Who am I? Why? I think at the end of the day I am super curious about us as human beings and always have been, perhaps even nosey. Why do we do what we do and why are we so slow to morally evolve and yet at evolving technologically. What’s missing and why? I think I’m trying to find the things that are missing or have been lost without really knowing what they are. “
What I find in Jack Mac’s work is a sense of that exploration, that willingness to enter into a process of discovery without really knowing where it may lead. There seems to me to be a lot of art that very cleverly knows itself, shows itself, but also closes meaning down. Jack’s work opens meaning up; it asks, it seeks, it suggests. Every question or aspect of humanity it explores is discovered and presented in a medium that arises out of authentic exploration, not out of design. Whether it be photographs, phone messages, glass, dust, handwriting, song…
“ I was aware of people seeking asylum in this country being persecuted by the media and in turn the larger part of the population. I was struck by how the media seemed to be manipulating a culture of fear and intolerance in the broader population and therefore wanted to find a connection between ‘us’ and ‘them’. What is us? What is ‘them’? Are we different are we the same? How does this manifest?
It was through facilitating a series of craft classes with women from refugee backgrounds that the idea for the artwork came into being. The women naturally sung while they sewed and through conversations the love for our children became the overarching commonality It became apparent that we all love our children and would do anything in the world to make them safe so from this the idea for the lullaby blankets was born.
Every culture in the world has a song that they sing to their babies and the women each sewed the words to these songs onto woollen strips, which I then made into baby blankets. The blankets depict a series of letters and in the case of the languages that have completely different characters, which to my eye look like a series of lines, dots and glorious squiggles.” Each blanket was accompanied by a translation and also a recording of the women singing their songs in their
home complete with dogs barking and kettles boiling in the background
Bhutanese lullaby in Nepalese
Ehiopian lullaby in Oromo
Each blanket was accompanied by a translation and also a recording of the women singing their songs in their
home complete with dogs barking and kettles boiling in the background”
Kuku lullaby from South Sudan (version from refugee camp)
Baby boy baby boy
hello baby, please be quiet
when your hunger is very painful
just lie down and sleep
better just lie down and sleep
lullaby sewn by
Jack Mac is not an oil painter, a water colourist, a sculptor, a media artist…. Her craft is exploration, engagement, discovery. She arms herself with uncertainty, curiosity, openness. Her art is what ever it is that arises out of that. There is something very alive, very vital, very responsive and very true about this. It also makes her work hard to sell and it makes her as an artist hard to place. Instead of responding to a market, an economy, a clever idea, the art world itself and its current aesthetic, her works respond to what it means to be alive.