Prelude to a conversation

26 July 2020
A response by Kelly Fliedner to the work of Peter Tyndall at the Art Gallery of Western Australia

^^^Hetty in front of Peter Tyndall’s detail/ A Person Looks At A Work of Art/ someone looks at something... (1980-83) at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo taken by Kelly Fliedner.
detail/ A Person Looks At A Work of Art/ someone looks at something... (1980-83) by Peter Tyndall is about looking at art. It’s about hallowed halls and collections and how they educate and guide us, how they reflect us (or at least the state) and our values (the state’s values). It is a critique of the kind of gallery I find it in, the Art Gallery of Western Australia. In its collection, it represents the capacity for the state (or at least parts of it) to critique itself and how it might cultivate conversations that gesture to limitations and potential for change. It, along with the other hundreds of canvases created by Peter over the 50 or so years of his career represents the ways in which museums and art galleries educate and take particular forms of authority for granted (Western, masculine, heteronormative, capitalist, etc.). This work in particular displays an assortment of symbols: a paint can, a power line, a bomb, a saw piece, an outline of the nation, a brick wall, a tire, an iron, a shovel and pickaxe, a knife and fork, a ladder, a lightning bolt, a hand holding a protest sign that reads, ‘unfair’, a factory, a chicken, a coiled rope. An image of the nuclear family unit appears twice, once gazing upon a white canvas and secondly upon a black canvas, leaning in to read a didactic panel, looking at the art, intent on learning, a light bulb hanging from above flashes with recognition. Taken together, this collection of glyphs might say something about power relations within domestic and public realms, about collective bargaining and the union movement of the late 70s and 80s, about the circularity and entrenchment of power etc. But it is also definitely about how gallery spaces communicate through signs and signifiers taking particular people along with them and leaving others behind. The hanging frame image that features in all of Peter’s work, and which in AGWA is currently presented next to this large one on a smaller canvas of its own, acts as a key by signalling the significance of the frame itself not as a mode of containment but as a portal. Peter’s paintings depict conversations had in institutions but they also converse between each other, distilled and looping systems of signs repeated in ad infinitum.


Peter Tyndall is an artist with a broad range of conceptual art activities ranging from large scale painting and installation to art blogging to experimental music making. During the 70s and 80s, he had a deep and ongoing engagement as a practitioner and audience member at various music and performance venues across Melbourne, including the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre. Use No Hooks and Slave Guitars, two of his performance projects, employed witty language with a larrikin affect. Leaning in to the Australian vernacular, while also critiquing the 70s and 80s nation building moment, Tyndall was instrumental in shaping an understanding of identity in postmodern Australia with complexity and nuance.

Peter is one of those quintessential Melbourne art world artists who are often gestured to in any conversation about conceptual art from Australia. You can find his work in all major collections across the nation but for reasons that allude me he is yet to have a major solo survey at any of those same spaces. Perhaps his work is too obscure? Too conceptual? Perhaps it just hasn’t been the right time? Perhaps his work is an ill fit now for institutions who want to rectify their previous homogenous programming and collecting schedules. In any case, Peter is particularly loved by Melbournians who work in the art world for all the reasons outlined above, the reach and scope of his diverse activities, and also his availability to younger generations. If you’re to be taken seriously by the inwardly focused Melbourne scene you need to do your time investigating, outlining and paying tribute to its own history. For me that included research into visual artists, musicians, writers, performers and film makers, including Peter, who were part of the emerging interdisciplinary postmodern art of Melbourne in the 70s and 80s, This research, like it does for so many recent art or art history grads in Melbourne, tumbled out of academia and into independent publishing projects and exhibitions at artist-run spaces. All of this creates an air of reverence for those previous generations who become mentors, influencing and guiding us. The first exhibition I ever curated was a tiny group show called someone looking at something… (Peter was in it) and the name of another exhibition I curated years later, History was our audience came from a conversation I’d had with him. Small prints Peter has made over decades of contributing  to ARI fundraisers are framed around our apartment. I miss Melbourne for many reasons, not least dear family and friends, but also for this, this feeling of embrace, this feeling of being part of an artistic lineage, of being part of a complex web of intergenerational collaboration.


I was thinking about all these things standing in front of Peter’s work here at AGWA, happy to have a place to go with Hetty after isolation; touching base with the collection; paying my respects. We look on at the family in Peter’s work, come in close, bow our heads to the discursive panel, move back out again, take in the scene. I think about frames, and language, and this place, and then think about friends and family on the other side of a locked down border. I think of it as an entry point for what art can do in this current political climate. Activism is one thing, but while the national rhetoric reaffirms that ‘we are all in this together’, in truth bonds of solidarity and affection are constantly being undermined. It is not only that borders are closed according to federalism’s arbitrary and colonial lines, it is that help has not been forthcoming from here to there, that civic liberties are curtailed, people are refused the right to peacefully protest, handouts support the boys and boomers, and the arts continues to bleed. Peter’s work seems apposite because it was created and collected in the wake of Whitlam-era increases in arts funding, and concurrently with a Hawke-Keating government visions of a nation building consensus. So it was this nation building moment not a national crisis that threaded longing for family and friends through my visit to AGWA. Yes, Peter’s work makes me homesick, not for Melbourne as it was or is now; but nostalgic for the possibilities of collective endeavour grounded in critique.

Indigenous Lives Matter:
a West Australian resource list

Semaphore stands in solidarity with Indigenous people, especially traditional owners in what is called Western Australia and the Whadjuk Noongar people of Boorloo boodjar where this journal is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship and their continuing contribution to our community. This feels more important than an acknowledgement in this moment, and perhaps it always should have. As we work toward decarceration and asserting the rights of Indigenous people here, we think it is important to share this resource list. We hope it can be of value for our community to educate themselves, to provide resources that help make change, and continue to act as allies in the fight for justice and healing. This means recognising that Indigenous people are leaders and that we learn the most when we are open and engaged. We believe that the system must change, and there is a lot of work to do in advocating for a better city and state. Please read broadly, seek out organisations and events, make a donation, come to a protest, write a letter, and provide sustained support for Indigenous people because Indigenous Lives Matter.

Continue to this resource list...

Kaya. We wish to acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.

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