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.

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.