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Launching Maloney’s Fugitive Text – Ruth Waller

Image ©Peter Maloney
from ‘Fugitive Text’ (M.33, Melbourne, 2022)

In introducing Peter Maloney’s Fugitive text, New York writer Lyn Tillman includes a short poem by First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. It’s a poem which mourns a young man who is driven to suicide by the horrors of the trenches. Indeed Sassoon is a somewhat poignant reference for this volume of Peter’s photo assemblages. As depicted in Terence Davies’ recent film, the young Sassoon had several gay love affairs, and this at a time when to be gay was to befugitive, as he says in Benediction “it is a shadow life we lead”. And those fleeting sexual pleasures proved fugitive for Sassoon, as Siegfried the fugitive, seemingly decides to “turn himself in to the straight life” and subsequently falls into an unhappy marriage and, late in life, sadly, succumbs to Catholicism.

Indeed we discover that most the great poets of the First World War were queer. (think Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Charles Sorley, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney. ) They often wrote of the beauty of the young men with whom they served and their deep distress at witnessing the war’s ravaging of so many fine young lives. Many were scarred for life. (If this is a history which interests you there is a beautifully presented and very moving audio-montage podcast called Love and War compiled by Kevin Childs in 2020 featuring the writings (letters and verse) of these queer poets. )

 These men speak of the love they feel for their comrades –it is a fulsome, complex and layered kind of Eros. Wartime throws young men from all levels of society into an intense and carnal intimacy. Theirs is, in all senses, a fugitive love.

Tillman likens this witnessing of war to Peter’s generation’s witnessing of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, seeing Maloney’s images as “fictional memorials, inventions of and from that past” possessing what she terms a “numbness” “a numbness from loss after loss”…

Meditations on lives and intimacies loved and lost…

Peter is not one to readily display the grief and distress he has experienced over the years. It seems to me he is very disciplined in this respect- he has certainly seen, and endured, a lot of life and loss and pain, as this body of work so powerfully testifies. This reserve, this withholding, is perhaps partly a survival mechanism, but I have a strong sense, in the assembly of this body of work, of a slow process of meditation, of contemplation, a dedicating of time, to the holding of the memory of moments of intensity, whether these be fleeting (fugitive) encounters, treasured enduring relationships, or vestiges of the found lives of others.

Crucially this body of work is work of the body, the body as a site of pleasure and of pain, of eros and frailty, the mortal body.  And in the interplay of image and text, it is a work which plays between body and mind, sensation and reflection.

This juxtaposing of images of bodies and places, spaces, traces and texts- is a poetic process – a kind of devotion to an immersion in memory and free association, of sitting with images and letting them find new states, new relationships, new lives. I think for the artist, the process by which this happens is intuitive and elusive (fugitive) and hence all the more compelling. It generates its own momentum, its own imperative.

In writing about Peter’s work in relation to photography in 2005 for his show Gone Tomorrow, I referred to art historian David Summers’ 2003 discussion of the implications of photography for the painter[1]. Summers characterises the artist as a performer of certain kinds of events:

The artist may in fact be a person who performs finding, manipulation and change, always with self-consciousness as a performer (in whose work) pictorial and constructive imagination co-exist.

For Maloney the processes of “finding, manipulation and change” are played out intuitively- pictorially and structurally drawing relations between events, time and space. Images formerly separated by time, space and circumstance are brought together to intersect across the axes of an improvised grid. Here they are poetically ignited, through a seemingly alchemic interaction of their particularity, their specificity, as documents from a life, their resonance as representative of a genre, and the chemistry of their delivery and their material condition.

In his blog Bodies in Trouble,  Maloney refers to himself as aesthetically promiscuous… Juxtaposed with snatches of sexual encounters, snaps of loved ones and the fading blurred visions of the afflicted, are images of seemingly nondescript spaces and surfaces- drack urine stained corners, floors, tiles, carpet, brickwalls …those places on which our eye might fall in a state of distraction or reverie, with disinterested attention. These recall qualities I associate with the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, described quite appositely by Thomas Moran:

This literature provides a radical prism through which to experience the world, one not alternate to our usual prescribed relationship with reality but hidden within it, in the liminal and marginal minutiae; crouching in the slightly chipped cup, in the stiffly articulated bars racked against a window, in the accretion of discarded clothes found along a street during a midweek morning or in the uncanny repetition of faces discarded in memory.[2]

About text: Maloney is a judicious wordsmith. It’s in his conversation,- he is a great story-teller and has a lovely gift for word-play. His texts are carefully chosen and artfully shaped. There is often a sense of privacy, of secrecy, in the space between text and image. And the quality of text, as painting, is key. The speed and mechanical distancing of typescript is slowed right down, often to dissolve or disintegrate before our eyes- into deeply personal spidery and blotted passages and stuttered utterances- as typescript is painstakingly re- rendered- wrought strange, twisted, stretched -it floats, drifts, it’s nervy, ghostly, and it takes on a voice, an aural quality- it whispers, sings, whimpers, hums, howls….

And this beautifully assembled and eloquent album is held together by two quite perfect and clearly heartfelt texts– texts which complement the work and each other- Tillman’s touching introduction is brilliantly bookended by Shaune Lakin, senior curator of Photog at the NGA. These are both must-reads.

As Shaune explains, Peter began making these pieces in 1996 when on an Australia Council residency in Paris. That was five years after the death from HIV/AIDs of his partner Michael and the loss of so many close friends, so many funerals… 1996 was also the year antivirals were first released and the condition “shifted from being almost always fatal to manageable”. Survival became possible.

I suspect the making of this body of work was in part enabled by the distancing of time and the elsewhere space offered by this residency… Trauma has a way of working its way through us slowly. And having survived so much, Peter lives on with wisdom, wit, grace & insight, and a rare resilience.

Over twenty five years have passed since then. What has happened over time to our reception of this series? One thing that strikes me is the way a seemingly organic and provisional process of improvisation- one where images are butted together, torn or taped up, has taken on a kind of elegant and elegiac majesty.

There is a fierce and tender insistence in these compositions. Brought together as Fugitive texts, they are assured to endure.

Congratulations Peter and Mark and to Shaune and publisher Helen Frajman of M33 for showing such fine judgement and vison. Many of us have wished to see a volume dedicated to this aspect of Peter’s work for quite a while. Thank you so much for making it happen and thanks to the Drill Hall for hosting us today.

Ruth Waller

15 October 2022

[1] Summers, David, Real Spaces :World Art History and the rise of Western Modernism, London 2003, p621

[2] Moran, Thomas,

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.