'The Universe Looks Down': Iconic poem transformed into art

Illustration from the exhibition of The Universe Looks Down.

An exhibition of new artwork depicting the longform narrative poem of one of Australia’s most highly regarded poets will go on display this month at the University of Melbourne’s Noel Shaw Gallery, accompanied by a series of free public events.

The works by artist Kristin Headlam were commissioned by the University of Melbourne to visualise The Universe Looks Down, a poem by Chris Wallace-Crabbe who is one of Australia’s most highly regarded poets, an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Melbourne and Ms Headlam’s life partner.

Curator and University of Melbourne Grainger Museum Exhibitions Coordinator Brian Allison said audiences may find its presentation surprising.

“We’ve hung this show in a deliberately unorthodox manner, which we think will be arresting for audiences, with text and images weaving throughout the gallery, creating narratives built from words and images. The presentation highlights the truly collaborative nature of the show, and the interplay between poetry, art, storytelling and imagination,” Mr Allison said.

Kristin Headlam said that she could not understand the poem at first and made the 32 etchings being exhibited to illustrate and bring the story to life in what she describes as a poem that plays with the story-telling of medieval romances, adventures, landscapes and marvels.

“I found it completely incomprehensible and I thought if I drew it, I could find my way to work out what it was all about,” Ms Headlam said in a half-hour documentary film created to accompany the exhibition.

Professor Chris Wallace-Crabbe described his poem as a “quest”, a “difficult and zany epic” reflecting how people behave when they are thrown together on a journey encountering love, violence, or loss.

“A quest, like a life, contains different kinds of people, naive, comic, and villainous … all these kinds of people who are held together by a story, in a story, for a story,” Professor Wallace-Crabbe said.

As part of the commission, the University Library has also acquired the sketchbooks, preliminary drawings and watercolours used to develop the etchings.

These are included in the exhibition which will all be on display from 23 August 2018 to 17 February 2019 in the University Library’s Noel Shaw Gallery. These images and first edition etchings will become part of the Rare Books Collection within the Library following the exhibition.

A program of three public events will accompany the exhibition, including an artist’s talk by Ms Headlam, an author’s talk by Emeritus Professor Wallace-Crabbe and a discussion of the collaboration between artist and poet with scholar and poet Lisa Gorton. Lectures are free but bookings are required.