Janet Paul: we work in a basement of small truths

On seeing letters from conscientious objectors’ camps written invisibly with orange juice
by Janet Paul

So little truth will tell…
it stains painfully
yellowed drawing
and ironed orange secret letter
opening an objector’s prison
after thirty year’s peace.

We work in a basement
of small truths –
but who will connect?

What a stunning poem by Dame Janet Paul (1919 – 2004)! What a killer line, ‘We work in a basement of small truths’, and one that you could relate to so many things, not least of all our understanding of the human condition as still signifying a ‘basement of small truths’, even after thousands of years of human questioning and contemplation of ourselves and the world. Paul was a librarian for nine years at the Turnbull, so I’m assuming she literally did work in a ‘basement’ archive, bursting no doubt with revealing documents, records and papers. And the final question too – who will connect? Implied here is also the ‘how’ of connecting and understanding, and Janet Paul’s life seems to have been a rich, manifold, rigorous and open consideration of who connects what and how.

The poem above is taken from a book of her poems and art-work and you can read it when you visit the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery until November 21.


I beg, literally beg anyone with an interest in New Zealand writing and art and creative culture to see this exhibition and any other future exhibitions of Paul’s work. I had a vague notion of Paul’s contribution to our artistic history, however was ashamed to find I really knew so little about her life and work. While I’m sure some people know about Paul, my assumption would be that the Turnbull Gallery is seeking to redress a wider lack of knowledge about Paul’s contribution through this show. Any redress really means nothing however if we don’t go and see it and then talk to each other about the work and Paul’s varied activities – supporting numerous writers, writing poems, making drawings, paintings, etchings, publishing with her husband Blackwood Paul such significant works as Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun….

I’m going to part of a lunchtime reading this Thursday (Nov 13) with a group of poets who have written new work in response to this exhibition. I’m really looking forward to hearing about what other poets have discovered and thought about in relation to Paul.
In addition to seeing the show, there is also a bit of information available about Paul online:

Janet Paul obituary

NZETC works related to Paul

Review of Landmarks in New Zealand publishing: Blackwood & Janet Paul 1945 -68 Turnbull Room, National Library Gallery
17 November 1995- 28 February 1996 

Paul in the Te Papa collections

Lunchtime reading: Poetry from Victoria University
Date: 13 November 2014 Time: 12.10 pm
Venue: Ground floor programme rooms, National Library, cnr Molesworth and Aitken St

The National Library presents a poetry reading by MA in Creative Writing graduates, in response to the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery.

Join Airini Beautrais (MA 2005), Anna Livesey (MA 2002), Mary Macpherson (MA 2006), Hannah Mettner (MA 2012), Frances Samuel (MA 2003), and Rachel O’Neill (MA 2008)as they read poems written in response to the life and work of an artist who actively supported other artists and writers throughout her life.


The imagination can accumulate sense?

I’ve always got my ear out for people who love speaking and thinking about the imagination. In a conversation between filmmakers Chantal Akerman and Catherine Breillat an evocative phrase emerged: ‘The imagination can accumulate sense’. Pow! But also a question – how do filmmakers convey a subject’s imaginative life in a way that lends their imagining or their hidden and interior world a sensory function or impulse in a scene?

I thought about Ackerman’s La chambre (1972) when the camera pivots again and again around the room.

Still from La Chambre 1972

We feel the subject’s very meditative and attentive state through duration, determined by the consumption of an apple, plus the domestic space and objects around her, and the light that brackets all of this. We don’t know what the subject is thinking exactly, or have access to hidden images, or her imagination in any literal sense. But we get a sense that these surroundings, habits of identity and possession are all part her thoughtful sensory life.

I also found a connection between Akerman and Breillat’s phrase, and Paul Greengrass’ thoughts about ‘procedures’ leading to ‘emotional power’ in his 2014 David Lean Lecture:

‘…a lot of it is about observing procedures. But that’s because that’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I think that procedures rule our lives. Our procedures define our modernity. You know, most of us don’t get up and think about what happened to us when we were children, most of us get up and think I’ve got to get on the bus now then I’ve got to be at work at 10 o’clock and I‘ve got a meeting at 11 o’clock, that sort of procedures, and if you can tap into that in films you can actually develop a lot of emotional power, oddly. You’d think it would be dry but it’s actually not, because you get to a very, a very rich place, which is what happens when procedures start to be threatened.’

This reminded me of something I talked about in one of my first blog posts: Dave Hickey describes a moment in Floubert’s ‘Shining Heart’ where two women from different class groups step over the threshold of social order to suddenly embrace. When they embrace the women push away any immediate ability to identify internally and externally through (socially-sanctioned and prescribed) habits alone. Perhaps the embrace takes them further into a moment in which intimacy simply exists, unprovoked, as joy and sadness in its coming and going from the immediate scene. In that moment it is a truth that has no strict negative – and in the extreme it illustrates, or hints that ‘all social interactions lead to non-linearities’*… quick glances between impossibilities (and instabilities)… or possibilities (and stabilities)…

On the one hand we have Akerman’s portrait of a sensory life in La chambre (1972) where intimacy with the subject is achieved strangely through objects, space and distance, and on the other hand, the risk we feel in Greengrass’s case (and in Floubert) when a character’s habits and procedures are disrupted, leaving them to confront the phantasm of an ordered and stable identity. Both approaches seem to work from the outside in, though perhaps if we take this idea of  the imagination accumulating sense we see these approaches are as much about glances between people and their instabilities, even between the instabilities organised (or disorganised) in a particular subject, and how these glances play out in a particular time and place.

*(Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy, The Chaotic Universe, Mystic Fire Video)

The cats in the padded jackets

Late last year I visited the Dowse as part of their Guest Voices series to draw a selection of ceramic cats in their collection created by Bronwynne Cornish. The cats are stowed in one of the Dowse storage cabinets and are wrapped in sumptuously utilitarian padded jackets – they look like very comfortable straitjackets:

Cat3 crop web

I spent most of my time drawing one of the cats in the series that had a pout-nose, and a smokey grey splash of colour down one side. I was surprised by how challenging it was to draw a clay object. The ceramic material, the hand-plied quality of the dimensions made it difficult to find the edges, the precise shadows and contours of the object. I like the thought that ceramics maybe elude translation into pen on paper or, at least, that the translation requires some sort of negotiation:

Cat1 web

Cat2 web

My aim in drawing these cats was to put objects in the forefront of my mind as I was writing a screenplay for a short film. How can objects help build or contribute affect to a character or dramatic scene? How can they advance plot?

There is something alien about Cornish’s cats that gives an edge to the qualities that are recognisably and definitively cat-like. Objects carry with them their own markers of strangeness, their own ontological presence or magnetism that infuses them with kinds of thoughtfulness. An object can work like a compass, pointing to certain coordinates of intimacy. An object can also be a decoy, the thing that attracts the characters and the action to a particular place and time.

A man receives a parcel. He puts the box on the kitchen table and leaves the room. He comes back with a beer and a knife. He sits drinking the beer and looking at the parcel. He picks up the knife and opens the box. The man puts his hand inside and takes out an object encased in bubble wrap. He runs out of the room with the object in his hand.

We see the man spit into the basin in the bathroom, he retches twice. The wrapped object is clasped in his hand. He looks at himself in the mirror, runs his hand over his mouth. He starts to pick at the wrapping. The object slips out of the plastic and lies in the man’s hand. It’s a cat, made out of clay. He turns it upside down, traces his finger over some marks on the bottom. ‘One hundred and thirty two centimetres,’ he says out loud, ‘he’s one hundred and thirty two centimetres’.

The man goes into the hallway and takes a small notebook from a drawer in the cabinet there. He writes down the date and ‘132 cm’ at the bottom of a long list of other measurements, incrementally increasing over time. 

A special thanks to Courtney Johnston for inviting me take part in Guest Voices, to the Dowse team who were generous with their time and assistance, and to Bronwynne Cornish and her wild ceramic cats.