Philippa Cullen, Homage to Theremin 2, 1972
Photo: Alex Ozolins

Bringing art to life through writing requires as much conjuring and invocation as it does research and enquiry, especially when it concerns dead artists whose apparent dues weren’t had in their lifetime. In reconstructing the artist and their milieu, a writer must take responsibility for the sweeping structural reorganisation that comes from historical revisionism. Learning that the history to which you cling is false and incomplete—a bureau for missing persons with stories untold— is like learning you are adopted long after the origin story has done its work. Simmering below the surface is a whole other tacit narrative, poised to rupture and irrevocably shift the tectonic plates of known existence. Such plotlines are spiced by romantic mystification as the past comes crashing into the present, restructuring present thinking for the future. Shadowy figures from a missing/missed past come to sparkle with freshly appointed grandeur, their newfound aura built at the juncture where verity and myth coalesce into histories rewritten from the ruins of memory. Whatever estate-sale fragments remain of such lives become talismans for new futures born from scholarship and telepathy alike.

Writing on Philippa Cullen’s choreographic experiments with the theremin, Stephen Jones refers to her unique method of bringing music to life through movement to the extent that she was ‘inside the sound, as its modulator if not its source’,1 and that

One cannot stand outside the instrument, disconnected from it, and still ‘play’ it. Involvement, being inside the process, is the basis of playing music. The gestures required in playing any instrument are movements as much as are the motions and gestures of dance.2

That the theremin is an electronic musical instrument played by controlling electromagnetic frequency and amplitude without physical contact adds gravity to how disconnection and immersion coexisted in Cullen’s fleeting practice. If dance brought sound into being by Cullen in her lifetime, it is writing that brings Cullen to life now. Pieced together by irrefutable facts gleaned from her education and her practice histories, a newly born mythology eerily sound-tracked by a past theremin drives a speculative future/present.

In recent years the life and work of Philippa Cullen (1950–1975) has resurfaced in the present through writing, curation, and reperformance. Active between 1969 and her death in India six years later, Cullen was a dancer, choreographer and performance artist who floated between art and dance worlds. She also had a budding academic career, teaching at the University of Sydney where she had completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English, Italian, fine arts and medieval history. The waves she made with theremin and other means rippled out from her youthful orbit. Today Cullen is regarded as a pioneer invested not only in developing her artform, but also through radical experiments with electronics and the development of movement-sensitive floors, now held in the University of Adelaide’s collection. Like much ephemeral practice, her work is not represented in public collections, though a slim folio of her papers is in the National Library of Australia. Precarious Movements: Choreography and the Museum (a major research partnership addressing how choreographic performance work is preserved and collected in visual arts institutions), was announced in 2021 as a research consortium linking the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Monash University Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Victoria, Tate UK, and the University of NSW. Clearly, the interest in Cullen and how we look after such legacies is timely in this respect.

Every picture of Cullen in the analogue and online archive depicts a young, attractive white woman, her body frozen mid-movement on stage. If we don’t know who it is we are looking at, connotative clues abound to understand that she is: a Dancer, a Performer, an Artist. Such pictures are coded with the same signifying traits familiar to images comprising official performance art histories of the twentieth century avant-garde. Photographic documents like these are important in fixing, indeed fetishising, a body having-been-there in time. A classic historical convention especially for feminist performance art is to recirculate its narrative through the indexicality of its black and white photographic documentation. Thus, iconic feminist histories are often constructed through photographic evidence of the performance artist at work. These tropes are so well worn they can be invented in the present. If I didn’t know of Philippa Cullen while looking at her photogenic trace, she could be mistaken, momentarily, for Barbara Cleveland. More on that later.

Cullen therefore exists in the imagination through artfully composed photos of the artist at work, along with scratchy verité video artefacts of live performance that exist because Stephen Jones was there with a Portapak. We have Jones to thank for the preservation of her legacy through his scholarly and curatorial endeavours. In 2016 he presented an ‘archival exhibition’ of Cullen’s work at the fringe artist-run initiative Sydney Non-Objective (SNO) Contemporary Art Projects. Ironic, considering how Cullen commenced her career in 1970s artist-run counterparts such as Inhibodress and Yellow House. Had she lived, one can only wonder what institutional support and canonisation may have come knocking. Five years after the SNO show, Cullen’s archive resurfaced through writing by her friend and contemporary Evelyn Juers: ‘I would not write a short book about a life cut short’.3

Juers writes this line in The Dancer: A Biography for Philippa Cullen after outlining how her methodology was constructed ‘through material related to her upbringing, performances, ideas, doubts, fantasies, travels, the books she read, her dreams, lovers, ancestors.’4 The story kicks off with a deep dive into Cullen’s maternal and paternal ancestry. In doing so, a fascinating portrait of Australia’s settler-colonial history unfolds, nothing quite like what I have seen in other biographies of notable white Australians. ‘We are approaching the genealogical apex—the birth of Philippa Cullen’,5 the author declares quite a way in. Anchoring Cullen through ancestry gives her temporal presence historical weight. I can’t help but feel that it throws her into the bush of ghosts—like a mythical Miranda figure whose disappearance (in the Joan Lindsay novel Picnic at Hanging Rock) nourishes and sustains the collective settler imagination.6 While tracing Cullen’s lineage Juers is right to acknowledge the factual slippages and ambiguities that come from incorrect or partially documented records: ‘The past is precarious. Its facts grow dusty and brittle, and might be carelessly confused with rumours, including a person’s own unreliable memories of memories’.7 I wonder if the same can be said of Cullen as the poetics recalled of her short life become a long book for the subject (as its subtitle foretells).

Juers dispenses with conventional biographical methods, inserting Cullen’s voice throughout as an italicised first person ‘I’ alongside her third person ‘she’. ‘This gives a sense that Juers is writing alongside Cullen, instead of speaking for her’8, observes Naomi Riddle. Ghost-writing is a practice of anonymously authoring biographical texts. Yet in this case, ‘ghost-writing’ just as easily applies to a séance-like conjuring of a dead subject, so their previously unheard voice emerges in tandem with the present-tense writer. What manifests is a text intersecting ventriloquism and hauntology. A love song between the living and the dead. A refrain from Kristin Hersh and Michael Stipe’s duet ‘Your Ghost’—I think last night, you were driving circles around me9—enters my head as I read about Cullen in the quadrangle at Sydney Uni. ‘Like a human theremin … she directed her dancers to run in a circle around a humming person.’10

‘Though I did not know her name…’11 as The Dancer’s first sentence goes, we all do now if the Know My Name project at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has done the canonising job it set out to do. A performance still of Cullen is reproduced in the Know My Name catalogue alongside a short text by artist Diana Baker Smith, who writes: ‘During her lifetime, Cullen was driven by the desire to make visible that which is invisible’.12 The same can be said of the curatorial impulse to include an artist whose work is immaterial, ephemeral, and largely invisible. In addition to appearing in the publication, Cullen is curated into the first of the two-part exhibition Know my Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now not through her remaining work, but via Archive the Archive (2020)—a video commissioned by the NGA in which Jo Lloyd extends Cullen’s practice through a creative response.

Jo Lloyd, Archive the Archive, 2020
Courtesy of the artist and The Substation, Melbourne/Naarm
Jo Lloyd, Archive the Archive, 2020
Courtesy of the artist and The Substation, Melbourne/Naarm

In conversation, Lloyd likens the process to telepathy. Writing in The Australian in 1972, the soprano and music critic Maria Prerauer described a Cullen performance similarly: ‘In some strange telepathic way she became almost both composer and conductor’.13 Proposing a ‘choreographic séance’ as the guiding principle of Archive the Archive, Lloyd says that telepathic thinking was conducive to developing the work long distance on Zoom during Melbourne’s extended COVID-19 lockdowns. Performed and filmed as a single twelve minute take, Lloyd performs with Deanne Butterworth and Rebecca Jensen on a stage lined by dramatic red velvet drapery. Composer Duane Morrison’s unnerving theremin score intensifies as the camera pirouettes around the dancers in a constantly looping figure-eight. They run/hum circles around each other, and around Cullen, who is summoned through the proxy of the dollying camera. Lloyd says Cullen’s presence was palpable: ‘At one point I am imagining being her being in my choreography—where she’s trying to do some of my choreography and looking back at me as though, “Is that right, Jo?”’14 Forging bodies and subjectivities together through the séance of dance, Lloyd melts linear time for new alchemical intergenerational temporalities. It becomes strangely significant that Cullen should die on 3 July 1975, eight days after Lloyd was born on 25 June 1975—alive together on the planet for eight days, dancing celestial circles around one for the other.

At the time of writing, Archive the Archive had just been ratified for acquisition by the NGA. While it’s unlikely that Cullen will ever be acquired unless some great material discovery is made, it is through Lloyd that Cullen will ‘enter’ the collection. Having first come to know Cullen’s name through Mike Parr’s Inhibodress archives, Know My Name co-curator Elspeth Pitt explains that commissioning Lloyd to think and make through Cullen was in keeping with the broader aims of Know My Name: ‘There are people like Philippa who have interesting practices and maybe you can’t represent them in a fulsome or meaningful or tangible way with what’s left; so how can you do it otherwise in a more generative context to give those artists presence or a voice?’15

Barbara Cleveland, Bodies in Time, 2016
Courtesy of the artists and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

Barbara Cleveland’s performance video Bodies in Time (2016) was also curated into the first iteration of Know My Name.16 Commissioned by the Art Gallery of NSW, where it was also performed and filmed, Bodies in Time was one of numerous works loaned to the NGA for Know My Name.17 Prominently displayed near a large salon hang of diverse portrait works spanning the ages, Barbara Cleveland’s piece became curatorially representative of the important role of performance art in this gendered art history.

Directed by Diana Baker Smith, Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore and Kelly Doley, Barbara Cleveland is a collective named after a mythic Australian performance artist who lived from 1945 to 1981, making her one of Cullen’s contemporaries if not her raison d’être. By recuperating a marginal figure of art history, the Barbara Cleveland project highlights how official histories are constructed out of an aching sense of lack. That twentieth century psychoanalytic conceptions of woman were built from lack (the ‘horror of nothing to see18) underscores the patriarchal bias of modernism’s endorsed visual culture. Feminist conceptual and performance art ruptures male dominated hegemony, ironically through ephemerality and impermanence. Performance documentation of the past is therefore a legacy currency; its mediated and coded visual language is ripe to be mined and mimed in the present. Dancer Angela Goh is a case in point: she channels Barbara Cleveland through choreography that interprets her supposed archive of scores while performing gestures from the lexicon of iconic performance documentation (Jill Orr’s 1979 performance to camera Bleeding Trees is one such example). Bodies in Time hypnotically details a process of remembering and forgetting, its spoken word narration counts to four and repeats like a musical round. Four names are spoken as a testament to how bodies embody and transmit performance across historical periods of time:

I remember Yvonne Rainer…
I remember Philippa Cullen…
I remember Pat Larter…
I remember Barbara Cleveland…

Diana Baker Smith with Brooke Stamp, The One Hour Concert, 2021
Courtesy of the artist

Extending this active remembrance of Philippa Cullen to her solo practice, Diana Baker Smith’s exhibition Tasks yet to be composed for the occasion at Artspace’s Ideas Platforms in 2021 addresses the generative capacity of archives. For the five works in this project, Baker Smith specifically examines Cullen’s 24 Hour Concert, performed from 6pm on 26 October 1974 until the same time the following day. Comprising 30 participants undertaking a series of choreographic actions across various sites including Hogarth Galleries, the Art Gallery of NSW and the Domain, 24 Hour Concert was an expansive durational presentation ‘blurring the boundaries between dance and life, performance and process, artwork and audience’.19 Among its surviving artefacts is grainy black and white video documentation shot by Stephen Jones, along with photographs, scores and instructional notes.

As it happened, Cullen’s performance took place on the date when daylight savings shifts clocks forward an hour. Falling short of its planned timing, Cullen intended to make up the missing hour with a follow up performance that never transpired due to her premature death. ‘Following the shadow of the concert’20 in her video essay The Lost Hour, Baker Smith retraces Cullen’s steps to the sites where it was performed and to her papers at the National Library. Through her archive, Baker Smith collaborates with Cullen from a distance to open a space of speculation to rescript history from remaining fragments alongside what is lost, misremembered, and forgotten. In a companion video, The One Hour Concert (2021), Baker Smith employs choreographer and dancer Brooke Stamp to perform a 60-minute improvisation at one of the sites, the former Hogarth Galleries, now a boutique tailor in a very different and gentrified Paddington to the one Cullen would have known in the seventies. Through this body of work Baker Smith presents a rich and compelling methodology for ghost-writing the past, using Cullen as: ‘a case study for thinking about how archives and histories work and how they don’t work, highlighting the edges of an archive and thinking about what else is missing and what are the other gaps.’21

Cullen then comes to represent a melancholy tale of unfulfilled purpose. A missing person, a gap in time. Her mystique grows in the present as an allegory for how all our work is inherently incomplete against the rub of time. A life cut short is barely a lost hour in the scheme of things.

Diana Baker Smith, The Lost Hour, 2021
Courtesy of the artist
  1. Stephen Jones, “Philippa Cullen: Dancing the Music”, Leonardo Music Journal 14, (2004): 662
  2. Jones, 653
  3. Evelyn Juers, The Dancer (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021), 8
  4. Juers, 75
  5. Juers, 816
  6. See Amy Spiers “#MirandaMustGo: Contesting a settler colonial obsession with lost-in-the-bush myths through public and socially engaged art”, Art & The Public Sphere, 8:2 (2019): 217-234. Spiers touches on this work in her conversation with Genevieve Grieves, “Countermonuments: Challenging distorted colonial histories through public art and memorials”, Artlink, 41:2 (August 2021): 70-777
  7. Juers, 418
  8. Naomi Riddle, “Philippa Cullen’s Philosophy of Dance” Art Review, 10 November 2021.
  9. Kristin Hersh, ‘Your Ghost’ from Hips and Makers (4AD, 1994)
  10. Juers, 202
  11. Juers, 3
  12. Diana Baker Smith, ‘Philippa Cullen’, eds. Natasha Bullock, Kelli Cole, Deborah Hart, Elspeth Pitt, Know My Name (Canberra:National Gallery of Australia), 90
  13. Maria Prerauer, “Probing into New Dimensions”, The Australian 23 April 1972, 22. Cited in Jones, 72
  14. Jo Lloyd in conversation with the author on Zoom, Melbourne/Sydney, 27 January 2022
  15. Elspeth Pitt in conversation with the author on Zoom, Canberra/Sydney,31 January 2022
  16. Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now comprised of part one: 14 November 2020 – 9 May 2021 and part two: 12 June 2021 – 26 June 2022 at the NGA
  17. See Anne Marsh’s review “Know My Name: Australian women artists 1900 to now: an historical context”, Artlink, 41:1 (April 2021), 91
  18. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 26
  19. Baker Smith, 90
  20. Baker Smith, The Lost Hour, 2021
  21. Baker Smith in conversation with the author on Zoom, Sydney, 17 January 2022.

Essay for Artlink.

Published by Artlink, issue 41:1. in 2022.