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Julian Assange and the wobbliness of pictorial art

I’ve been meaning to put up this picture of Julian Assange, which is the latest in my project of print portraits. (Lately, the phrase “I’ve been meaning to” is cropping up a lot. Which is a sign of my relationship with time; it and I need counselling.) This print rejoices in an ornamented title: The Most Dangerous Man in the World’ (Julian Assange, WikiLeaks).

The previous portrait was of Patrick White, also a linocut but with hand-colouring. This one is classic black and white, in my mother’s terminology. Or, it’s a pisser, as Constant Gardener might say, more waywardly. (Like it? Buy it, to benefit a good cause. See below.)

Text v Pictures: WCW’s wheelbarrow

I often wonder about the difference between text and pictures. In these days of hypertext and the megavisual tradition, as the jargon goes, and the blurring of art into every kind of creative activity, the distinctions have vanished within the Academy. But folk — that’s you and me and our neighbours — can pick the diff no probs. Text has words and pictures generally not. (Leaving sculpture to one side; it has too many sides.) Pictures still have the mysterious power of making manifest — a picture is final and determined while words remain abstract, no matter that William Carlos Williams insists only on “No ideas but in things”. When he writes of a red wheelbarrow to make it real:

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

you get what he means. But not exactly what he sees. A mere snapshot would have shown that. (It is true WCW’s method has become somewhat threadbare after 90 years of usage.) But we now know too much — we know that photos are not definitive, which means the whole discussion collapses back into questions about the terms of art, at which point we enter fog.  Nonetheless … with a still image like the one above of Julian Assange, what you see is what you get. One could write an essay about it — the thousand words that tell the picture — but its shapes and ideas and delivery are all compacted into this single thing, an object as solid and real as … a ink on paper.

Which of course I have now complicated by scanning and posting on a blog so it too has spirited into the realm of the intangible. Liberated from their flatland boundaries, their being as actual stuff, it’s like images have become soluble, melting into pixel soup or shivering into existence as if beamed in by Scotty from the Enterprise, and fading out at the touch of a button, in a twist of atoms flecked with stardust. We have arrived at the Age of Ghosts, or, we are the ghosts in the machines — think how the teenage Assange (aka Mendax) and his International Subversives hacked their way into cyberspace. But wait, I’m just going to drag myself, and you, if you’re still there, back to firmer, non-wobbly ground.

‘Rough consensual sex’ and embeddedness

Currently, through sheer coincidence (or rather, because Our Jules is so hot right now, having recently been hoisted into the company of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama), I have images of Assange on the covers of two publications: the May edition of ABR (Australian Book Review) and Griffith Review 32.

The Che wears Assange graphic descends from this Mulcher post — the article it refers to is Barbara Gunnell’s stylish observations from the trial, Rebel, public nuisance and dreamer. (Read it at GR.) You can see Barbara at the Syney Writers’ Festival this Thursday (19 May); she will be talking matters Assange with Griffith Review editor, Julianne Schultz. Gunnel reports:

In the legal arguments of [Geoffrey] Robertson and [Claire] Montgomery, the claims of the Swedish women became the same story, of the same events, told twice over with totally different emphases. ‘He pinned her down with his body weight,’ said Montgomery. ‘That is what is usually described as the missionary position,’ countered Robertson. ‘She was asleep,’ Montgomery said. ‘Ms A claimed to be half asleep. That is also half awake,’ was Robertson’s version. ‘Sexual encounters have their ebbs and flows. What may be unwanted one minute can with further empathy become desired,’ he suggested.

‘In popular language, that’s violence,’ said Montgomery. ‘No doubt rough consensual sex is something on which he [Robertson] is able to give some useful information to the court,’ she concluded, eliciting a gasp from the assembled journalists.

The ABR piece by Joel Deane (you can now buy it online as well as in print) was partly extracted in the Age. The full review essay (it refers to five books on Assange) is a terrific read, nimble and penetrating, which sounds a bit like a fencer. Deane’s pen certainly makes points and pokes holes as he compares various treatments of Assange, and the media’s complicated relationship with Wikileaks. Deane:

What is also new is that at present – unlike during the Vietnam War – the media seems unable to fulfil its democratic role of finding the stories that need to be told, and telling them. For instance, it is likely that at least one journalist, Washington Post reporter David Finkel, saw the raw vision of a US Apache helicopter shooting more than a dozen people, including two journalists, in Iraq in 2007. That raw vision later became WikiLeaks’ ‘Collateral Murder’ video. Why, then, did Finkel report only from the perspective of the US soldiers? What did Assange see that Finkel missed? Has the mainstream media become so embedded that it can no longer see the story?

+ + +

My portrait print of Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World’ (Julian Assange, WikiLeaks) is for sale as an actual, tangible real object suitable for framing etc — in a signed, limited edition of 25: all proceeds go to support Australian Book Review. The image size is 25 cm x 25 cm, and the sheet size is 38 cm x 28 cm. It has been beautifully printed by the excellent Trent Walter on creamy Arches paper. Go to ABR for details. Prints of Patrick White and Dorothy Hewett are also available.

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