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.
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.