Now that we don’t have Lou

By David Walsh

In the early 90s my endless search for technological satisfaction resulted in me adorning my stereo with a five CD changer, and it had a shuffle mode. It would occasionally play songs twice in a row, the programmer of its shuffle mode model having, presumably, used a die for a model, not a deck of cards. But that didn’t matter much, I was happy to listen to songs from the Velvet Underground’s Loaded – the one album that was perpetually on the CD player – over and over again.

Oh I do believe
You are what you perceive
What comes is better than what came before

Can that still be true, now that we don’t have Lou?

On the same album he gave us some sage advice on how to pick up famous actors, advice more relevant today than ever. Just persevere with your obsession until the object of your desires is old and fat, then they’ll be ‘Over the hill right… and looking for love’.

We never got Lou to a MOFO but we did get his Velvet Underground colleague, John Cale. He concluded a tremendous gig with a Velvets song, penned by Lou, the dark but potent Venus In Furs. A friend commented to me, with a tear in his eye, that he loved the new Hobart, because it reminded him of the old New York.

I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

Among my favourite albums is the Lou and John Cale record Songs For Drella, wherein they dissect their relationship with Andy Warhol, and find themselves wanting.

And then I saw Lou
I’m so mad at him
Lou Reed got married and didn’t invite me
I mean is it because he thought I’d bring too many people
I don’t get it
Could have at least called
I mean he’s doing so great
Why doesn’t he call me?

It is great art, I think, to look through others’ eyes and see yourself. And when those others’ eyes are Andy Warhol’s, then it is great pop art.

The trouble with a classicist he looks at the sky
He doesn’t ask why, he just paints a sky
The trouble with an impressionist, he looks at a log
And he doesn’t know who he is, standing, staring, at this log…

I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains
I like their lack of training, their primitive technique
I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school
I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool

There were many other albums and many other moments. A decade before, but still a late discovery, I played The Velvet Underground & Nico until my record player’s fingers bled. It didn’t make me a junkie, but I learned some of the attractions of dissolving.

Ah, when the heroin is in my blood
And that blood is in my head
And thank God that I’m as good as dead
And thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care

In the end heroin, and alcohol, and being born over seventy years ago, killed him. About others I sometimes say it is tremendous good fortune to have the opportunity to die, because that means that one has had the tremendous good fortune to be born in the first place. Each of us has, among other things, enjoyed an unblemished ancestral record of at least 700,000,000 consecutive successful matings. So Lou was lucky to be born, and lucky to die. I’d like to thank all Lou’s ancestors, the bacteria, and the fish, and the shrews, and his mother, for being horny, and for being attractive.

Lou Reed recorded a song about The Day John Kennedy Died. Some days we know we are going to remember, because our lives are inextricably bound to them. I’d better do something worthy today.

Photo by Marcelo Costa

Photo by Marcelo Costa

New York I love you, but you’re making me cringe

By Luke Hortle

A while ago, I met a photographer from The New Yorker at the museum. I can’t remember his name because I was too busy swooning (he was European and painfully handsome in that rugged and forlorn manner that Europeans often are) and feeling inadequate, because we didn’t have a book with kangaroos in it. But this sensation of inadequacy (and it was a sensation, a bodily one; I could feel it drenching my limbs) leached beyond this one apparently minute interaction. Horror of horrors, I felt grateful to have met this man. Not because of his aquiline features, but because of all that other cultural currency that he’d brought with him, from Europe, from New York, and now he was talking to me, in Hobart, on this island, and I felt inferior, somehow ashamed, immodestly thrilled. Enter the cultural cringe.

At MONA FOMA last year, I went to see PJ Harvey. In a break between songs, clouded in the beer-breath and radiant bodily steam of PW1, Eleanor whispered to me that seeing PJ perform was ‘like a religious experience.’ I thought she was being overly dramatic and told her to finish her beer. This moment has been nagging me ever since, the implication being that we were somehow not quite worthy to be in the presence of this woman wreathed in feathered black. That we ought to have been grateful. This really pissed me off, because I wanted to be in thrall to PJ Harvey (did you know that ‘thrall’ comes from an Old English word for ‘slave’?) and not think about the experience in terms where I came off with an inferiority complex. Later that night at Faux Mo, I kept hearing people say things like ‘Are we still in Hobart?’ And I was guilty of thinking similar things. I couldn’t comfortably integrate where I was with what I was thinking. (What I can remember from Faux Mo: You’re in. Bass thumps skywards, leaching out of the winding alleyway; who even knew it was there? Bulging lights bloom in the brickwork. You manage to jump the line. Paris Wells is there. The really hot guy from BalletLab is there, sans feathers and twigs. You think that BalletLab was great, but so fucking weird. You should definitely be drinking gin. Bordello-red flickers against crumpled aluminium curtains. People are dancing like it’s windy.) The city, the island, kept intruding in my fantasies, fantasies which constantly gestured away from where I was, geographically, culturally, far-flung connections sketched with alcohol-induced similes.

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MOFO/Rémi Chauvin

I can’t seem to escape the fact that geography matters. It’s dished up to me on a daily basis. Customer after customer will find a way to tell me, as they purchase their catalogue, postcards, cunt soap, whatever, that ‘this [museum, art, estate, the whole deal] is a great thing for Tasmania.’

A brief interlude from that guy in the bookshop

‘Do the postcards come with envelopes?’
No. Of course they don’t; they’re fucking postcards. From Wiki: ‘A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope.’
‘Do you have a book on the architecture?’
No. We really don’t. I promise. And (shockingly, eye-poppingly shockingly, I know) you are not the first person to ask for one. And even if you do tell me for the next half an hour how great such a book would be, and how you can’t believe that there isn’t one for you to take home in your eager paws, I still won’t be able to provide one for you. So fuck off already.
‘Do you still sell the angina soaps?’
No words.

Invariably, their assessment of the museum becomes inextricable from its geographical locale. And inherent within these assessments of the museum is a commensurate assessment of Hobart and Tasmania more broadly; that we’re lucky to have the museum where it is, because of the entrenched view that the state is culturally inferior, a backwater, next stop Antarctica. And now I’ve just gone and written that and perpetuated the stereotype in print. Oh great. Maybe this doesn’t matter though, and maybe I’m just projecting my own (recently discovered) cultural cringe onto these social interactions. It (projecting potentially/completely incorrect assumptions onto a situation/conversation/relationship) does sound like something I would do.

I can’t seem to write about this cringe response without falling into the trap that the very construct tries to describe: ie. I end up cringing, through my attempts to elucidate what was happening when I met that photographer. (Clarification, obfuscation; potato, po-TAR-to.) My point: I live on an island, and sometimes this fact, and its corresponding sense of islandness, of being so bounded by a place, by a body, is suffocating.[i] Maybe this is my postcolonial penance. It’s undoubtedly constitutive too, which makes me uncomfortable (which is weird, because I’m an identity politics enthusiast). I’ve been told I can be quite neurotic (‘amazingly’ might’ve been the word used, actually) and maybe this is why I like reading The New Yorker. But I suspect it’s also a reaction to where I am, geographically and culturally; as I hand over my cash, I know I’m buying into a particular type of identity, a particular type of self-image. It’s a performance, one in which I’m friends with Lena Dunham and live in a loft with Paul Auster and/or Oliver Jeffers and/or Michael Cunningham. Even as it’s a performance, it’s one performed from my particular moment in time and space, my ‘here’ and my ‘now.’ But I’m not completely shallow; I do enjoy reading the magazine. I just want people to see me reading it as well.

Luke once ran over a Blue-tongued Lizard with a lawn mower. It was awful, like a scene out of a Tarantino film. He still feels queasy/guilty about it. Luke works in the Mona Bookshop.

[i] I recently read a couple of pieces from an edition of Island magazine, an essay by Adam Ouston and a short story by Ben Walter. They’re great, they really are. You should go read them, right now. What I do know is that they made me feel better about being a man living on an island.

At the arsenale

This worm bears the face of its creator, Jan Fabre. What the worm says is: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. He says it in Flemish, because the artist is from, um, Belgium. He’s a bit of an artist rock star, making major works for biennales and staging sell-out shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, that sort of thing.

Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

I saw a work of his at the Venice Biennale (I just want to say: that sounds really snazzy, and part of me rejoices that I’m so lucky to have been to Venice as part of my job, but another part remembers that I was intensely lonely at that particular time, and found traipsing around the obviously incredible, amazing etc. Venice on my own, in the shoulder season, abjectly depressing). Fabre’s work was out in the boat-building part of town, called the ‘arsenale’ (hot and dusty. I went back to Venice two years later with my boyfriend, and with David and Kirsha – a far pleasanter trip, although my boyfriend and I did have a massive argument, or rather, I sulked in a very energetic manner, because at dinner one night David had commented that he found Brazilian-waxed women ‘hot’ and my boyfriend agreed with him, and I was mortally offended because I find the whole thing a form of casual self-torture that everyone seems to be participating in except me [1]; but more than that, I took it as a form of personal rejection, basically his way of saying, ‘Haven’t you realised by now I find you repulsive’. It was early in our relationship and perhaps, in hindsight, I was being a little sensitive. Anyway, on this far-pleasanter trip to Venice my boyfriend took photos wildly of the arsenale, the big cranes and chains and docks and stuff like that. I guess he was imagining the hub of empire. I was thinking more about Shakespeare). So the Jan Fabre work that I saw (this is the lonely trip now, the first) was encased in a large closed-in space around which the visitor walks via a sort of elevated, wrap-around viewing platform. You look down into this pit-like mound of dirt or soil or something, where a silicone replica of the artist stands digging into an oversized – perhaps, Nissan Micra-sized – replica of his own head. So it’s a big Jan head, over which a normal-size Jan stands and digs with a shovel. Parts of his big brains are exposed.

From the feet to the brain, 2009, ©Jan Fabre

What I’m trying to say is that this artist is pretty interested in excavating his own mortality. It’s a back-handed form of massive-egoism: an artist like Jeff Gabel – whose work flanks the worm in our gallery – isn’t obsessed with his own insignificance because it comes as less of a shock. It’s less of an affront, or insult to his intelligence. I’m siding with Jan here. I get weak-kneed shock each time I think about the fact that I’m going to one day not exist, but I’ve banged on about that enough by now. Maybe one day, the thought will begin to bore me. As an aside: Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, which I read (some of) in preparation for writing some marketing material for our concert Synaesthesia (Nabokov was a synaesthete) begins like this:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

See also: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more…’ – Becket, Godot. Nabokov continues:

Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged – the same house, the same people – and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell.

That ‘young chronophobiac’, surely dead by now, was probably fairly self-centred.

Anyhow, the additional factor, of course, is that this worm work is not just about mortality, but about art and its history. Jan knows he is but a worm before the greats of European culture, whose names are emblazed (via some sort of entomological code) on the tombstones over which the worm debases himself (ok, that was a little dramatic, but still). Like all great egoists, this artist knows his place and is horrified.

I have felt some sort of Shakespearean reference agitating at the edges of my memory in relation to that work; if that sounds a little pretentious, perhaps you’ll like me more if I tell you the reference finally emerged (as in, just then, as I wrote the last paragraph) via my memory of a scene in a cemetery from the Steve Martin film LA Story (it’s got Sarah Jessica Parker in it and it’s brilliant). In this scene, the guy from Honey I Shrunk the Kids is grave-digging, and the actor playing Steve Martin’s love interest starts quoting Hamlet:

A fellow of infinite jest…
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Where be your gibes now?
Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

I think what I’m saying is that Jan Fabre, like Steve Martin and everyone else, knows everything is shit compared to Shakespeare. Except maybe Nabokov.

The other encounter I had with Jan Fabre (other than when I interviewed him and he told me he felt sorry for the people who had to listen to my interviews, no joke) was when Olivier, Mona curator, took me to one of his said shows at Queen Elizabeth Hall, called ‘Orgy of tolerance’. It was during my first term as a Mona employee, and Olivier hadn’t quite worked out whether I had been sent to London as ‘a spy’. He took me to the show and I didn’t like it at all, although everyone else sure did. There was an extended group masturbation scene that transposes polite conversation with flagrant flogging of logs and so forth, which everyone but me found uproariously funny. Anyway it turns out Olivier was angling to bring the show to Tasmania for Mona Foma, and my reply to an email question from David – ‘Did you like the Jan Fabre show?’ – that no, I didn’t, I thought it was tacky and unfunny, contributed somewhat to David’s decision to can it. Olivier didn’t speak to me for a week. But when he did, his rage scorched my eyelashes. As it turns out I think David would probably have loved the Fabre show: he loves Balletlab, which similarly, I can’t stand.

One of the things Fabre said to me in the I-feel-sorry-for-your-listeners interview was that he believed in the ‘sacred bond’ between artist and viewer. He ‘trusts the public’, he says, to interpret his message and appreciate his creation, which we should not ‘dirty too much’ with our comments and interpretation. Whoops.

-Elizabeth Mead

[1] ‘But absolutely everybody gets Brazilians’ – My beautician, the other day.

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