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’,
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.
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’.
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.’
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’
‘Though I did not know her name…’
Courtesy of the artist and The Substation, Melbourne/Naarm
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’.
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?’
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.
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 see’
I remember Yvonne Rainer…
I remember Philippa Cullen…
I remember Pat Larter…
I remember Barbara Cleveland…
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’.
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’
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.
Courtesy of the artist
- Stephen Jones, “Philippa Cullen: Dancing the Music”, Leonardo Music Journal 14, (2004): 662
- Jones, 653
- Evelyn Juers, The Dancer (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021), 8
- Juers, 75
- Juers, 816
- 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
- Juers, 418
- Naomi Riddle, “Philippa Cullen’s Philosophy of Dance” Art Review, 10 November 2021.
- Kristin Hersh, ‘Your Ghost’ from Hips and Makers (4AD, 1994)
- Juers, 202
- Juers, 3
- Diana Baker Smith, ‘Philippa Cullen’, eds. Natasha Bullock, Kelli Cole, Deborah Hart, Elspeth Pitt, Know My Name (Canberra:National Gallery of Australia), 90
- Maria Prerauer, “Probing into New Dimensions”, The Australian 23 April 1972, 22. Cited in Jones, 72
- Jo Lloyd in conversation with the author on Zoom, Melbourne/Sydney, 27 January 2022
- Elspeth Pitt in conversation with the author on Zoom, Canberra/Sydney,31 January 2022
- 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
- See Anne Marsh’s review “Know My Name: Australian women artists 1900 to now: an historical context”, Artlink, 41:1 (April 2021), 91
- Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 26
- Baker Smith, 90
- Baker Smith, The Lost Hour, 2021
- Baker Smith in conversation with the author on Zoom, Sydney, 17 January 2022.
Essay for Artlink.
Published by Artlink, issue 41:1. in 2022.