The Library's collection informs new art

The Library's collection informs new art
From our inaugural Friends of the NLA Creative Arts Fellow
3 June 2015

People whose image of a library is a collection on shelves gathering dust have never visited the National Library of Australia. As the inaugural Friends of the National Library Creative Arts Fellow, I have had the joy and privilege of working for several weeks in the throbbing heart of the Library amidst an extraordinary, living collection and the exceptional, dedicated people who give it life.

My morning coffee is exalted by the exuberant Leonard French stained glass windows which adorn the cafe. At midday, birds sing into the Tom Bass Lintel Sculpture at the front of the Library to amplify their song. The topography of the sculpture creates an ‘aural hall of mirrors’ for human ears that is both rich and startling. Dusk by the delirious light of Canberra, while perhaps best experienced from a height, say on top of Mt. Ainslie, remains spectacular looking out from the Library, across the water to its summit. I’ve wondered if the light in Canberra is a tightly kept local secret. I wasn’t told to expect it, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Bright gold in the west and deep red in the east pour across the sky. In the evening, after work hours I am suddenly aware of how active the Library normally is. The absence of activity is deafening. I have, however, been assured that any ghosts that haunt the building are friendly. With the lifetimes of work both within and for the collection it’s difficult to imagine there aren’t an impressive few lurking around the place, though I’ve yet to run into any.

Left—Leonard French, coloured glass windows, National Library foyer and right—Seselja, Loui, (1948-) Bass relief over the entrance doors of the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2004 

As a composer, the idea of ‘resonance’ is both a loaded metaphor and a very tangible, literal phenomenon. Birds singing the Library to life is an example of both of these. Studying the collection is too. I’m examining the papers of my compositional mentor Nigel Butterley. Nigel turned 80 this year, and his birthday was celebrated in the library with a performance of an incomplete, previously unheard manuscript of his from the early 70s that I arranged as part of the fellowship. This was literal resonance—the Library building as a resonator—but the collection reveals more of the metaphorical resonance too.

Chris Williams, Nigel Butterley (seated), Andrew Ford and Robyn Holmes

Though I’ve known Nigel for a significant length of my adult life—Nigel was 71 when I met him—the papers have given me a much better understanding of his entire life and work and his development as an artist. ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’, if you will. Considering the context of the manuscript also has resonance beyond this with questions about the creation of Art, the creation of Art in Australia, and the creation of Art in Australia in the late 60s and early 70s, as relevant today as ever. So if it’s about resonance, then it’s also about timing. We are again facing a broad public debate about the role of artists in our community, just like we were in the late 60s.

In undertaking the fellowship I imagined being tucked away scribbling notes on manuscript, and there’s been plenty of that, but I couldn’t have imagined or understood how the collection could come to vitally inform my point of view and suddenly become contemporary commentary, too. I couldn’t have created a more extraordinary time to reflect on a portrait of the artist as a young person, in Australia, what that has meant and what it might mean. Good timing and rich resonance.