Ian Burn

Ian Burn was one of the most important members of the Art & Language group, exhibiting in early Conceptual art exhibitions such as “ Information” in 1970 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He lived in New York between 1967 and 1977, working both collaboratively (Burn, Mel Ramsden, and Roger Cutforth founded the Society for Theoretical Art and Analysis) and collectively (with Art & Language). Upon his return to Australia in 1977 he worked with trade unions and wrote several important revisionist books on postcolonial art. During the last few years, until his tragic death by drowning just after the closing of this exhibition, Burn had begun to exhibit new work that embodied his double practice as both writer and artist.

For this exhibition, Burn purchased paintings from second-hand shops and junk markets, framed them within wide white moldings and added an overlaid text of elegantly printed words on Plexiglas. These works, the “Value Added Landscapes,” 1992–93, combine ready-made amateur landscapes with short essays describing the appropriated paintings. The texts are structuralist meditations on the activity of looking. Because of the transparency of the printed Plexiglas, exclusive concentration on either text or picture was impossible, producing a constant slippage between image and writing. Other works, such as This is not a Landscape, 1992, present a text in two versions. Sentences were repeated—with corrections and scrawled editing in gray lettering—on an overlaid transparent Plexiglas sheet. The underlying, unedited words read like old Art & Language tracts; the alterations are both minimal and arbitrary.

The texts for Burn’s “Value Added Landscapes” are self-consciously evocative, and thus construct another purple layer of poetics for the viewer, in turn describing the pictures or anticipating a response. Spelling out the conditions and outcomes of viewing is a constant in all Burn’s work: earlier pieces from the late ’60s, for example, provide the spectator with diagrammatic instructions. The authors of Burn’s discarded landscapes are unknowing collaborators and, although he acknowledges the name of the unwitting landscape painter wherever possible, the relationship is one of considered exploitation. He reenacts the colonial relationship between center and periphery that he examines as a writer.

Both the “Value Added Landscapes” and This is not a Landscape are constructed with a consciously disingenuous employment of Minimalism’s international syntax. Burn both resurrects and mourns an untainted view of nature. Although in Value Added Landscape no. 3, 1992, the text reads “Its how-to competence seeks an imagined redemption in the culture of nature,” in other pieces he recreates a cultural and historical experience of nature, stating that “the joy of recognition produces the landscape’s controlled, vigilant informality, a horizon of words lit by the streaky sky of nature.” The representation of objects from amateur culture, and their unexpected recertification as art, parallels Burn’s use of geography as a metaphorical vantage point from which to map imperial relationships. His critical use of landscape is rather like Chilean artist Arturo Duclos’ appropriation of heraldry. In the “Value Added Landscapes,” Ian Burn’s texts do not exactly match their referents; they add another, postcolonial, dimension to the usually transparent structure of the use of language by Conceptual artists.

Charles Green