An article in The Weekend Australian by a Melbourne academic curiously compared the State Library’s Mediaval Imagination with Letterbox’s Orbit Oblique. Below is the original article and our response.

John Armstrong / Everything is Illuminated

One of the more pleasant surprises of this year, in terms of exhibitions at least, has been the remarkable success of The Medieval Imagination, a show of illuminated manuscripts at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne.

The relatively small space of the exhibition — it’s about the floor space of an average house — has been crowded since it opened. Short informal queues develop as people wait their turn to gaze at a 13th-century prayer book or a tiny jewel-like image of the Annunciation that decorates a page of music from Burgundy.

What is it that fascinates about these objects, fewer than 100 books and individual leaves? It’s something to do with the sheer fact of survival: these delicate objects, so vulnerable to burning and tearing, have made it through to today. But survival alone is a limited virtue.

Delightful Victorian English humorist Jerome K. Jerome satirises mere survival as the basis of appreciation in a delirious section of Three Men in a Boat. The hero is thinking of a china dog in his bed-sitting room that he hates, “but in 200 years’ time it is more than probable that that dog will be dug up from somewhere or other, minus its legs, and with its tail broken, and will be sold for old china, and put in a glass cabinet. And people will pass it round and admire it.” Such, he mocks, is how history cheats the eye and makes us admire even the rubbish of the past. The manuscripts are much more than chance relics on to which we slyly project all sorts of fine qualities that they never really possessed. And it’s not just that they take us into a world distinct from our own, that other country of the past; or that they prick one’s curiosity about remote experiences and things that are interesting because of their strangeness, and return us with new and welcome appreciation to the comforts of modernity. The power of the manuscripts does not really reside in their strangeness.

It is, rather, that in these coloured and written pages we can catch sight of something for which we secretly yearn but which is extremely hard to find in the present.

These bright, artfully disposed little pages offer a vision of culture and experience that is much more coherent that our own. Their imaginative space is amazingly joined up. For them, as the most insightful of art critics, Walter Pater, once put it, “the world is a limited place; bounded by actual crystal walls and a material firmament; it is like a painted toy. How different from this childish dream is our own conception of nature, with its unlimited space, its innumerable suns and the earth but a mote in the beam.”

But it is not merely the charms of limitation that are evident here; it is the systematic coherence of ideas and life.

To illustrate this, consider a fragment of a missal, a book containing the words used in the celebration of the mass, that caught my eye. It was made in Italy in the early 16th century for Pope Clement VII (a member of the Medici family), so it belongs to the Renaissance, but sumptuous works such as this drew heavily on medieval tradition.

In the centre of the page is an image of the deposition, the taking down of Christ’s dead body from the cross after the crucifixion. It is a moment of complete defeat. Of course, within the Catholic liturgy it looks forward to the resurrection and the ascension into heaven. But this image makes the pope dwell on defeat, destruction and hardship.

To the left, surrounded by wonderful golden scrolls and heraldic beasts, is a little picture of Adam sitting beneath the Tree of Knowledge: knowledge, that is, of good and evil. The serpent is about to tempt him to eat the forbidden fruit and, so it was said, bring about the fall of man. This is the story of the moral beginnings of humanity, from which everything else flows.

In the corners of the page are pictures of the four Evangelists, the saints who wrote the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, through which humanity was redeemed.

So these are not just nice or pretty images, although they are beautiful and the overall impression of the page is one of the masterly organisation of richness. They are, for the makers and for believers today, images of events of the greatest possible seriousness and consequence, events of which a proper human life must take the greatest notice.

And this object is made for the person who is the human focus of the whole system. Every element of the material world is drawn into a single, over-arching, spiritual narrative and the whole is presented in a small visual span.

If we step back and look around the exhibition, this impression is reinforced. Music, the written word, the study of nature (in medical diagrams and bestiaries that tell of the nature of the animals), all the phases of daily life: everything seems to be pulled together and designed to make sense together.

Perhaps the most moving works on display are the psalters, books intended for private devotional use. Here the emphasis is on contemplation and reflection; one is invited to bring the whole of one’s spiritual life into focus on a particular image or text.

In other words, what’s at stake is the inward link between the soul of the beholder and the significance of the image and its meaning.

Is it a form of long-range nostalgia to be moved in this way and attracted to the vision of life that is offered in the works? It’s tempting to say that because, in reality, the medieval and Renaissance worlds were filled with horrors.

For most people life was nasty, brutish and short; the rich and powerful were often sickeningly horrible. But nostalgia is not a species of historical error: it’s not the belief that at some time in the past things were much better than they are now. Nostalgia is a species of love. And, as with all loves, it does not attach itself indiscriminately to everything but picks out what is finest and most admirable in the thing it loves.

The manuscripts are vessels in which certain ideals of the Middle Ages are transmitted, rather than documents that reveal the ordinary awfulness of life. To love them is to love those ideals of beauty and coherence and containment.

It’s depressing to compare this exhibition with another recent show at Craft Victoria, entitled Orbit Oblique. The four works in the show, by Stephen Banham, are each composed of plastic sheets illuminated from behind, so that they glow. The words on the sheets are in elegant fonts, extremely clear and pure. Judged in abstract visual terms, the works are mildly sweet; they would look well hanging on the wall of a Toorak dentist, with their calm, clinical freshness. Are these today’s techno versions of the illuminated manuscript?

One worry is about content. The old manuscripts sought to convey the most serious possible ideas in a compelling way.

Orbit Oblique is devoted to the memory of the few animals that were used on trial space missions, mainly dogs and mice, but we’re asked not to forget the fruit flies and earthworms that were also sent into orbit without their consent. A minute flicking through a newspaper will put these deaths into perspective.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that Orbit Oblique is in any way bothered about the animals. The little catalogue provides mock “desperately seeking” posters. There’s one for a mouse that took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 23, 1958, and “didn’t come back for dinner … we’re getting a bit worried”.

This is camp sentiment, in which the point isn’t to say something true but to hold up one’s own cuteness for admiration. This is funny in an art gallery way. That is, it’s not remotely funny but, because one is in an environment that is supposed to be solemn, the merest tweak of levity gains a grin.

The irony is that the Orbit Oblique catalogue, although feeble in content, is lovely and welcoming. I imagine the team who worked on this exhibition is charming and clever and, unfortunately, the victim of a superficial culture.

By contrast, the Medieval Imagination catalogue is a disaster. It has sold extremely well, which is part of the problem. The images are glorious. But I doubt many people can bear to read the accompanying scholarly work for more than 15 seconds. I mean this literally; it is agony. It’s a miracle of scholarship, but the catalogue has absolutely nothing to say to anyone who is not a scholar. Particularly, it has nothing to say about what it means to love these objects today, what their significance for the modern world may be.

An exhibition such as The Medieval Imagination needs two catalogues: one for purely scholarly purposes, with a small print run of perhaps 200. The other should be more imaginative and exploratory, and intended to enrich the experience of a much broader public.

We need to recognise the connection between the ultra-reserved style of the Medieval Imagination catalogue and the silliness of Orbit Oblique. Those who care know and care about the grand cultural heritage of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have had far too little to say to the modern world, so that those who end up making works of art (or indeed craft) today do so on the thinnest imaginative and intellectual grounds.


Stephen Banham / Perhaps not everything is illuminated

There is little doubt that the Medieval Imagination exhibition at the State Library of Victoria has been a magnificent addition to the Library’s series of exhibitions. Its popular success is an encouraging sign of a growing public engagement with the form of the book and the written word, despite the tiresome rhetoric of its impending demise. Having firmly encouraged my design students to go and see the exhibition in order to experience first hand the glory of these forms I also alert them to Mirror of the World, a permanent exhibition which rotates every year or so to show the Library’s extensive and impressive collection of rare and wonderful books.

But to compare Medieval Imagination, a historical narrative of works from periods as distant as the eighth century, with the contemporary typographic abstraction of Orbit Oblique is nothing short of ludicrous and does neither exhibition (or the reviewer) any favours. This comparison is unfair to both exhibitions and seemingly ignored a multitude of fundamental differences.

It is not enough that they are from entirely different periods of human history, employ entirely different technologies and communicate entirely different content. But it is their completely different intents that draws them apart beyond the point of fair and reasonable comparison. Perhaps the fact that one is exhibited in a library the other in an art gallery may suggest to the observant viewer that there are differing intents at work here.

Rather than Orbit Oblique being a ‘victim of a superficial culture’ it may be more fitting to describe it as being a ‘victim of a superficial reading’. A product of over a year’s research, Orbit Oblique seeks to tell the stories of these unfortunate and unwilling participants in the space race between 1949-90. This was then distilled into a purely typographic and abstracted form of storytelling. This is not to pity the demise of these animals or to call for an end to animal experimentation but rather to highlight their ridiculous plight as instruments of propaganda. Perhaps the humourless misreading of this absurdity along with an inability to comprehend an abstract outcome says more of the reviewer than it does the exhibition.

Thankfully for all in the field of graphic design, it is a living and ever-changing language. As a vessel of communication, it cannot help but reflect the thoughts, language and culture of its time. Medieval Imagination and Orbit Oblique are two entirely different voices from entirely different times. To draw them together is to create a discordant noise. This should be kept in mind next time we try to draw such ridiculous and ill-informed comparisons.

… and some feedback from Klaudio Z. Podreka

John Armstrong perhaps should read Umberto Eco’s wonderful medieval tale Name of the Rose . If he has read it he should perhaps pay close attention and wonder if there is not perhaps a noteworthy comparison to be made between himself and the character of Jorge who rails against laughter and comedy as the greatest potential evil of the world.

A superficial culture is not one that fails to continuously and absolutely relay “the most serious possible ideas in a compelling way”. A superficial culture is one that simply parrots known things and does not question, or laugh at our arrogance in thinking that we have learned all there is to now. Knowledge is not gained by blind acceptance but rather through challenging, testing and ultimately understanding through experience.

I should state that I did not get to see the exhibition in person. I can’t say I’m totally convinced or awestruck by what I’ve seen or read about it but I can appreciate that it was put together with great care and in a healthy spirit of exploration. The Armstrong philosophy is apparently that exploration is only noble or useful depending on what is found. Yet to know what one will find negates the need for exploration. In matters of design and art, exploring an idea is even riskier as often you cannot know what you have found until you present your findings to the public. Orbit Oblique is for me an exploration of an idea, and a brave one at that because it does not rely on easy navigation through known places. Rather it charts territory that may possibly yield something remarkable but equally might yield something derided as “camp sentiment… not remotely funny” those brave explorers slandered as “victims of a superficial culture”.

The irony is that Armstrong’s comments are actually quite funny indeed. In Name of the Rose Jorge makes the claim that “Christ never laughed” which illustrates that an argument can be both fairly ridiculous and entirely misguided. Armstrong seems to feel similiarly that masters never smile when they work. It is a pity that he feels that way. I imagine Stephen Banham smiles a great deal when he works and that is ultimately why Orbit Oblique could possibly lead you to some interesting thoughts while Armstrong’s article ultimately leads you to feel pessimistic about even trying.

It is one thing to say that you don’t like a work. It is another to actually attack a work. That to me seems both unprofessional and a bit hysterical. Armstrong’s personal paranoia about the lack of ‘grand cultural heritage’ in… well, everything I suppose has lead to a flawed article constructed, ironically, “on the thinnest imaginative and intellectual grounds.

It barely deserves to appear on such a lively and well constructed site and I probably deserve criticism for dignifying it with a response. Oh well, one has to take risks I suppose…