Commissioned to produce a large-scale drawing for Melbourne Now, Jan Senbergs has created a panoramic four panel work Extended Melbourne labyrinth that presents a birds-eye view of our sprawling metropolis. Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, caught up with Jan recently to discuss this new work.
CL: The urban landscape has been a perennial theme in your work – what is it that interests you about this subject?
Well, the majority of us in Australia live in an urban environment, but that is only a part of it for me. I’ve always had an interest in these kinds of settings – the earlier work of the seventies and before, was generally of invented imagery with occasional historical or geographic references. Then in the early eighties for the first time it became more site specific, such as the Port Liardet paintings, based around Port Melbourne, then the Tasmanian West Coast mining work of the Queenstown ‘Copperopolis’ series, and then onto the Antarctic paintings and so on. In each case they happened by chance, or being in a location, or by invitation – which raised my curiosity to find out more about their respective histories – before setting out to try to develop some visual imagery.
Also, and importantly I’ve always been fascinated by very early map making – ranging from the Ptolemy period of early world maps, showing their assumptions of their world, then going up to the Medieval town maps. To me they were fascinating ‘picture-maps’, great artworks in fact – with limited cartographic knowledge – which made for the most interesting imagery. These picture maps did not try to just show the geography of a place, but were studded with pictorial images denoting the architecture of the time, the political and social conditions and religious imagery too. Then, when I began painting my ‘picture-maps’ of the various sites and cities that interested me – I had very much in mind these wonderful early image makers.
CL: Literature often provides you with a starting point for your work or with resonant imagery that you explore – is that the case with this drawing?
Yes, sometimes a certain work of literature can suggest to me some imagery – or even a sentence or a line from a book or a poem can have, on occasions, that same feeling. I remember in the seventies, writers like Italo Calvino or the American, Donald Barthelme among others, seemed to be full of all kinds of visual associations, and possibilities – they were at times ‘triggers’ for some of the work I was doing then.
In the case of this ‘Melbourne Now’ quartet, Patrick McCaughey had introduced me to this Scottish poet called Edwin Muir – a kind of loner in some ways, and also with his wife, an early translator of Kafka’s work. On reading his work – the poem ‘The Labyrinth’ – set off strong associations for me, so it seemed appropriate to call this work ‘Extended Melbourne Labyrinth’ as our Melbourne labyrinth is spreading further and further.
CL: This drawing presents a vertiginous perspective on Melbourne – how did you go about creating this view?
I wanted to create this extended view of Melbourne – how it’s spreading with all the road tentacles reaching out. In some previous Melbourne pieces that I’d done, the sites, buildings etc. were more clearly or prominently picked out. I wanted to move it on and not be so site-specific for this work, but rather be just suggestive of the general landmarks. So, in order to do that, I chose to work with an oil-stick with its characteristic, yet wonderful, unforgiving brutality for a direct mark – avoiding any kind of fussiness – here, the quality of the line matters.
Of course as in my admired map-makers of history – the cartography in my work is just to suggest the site or location – as someone said of my ‘map-pictures’, a visitor to Melbourne would not be able to find their hotel 200 metres from one of my paintings or drawings… For me the concept, visual image, and characteristic of the work is of direct priority – the subject matter always follows…