Words by Miranda Hine
In the last few months, I’ve written three catalogue essays for solo shows in quick succession, which was something quite unfamiliar for me. It’s also the first semester in six years I’ve not been at university.
I’ve never been a great self-motivator and I procrastinate hella easily. I like the refining part toward the end of the essay writing process, and the creative construction of language, but getting to that point can be a drag sometimes. I like researching but it takes me a long time, especially when I’m unfamiliar with the subject. I’ve found that these are issues that are consistent whether I’m writing a uni assignment or an essay for an artist. They’re not that different. There are still deadlines, and word limits are real things. But you don’t have a tutor and a bunch of classmates to bounce ideas off.
I’ve pulled together a couple of pointers that I’ve picked up writing after uni. Obviously, this is based on my personal experience and way of working, and it’s to help me nut out for myself some pointers for future writing as much as anything. It’s also not groundbreaking stuff, so be warned that most of it is common sense.
Factor in research time. Remember that you don’t have uni library access which is a bitch. Borrow a friend’s or your sister’s library access if you need to. You can always physically go to the uni library and look at the books even if you can’t borrow them, too.
Get used to not seeing the install or even the work before the essay is due. This is specifically for catalogue essays, which definitely differ from reviews or critiques that you write at uni. Not seeing the works means you have to be quite general in your descriptions, but not too vague. Draw upon the artist’s previous practice in general if need be, and discuss with them in detail what their plans are for the work.
Remember, if this is new work you're writing about, you can’t rely on other people have previously written about it like you often have to do at uni. You need to be bold and make your own assertions, assumptions and judgements. You’ll need to supply your own interpretation of the work but don’t deny viewers their own interpretations. There’s a balance between keeping it open but not so open that you’re essentially saying nothing.
Speak to someone about the topic to get pointers for references and research. If it’s a catalogue essay, this could be the artist or someone else knowledgeable about the topic. Last month, I wrote an entire essay, which included hours and hours of research, on human interactions with the environment before I realised my sister was doing her PhD on that topic and she had literally hundreds of references. Idiot. (Me, not her).
Get feedback. This can be hard if you’re not comfortable showing the artist a rough, clumsy draft to get initial thoughts. Find someone you’re comfortable with and you trust for feedback, ie. your sister. (Are you seeing the trend here? In summary, use your sister). As always, though, know what to take on and what not to take on.
Try to leave time between rereads. Obviously this isn’t always possible. This is why it’s best to start the essay as soon as you can, so you can leave the writing and come back to it with fresh eyes.
Always read a final time for little mistakes, or get someone else to. I prefer to print my final copies off and read them in hard copy, because I find my eyes pick up different things from when it’s on screen. I know it sounds extreme, but I really believe that tiny mistakes can distract the reader from your words and undermine the credibility of your arguments, so make sure you have that final read. In saying that, I’ve not proofread this article to the same extent, so sorry if I’m a massive hypocrite and there are loads of mistakes.
It seems to be unpredictable how long any given essay will take to write or how easy the subject will be to articulate. Sometimes the tone and rhythm just comes naturally if you’re writing about a certain type of work. Sometimes you have to rework it and rework it.
The three essays I recently wrote were for Marisa Georgiou, Chris Bennie and Hailey Atkins. Marisa’s was really fun to write. It was academic but playful. It took a lot of research but the structure and flow came naturally.
Chris’s was way harder. I think a factor was the context of the show, which was at Pop Gallery and probably to be attended by QCA staff and art academics. With that in mind I probably stifled the liveliness in my writing which inhibited the flow.
Hailey’s was totally different again. She was happy for me to take a less academic approach, and to align the tone and structure of the writing with the qualities of her work: loose, questioning, playful.
It’s great to now have an idea of just how differently my writing develops based on the context and the subject. It’s going to take a bit more practice, and some more hits and misses, to be confident in knowing exactly what works for me so that I can write the best way that I can each time. Maybe none of this will apply to you and your writing style, because everyone works differently, but I hope it can be of some help.
Marisa Georgiou’s exhibition Watch Before Going to Sleep ran at Moana Project Space in Perth from 8 – 30 April. You can view the catalogue here.
Chris Bennie’s exhibition Mood Swings showed at Pop Gallery in Woolloongabba from 20 – 30 April.
Hailey Atkins’ exhibition This Must Be The Place runs from 10 – 24 May at Metro Arts, as part of the Cut Thumb Laundry ARI in Residence Program.