The Now-Present and the Future Presencing of Absence: Moya Costello reviews Fiona Fell & Kellie O’Dempsey ‘Dirt & Ash’ & Marion Conrow ‘Museum of My Friends #1’

Fiona Fell and Kellie O’Dempsey: Dirt & Ash, 20 October – 2 Dec 2018.  Marion Conrow: Museum of My Friends #1, 9 March – 21 Apr 2019.  Lismore Regional Gallery, Lismore

Museum Of My Friends #1 Marion Conrow

The Northern Rivers, regional New South Wales, is a home for queer culture, creativity, community, and the environment and sustainability. It hosts the annual Tropical Fruits LGBTIQ festival; it hosted last century’s Aquarius counter-culture festival; it is a major centre of the contemporary anti-coal-seam gas movement.

Lismore is the region’s central town. Lismore Regional Gallery’s (LRG) mission is ‘to facilitate the exchange of ideas locally and nationally’, ‘by developing innovative programs’, ‘providing a creative space for open dialogue with our dynamic community’, and building research on the region through telling local stories. After being housed for over six decades in an inadequately sized building earmarked for demolition, the new LRG opened in 2017.

In ArchitectureAU Magazine, architect Ashley Dunn noted that Dominic Finlay Jones Architects/Phil Ward’s ‘community-minded’ adaptation of a previous school building for the new LRG resulted in ‘a thoroughly successful civic space’. The Gallery fronts the communal, creative Lismore Quadrangle, an open, grassed square shared with the Lismore Library and the Northern Rivers Conservatorium.

Marion Conrow’s Museum of My Friends #1 is emblematic of the queer, artistic and community/communal culture of the Northern Rivers. The deconstructed family has been a feature, at least in western culture, for some time: same-sex, single-parented, blended, and intentional community or friends as family etc.

Conrow produced short videos of seven of her local creative friends and professional peers. AñA Wojak, Beau Dachs, Devi Thomas, Jeremy Hawkes, Roger Foley-Fogg, Stephen Allkins, and Edda Lampis perform and monologue in a personal, revelatory way in response to five stimuli represented by icons such as a brain and a disco ball. The icons and artists are on a screen-for-selection by viewers/listeners.

For these audio-video portraits, Conrow wanted an intimate not interview mode: a lounge-room piece, the family home. So the small space of the downstairs Gallery 5/Jenny Dowell Gallery suited, darkened like a tent in a side-show alley except for peep-hole apertures in two of its glass walls.

The artists talk with wit and poignancy about their lives (‘None of us are getting out of here alive,’ says Hawkes), and perform their art with verve (we see Wojak in mesmeric, meditative, intuitive movement-dance as a living sculpture).

Conrow has been working with video-media projection and sculpture since the 1980s. Initially studying sculpture, she loved film and was the first music-video student in the original incarnation of Southern Cross University whose campuses include Lismore. She was the national coordinator of community television in Australia and has exhibited internationally and nationally, including with Blast Theory (UK), and Lines in the Sand as part of the cultural program of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Her parallel practice is in club and event work in projection installation, and Museum of My Friends#1 brought that club work and art together.

Museums are about categorisation, selection, collection, preservation, and memory. Conrow suffered a severe car accident resulting in Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, the recovery period for memory- and communication-loss initially isolating her. Her home was also loss-affected by the 2017 Lismore flood. Collection and preservation are life-enhancing processes, storing examples of what has largely disappeared. In 100 years, her friends will be present when they are no longer here, held in virtual reality.

At the centre of the exhibition is a large, open pod or capsule, egg-shaped, eerie but familiar, uncanny but arresting, an awesome monolith appearing from some other world, preternatural, compelling our attention.

Eggs represent potentiality, fertility, fecundity, a home or shelter for forthcoming birth and life. The capsule of the brain is an ovular/egg shape. The famous Fabergé eggs are luxurious items, bejewelled gifts – categories in which Conrow’s Museum friends may well be placed. Not a new image for Conrow, she used the egg in Unravell Egg (exhibited at Artstate Lismore; The Re-authoring Impulse and Decade of Catharsis, Northern Rivers Community Gallery, Ballina; and Bonalbo Arts Show in 2017), where its symbolism is clear: representing healing during a period of removal from the world, in isolation, sleeping like a foetus in the womb.

The dark grey, almost matt steel of the pod is also reminiscent of protective amour. A mesh screen is shaped with layers and curving the mesh across the pod, producing a holographic or three-dimensional effect for the videos, not unlike dioramas in museums.

On each of the two metallic legs of the pod are cast-aluminium rhinoceros beetles (Xylotrupes Ulysses). Insect populations are under threat on our degrading planet, and they are among the beings museums preserve.

This is a technically and technologically sophisticated exhibition. The pod’s beetles were obtained from a scan by the Engineering School at Southern Cross. Conrow received an Australia Council grant for development of the show, was mentored by Suzon Fuks who herself works across media and disciplines, and Urban Arts Projects prepared the fabrication of the screen sculpture.

In the past, Conrow has also collaborated with other major figures in the art world, such as Judy Watson. Museum of My Friends#1, in its collaborative use of art, technology, science and creative people, reminds us that our flourishing is dependent on our connections with others, with otherness, with the other-than-human as well as the human.

Also emblematic of regional Northern Rivers was the collaborative, and environmentally conscious exhibition, Dirt & Ash, by Fiona Fell and Kellie O’Dempsey – environmentally conscious because ‘dirt’ is the renewable resource, clay, used by Fell as a figurative sculptor, and ash is a recycled resource, charcoal, used by O’Dempsey in performance drawing.

The two exhibitions – Museum #1 and Dirt – are comparable and contrasting. As with Conrow, Fell is a long-term resident in the Northern Rivers, as was O’Dempsey until she relocated to Brisbane. Rather than the intimate space of Gallery 5, Dirt & Ash filled the large, main upstairs Margaret Olley Gallery. While I met to talk with Conrow in the Lismore Quadrangle, I visited Fell’s studio.

Fiona Fell and Kellie O’Dempsey, Dirt and Ash (detail) 2018,. Photo courtesy of the artists

Walking into a private studio, as with wa(l)king into a church or an actual exhibition space, the beholder is silenced by the manual, emotional and intellectual labour of art. You automatically look around, sense past presences through the material traces left behind: broken clay, bags of wet clay, figurines and found objects. The artist’s studio resonates with the distilled excitement of the not-yet-established, the coming-into-being. Like Conrow, Fell was affected by the 2017 Lismore flood – her studio inundated. Dirt & Ash features a ‘shelving’ of washed survivors: some found and some made by Fell.

I had observed Fell’s practice from a bemused distance for some time. Her clay work is unsettling. The votive-like figures are big-eyed, contorted-limbed, limbless, headless, red-lipped, grim-mouthed, or mimetically contained in ruched, sagging plastic bags of wet clay, recalling Pompeii’s stilled-in-the-moment figure facsimiles, or the monstrous in Alien and Eraserhead, at once boned and fleshed, skeletal and glutinous.

I suggested ‘grotesque’. But Fell’s word ‘abject’ is more accurate, her figures resonating with trauma. While there is a continuing thread of the grotesque in Australian performance and literature, because it’s a damaged place, never admitting nationally to violent invasion, Fell’s practice springs from her long-time spent in hospitals where her mother worked as a matron. Dirt features hospital props such as a stainless-steel trolley and bandaging material. The word ‘hospital’, as Fell notes in her PhD, comes from the Latin hostis (enemy) and hospes (host, friend), denoting a space that is at once hospitable and inhospitable, of life and death, of health and dis-ease.

My long-term memory worked exceptionally well in the case of Kellie O’Dempsey. I came to the Northern Rivers for work. In Lismore’s CBD, the first and only building I walked into after my job interview was the Gallery. Over a decade ago, as a city girl taking up residence in the region, I hyperactively looked around for what was going on. One of the first things I witnessed, with intrigue, was O’Dempsey performance-drawing a dancer in real time, with charcoal on a plain white wall, in a now-defunct shop-front gallery in the CBD. Performance drawing is still rare, its taxonomy of practice in development, the subject of O’Dempsey’s PhD.

O’Dempsey’s practice springs from drawing live music performances in pubs. Her taxonomy is act, witness, experience, exchange: where, to roughly summarise, the artist in the process of drawing is witnessed as performance, as a shared coming-into-being.

A decade is a good amount of time to see significant change. As curator Kezia Geddes says in her catalogue essay for Dirt & Ash, Fell ‘has begun to dissolve her rigid material of fired clay’, using ‘it in other states’ not often seen in traditional ceramic practice – scuttled, or chopped and diced for example.

Kellie O’Dempsey, Resistant Movement, (NY), Kentler International Drawing Space, Brooklyn, NY

For O’Dempsey, the change is through digital technology. Dirt opened with a live performance of Fell finishing off clay works, tending to them, watching over them as in her regular practice – getting up in the night because she remembers a limb that needs wetting. While, across almost the full gallery space, Fell adjusted weight-bearing loads or patted plastic bags of wet clay to reshape them, O’Dempsey drew, initially with charcoal on the walls, then with digital ink, broad, abstract impressions of Fell’s movements, in black but also burnt orange that picked up some of the colour on various props.

The two mid-career artists also poured clay slip and ink into 10 metres of tangled, intravenous tubing. Meanings mingled, bloomed and spilled out like the two substances themselves on a voluminous roll of drawing paper on the gallery floor: life-giving liquids, drawing lines, connected bodies, and/or the ubiquitous cords and cables of live music or, indeed, of any electronic technology.

The opening performance was videoed to play continuously in the gallery. One walked into, then, a haunted space, much like with Conrow’s virtual museum of friends. Real objects remained, but in the semi-darkened space of the gallery, Fell and O’Dempsey were there and not.

The spare images of bodies and lines on the wall, and O’Dempsey’s smudged charcoal drawings on paper, were reminiscent of x-ray, scanning and ultra-sound imagining of the body, with which Fell is familiar. Her PhD considers ‘the uncanny, the shadow, and the ghostly’, recasting the traditional materiality of ceramics in the virtual. Porosity rather than the ‘impenetrable surface’ is at the forefront of both artists’ work.

While O’Dempsey’s body has length and is lithe, recalling a dancer’s, for Dirt she drew Fell’s muscly, stouter body, the body of a clay worker, standing, using the muscles of her arms, maintained by gym-going. All of our bodies, as with those in Dirt, are perpetually folding and unfolding, bending and curling, stretching, denting, collapsing. O’Dempsey’s drawings are process-representative, forever (re)enacting. Fell’s new practice of wet clay in plastic enables her to all-ways potential the clay.

The content and methodology of these two exhibitions – Fell and O’Dempsey’s Dirt & Ash, and Conrow’s Museum of My Friends #1 – are based in communing and dialoguing, which is curious because they are also both about creating a future presencing of the now-present that will be a keen(ing) absence in that future present.

 – Moya Costello


Moya Costello has four books – two of short creative prose and two novellas – and many pieces individually published in scholarly and literary journals, and anthologies. She has been awarded writing grants and fellowships by government departments and literary organisations. She has been a guest at many writers’ festivals, read her work at various venues, been a writer-in-residence at Monash University, and judged many literary competitions. She is an adjunct lecturer with the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University.

Lismore Regional Gallery MUSEUM OF MY FRIENDS #1 :: MARION CONROW



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