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Australian art

Contemporary art

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detail A Person Looks At A Work Of Art/ someone looks at something...



Peter Tyndall


12 Feb 1951 -


For over three decades Peter Tyndall’s art has examined the relationship between the viewer, the art object and the gallery or museum. Since 1974 he has titled each work through a system of three lines which immediately positions the artwork as a detail of a greater whole, the viewer as the subject of the art and the ‘something’ being looked at. The viewer then becomes a ‘detail’, though an integral one, of ‘cultural consumption production’.

Peter Tyndall’s 1988 work was first shown in an exhibition at the Yuill/Crowley gallery in Sydney entitled ‘The right-angle giver (instruments of the passion)’. These four timber right-angles are also spirit levels and plumb-bobs, tools for, among other things, hanging artworks straight on the wall. Each component has a Latin text: ‘vanitas’, ‘gravitas’, ‘levitas’, ‘veritas’, which translate as vanity, gravity, levity and truth. Each word has a resonance with the others and inevitably sets up oppositions between gravity and levity (weight and lightness, but also humour) and between vanity and truth (falseness and veracity). While the text seems to have a moral dictum, it draws no conclusions and in conjunction with the measuring devices suggests that the art gallery’s desire for measured gravity and truth is equally beset by levity and vanity.

The large painting from 1995 was the key work in Tyndall’s exhibition ‘The Big Bang (and five more last words)’. It embodies the direction he has taken since the late 1980s, when he extended his consideration of the circulation of the art object and the viewer’s relation to it to a consideration of creativity (and creation myths). ‘Logos/ha ha’ symbolised the power embodied in the word (logos), the word as embodying creation in Christian doctrine, and undermined it by the simple response of laughter (ha ha), which in turn symbolised and undermined the power relations involved in looking at a work of art in an art gallery. The gravity of art sanctified by the institution as art is undermined by the levity of a comic book laugh.

The split in this mythology of mastery and creation is echoed by the split in the canvas, emphasised by painting the edge where the two canvas panels meet red. The painting depicts the word ‘logos’, with the L and the S as letters and the O and G replaced with two eyes and a crucifix. The image of the archaic crucifix and the eyes on either side derive from an amulet that was placed in St Peter’s tomb in Rome at the time of Constantine. The eyes have a defensive, almost pagan, role, perhaps warding off the ‘evil eye’ by getting in first with their staring look. Tyndall has written: ‘The Big Bang in this case being the (first) sound (in the beginning was the word …) of the First Word being broken, being evoked, being made, (as represented by the split between the two LOGOS halves in my archetypal foundation myth imagery) … In my thinking and planning this BIG painting belongs as the generic generator back in 1988. It’s just that I had not gotten around to doing it before this’.1

1. Peter Tyndall, ‘The Big Bang (and five more last words)’, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne 1995, unpaginated

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006




Media category


Materials used

4 spirit levels, 4 brass pendulums, text


Installation dimensions variable according to wall size :

a-d - 4 spirit levels, 7.5 x 76.2 x 3 cm, each

e-h - 4 plumb bobs, 133.5 x 12.6 x 2 cm, each wooden slat

Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.


Rudy Komon Memorial Fund 1988


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Peter Tyndall

Works in the collection


Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 3 publications


Anthony Bond and Victoria Lynn, AGNSW Collections, 'Contemporary Practice - Here, There, Everywhere ...', pg. 229-285, Sydney, 1994, 238 (colour illus.).

Robert Raymond, 52 views of Rudy Komon, Sydney, 1999, 164.

Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Cultural memory, critical distance', pg.154-203, Sydney, 2006, 200 (colour illus.).