Art-talk with Rob Harle: A Long Literary Interview

by Sunil Sharma

Art-talk with Rob Harle:  Leading Australian artist-thinker-philosopher Rob Harle, much toasted these days by the Indian literati, gives his take on contemporary global cultural scene in this long literary interview.

Q: Rob Harle, a work in progress. Its essential aspects, please?

I am a writer, artist and academic reviewer. Writing work includes poetry, short fiction, academic essays and reviews of scholarly books and papers. This work is published in journals, anthologies, online reviews, books and I have two volumes of my own poetry published – Scratches & Deeper Wounds (1996) and Mechanisms of Desire (2012). Recent poetry has been published in Rupkatha Journal (Kolkata), Nimbin Good Times (Nimbin), Beyond The Rainbow (Nimbin), Poetic Connections Anthology (2013) and Indo-Australian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2013). My art practice currently involves digital-computer art both for the web and print. The giclée images have been exhibited widely.

I am especially interested in promoting the inclusion of visual art in academic and scientific journals. Formal studies include Comparative Religion, Philosophy, Architecture, Literature and Psychotherapy, my thesis concerned Freud's notion of the subconscious and its relationship with Surrealist poetry. My main concern is to explore and document the radical changes technology is bringing about. I coined the term techno-metamorphosis to describe this. I am currently an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel, Editorial reviewer for the Journal of Virtual World Research and an Advising Editor for the Journal of Trans-technology Research.

Rather than take up a lot of space here, I would ask those interested to look at my website as I have arranged this, so as to show factually what I have done: my sculpture, my digital artwork, my literary and other publications, my reviews and my academic studies and peer reviewed publications.

Q: Rob Harle in 100 words for those who do not trust blurbs.

Rob Harle is a gullible, easy going, long suffering decent human being. I dream of a world with no wars, no locks on doors, sustainability practices, no poverty and healthy competition to bring out the best in people. I don't suffer fools easily, I have a very short fuse and I'm always in a hurry, my mantra, “I'm late, I'm late for a very important date!”  This is partly to do with being ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and strangely dyslexic all my life. They didn't have special schools when I was kid – that would have been wonderful. I have achieved a huge amount in my 65 years against some very difficult odds which I'm not going to discuss, and this has happened with little or no help from anyone except from my poor long suffering wife. Very recently Leonardo, especially Michael Punt, and a few Indian friends and associates have believed I have something to offer, for which I am very, very grateful, if this sounds egotistical its not my intention but it is a fact.

Q: Your definition of book covers?

Book covers can be uninspired adequate works of graphic art or they can really capture the essence of the contents and enhance it. I try in the book covers I do to make a work of fine art that is attractive to buyers but also adds to the books subject matter and is a delight as a stand-alone artwork.

Q: Why this sudden rage in India for your book covers?

I don't really know, perhaps because of what I said above comes through to India writers and they like the unique non-standard approach I use. One person commented on Ratan Bhattacharjee's cover, very unusual, much different to other book covers, wonderful!

Q: A lot of writers are falling in love with you. Reasons?

This is a bit embarrassing for a recluse, hiding in the forest and hills of Nimbin. Perhaps I'm honest; I call a spade a spade. My work, art and writing, is not a clone of someone else’s, perhaps they find a refreshing originality in it. I'm a radical, forward thinker breaking new ground in certain areas. Also I'm an easy going friendly person, (with no racial, sexist etc. hang-ups) until someone tries to manipulate me or tell me what to do. Perhaps this comes through?

Q: Art-exhibitions are circuses according to you. Circuses at least provide some wholesome entertainment by low-paid but dedicated artists. This is not so in these exhibitions. What repels you in such a tamasha?

Slight correction here - I refer to the whole art scene as a circus not specifically exhibitions. Yes the visitors to a circus or art exhibition get some value, entertainment and cultural enhancement. I use the term art circus and also literary circus in the most derogatory colloquial sense of a pathetic freak show. This includes the attempt to commodify art/poetry/fiction writing by the crass art dealers who in my opinion occupy the lowest rung of the food chain, even lower than used-car sales people and politicians. Gallery owners tell artists what colours are “in” this season – so, go home and change your paintings then come back and I might condescend to hang them but I do take 60% commission. Ever notice how art dealers all drive the latest prestige cars and artists drive old bombs! One of these art dealers, with a latest model Mercedes Benz sports car, after reluctantly praising a 2.5 metre high sandstone sculpture I had just finished said, “I much prefer dealing with dead artists than you live artists.” People have been shot dead on the spot for less disgusting statements than this!

Q: What is more appealing: Poetry or painting for you?

Both equally. I'm concentrating on writing poetry now, I've actually overcome the stigma that is held by most Australians towards poets which I've endured since a child. To some not familiar with the cultural Wasteland of Australia this probably sounds farfetched, it's not! It's always been the same, only last night I was reading in Donald Friend's Diaries about the dismal art scene in Australia in the late 70s. The exodus of Australian artists overseas earlier than this doesn't need expanding. The point is that one can't just keep stacking paintings under the bed, apart from the cost of producing them it is very depressing. So at least with poetry one can write thousands of poems without much material costs to satisfy the creative obsession.

Q: Your take on poetry?

Poetry is a special form of using words, not at all like other writing, if a poem reads like a newspaper article it's an abject failure. As Charles Simic says, may I quote? “This is what haunts, a world where magic is possible, where chance reigns, where metaphors have their supreme logic, where imagination is free and truthful.”

Q: Your take on painting?

Painting is more difficult to talk about briefly. It runs the whole gamut from minimalist abstraction to photo realist maximalist works. For me the essence of good painting is that there must be a palpable sense of the artist in the paint so to speak, to the sensitive eye this is very obvious, some paintings are good but lack the sort of  kinetic energy that exudes from great paintings.

Q: What is a review? An art? Or, a medium to promote mediocre friends?

Good question. Both! Some reviews are purely sycophantic tripe. Probably effective, useful promotional material but non-critical and sycophantic none the less. Other reviews can be divided into two types - basic reviews and critical reviews.  Many book reviews I do for Leonardo are basic reviews, they describe the book accurately, talk about the author's intentions, point out ways the book could be better with brief critical comments. The idea is to give the prospective buyer a true accurate description of the book as opposed to the nepotistic blurb on the back cover, these reviews usually run to 1000 words. Critical reviews describe the book as above but then go on to discuss the actual content of the book in a scholarly, critical way these reviews are generally longer perhaps 2 -3,000 words. A good review of either type is an art form. I have colleagues who sprout about a formula for writing a review most of their reviews are boring and inadequate.

Q: In many cases, reviewers fail to see an avant-garde piece and often pan the writers for being bold iconoclast. History proves them wrong?

Reviewers are subject to the same ego-inflation and pseudo-superiority as everyone else, they should learn to curb this subjective approach and become more objective but many don't. Today’s avant-garde is tomorrow’s standard museum piece. Very few have escaped this fate, even the Dadaists and surrealists. Certain highly anti-art art on the net may escape this fate, but some galleries/museums are now developing ways of suburbanising even this. Also some reviewers/critics are failed artists/writers themselves and so are highly jealous that others are standing tall (tall poppies) so because of their position of power try to bring them down to size.

Q: Why fantasy in West being promoted in such a big way, especially in USA and UK?

Don't know much about fantasy so all I can say is humans have always wanted to escape from this wretched reality and now media-driven-hopelessness so escape into fantasy film, writing or art is a way of psychological survival.

Q: Why Aussies, like us Indians, hate poets?

Because poets see further and deeper into the nature of existence than the average person. Aussies don't so much hate poets but think they are a bad joke and they should do something worthwhile like chasing a little ball around a paddock (golf, cricket, soccer, football, baseball). I thought that Indian culture generally respected their poets and artists, from my experience they do much more than Australians. An interesting quote may help, “The people live in an abyss, the poet lives on the mountain top – to the people there is no mystery of colour. The poet ever strives to save the people, the people ever strive to destroy the poet.” (Anon)

Q: Short fiction, does it excite you?

No! I very rarely read a short fiction story that “bends me out of shape”. I feel the whole idea of short fiction needs an overhaul. Some young writers in my area are doing this by combining multi-media into the story - images, audio, writing, mash-ups and so on - go the younger generation. Even my own shorts, some of which are good examples of short story writing are basically – yawn, yawn!

Q: Your favourite music?

Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison (1985 on)

Q: Favourite food?

Fresh seafood, especially oysters and prawns. Indian and Malaysian dishes.

Q: Favourite writer?

Jean Paul Sartre

Q: What does the Nimbin Valley mean to you?

It is a relatively peaceful place to live in idyllic surrounds; it is not like other Australian regional towns as it is amazingly cosmopolitan. And dare I say an avant-garde social experiment. But I'm getting tired of the “bush” and may soon move back to the coast i in a quiet little fishing style village. The sea really inspires me!

Q: Can future be created by a neglected artist?

Obviously if they stay neglected both in life and after death no. But eventuality most artists that are serious get their work seen and then there is the possibility of influencing the future in a small way.

Q: Why our measuring standards fail in assessing writers who are consistently good, yet not in news and not awarded for being perpetual outsiders?

The bell curve, 66%, are the backbone of society, the ones that work hard and maintain a stable society, the acceptance of outsiders, radicals and futuristic thinkers threatens the status quo, so they pan them, exclude them, but the only chance of change and therefore avoiding stagnation and death of a society is when these outsider's ideas become mainstream. This is the price one pays for being a fringe dweller, I am one of those and the price is NOT worth it, but in a sense I don't have any choice if I wish to remain authentic to myself in an Existential way.

Q: Those who get all the Bookers, are they the only good writers? Others should be banished?

I have a sculptor friend that gets almost every public sculpture commission in a capital city, because she is an expert at the art of Grantsmanship. Yes she is a good sculptor but no better that many others that live in poverty and remain unseen. The same applies to writers, those that play by the obscene rules of the literary game get the prizes. I have never and never will enter my books poetry etc. in prizes. I have even exhibited artwork in juried shows and explicitly stated  “this piece not to be judged in the show”, it turns art/poetry into something like a prize cow in an agricultural show.

Q: Are not these awards hyped?

Totally hyped, a fix for those playing the writing game. Nothing to do with great literature, though occasionally some great work as opposed to average work comes from them.

Q: Why art is becoming means of shameless self-promotion?

This is the i society, i, me, mine - almost everything is crassly commodified, not simply for sale at reasonable prices.

Q: If Shakespeare were re-born as Shakespeare to-day, will the Bard get such prizes that increase your sales?

If he had a good manager and a secretary who could play the grants-man-ship game absolutely. Just think of the recent phenomenon of Rodriguez, some say a better singer songwriter than Bob Dylan yet totally neglected by USA but unknown to him he influenced a generation who brought down apartheid in South Africa.

Q: Your view on the iconic Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games and Twilight series?

I love Harry Potter, does this come under fantasy? Haven't heard of the other two. I don't watch TV nor do I watch many movies, especially the Hollywood garbage.

Q: On Fifty Shades of Grey?

Just goes to show that sex does sell books. This book surpassed even Harry Potter's sales. Maybe I'll write some erotic, BDSM style poetry, get arrested, banned, then it will be a best seller and I'll be famous – hmmm!

Q: Tell us something about your grandma who wrote poetry.

Yes, my great-grandma actually. She was a middle-to-upper class woman, living in Britain in the late 1880s. Married to a genius doctor, inventor and scientist. I only recently found out that she wrote poetry and painted (like Monet and I think equally as good but not as inventive). Some of her poetry is astonishingly radical for the time, an activist against poverty and English pretentiousness. A woman of her time for sure but one of her poems is so similar to one I recently wrote about environmental destruction. Very uncanny granny!

Q: Your view of Indian Writing in English? Are Indians heard in Australia?

Indians are to my knowledge very rarely read in Australia. Indian writing in English has a (surprising) Indian feel, a gentleness, a respectfulness and of course much is imbued with spiritual/religious/devotional characteristics, which incidentally I personally find refreshing.

Q:Some notable gains made by India Writing. 

Just recently the publication of a major anthology The Dance of The Peacock, 150 poets / 515 pages, published in English by a Canadian publisher. Indo-Australian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry another important anthology of both Australian & Indian poets published by an Indian publisher. Support of Indian writing and poetry by UWA, especially the Westerly Centre & Prof. Dennis Haskell

Q: Impressions of your encounter with some happening --- but not awarded-yet ---writers. Any promise in them of making it to global lists?

There are a couple of exceptionally good writers who should be getting publishing contracts and fame and fortune. Christine Strelan (arguably as good as T.S. Eliot), Peter Nicholson and Max Ryan.

Q: How can the bilateral engagement between India and Australia be further expanded? Cannot some fests arranged via local support? Or, some common online initiatives, showcasing the best of both the nations?

This question I can't really answer as I'm a creative writer and artist, not a promoter or entrepreneur, I'm trying to stick with the things I do reasonably well and encourage others to do the things they do best. I have been a hopeless promoter of my own work in the past and I'm not much better now, so I'll just keep on creating. Also I'm becoming sick of the rudeness and lack of interest, especially by Australian Institutions. I contacted the Indian-Australian Association at the University of Melbourne regarding exactly what you are suggesting and they didn't even have the decency or good manners to reply.

Q: Thanks for tolerating the interrogation.

Thanks for being interested and in listening to my ideas.

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