It’s likely you have already encountered Richard Tipping’s visual poetry, perhaps without even knowing his name. At the height of Queensland’s 2011 floods, his 2000 public artwork Watermark fulfilled its own consciously prophetic anxieties. The red steel construction, which spelled the top half of the word “flood”, suddenly marked the latest disastrous waterline of the Brisbane River.
In 1979, Tipping tweaked a blue “AIRPORT” road sign to read “AIRPOET”, so the arrow seemed to point to both a literal place of transport and to the sky as a place of poetic possibility. Another of his road sign interventions, Form 1 Planet, which simply inserted “P” and “T” around “LANE”, continues to proliferate, meme-like, on signs across the countryside.
Tipping began working with words in the late 1960s, writing poems protesting against the Vietnam War. As he began creating physical objects to carry his poems, with a consciousness around the dynamics of the urban environment, he realised how many other possibilities were opening up: not just in terms of what poetry can do, but in how art might engage the public.
Hear the Art reproduces images of works from all stages of Tipping’s 50-year career, as well as preliminary sketches, installation photographs and a substantial body of writing that contextualises their creation and presentation. This isn’t a definitive survey of his work, but it’s certainly multifarious in form as well as content – the word “dearth” on monumental black granite; “neoeon” in neon glass; huge corflute lettering spelling out “Quiet”; words inscribed into beach stones, picket fences, brickwork and grass.
What unites these disparate works is an impulse that is as metaphysical and experiential as it is political. Tipping draws on the latent anagrammatic and resonant properties of words and phrases to provoke, as he writes, “new ways of seeing the everyday”.
The intimate tone of Tipping’s writing here matches his description of the book as a kind of “illustrated memoir”. The voice is casual, almost anecdotal, as he describes the practical challenges of the commissioning and construction processes, which makes his brief diversions into the philosophical heart of his “word artwork” all the more intriguing and paradoxical.
“Voice,” he writes, “is the first state of poetry: as an oral art, there is no need for an object. The stone becomes a kind of score, like notes of music written down as meant for performance … giving weight to words.”
Puncher & Wattmann, 176pp, $34.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Hear the Art: Visual Poetry as Sculpture".
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