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

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