Becoming a Bird by Stephanie Radok

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Lovers of fiction often argue that that form gives insight into characters and can portray the depth and complexity of a person.  Biographies, on the other hand, may be restricted to archival and primary sources that sometimes do not reveal the essence and particularity of the subject.

Becoming a Bird is a gentle, deeply personal indulgence by Stephanie Radok, a noted Australian writer and artist, where she reflects and recalls memories, as she visits museums and galleries around the world.

Memory retrieval is like tracing a path through the jungle while the jungle too is constantly changing. So, very often, memory can be created and inspired by an original experience.

Becoming a Bird is a collection of stories, museums and memory which involve travel and home, art and freedom, reverie and nest-building….

The twelve chapters are rich in anecdote and graced by her artist’s keen and sensitive gaze. The very first museum is believed to be Plato’s Library in a grove dedicated to the goddess Athena. As a child, she remembers playing the role of Athena, the goddess who changed the weaver, Arachne, into a spider – the first arachnid?

The book refers constantly to Art in its myriad forms.  Struth’s series of museum photographs, the giant foot in the Pergamon museum in Berlin and, one of the most remarkable, the huge fragment from the Great Gate of Ishtar which was once at the eighth entrance to the ancient city of Babylon.

As a bird freely flying, it seems, randomly from place to place, so Stephanie Radok darts from one experience or one memory to another.

A bird has acute vision – eagles are famed for it – and, Radok, like a bird, trains her artist’s eye on unexpected things. There is almost a chapter devoted to the thistle and her fond regard for weeds, classified as pests by man. She is very attracted to the works such as “The Right to be Lazy” and the “Do Nothing Garden”. Weeds are prominent in both!

Stephanie Radok believes that there are countless forms of Art – as many as there are people in the world. And, although this is a mere 200 pages, it contains a wealth of observations of artworks here in Australia and during her travels internationally. She makes notes as she travels for she has said ”there are always damned huge spaces between my words and my memories.”

In the July chapter, she leaps from one fascinating aspect of life to another. A 1936 edition of TS Eliot triggers thoughts on Lebrecht, her father’s friend, to Rosa Luxembourg, Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist.

On the very next page, she is in New York at the Frick museum crammed with ugly and great art (she thinks).

In Canada, she shares her discovery of Oberlander, a refugee from the Nazis, and his Taiga Garden. In the National Gallery of Ottawa, she finds a link to Australian art and is moved by the International Indigenous Art Exhibition there.

As yet, it is not possible to fly internationally to visit the many interesting destinations that await.

Becoming a Bird is a splendid substitute for our temporary deprivation of the joys of discovery when travelling. Many of her observations inspire the reader to make a list for future reference. For me, having an opportunity to visit Ottawa, Berlin and Prague would be enhanced with Radok’s writing in mind.

Contrary to human beings, birds are constantly moving: soaring, swooping, gliding and at times flapping. A picture emerges of the author, a thoughtful, sensitive, wondering woman who creates a sense of possibility in her book, dispelling barriers of time and space.

Even if we were to attempt to investigate the wonders of our world at a frantic pace, we would merely scratch the surface. This book, while containing so much, is a reminder that these recollections are a small taste, a joyful sipping (or perhaps pecking?) at what is possible to experience in our marvellous world.

Becoming a Bird: Untold Stories About Art

[2021]

By Stephanie Radok

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 17430 5802 2

$24.99; 180pp

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