Flesh Winnow

Catriona Moore

Barbara Campbell, Flesh Winnow

Barbara Campbell, Flesh Winnow

Barbara Campbell is using the archival and intellectual environs of Sydney University in the manner of an 18th century Salonniere, to host a long-standing conversation with art history and theory. Her archival research method, orchestration of objects and images and her attention to site departs from the traditions of theatrical performance. This novel approach is signalled in the title of her upcoming survey of recent performances, Flesh Winnow: a homage in part to the art historical grandmaster Marcel Duchamp. As the artist notes:

Flesh Winnow is of course a reference to Duchamp’s, or rather Rose Selavy’s, 1920 work Fresh Widow, itself a pun on French Window, the basic form of the piece. I’ve always loved that work because I think it’s one of the most powerful anti-war pieces and because it comes with a cutting performative element—Duchamp had replaced the glass window panes with panes made of black leather which he insisted should be shined every day like shoes.

This art-historical play (in the performative sense of the word ‘play’, as in playing with or toying with) suggests a diabolical dimension to the discipline and its venerable traditions. Thus with tongue firmly in cheek, I asked Barbara the following questions.

Along with your chosen subject matter and thematic references, how has your visual arts background informed your 20 years of performance work?

My visual arts background comes in 2 parts really—the practical and the theoretical, having done time in both art schools and university art history departments. Both areas impact equally, I think. The material language I draw on comes from a direct contact with the materials and techniques of art making. Etching processes, large sheets of paper, the drawn line, a white gallery wall: all these things have come into my work because of my early contact with them at art school. Equally, I’ve had quite a lot of art history training over the years and am aware of the historicising process. I know how histories are constructed out of narrative, how new histories are created when a piece of the narrative gets added or omitted. I like to play with these narrative chains. I think that process is essentially a performative one. An object—a painting or a sculpture for instance—is as much an actor as the human agents who surround it—the makers, writers, dealers, handlers, framers, audiences, photographers, etc.

When you say performative, does this refer in any way to theatrical traditions? Could the 3 traditions (visual arts, academic art history, theatrical performance) be more intertwined than we think, despite the fact that, at an institutional level, performance studies, visual arts and art history are becoming further segmented and specialised?

I was using performative in the sense that contemporary anthropologists and historiographers use it—the sense that history demands actors and audiences. But in that big ‘T’ Theatre-as-institution sense, while I don’t participate in it, I do use it. The things that are used to support the Theatre—the fourth wall, the rehearsed action, the tricks of lighting and costume, I choose to foreground as the substance or subject of the work itself.

How does your choice of site help to determine the formal or thematic qualities of each performance, including multiple performances in different sites?

Well of course there’s no such thing as a neutral space from which we artists can create something unencumbered by history. So whether the site is a black-box theatre, a white-box gallery or the side of a quarry, you must be cognisant of the attendant meanings and conventions of each space. The difference is that an audience may try harder to understand the meanings and conventions of a quarry before they question the meanings and conventions of the other, seemingly naturalised spaces.

While the University is not a quarry (though many may disagree with me), it does present the performer and her audience with a raft of a priori associations. How did you approach the University’s specific archival and pedagogic machinery?

I was very fortunate in having virtual free rein with choosing sites for all the works. It’s one of the great things about universities (even still)—the sense of being given the licence to try things out. So, for example, with Inflorescent, I was drawing on 19th Century notions of looking, that kind of looking which is about fascination with difference, particularly sexualised difference. I’d always loved the Macleay Museum and knew it would be the perfect site for the work and I think I approached the Director, Vanessa Mack, about 2 weeks prior to the performance and she was incredibly open to the idea and not at all fazed by the short lead time. The great thing about the Macleay is that it’s not just about the objects, but how those objects are stored and displayed within a 19th Century tradition of museology, so the museological techniques are on display with the objects. It’s an instance of the university’s assets helping to create a work. Of course that happens every second in the university’s libraries, but a performance is a bit different from an essay.

That suggests the performance of a perverse style of librarianship: an example of (Duchampian) ‘best practice’…

Well, you know, I do love a good library. I think libraries are for me what ‘the bush’ is for other people. And it’s as much an aesthetic thing as an intellectual one: the textures, the colours, the quiet movement of bodies. I remember with the first performance I did in residence at the university, The Midday Movie and the History of Australian Painting, I deliberately set out to use the tools of art history against itself. I think that’s pretty evident from the title alone. The inspiration actually came from the body of work that Paul Saint had been doing in the mid-1990s. I found his wonky woven baskets quite hilarious and appealing in their simultaneous subversion of both craft and art practices. I commissioned one from him and it became the vehicle for a performance where I could play with the mismatch of disciplines and the abuses of art history (me being the main perpetrator of such abuse).

Another source of inspiration for the work came from attending the big exhibition on Turner at the National Art Gallery in 1996 and for the first time hiring one of those audioguides. It was such a comforting experience looking at these beautiful atmospheric objects and being absorbed in the aural narrative of their making. But then there was this incredibly dramatic moment when looking at a seemingly innocent picture of the Devon or Dorset coastline, we were told how Turner carried on a long-term affair with a woman there and masqueraded as a sea captain amongst the locals: from the sublime to the smutty.

So in developing the work, I spent a lot of time in the Power Library writing an obscenely contracted version of the history of Australian painting that could be fitted into the 8 ad breaks of a midday movie and that were scripted in such a way that didn’t distinguish between the high-brow and the human interest. I was very conscious of how different this kind of writing about an art object is from the standard art historical approach. In the performance, these 8 little scripts were recited by me but were channelled through Paul’s basket which stood over and stood in for my head as I lay on the floor.

Your performances also have an utterly seductive attention to form. This is most apparent in your work with the nude, Inflorescent being the most obvious example. In part this occurs through what one viewer noted as a fetishisation of the detail. Is there a danger in your spectators coming in too close?

I must say I was quite nervous about the mise-en-scène I’d created for myself in Inflorescent. I nearly thought myself out of doing it at all because I tried to second-guess the audience’s response. Funny things happened during the first performance of Inflorescent. Although the boundary between my space and the audience’s space was clearly defined, one bold woman and her reluctant female friend broke through the invisible fourth wall and came into my space. I think my steely resolve not to be affected by this intrusion eventually forced them back. At the other extreme, I noticed 3 male professorial types lined up along the back, who found a safe distance from which to stare and stayed nearly the full hour. Generally, I think it was much more uncomfortable being a member of the audience than it was for me lying there naked. I gather there was a constant pull between looking (straining to look in fact), and being conscious of looking, either looking too closely or for too long. All this illustrates the part of the audience in shaping a performance. I’m not the only author, especially in a piece like that.

Barbara Campbell, Flesh Winnow, October 21–26.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 35

© Catriona McKenzie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002