Interview with Robyn McKinnon

Robyn McKinnon is a Tasmanian painter. Her work Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, part of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) collection, will be shown in our up-coming exhibition, Theatre of the World. Theatre is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in collaboration with MONA and TMAG.

Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, 2007
Acrylic paint on canvas

Elizabeth Mead: Do you generally not like to talk about your work?

Robyn McKinnon: Generally not. The title is about as far as I get. The title’s the clue, it’s a bit of a crossword. You’ve got the clue, work out the rest for yourself.

EM: That makes perfect sense to me.

RM: Does it?

EM: Yep. But you did change your mind about this interview. You said no at first, and then you decided to.

RM: Yes. I thought about it, and I thought that if I want to actually put myself in a position where I’m not ignored, then just do it. I also spoke to Allanah from Handmark [Gallery] and said, ‘Should I do it or not?’ They’re not mentors for me, but they look after the business stuff that I don’t know how to look after.

EM: Are you ambitious?

RM: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It doesn’t mean that I want to rule the world or anything, but I’d like to feel, apart from the personal satisfaction of succeeding for myself, that there’s someone else who thought I succeeded.

EM: So that would be your determination of whether you’d been successful or not?

RM: No, no, no. My determination of whether I was successful or not is how I feel about it, if it moves me. If it moves me, I can put it out there. If it doesn’t it gets painted over.

EM: Being a painter comes with the pressure of putting yourself out there in the world, with a financial impetus. Do you find it hard to manage your position as a professional artist?

RM: I just usually leave it up to the gallery or in a lot of cases, destiny. I do it because I love it, and the rest of it is really a bit of a pain in the bum. Allanah is really good. I’d say, ‘Well if I’ve got to pay the rates, and the rates cost $200, then the painting costs $200’, and she says, ‘You can’t do that’. So I don’t want to know.

EM: I don’t imagine that you think much of the culture that goes along with the display and production of art – ‘the art world’, whatever that means.

RM: Yeah, not a lot. It’s ok, it’s important, it’s like all strains of society. There are people that you choose to get on with, and people you don’t choose to get on with. You run the gamut, and if you know that those people are no good for you, then move away. They all make up the community. But I stayed away, there’s not enough time. I taught for 27 years. And when I turned 50 I thought, ‘That’s it mate, no more’.

EM: No more teaching?

RM: Nope.

EM: Did you enjoy the teaching?

RM: No, not really. I used to get nervous about it, feel sick in the stomach before every class, until I got the lessons down pat. And then it got boring. And I didn’t want to tell kids that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t do that, I don’t think. ‘You need a ticket’, my father said. The ticket was art teaching, and the rest was mine.

EM: How did you come to be an artist?

RM: I’ve always done it. I don’t know, I can’t remember when I didn’t do it. It was probably when I came back from Europe, I was about 29 and I thought, ‘No, this is no good, I’ll just do what I have to do, what I like to do’. So probably when I turned 50 and gave up teaching, I actually took it on as a profession. Yeah, so for the last nine years I’ve just applied myself in that way.

EM: Have you enjoyed having all that time to just focus on…

RM: I just love it.

EM: That’s wonderful. You’ve earned it.

RM: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s just great. This really old house that is falling down and needs painting and stuff like that, that’s where I go every morning, front room, at whatever time get up. If I have something on in the day I get up at 3am and work until 10.   

EM: You get up at 3?

RM: Yeah but I go to bed at 7.

EM: Impressive.

RM: No, it’s not impressive, but that’s what I do. It’s eased off a bit. There’s been several catastrophic things that have happened over the last seven months that don’t warrant talking about. So I’m having a holiday. This morning I got up at 5:30.

EM: Oh wow, that’s pretty slack. So back when you came back from Europe that time, and you started to be more focused about making art, did you have a sense of your motivation or objective? Was there something you wanted to communicate?

RM: I think it was probably more instinctive. It was actually not knowing what you were going to create, that was what it was. When I finished at teacher’s college, I did a secondary art-teacher thing. When I finished there I went to art school at night so I could find out more about art. It was easy, if you know what I mean – I didn’t have to push myself to do anything. All these other kids were racing to get work in on time, but I’d have it done, for no reason other than I liked to do it.

EM: So what was motivating you was the sense of exploration, of not knowing what was going to happen?

RM: Yeah, and you don’t, because you’re just the vessel. You start a painting with some sort of idea in your head – no, it’s not the idea of the painting, it’s an emotion, it’s sensibility, a vision, a leaf falling, just these tiny things. And all of a sudden, this painting starts to grow, and then you think about what the painting reminds you of, and then you know. You’ve got to sort of smell it, go with it, and then you think, ‘Shit, how come that happened?’

EM: When you say that you’re the vessel – what’s filling it? 

RM: I think it’s a sensibility that you have. People know more than they choose to know. What they choose to know is pretty banal, usually. What they don’t know scares them, so they prefer to know the banal rather than the scary. It’s not really scary, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that a silly little person like yourself can make – that. That’s not to say it’s great, but where did it come from? I think as you get older, the visionary aspect of understanding a little bit more about yourself helps you to question why you respond to things the way you do. Not why you did it, but why you responded in that way.

EM: What have you learned about yourself over all those years of painting and teaching?

RM: Well, I’m still a stubborn Scot… I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. I like that, because each of my experiences is different, and it doesn’t matter where I go, I think.

You look at a painting, and it activates something in you. Sometimes it might activate a sense of sadness, or happiness, it depends on the painting. And if it does that, then it half fills the purpose – well, for me it just about fills it.

EM: So the only hope that you have for someone viewing your work is that it activates something for them?

RM: That would be the main hope. Also that they would actually choose to come back and look at it again, and maybe question the feeling that they had in the first place, and then think, ‘Oh, I wonder why I feel differently about that’. And maybe it’s them that has changed, and not the painting.

Sometimes – there was one painting in particular last year I put up on the wall, and I couldn’t take it down. And it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about that, it was about every time I looked at it I could be in it. The water was so churned up, and rough. It wasn’t scary and you could breathe in the water. When I took it down a felt a bit sad. I put it away, and then someone actually walked in and bought it from Handmark and the amazing thing was that that fellow had gone through a similar situation to the one I’d gone through when I was looking at that painting. It’s weird. It’s not weird, but I think a lot of people find it scary. I don’t know, it’s a bit like an echo.

I can explain it: this lady, her son had committed suicide. She cleaned for the accountant that I take my stuff to and Darren, the accountant, said, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff [of your son’s] to Robyn, she might be able to do something with it’. So she knocked on the door, and she told me about her son – this is ‘talk back’, I get goosebumps, all the way up my arms – and I said to her, ‘I’ll do you four drawings’. She gave me free range, and I took four illustrations to her. And after that – that ‘talk back’ sort of thing – it’s like a connection.

EM: So you think that your work is a part of that process of ‘talk back’?

RM: Not quite sure. But if it does talk back to people, then I’d like it to be part of a healing process.

EM: And does it form part of your own healing processes?

RM: I think it must do. I like people, they’re alright – but in the workshop, I’m really happy because I don’t have to talk to anyone. I always feel content to be there. There are very few days where I pace up and down and go, ‘I hate being here’. Maybe it actually gives me a truer sense of myself, my old self, as I was as a child, not as I have to be socially, or talkatively, or stupidly, as people see me, you know. I don’t know.

EM: So how do you feel about Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen?

RM: Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen – it’s probably a childhood memory. My brother had pyjamas with little trucks on them that looked exactly like that. He was born in 1956 and I was born in 1953, so if you can imagine – summer pyjamas in Queensland. I thought people were being too hard on themselves – I thought about this after I painted the painting. I thought, it’s sort of a soft painting, it’s reminiscent of old-fashioned curtains, old-fashioned pyjama material, stuff like that. And it also reminded me of screen-savers. I thought that maybe if people actually saw it as a screen-saver they’d relate to it as something more gentle, something you could actually relate to and say, ‘Oh look at that little pot, things haven’t changed much’. I just felt that when I’d done it. It felt busy, but if felt quiet. Because of the size, too, of the objects, they become more intimate. And it felt like that intimacy thing where you could actually just look at one object and not the whole lot. Yeah, and I thought, ‘It’s fun, that will do’. I felt like it was calming. There’s nothing aggressive about it, except that Mrs Vermeer has too much stuff.

EM: Who is Mrs Vermeer?

RM: Well that’s the other question. Johannes Vermeer’s wife, Vermeer the Dutch master. Mrs Vermeer – you never hear about her. You know The Milkmaid, and the ones with the virginals, and all the pictures he did – she was stuck in the kitchen somewhere. And I don’t even know if he had a wife [laughs].

There’re some jugs in there – the Dutch jugs that you see in his paintings. That’s probably the only reference. Along with that there’s beaters, which Mrs Vermeer would never have know about in a million years. Yeah, it was just to ask the question, ‘Well who was Mrs Vermeer?’ She’s every other woman as well.

EM: How would you feel if someone described you as a feminist artist?

RM: I wouldn’t like it much. If I hear that I think of someone’s work – like eX de Medici. I think tampons, the lady who used tampons in her work, that was probably the height of feminism in Australia. Can you remember things like that? Teabags and tampons hanging off little bits of weaving on walls, and I think, ‘Oh, for god’s sake’.

EM: No I don’t know that one, but it reminds me of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

RM: Yeah, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know whether that was to shock. I think of someone like Tracey Moffatt, she’s strong as anything, she’s amazing. But if you think about feminism and the power that women can have, it’s neither here nor there in the arts, I don’t think. It sounds like you cry poor if you want to be named a feminist artist. You’re an artist, that’s it.

EM: Yep. So, potentially, someone like Tracey Moffatt, who’s a strong woman, and a strong artist – to relegate her to ‘feminist artist’ could almost weaken her?

RM: I think so. It sounds really crazy, but culturally she’s an icon, isn’t she. So how can she be a feminist as well? What does feminism really mean? Someone said once, ‘If you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re not a woman’, and I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

EM: Well, to me, feminism doesn’t mean everything under the sun to do with women, it means something quite particular. But it’s become so diverse and so imprecise that, as you say, you almost have to identify as a feminist just to be a worthwhile woman. But lots of women are making art, and being a woman is their reality-filter. So for you, whatever it is you’re drawing on…

RM: I’m drawing on where I live, and experiences I’ve had, millions of things…

EM: … the filter for that reality is that you’re a woman, and so therefore someone could come along and label that ‘feminist’. Is there a place for art to perform a social or political duty, do you think? 

RM: I think if art chooses to do that, it does it. I don’t think you can actively decide. Or maybe you can. I’m not the sort of person who actively decides that, I let destiny decide that. People see my work – I don’t invite them in, they just see it, and maybe it fits. If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad about it, just press on.

EM: Do you ever think about artists having a duty?

RM: I think you’ve got a duty to yourself. Again, without ego: if you love what you do, and you know that you can actually better yourself through what you’re doing, then the duty lies there, otherwise you’ve failed as a person. If you give up you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s just a little edge, it’s a little gift, a little bit more than someone else might have. And if you don’t use it, you’re a loser, you waste it. And that’s how I’m ambitious.

‘Why sex matters so much to men’

The word ‘rape’ is pretty potent. It can shut down discussion just like ‘racist’ can. I am guilty of using the r word (both of them in fact) to bully my conversation opponent into submission. I didn’t realise how much it hurt actually, until it happened to me the other day. I was accused, indirectly, of advocating rape.

This woman, Bettina Arndt, gave a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last week. I didn’t know until later that she was famous or notorious in the arena of sexual sociology; I just heard the title of the talk and thought it sounded interesting: ‘Why sex matters so much to men’. Male/female sexuality, in short, other people’s sex lives, is a topic of endless fascination to me. I can’t get enough.

As it turns out I missed the talk because I was watching my colleague Jane Clark address the NGV Women’s Association on the topic of ‘The Modern Medicis’. Is David Walsh a modern day Medici? No, said Jane. But they’ve both got balls.

I looked up Arndt’s talk on the Wheeler Centre Facebook page later that day, where I was provided with a video recording and told that Arndt had ‘stirred the ire’ of many.

Bettina Arndt, ‘Why sex matters so much to men’, video.

She’s basically giving voice to – authorising, through the discourse of sociology – the commonly accepted truth that lots of men have a higher sex drive than the women they are committed to, have children with, and love. There are plenty of exceptions, of course there are, just like you could say that generally men are taller than women, but I can think of a fair few men who are shorter than me. I think this is a brave and important thing to do, this ‘giving voice’. I also think it needs to be a woman’s voice for now, because it’s less threatening: it seems that if you acknowledge that sometimes things are hard for men, you are taking something away from women, robbing from their pile of woe. Dan Savage, America’s leading sex columnist, has been discussing this and related matters for years. He talks about the GGG principle: the need for all lovers to be ‘good, giving and game’ in order to hold out hope for happy monogamy. I can’t see why women would be magically exempt from this. We’re past special treatment I think. I don’t need it, thank you.

The depth of feeling on this matter was brought home to me when I tried to express my interest in the topic on the Wheeler Centre site, which was soliciting opinion. I found bitterness there, directed at Arndt, who was described as ‘loathsome’ and ‘revolting’. I lodged a comment asking what they meant, and asking why it was so abhorrent to express sympathy for men in sexless relationships, or men who live their lives trying and failing to get enough sex to make them happy. (Just think for a second: this would be so horrid! Imagine being constantly sexually frustrated and rejected. There’s no way I could be happy like that. The history of feminism tells me I don’t have to put up with anything that makes me unhappy).

Sure, it may be that angrier people are more likely to comment on these online forums, but no one ‘Liked’ my comment. No one liked it at all. Instead:

Oh I’m sorry I was unaware that white middle class heterosexual men were so marginalized. Poor things struggling with their overwhelming unfulfilled desires. […]

Poor men in sexless relationships! Oh no! […]

What’s that word for when you coerce someone into having sex with you when they don’t want it… Hmm… Oh yeah, rape.

As if things were not hard enough.

I hope such sentiment is not as widely held as it is deeply felt. If so, feminism must be in a rather sorry state (and I struggle to believe it is!) This much anger and defensiveness can only come from a position of weakness. I don’t accept that most women today – the relatively privileged ones for whom this research was conducted, and to whom the subsequent discussion is directed – are as weak and vulnerable as these comments suggest. Perhaps it’s a generation thing; perhaps these women, and especially the last one, are significantly older than me. The women I know wouldn’t infer ‘rape’ from this discussion, I’m sure, because they have so thoroughly internalised the knowledge that violence and exploitation are never acceptable, and haven’t been for a long time.

That goes to the heart of what I really want to say. To be truly liberated is to know that you, too, wield power. The things women want – career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination – shape our sexual and social realities just as much as the things men want (career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination). If you just take love, for a start: women make up half of it (in heterosexual terms). We’re needed. We’re also needed for sex, and for most men, sex is essential for happiness. We know, or should know, a lot about women’s needs, because of the first and second waves of feminism. We are strong enough now to think of our others’ needs as well. (Again, I’m talking about those who enjoy a certain social privilege. Poverty, lack of education and wide-spread violence, as seen in society’s most underprivileged groups, are issues of human rights and human suffering, and don’t have a place in this discussion).

Finally, I must confess my own indiscretion in bandying about the ‘r’ word, and in doing so, apologise to my ‘victim’: we were talking in a restaurant about women who want children when their male partners don’t. This man said that in a such a case the woman should ‘just do it’ anyway and once it was done it was too late, and he’d be ok with it, because it’s a new life after all. I compared this to rape: the taking of something essential from someone, with potentially catastrophic consequences, without their consent. The men I know would feel this violation very deeply indeed. As I said before, it was an extreme comparison and one that overlooks the physical pain and violence attendant to the standard definition of the word. But my point, then as now, is that every woman has the power to grant and withhold the ingredients of others’ happiness and well-being, as well of course, her own. Only a liberated woman can know that.

-Elizabeth Mead

Something for Easter

Eleanor has asked me to write something about Easter. Eleanor is our Blog Mistress.

I was wildly disappointed with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. I usually like de Botton very much, and this book was bland and preachy.

I have been prepared lately to consider the uses of religion: for social cohesion, community-mindedness, and a structure for kindness, for instance. My argument so far has been thus: if you pick and choose the bits to believe in – that it’s good to be good to your neighbour, and to feed the poor, but not good to admonish gay people, because come on, it’s the twenty-first century – you prove to yourself that you didn’t need religion in the first place. Moral relativism and responsibility is encoded in us naturally. All you’re left with, without God, is the problems with religion – obviously the wars and stuff, but also sloppy mindedness and waiting patiently for happiness.

So, like I said, I have lately been prepared to consider the other side. Not of course that God exists but that religion might be good for us. Consider: Richard Dawkins said, at a conference I’m hideously ashamed of myself for attending, that gratitude is imbued in us by evolution. Just like being co-operative can be a passive, unconscious ‘strategy’ for our genes to cycle into the next generations. The conference was for atheists. Guess what, stupidity and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Worse than the lynch-mob jeering the placard-bearing Christian soldier out the front of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre was the presentation on ‘Feminism and atheism’. Who cares, went the argument, chicks rule (cheer) and God’s dead (woo hoo). It was hideous.

Anyhow, the reason I’m thinking about whether religion might be healthy somehow is basically because I’m getting old and conservative. (Comparatively). I’m mostly worried about people being nice to each other, except for Mummy Bloggers, who I despise and wish to put an end to, a final end. I also really like watching rom-coms; I routinely veto films in which a parent dies or any pets are sick or sad (emotionally scarred by Dumbo).

I’ve teased (and tested) my friends a bit too, about the possibility of finding Jesus – me, who is known to her loved ones as a ‘fascist’ and ‘zealot’, and also ‘aggressive and arrogant’, when it comes to preaching about why religion isn’t good for us. A particular sticking point for me, at least me in my pre-rom-com state, is ‘tolerance’: if you believe in magic, I will think you’re weird and stupid. Why should I ‘tolerate’ you? Dressing up your belief in magic with words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘fate’ will make me ‘tolerate’ you even less for your sloppy logic, i.e. if you are going to believe in fate, have the guts to call it God.

Apparently, if I do eventually locate Jesus, I won’t have many friends left, not even a boyfriend (‘It’s a deal-breaker’). Those of my friends who were at my eighteenth birthday a decade ago know that I once knew Jesus very well. My mother decided that my birthday party was the perfect time to wheel out the religious poetry I wrote when I was ten: God gave me hands to touch the earth / Beneath the moonlight sky/ And eyes to see the little birds / flying in the, um, sky. Funnily enough, should I ‘fall’ again, my boss David would probably let me keep my job, and might even stay my friend. After all, he employed me and was nice to me when I was in the throws of cult hysteria (i.e. at university) and thought it was funny when I told him that postcolonial and feminist theory were not, in fact, a way of thinking, but a religion.

Clearly we have tendencies in that direction: gratitude, spirituality, a greater purpose for us. That’s ok (see how grown-up I am). We also have tendencies in the direction of violence, sexual exploitation of each other, and not liking people who look different to us; being ferally competitive about our children, or worse, revealing to others the details of their eating and sleeping habits. There was a letter in the Age last week, to the sex therapy agony aunt, that said something like: ‘Help – I’m a feminist, but I want my husband to spank me!’ Clearly grown-ups should, in this order: respect such urges (to be sexist / grateful to God / write mummy blogs) and then, promptly, quarantine them – to the bedroom, in the case of the spank-me feminist. That’s what makes us civilized.

So spanking is akin, then, to celebrating Easter? The safe expression of a baser urge? Not quite sure how I ended up here but there you go, something for Easter.

-Elizabeth Mead


Blog Mistress here – that sounds kinkier than it is, particularly in an afterthought to a blog that compared a good spanking to celebrating Easter. I feel that it’s my duty to let the blogosphere know that the Wim Delvoye exhibition ends on Monday 9 April. It’s an appropriate closing weekend, and not just because there’s a four-day holiday, if you’ve seen the exhibition you’ll know why, if you haven’t, then you should visit this weekend and find out.

Also, I think I tend to agree with Mead in that maybe religion does have something to offer. Although I do firmly believe in her first argument on religion, before she was older and more conservative, that the good bits are nice because they’re nice ways to behave towards your fellow human, and what you’re left with is an excuse for the bad stuff; wars, hate crimes, greed, closed mindedness and rejection of that which is considered ‘other’. But maybe that’s the same for any societal group, religious or otherwise. Anyway, her post prompted me to think about this, in time for Pesach (Passover).

Technically, I’m Jewish, on my mother’s side: Judaism is generally considered matrilineal; if your mum was a Jew then you are too. This makes sense to me because, let’s face it, it would have been a lot easier for people to be more certain of who your mother was than who your father was. Anyway, when both of my grandparents passed away recently I experienced my first Jewish funerals. They were vastly different to any other funeral I’ve been to. There were no hideously expensive coffins, no elaborate bouquets of flowers, no dressing of the deceased in their ‘Sunday best’ – none of which relate strictly to other religious funerals, by-the-by. Instead the bodies are stripped naked of all of their material belongings, wrapped in a plain white shroud and laid to rest in an unadorned, simple casket. Firstly, this seems like commonsense again – I like Judaism’s practicality – because, I’m dead and I don’t give a shit what I’m buried in. Sure, if it makes you feel better about it all then go ahead, but personally I’d rather you gave the money to people who were still alive and could enjoy it and benefit from it (take note future offspring). But that aside, what this process is meant to symbolise is that we are all equal in death, and I like that idea too. Whether you were a king or a pauper you’re one and the same once you’re dead. That’s the nice part of the religious ritual that I took away from the experience. However, after I extracted that I was left with the problems, some of which are what have made me decide to steer clear of Judaism, or any other religion, since I escaped mandatory ‘religion classes’ in (public) primary school and my mother’s fleeting and halfhearted attempts to introduce me to the religion as a child. The women and men were segregated, sitting on opposite sides of the funeral home, the men closest to the deceased. After the burials, first of my grandfather and then a few weeks later of my grandmother, came their respective Shivas, traditionally seven days of mourning, during which there were prayers for the deceased’s soul. The catch, though, is that we needed an orthodox Minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish males who are aged thirteen years or more. Women’s prayers don’t count for much, apparently. We had a tough time wrangling up ten capable Jewish gents at my grandparents’ nursing home. We managed, so I hope their souls benefitted. I left enjoying the really beautiful aspects I took from the experience, while missing my grandparents terribly, but also feeling like Judaism remains horribly sexist.

I also find it weird that I feel odd and put out when people mention the holocaust and being stingy, and when I studied The Merchant of Venice. Oh, and that I don’t purposely buy pig products or shellfish.

That’s a long afterthought. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I agree with Mead, don’t I?

You might not, feel free to let us know.

Either way, go and see the Wim exhibition before it ends.

-Eleanor Robb (aka Blog Mistress)

Everyday Happiness

I mentioned in my interview with Daniel Mudie Cunningham meeting the artist Nell (no surname) the same day. I left it in the transcript because I wanted to segue into this.

Nell’s currency for us lies in the fact her silver poo has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition at Mona.

© NELL, Everyday Happiness

The exhibition is large, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, in collaboration with TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The thrust of the show is silent aesthetical resonance: to not teach anything about art history, but to place the onus of pleasure on the viewer, via their visual register. Homi Bhabha calls this register the ‘scopic drive’, in reference to the desire to visually possess and categorise that which is different to the self. Homi Bhabha is a postcolonial theorist. I mention him because the show raises some hair-raising questions about power relationships between France and Tasmania, TMAG and Mona, indigenous and non-indigenous art. I’m not sure where to start with those yet. In the meantime, I missed a vital piece of information: the show places all sorts of art and artefacts, zoological, historical, decorative, functional, from different periods and places, alongside each other, under the rubric of visual congruence. It’s called ‘Theatre of the World’.

So Nell’s silver poo comes from a long line (or, not that long) of her other things with smiley faces on them – tombstones for instance. Hmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the smiley poo. I’m not sure how I feel about Nell’s work in general, namely:

Me: I’ve seen bits and pieces of your work and I cannot for the life of me pick a thread. Is there something that holds it all together?

Nell: Yeah. Me. I’m different every day. I think people end up with signature styles, kind of an accent in a way, but my accent is just who I am. Maybe it’s not really so good in the market place, but it’s just who I am and what I do. I feel like I can do anything or be anything in a really freeing way. 

Please note: my first ‘I’m not sure about’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t like’; my second means what it says. Her answer, above, helped me understand and categorise.

Me: There’s obviously so many different ways in which people make art – if it’s conceptual, like if you really want to pose an argument or raise questions about the world we live in, you find a way to do that. Or if you just compulsively draw as a child, and then one day people start to buy them. How did that happen for you?

Nell: I think because when I grew up I was pretty bored for stimulation.

Me: In Maitland?

Nell: Uh huh. I went straight from high school to art school, and just tried to be curious about everything. Maybe it just came from that part of my nature, I’m not sure. Then I heard this quote that says, ‘The job of a Buddha is just to be awake’. And I thought, okay, just to be awake, just to be awake. So my job is just to be awake, twenty-four hours a day, just to be awake and open to things. That was the defining moment of how I wanted to live my life, and my art practice is the same.   

I like this. I feel the need to say, I’m no Buddhist. I asked Nell a bit more about happiness, forgetting, really, that that was the name of her work, the smiley little poo. Some say you make better work, better works of creation, when you are unhappy. I have been wondering lately, in happiness, whether I would still want to write about anything, for instance. David my boss says he keeps things incomplete because he needs to let human feeling seep through the cracks. He said this when he was going out with a woman who made him unhappy; I wonder if it’s still true.

The other currency, that’s running out fast as time passes, is that Nell performed for us at MOFO this year: she put on a triptych, a three-paneled piece, that included a chanting group performance, an installation, and a truck-ride through Hobart singing ACDC’s Long Way to the Top.

Image: Chanting To Amps © NELL

Image:  Let There Be Robe © NELL

Image: Long Way To The Top © NELL

The cohering motive of the triptych, she says, is ‘kind of that simple: I love rock and roll. Rock and roll and church were my first aesthetics, and Buddhism was my later one, and they all just mish-mashed’. She said she had always wanted to play music, but had ‘absolutely zero’ musical aptitude:

Nell: I thought, well if I can make mosaic and tapestry and make bronzes and glass works and all these other things, why can’t I just apply that same open-hearted, open-minded mindset and get people to help me, and just learn how to play?

Me: When you get in a cab and the cab driver goes, ‘So, what do you do?’ what do you say?

Nell: I say I’m an artist. I imagine most people you interview would say they are artists, right?

Me: It splits, it goes either way. If you think about making art as looking askance at the system, or being sensitive to the system in a way that directly creates something, then to identify professionally, ‘That’s my career’, it can be a bit of a conflict. But you don’t seem to be conflicted by much.

Nell: No. I’m not sitting here torturing myself. When you pay studio rent – that’s when you know you’re an artist. 

Me: Right. It makes me think about last time I was in Sydney when I interviewed Del Kathryn Barton, and she was saying the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that it’s all about self-torture, that’s her whole game with herself. 

Nell: I know. You know she’s my best friend, don’t you?

Me: Oh really?

Nell: Yeah, she gave me my [bunny necklace]. Yeah, she’s my bestie. No, we’re very similar, and very opposite. I told her, ‘When you learn to be lazy in your paintings you’re going to be a really great painter’. 

Me: But maybe that just works for her. Maybe self-torture works for her.  

Nell: Of course.

Anyhow, so the poo’s in the show, and we’ll see with what it visually resonates when things kick off in June. In the meantime, we’ve just hung some fresh Bartons.

-Elizabeth Mead

Daniel Mudie Cunningham Interview

Daniel Mudie Cunningham: I’ve always been interested in pursuing what today we call a slashie, the writer slash curator slash artist thing. Have you heard that? It sounds really gross.

Elizabeth Mead: I’ve heard of model slash actress. 

DMC: I would love to be that. After MONA FOMA maybe, that was pretty glamorous.

EM: Actually, you’re the first real slashie I’ve met.

DMC: There’s a few of us.

EM: This sounds, like, weirdly perversely patronising, but it’s a very mature thing to do. To be able to compartmentalise between the professional practice of curation, and the professional practice of being an artist, that must be something that you grow into.

DMC: Look I’m just fully immersed in the art world, and I really find it hard to step outside of it sometimes and read a novel. I tend to live and breathe it in a way, across a number of areas.

EM: Yeah, that’s nice. I just met Nell a couple of hours ago, and she was saying how she’s a happy artist, which I thought was quite funny. She was saying there’s lots of people who produce work through a sense of pain or suffering, whatever, and she just really loves the lifestyle, and really likes her work. You sound similar in a way.

DMC: Yeah, I’ve known Nell for a couple of years… When we both realised we were doing MONA FOMA together we spent a lot more time together just getting all pumped up… I do feel like there is this optimism and a sense of purpose around what I do that is making me happy.

EM: So, to get prepared for today, I googled you and what came up was – this thing that I really, really like of yours, a video called ‘tears won’t come’ or something.

DMC: Yeah, yeah, Tears Don’t Come.

EM: Yeah, where you were filming yourself in your own bedroom trying to cry over a piece of music. I thought it was funny, and quite moving, and kind of weird and creepy as well, which I like. Then, after that, I went on to look at other stuff on your website, and then I found that you’re an academic and have a very rich critical vocabulary around performativity and queer theory and things like that. And there’s no evidence of that in the work that I was seeing of yours. I know that you’re interested in those areas, and I can apply them to your work if I want, but the work itself doesn’t seem to announce its theoretical… I mean, it’s not self-conscious like that.

DMC: I don’t consciously utilise all the critical theory frameworks to try and be an artist. That’s a very dated way of approaching being an artist.

EM: Yeah, but it does seem to hang around…

DMC: It hangs around a little bit.

EM: … like a bit of a smell around some… I think I’m going to say Australian art. I probably don’t have the diversity of experience to say that particularly, but in comparison to some overseas stuff, I don’t know, there’s a bit of an Australian heritage of…

DMC: I think there’s a bit of an undoing of it in some of the works I’ve made where, if I’m self-conscious of it at all, it’s that I am actually making fun of it. I did a whole project around Jodie Foster, which has been an ongoing thing for many years, which is actually just my parody of queer theory.

EM: Is it not actually based on a genuine obsession with her?

DMC: It is, it is. It started that way, but in some ways I’ve maintained it and invented it as well. So it’s kind of grounded in some kind of genuine fandom, but also the longer it’s persisted it’s also been opportunistic.

EM: I suppose the trajectory of my question is: when you’re making works, do you ever conceive of them in your mind, and then think of a way of fabricating it? Or do you just do things instinctively?

DMC: One thing I’ve always been interested in as an artist, and in other contexts, is the fabrication of truth. And I do like the idea that everything is fictional. This probably comes out of my queer theory background, and those interests from early academic days. I do like the idea of how we invent ourselves, and invent personas. A lot of my work has been about drag or some kind of performance. That’s been a way of trying to maybe impart some other self that people might expect is me.

EM: Queer theory does away with the idea of an essential self, and says instead that identity is all play, or a performance. Not just for queer people, but for all people. Do you believe that?

DMC: I think it gives you an entry point. I think a lot of those ideas around queer theory have also had their day in the sun, we move on in some ways. I think once you’ve had that entry point, it’s a way of constantly revising that.

I think that the Funeral Songs project, for example, was challenging for me on some levels, because it was about how I performed a sense of self, and how I communicated a very personal narrative which seems to go against the grain of a lot of the edgier tenets of a performed-self, queer theory version of that. It’s something that has a little bit of earnestness maybe.

EM: So how did Funeral Songs come into being?

DMC: It was the personal experience of loss. My brother died in 2001 and he had mentioned to my mother what song he wanted played at his funeral. They were in a café – kind of like this – and the song came on the radio. It was a popular song at the time, it was Moby’s Porcelain from that Play album, which was played in every coffee shop at the time. He just casually said, ‘Oh, this is the song to play at my funeral’. And my mum was really dismissive because he was 20 years old. He also had been unwell – he had some heart problems that had just come to light, he’d had an infected heart valve.

There was a precedent in my family – my grandmother, as long as I can remember, had always said if we didn’t play Rod Stewart’s Sailing at her funeral she’d come back and haunt us. So everyone in my family knew what a funeral song was. It wasn’t bizarre that my 20 year-old brother would actually know what a funeral song is, and had thought about it. And maybe in his way he was dealing with mortality because he’d been unwell. Certainly I don’t think he thought he was going to die. But he did have an aneurysm in his sleep a couple of months after having been diagnosed with this heart infection, and died a week or so after having told my mum what song he wanted played at the funeral.

So in the trauma of organising a funeral for a very young person, we all just couldn’t work out what the song was. My mum, all she remembered was that it was a Moby song. And even though we listened to the album backwards and forwards, we just couldn’t actually work it out, we were just too traumatised. Not long after the funeral I was with my mum, in probably a similar context of being out and about, and the song came on, and she was just taken back to that moment and said to me, ‘I’m pretty sure this is the song’. And it really just seemed obvious too. I remember at the time it seemed like a revelation, and I was kind of annoyed with everyone, and myself, that we hadn’t played it and we hadn’t worked it out. It just seemed like a missed opportunity and I think at the time had heroically said to my mother, ‘I will find a way to play the song’. I didn’t know how I’d do it, and I certainly didn’t think it would necessarily be an art project, I thought maybe we’d memorialise it in some other way. But as time passed I just had this idea to make a work about funeral songs which stemmed out of my desire to play the song and put it on the public record.

So in 2007 I did an exhibition in a gallery in Sydney called MOP, the same installation really that you see at Mona except on a much smaller scale. It also had the same photograph of my brother buried in sand. The significance of that photograph was that it was one of the very first photographs I took. My grandmother, who I just mentioned, she worked in a camera shop developing photos. She bought me my first instamatic camera. That was one of the first photos I took. When I rediscovered the photo around that time I was struck by the fact that he was buried in sand, it was like he was buried alive. And because he died quite young, and I was much older than him, I always remember him and imagine him to be a child, even though he was becoming an adult around the time that he died.







EM: And do you think that that process, did that help you close… not close the door, that sounds a bit crass… but come to terms…

DMC: Yeah, for sure. Maybe in a way I also intellectualised my grief as well. Yeah, certainly it was a way of sharing it with everyone else. Certainly the stories that I collected along the way are testament to this idea that everyone has a story to tell that’s similar.

EM: It’s funny – I think I mentioned this to you when I ran into you at MOFO, but I’ve met a lot of people that have mentioned your work and said, ‘Oh, I took part in that, and this is the song that I chose’, and it seems to have a group feeling about it.

DMC: Yeah, it’s like a big group hug.

EM: Well, a death hug. The thing I want to ask you – I’m hoping you’ve got answers for me because I’m really, really absolutely shit scared of death. I’m not scared of being hit by a bus, or I might have cancer, that kind of fear, but the fact of not existing. I was just wondering if that’s also how you feel, and has that helped you get over it? Is there any hope for me?

DMC: Look I probably feel a little bit the same way as you.

EM: That’s good because I’m sick of people saying that they’ve come to terms with it. I’m like, ‘You’re kidding yourself’.

DMC: I made a lot of work about death, and I think in a way it’s been an attempt to try and quarantine death within the realm of representation, so that it’s far away from me. It’s like that idea that you’re lessening the odds of it happening or something, because the more you talk about it, it’s not going to happen. When people die unexpectedly it’s like, ‘Oh that was such a shock, it was such a surprise’. I think if I’m conscious of it all the time I might have a really long life. Look, I have a fear of death… [But] I suppose as you get older you become a little bit more robust in the way you think about it. I don’t have any big answers for you Elizabeth.

EM: That’s unfortunate.

DMC: One thing I will say, one really confronting thing about doing Funeral Songs again for Mona, was that while I was asking the question again and getting more songs, I found out that a friend of mine who was an artist, who contributed to the project back in 2007, had terminal cancer, and there was that high likelihood that she would die before the show even opened, before MONA FOMA even opened. As it turned out she died the Monday after I returned from Hobart. I went to her funeral on Tuesday and her funeral song was played, and it’s the first time a funeral has happened after seeing the work at Mona.

EM: Wow, that adds a whole other dimension.

DMC: I was sitting there at the funeral, all of these feelings of grief because of the relationship I had with her but also feeling really uncomfortable about the fact that her song was going to be played. I knew that they planned to play it and it was played right at the end of the funeral when everyone was paying their respects to the coffin and leaving. And I was really confronted in a way – the very conceptual idea of the project was turned into a reality.

EM: Oh, you weren’t able to quarantine death in the realm of representation.

DMC: Absolutely. And I’d realised it before but there was the sense where I knew there was a real responsibility to the Funeral Songs project, and as long as I was alive the 565 people listed on that – some of them have already passed away, like family members, but all of the living people listed on that list were going to pass away and I was going to know what song they wanted played.

EM: And so what about the Proud Mary element, which is its own work, but obviously responds directly to Funeral Songs?

DMC: Well it was made as a component of the Funerals Songs installation in 2007 and that’s carried through in the installation at Mona. But it had its own life as an artwork as well, it got curated into shows, it was shown on TV, it went a bit viral on YouTube at the time. And I think also it was around the time we were getting used to the language of YouTube and that whole amateur performance to camera, which is about being in your bedroom and miming to a song and being a bit of a dickhead, and then it going viral because it’s funny.

But I suppose taking a step back from the reception the work had, the reason for the choice of that song as a funeral song – that’s my funeral song. I was very conscious when I first devised the project back in ’07 – I suppose I was aware of the public self in a way, maybe getting into these ideas of how you perform self. I just wanted a song that I felt comfortable with putting on the public record that would be my funeral song, even if it wasn’t necessarily how I felt at the time. Proud Mary has just been one of those songs that people have always – really close friends have always related it to me. Throughout the ‘90s, I’d be at parties, get really drunk, and I’d break out in this semi-drag routine of Proud Mary. I almost want to carry that torch, now that poor old Tina is in her 70s, I think that she’s passed over the baton to me.

EM: ‘What were you doing in the ‘90s?’ ‘Oh, I was miming to Proud Mary’.

DMC: I wish that I had some of that on camera, because it could have a pre-history from the 2007 video. But when I did the video in 2007 it was done very quickly, it was very much a performance video in the true sense of the word. There’s one edit. It’s really badly synced. Whereas the second one made for the Mona show was really about the idea that – well five years have passed, make it a five-year plan, every five years I’m going to redo this. Again, maybe that idea of – every five years I’ve quarantined it a bit further. But with the 2012 version I wanted it to be like a music video and I just upped the production values. I also imagine in five years, in 2017 when I do it again, it will be very different again.

EM: I wonder what Tina will have at her funeral. 

DMC: Well I’m going to be terrified, devastated when she dies. It was funny, when I did the opening of Funeral Songs at MOP in 2007, Ike Turner died that night, and I felt like I’d killed him. It was really bizarre.

EM: You probably did. But he was a baddie wasn’t he?

DMC: He was a baddie, he deserved it.

EM: But you like an ongoing project, right?

DMC: Yeah, I do. Well the Jodie Foster project is about time and seeing how things develop over time – not me, but her.

EM: Do you think you’ll ever meet her?

DMC: Well a friend of mine who’s an art journalist is constantly saying that I should apply to the Australian Council for a grant to meet her.

EM: Apply for a stalking grant.

DMC: Yeah, yeah. And I’m like, it would defeat the purpose of the project, because the project is about that distance. The Jodie Foster project is about being an obsessed fan, kind of annoying her, even though she probably doesn’t have any idea that I even exist. I don’t think she’s googling herself, certainly not googling my name next to her name. But if you do google both our names together it will come up.

EM: So you’re not beyond googling yourself.

DMC: No.

EM: Me neither.

DMC: At one point – you know how you have google predictive, and you start typing in your name and then some other search terms follow it? Funeral Songs follows my name.

EM: Oh, that’s good, that’s quite a proud moment for you.

DMC: Jodie Foster used to follow my name as well.

EM: Oh really? I switched that function off though, because I was worried that someone would use my computer and see that I’d been googling myself. 

DMC: I think you should own it, just own it.

EM: Yeah. I have to say, Jodie Foster, I find her face very annoying. Not anything else, just her face really annoys me. I have to tell you that.

DMC: Okay, thanks. I’m so offended. No, I think she’s great. I am a big fan. The Jodie Foster project has a critical distance in a way, and it’s a totally different project to Funeral Songs.

EM: Slash, you’re a stalker.

DMC: Yeah.

Funeral Songs – Daniel Mudie Cunningham

On display in the museum at the moment is Daniel Mudie Cunningham’s Funeral Songs. It is a jukebox compilation of songs people want played at their funeral – joyous, defiant, self-aggrandizing, melancholic etc.

It reminds me of my current greatest fear: that my (partner/boyfriend; always awkward because he’s too old for ‘boyfriend’ and ‘partner’ is stupid) will die before me. In fact, I am certain he will die before me, because men always do, don’t they, and plus he’s fifteen years older than me. Don DeLillo has written a book about this. I know that because I read the blurb on the back cover – and put it back immediately because I don’t want to read about something I find so terrifying. I also confronted this fear when I watched The Iron Lady recently, about Maggie Thatcher. Forget the Faulklands and Poll Tax – I had to stuff my scarf into my mouth to keep from making sobbing noises in the bit when old Maggie put her dead husband’s shoes in garbage bags. The point of the scene was that she was a tough lady and tough enough to come to terms with even this, at even her advanced age, on the edge of death herself. The thing I’m hanging onto is that somehow I will mature into an acceptance of death, his and my own. It seems a long way off (the acceptance. The death itself seems imminent).  I have only just come to terms with the fact that I’m alive. That sounds more philosophically pretentious than I mean it to: said boyfriend/partner’s seven-year old said recently from the backseat, ‘I can’t believe I’m a person,’ and I promise, he is not philosophically pretentious. How long until I start to see the glimmer of a beginning of imagining how it could be possible for me to not exist? Will it be a relief, or will I not notice it creeping up on me?

There’s also the anger factor. I said to my friend David, the one who owns the museum, about six months ago, when I had just moved in with b/p: ‘I am scared [b/p] will die before me,’ and he said very quickly, ‘There’s at least a fifty per cent chance you’ll break up before then,’ and I said, ‘Thanks David.’ Then I told him, which is the truth, that I am seriously pissed off about it, because it seems like the fact of his death renders null and void everything he can say and do now. Nothing he says or does means anything considering that he is on the way to not existing. I can’t believe he can even look me in the eye.

I told my friend Amy a version of this, namely, ‘I find it hard to imagine that conversations continue after I’ve left the room,’ and she suggested I may be a little self-centred.

-Elizabeth Mead

P.S. The song I want played at my funeral is ‘What’s New Pussy Cat’.

Funeral Songs
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
2007 to 2012