Walking with McCahon, Martin Edmond

In this extract from Dark Night, Martin Edmond retraces the steps of Colin McCahon, who, on April 11 1984, went missing in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens and was not found again for 36 hours.

I actually made the walk from the Botanical Gardens to Centennial Park on a few occasions: once was never going to be enough. Curiously, each time I did it, I had the feeling I would have to do it again. This, while unexpected, is exactly what you would expect of a ritual path, even one as arbitrarily conceived as this one was. Concomitantly, the account of the stations that follows is made up of details observed or encountered on different days, at different times, during different walks. The first walk, in daylight, was a reconnaissance. I wanted to identify my 14 stations but I also wanted to be abroad on the streets at around about the same time of day that McCahon had gone missing. The other times were re-enactments, at night, early and late, because it is at night that we become more responsive, more attuned, more able, perhaps, to get lost. It’s also at night that a different kind of life manifests itself on city streets, the shadow side of the daytime pursuits of work and shopping. And, as if in fealty to this proposition, each time I did the walk, day or night, something peculiar happened: all at once, and involuntarily, I entered a shadow world, the world of street people, of the homeless and the bereft, of the abandoned.

I still struggle to understand, not just why this was so, but how it happened. Because it was an almost instantaneous transformation, one that took place as soon as, perhaps even before, I stepped out my door in Summer Hill. Was it because my mind had changed; was it because I was going, as it were, nowhere? Nobody to see, nothing to do, just a random destination that made no sense beyond its immediate and wholly subjective raison d’être? Yes, in part. But there was also something else. Most of us, most of the time, wilfully ignore that parallel world of the homeless that persists on city streets: we feel we have to because, if we don’t, it will face us with questions we can’t or do not want to answer. In fact we fear it because there is a community of the dispossessed that merely to acknowledge is in some sense to embrace. I now think that to join that community is far easier than most of us think; and that this ease is the cause of our fear. It is literally just a step away. A sideways shuffle. You can cross that invisible border in a moment’s thought. Or inattention.

I remember one evening on Hunter Street in the city. About 7pm. There was a fellow perched on a wide concrete platform outside a closed office building. He was a tramp, a clochard, wearing an extravagance of rags that were the anonymous shade grey-brown old clothes go. He had a hat on, with white hair sticking out from under it, more hair sprouted from his sun-burned or alcohol-reddened face, and he was sitting cross-legged like a siddha before an array of coins and cigarette butts spread out in a semi-circle on the concrete around him – no doubt the day’s takings – in a mood of what seemed like perfect calm. He looked neither happy nor sad, not miserable, not pathetic either; rather, he seemed possessed of an acceptance of his lot that did not even partake of resignation. I was about to cross the road to go, because I needed to pee, into the pub on the other side. As I waited for a break in the traffic, I glanced at him and in the same moment he lifted his head and looked at me. What passed between us was more or less incommunicable, deeply unsettling despite, or perhaps because of, the sense of recognition that was in it. I know you, it seemed to say. You’re one of us. But whether I was one of him, or he one of me, was less clear.

In the pub, men and women who work at the big end of town were unwinding after their day in the office. They were well-dressed, well-heeled, mostly young, many of them already drunk or at least well on the way to being so. In the urinal two blokes were mouthing off about one of their women companions in that sneering, complicit, disappointed way some men have. Another was talking on his mobile phone, he was maudlin, full of self-pity, his day was ending badly. I felt I was invisible to these men, a shadow or a ghost they could not see or else would not acknowledge lest some contagion pass from me to them. This feeling became even stronger as I went back up the stairs and passed silently through the noisy crowded bar, the press of bodies opening a secret way before me so that I touched nobody, was seen by none – yet saw everything myself. The man with his tobacco and coins was still bent as if in contemplation over his hoard. I could not help thinking that what I had shared with him in that look, and also the contagion I had carried into the bar, was the infectivity of compassion.

So here was another strange thing about those fugitive walks: whether in the broad light of day, at evening or in the garish night, I made them in a state of trembling emotion that seemed to come from nowhere and go back there after I had finished and gone home. I felt like weeping most of the time. And yet I never knew what it was I would be weeping for. It wasn’t for myself. Perhaps it was for the city itself, that vast, intricate, arbitrary and insentient association that is always reaching towards a sentience only we, and only intermittently, can give to it. Or it might have been the infectivity of compassion caught from looking in the eyes of the homeless. Sometimes I felt, impossible as it seems, that the wordless, amnesiac ghost of Colin McCahon was walking with me. Certainly I saw and heard things I never would have had I not set out to walk with him. The walks, though always provisional and somehow fragmentary, nevertheless had about them a sense of the inevitability and the inscrutability that we hope for in the unfolding of a story.

For instance, the first time I went out, on the morning of September 18, 2008, a Thursday, I stopped at the State Library of New South Wales before going down into the gardens. This was for two reasons: I was a bit early to synchronise, as I wished to do, with McCahon’s 11am disappearance; and I’d just learned the library held a copy of a magazine that had in it an essay I wanted to read. It’s called “Practical Religion: On the Afterlife of Colin McCahon” and was written as a trans-Tasman collaboration between two art historians, Australian Rex Butler and New Zealander Laurence Simmons. Not an easy read perhaps but one of such illumination that I could feel synapses in my brain exploding into life as new pathways were formed. I’m not going to try and summarise their argument here but will reproduce those sentences I noted down at the time.

“The possibility of posterity”, the authors write, “is the very subject of McCahon’s work, the single principle around which everything else … is organised.” And:

For when we look at his work it is not … any unique subject matter expressed in an unreproducible style but as much as possible a withdrawal of these things. It says as little as possible in its own voice but understands itself merely as the site of inscription by others. It is empty, oracular Biblical prophecy that says nothing and that can be seen to apply to all future circumstances.

 

They write that McCahon’s work is abyssal. That it is testamentary of its own passage into the future, which it both speaks of and enacts. “Our reading of the painting is the resurrection it talks about.” And this: “[I]n the end it must be available to be read in ways it cannot foresee.” I could not have hoped for a better prolegomena to what I was about to attempt.

 

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