The thingness of things: an interview with Mary-Louise Browne

Small Bore Books recently asked Mary-Louise Browne some questions.
Mary-Louise Browne

SSB: Black and/or White was your masters submission at the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1982. What kinds of artwork were you making prior to this? 

MLB: I began to be drawn away from the pictorial by throwing myself into installation at art school. I used to set up big low lying installations on pallet like floors with plants emerging out of them or sand gardens, and then give the audience a hint of what I was up to through the titles. I remember one title distinctly “Lucian did not plant the accidental rose”. I engraved this on a small white marble plaque and put it in the gully outside Elam and told people where to find it. It looked quite funereal and I think people thought I had buried a pet. I have always liked these misinterpretations.

The installation work I did was about making people wade their way through at knee level, for instance the foyer outside the library at Elam  – the work spread out from the front door of the building to the front door of the library to the door to the corridor to the teachers tea room. It wasn’t intimidating so much as irritating. I didn’t want to make single perpendicular sculptures, I was interested in making works more supine, the difference between male and female art.

Beyond the Pale, Mary-Louise Browne, 100m2, 1980

SBB: What led you to using text?

MLB: I started to think about how the title of the work might just be enough to get people thinking about the concept, picturing the work and that perhaps the actual work wasn’t necessary, just the proposition. I am still interested in this notion, in fact my most recent exhibition Picturing is a good example of this. The plaques could well be labels.

Then of course I got interested in performance because of its temporal nature and in those days any work that actually existed as an object was seen to be too commercial and that didn’t interest us in the sculpture department at Elam. After all we were being taught by Phil Dadson. These performances whose residues  became installations, (as you can see in those photos from 100m2), were still temporal and the content was political, or  gender political.

Working Conditions_ANZART Hobart_1983
Working Conditions, Mary-Louise Browne, ANZART, Hobart, 1983


Rebus, Mary-Louise Browne, 100m2, 1980

However in spite of this I know that I still liked the ‘thinginess of things’ and these handset letterpress texts are permanent works on paper which satisfies this urge to make ‘things’ and have a document of what was going on at the time. The late Philippe Hamilton described these texts in a review in Craccum as a kind of ‘navel gazing’ however, and I am sure many people agreed.

Rebus 1980 100m2
Rebus, Mary-Louise Browne, 100m2, 1980

 SBB: How does it feel to revisit this work, over 30 years later?

 MLB: When I look back at the work I feel exactly the same way I did then, and given the kinds of responses I got back then, I must have had repressed memory syndrome which has now ‘recovered’. This mainly because the the situation hasn’t really changed for me personally but I do think that the situation has changed for some women artists, especially women who do not make overtly political work. Moving image as a medium has certainly helped women artists exist on a more level playing field. Photography has shifted from a predominantly male domain too.

Truly Rural_Knox Church_Art in Dunedin 1984
Truly Rural, Mary-Louise Browne, Knox Church, Art in Dunedin, 1984

Black and/or White

Tomorrow night we’re officially launching our first title, Black and/or White by Auckland artist Mary-Louise Browne. This book is a new iteration of a text work first made in 1982, as a student at Elam School of Fine Arts.

Emma compiling the printed pages of the new iteration of Black and/or White.

Known now for her large word sculptures, by 1982 Mary-Louise had already begun a text practice. In her hands words become slippery and mutable, undermining our expectations of narrative resolution.

Black and/or White contains 17 individual stories, each one offering three or four possible endings. The stories weave across each other, at times contradicting and negating each other. They are hilarious and yet also confronting. When I first read them I assumed they were fiction, but many of the artworks described are real. Reading them now, I think about feminism at the height of postmodernism, with authorship itself under threat.

Checking the facsimile copy against the original text.

Black and/or White was presented as a loose leaf boxed set – a book without a spine. It was printed at Elam on a letterpress printer, handset in Univers medium type. Mary-Louise printed it with the help of legendary Elam print technician Robin Lush, whose role in the practice of art books is talked about here in a lovely blog post by the Elam Library.

Our 2016 version is digitally printed, carefully reproduced from the original. We have taken great care to ensure that it’s a faithful copy, while wanting to acknowledge its difference from the original.


Like Mary-Louise’s first version, this iteration has been handmade, apart from the one stage of the process we can’t yet produce in-house. Instead, I took it down to Bill at Perry Print for binding.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.04.01 pm

To get your hands on a copy of the book please send an email to Black and/or White retails for $30 (plus postage), and is a limited edition of 100.

Emma Bugden, Editor