Richard Tipping - Ben Harper


Richard Kelly Tipping: Public Works

School of Design, Communication and Information Technology, University of
Newcastle, 2002.

ISBN 1 920701 01 X

Ben Harper

This catalogue was published to accompany an exhibition of Tipping's works
at Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide last year, focusing on his work
intended for public display. Photos of selected works are included with
essays by George Alexander and Alex Selenitsch.

Tipping's art poems (he also writes 'normal' poetry) are a kind of concrete
poetry made concrete - or stone, or aluminium. Sounding Silence, for
example, juxtaposes two granite blocks carved with the words 'listen' and
'silent'; Earth Heart (Hear the Art) is a ring of neon letters with three
possible readings. Mostly they work in the same manner as puns: semantic
short circuits that open up new possibilities of meaning from their
familiar but incompatible premises. The punning can be literal, as in the
above examples, or built from visual or conceptual expectations - street
signs with their familiar appearance, altered to read GO or ONE DAY.

The essays provide helpful advocacy discussing the methods at work here and
their impact on a public audience, particularly given their incursion on an
information- and media-saturated society. Selenitsch claims that by
"opening up the imagination rather than restraining it, Tipping shows how
one can transform advertising and bureaucratic space into poetry on its own
terms." But signs, such as "Airport" or "Australia Post" detourned into
"Airpoet" and "Australia Poet", do function as a kind of advertising: for
poetry, or rather the idea of a poet - the sizzle and not the steak. These
and similar works, taken as a whole, take on a satirical note in the extent
of their self-aggrandisement, suggesting an alternate universe where art
and poetry claim a public engagement at least as fiercely contested as the
consumption of sugar-water.

The extent to which it opens up the imagination is questionable. The
techniques are similar to those used by 'media hijackers' and other
activists, which have since in turn been co-opted and reassimilated by the
advertising industry. As for bureaucracy, works such as Sounding Silence
are awkward in their monumentality and their didactic content, spelling out
an edifying message which any high-minded bureaucrat or council could
approve. The work in context is as inoffensive and vacuous as most other
official statuary.

If Tipping's work is weakest when trying to make a point, then the pieces
where cognitive dissonance is allowed free reign are the most satisfying: a
skull-and-crossbones logo bearing the motto LIFETIME GUARANTEE, or the
mutant parking sign NO UNDERSTANDING ANY TIME (shown here four feet tall,
telling the world and not just the street). These truly open the mind,
albeit in a way that simultaneously gives information and takes it away,
placing the observer in an altered situation instead of simply commenting
its context. The nature of his methods and material encourages
playfulness, which may explain why these works are more successful than
those burdened with a sense of duty to society.