Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Gender is a Drag, 1993, 2013
Stills: Ross Cunningham, 1993; Garry Trinh, 2013

“Those who can’t forgive the past are condemned, not without pathos, to reenact it.”1

Daniel Mudie Cunningham is a voracious documenter of lived experience. The title of this essay is taken from a Twitter post he made in April 2020, decisively articulating his readiness for the implications of passing time. For Cunningham, the unknowable future is both accomplice and antagonist. This paradox drives a practice concerned predominantly with the ways identity is shaped, performed and remembered. Since the early 1990s, Cunningham has worked across media, including performance, drawing, diarising, photography and video, compulsively cataloguing the milieus, sentiments and possibilities of life as a queer person raised in Australian suburbia by a religious working-class family. Fusing cryptic, often traumatic anecdotes with myriad references to popular culture and art history, his practice is a cathartic form of evolving self-portraiture, functioning to comprehend and annex the anachronistic—a process concerned less with forgiveness than reclamation. Revisiting the past, which often and characteristically involves re-enacting works from his own oeuvre, is a way for Cunningham to persist. The aggregate archive of his work reflects upon and memorialises developing queer experience within a broader temporal and sociopolitical rhizome. As Cunningham’s Twitter feed attests, his practice is both vehicle for and record of his existential ruminations. 

Cunningham was born Daryl Ian Pow in 1975. In 1984, aged 9, he legally changed his name to Daniel Ian Mudie, adopting his stepfather’s surname. In 1993, aged 18 (his first year at art school), he became Daniel Ian Mudie Cunningham, adopting his biological father’s surname, subsequently dropping ‘Ian’ to become Daniel Mudie Cunningham. These formative and fundamental self-reinventions signal Cunningham’s shifting patrilineal and familial connections as well as an early commitment to the fashioning of his own identity. His practice as an artist similarly locates identity—that precarious yet essential framework for living—in the oscillation between being and becoming, enactment and re-enactment. As Gilles Deleuze, who famously articulated that identity derives through difference, remarked, ‘The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities.’2 Likewise, for Cunningham, identity is not predetermined but necessarily open to change. In his versioned realities of self, Cunningham both embodies and mobilises transformation, reclaiming identity from the subjugating, if not censoring, authorship of heteronormativity. Late twentieth-century Australia (1970s–90s), during which Cunningham came of age, was predominantly intolerant to sexual and gender diversity. Gay sex between consenting adults was not uniformly decriminalised in this country until 1994 (though state governments were legislating this way from the late 1970s), and gay marriage wasn’t legalised until 2017 (and only after a national plebiscite). Add to this an Evangelical Christian upbringing and it is clear that Cunningham’s formative years were teeming with dogmatic conservatism. Although queer liberation has gained momentum since and its cultures are more publicly visible than ever, the rise of far-right politics globally has also reinvigorated homophobia and transphobia, often violently so. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the prescient queer radicality of Cunningham’s early works, made when queer culture remained largely underrepresented in the media and art institutions, has found a new urgency and cause for resistance at the time of writing in 2023.

Cunningham’s early experiments with photography commenced in childhood. He began with taking photographs of his younger brothers Sean, Christopher and Trevor, directing them, often through staged religious re-enactments (including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ) and vernacular scenes in the backyard, which, on reflection, are endowed with references to childhood trauma. The improvisational nature and wistful spirit of these early photographs remained central to Cunningham’s photography as a young adult, when he began looking to the practices of artists such as Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz and, closer to home, Tracey Moffatt and William Yang. These artists are notable for their critical address of queer culture and livelihood, and their intimate portrayals foreshadowed the prolific documentation of personal life now relegated to social media. Even in the pre-digital context of his formative years, Cunningham understood images and representations as cultural currency; nowadays, in the age of universalising social media, images that most successfully capture performed identity can be utilised and exchanged like tokens for real social and economic value. The exponential accessibility and speed of photographic processing that parallels Cunningham’s life also aligns neatly with the challenges of accumulation, which Okwui Enwezor (borrowing from Jacques Derrida’s 1995 book title) addressed in the essay accompanying his exhibition Archive Fever: Photography between History and the Monument:

Since Kodak’s invention of commercial processing capacity at the end of the nineteenth century, the photographic analogue derived from the negative has not only generated an endless stream of faithful reproductions, it also set the entire world of users into a feverish pace of pictorial generation and accumulation.3

These social and technological developments warranted the capture, publication and archivisation of otherwise private, fleeting personal experiences. What transpires for Cunningham is a cathartic confessional compulsion in the form of photographs, diary entries and home videos. In his 2015 video Shitter, for instance, we find Cunningham sitting hunched on the toilet in a dark room illuminated sparely by the glow of his phone, in which he is absorbed. Across the bottom of the frame, a supposedly live feed of Twitter posts emerge and disappear. Diarising his thoughts for the world to see, Cunningham publishes a stream of consciousness in the form of witty, cryptic and cynical one-liners. Shitter remains the most direct of Cunningham’s ‘self-portraits’, developed after years working with a confessional tendency that undoubtedly originates in his experience with religious confession (a practice of repenting one’s wrongful thoughts and actions). The video not only foreshadowed the burgeoning of self-representation via online platforms such as MySpace, Facebook and Instagram, but, most importantly, revealed to him that participating with history is also a means of constructing it. As Harold Rosenberg has articulated, ‘History has emerged as a drama seen from within by a spectator who, willy nilly, is also an actor and in some undefinable sense an author.’4 Taking Rosenberg’s assessment of a passive spectator to task, Cunningham developed a highly proactive engagement with unfolding history in which he is both author and archivist.

Cunningham also developed an astute writing practice in his early years, composing poems and stories on his childhood typewriter. His writing developed in earnest when he decided to attend art school at Western Sydney University (then UWS Nepean) in 1993, instead of enrolling in theology college. In journals dating from 1993 to 1995, he scribed a range of poems, complete and incomplete, as well as ideas for artworks that are yet to be realised. From 1996 onwards, Cunningham began publishing a range of more critical articles addressing queer politics and art (including on the work of Goldin, Yang and Moffatt), notably as a regular contributor to the longstanding LGBTQI+ Sydney publication Star Observer.5 In 2023, on the occasion of his survey exhibition Are You There? at Wollongong Art Gallery, Cunningham published a modest anthology of poems titled Riding Through Air, which illustrates some of these pensive musings. In one 1994 poem ‘Movie’, Cunningham muses on the re-enactment of his life through documentation. Even in the early stages of his practice, he is engaging with his past as an archive of possible adaptations:

I’m sitting there reading the
novel, of my life,
knowing how it ends
because I’ve seen the movie.6

Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Riding Through Air, 2023 (dust jacket)

This commitment to filmic portrayals of his inner world is evident from Cunningham’s first serious photographic work, a series of black-and-white self-portraits titled Lonesome Cowboy (1993), which capture his innocence and sexual discovery as a queer youth. The photographs portray 18-year-old Cunningham in a series of close-up details of his topless and barefooted body, including his underfoot, hair and nape, complemented by front-on mid-shots of him laying or laughing in the field where the shoot occurred. The photographs are flirty, intimate, endearing and tender. We meet Cunningham in these pictures at a crucial yet vulnerable moment in his queer maturation, a ‘bridge’ between a religious, closeted life and that of an openly gay man. This is Cunningham’s first consequential enactment—playing himself, bifurcated, to camera. The series was inspired by the homoerotic imagery in Andy Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys (1968), which Cunningham encountered only as reproductions in Peter Gidal’s 1971 book Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings; he writes:

It was as if my own conflicted and closeted homosexuality at the time these pictures were made could only be expressed through an avant-garde art history imitation, which in this pre-internet world was known to me through reproduction over reality, silence over sound, stillness over motion.7

From representations of queerness available to him, he learnt, necessarily, to derive and articulate representations of himself as a queer person.

Since producing Lonesome Cowboy, performing to camera has become the foundation of Cunningham’s practice. Empty fields and suburban backyards provided safe, accessible spaces in which to fantasise. After Lonesome Cowboy, Cunningham began performing to camera in more vernacular ways, shooting videos on VHS including Backyard Movie (1993), Size Does Matter (1994), Bicycle (1994) and Catwalk (1996), which were combined in 2017 into a video installation titled Silent Disco. The compilation was set to a soundtrack remixing the disco hits ‘Born to Be Alive’ by Patrick Hernandez and ‘Upside Down’ by Diana Ross, thus becoming Cunningham’s first music videos (though the music was retrofitted to the videos in 2017). These early videos blend sexual innuendo with religious undertones, presented through the fused languages of portraiture and popular culture. Backyard Movie strikingly resembles Lonesome Cowboy, piecing together close-up shots of Cunningham’s topless body, this time (absurdly) while he is bathing in red water in the backyard. Images of a young Cunningham submerged in a bath played to the lyrics ‘born to be alive’ read as something of a queer baptism. Collectively, the works produced by Cunningham in the early 1990s present as a ‘born again’ moment in his life.

At the same time, Cunningham develops his drag persona Jenny Taylier, under whose fabricated, lightly dragged-up reality he playfully expresses queerness. Jenny was captured in rudimentary photographs at social gatherings in Western Sydney, casually performing for friends, but found a most prominent voice in diary entries as Cunningham’s nom de plume between 1993 and 1996. She is one of many personas Cunningham has performed throughout his career. Others include Liza Minnelli (for his 1994 video Bicycle and 1995 performance Licycle), a fictional ex-lover of Jodie Foster (for his 1996 performance Fucking Jodie Foster), and a roster of singers including Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper and Bette Midler, whose respective songs ‘Proud Mary’, ‘True Colors’ and ‘Oh Industry’ he has lip-synced to in his own music video productions of the same titles. Enacting his own fantasies is thus made possible through the re-enactment of others.

Drawing more closely on his social network of queer and queer-minded friends, Cunningham produces a slideshow-style video in 1998 titled The Ballad of Technological Dependencya direct reference to Goldin’s famous photo series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), which similarly comprises snapshot portraits sequenced against a soundtrack. ‘I wanted to produce work along similar lines, but rather than attempting to tell the truth through the photograph, I became increasingly interested in blurring the truth, and inventing half of the story,’ Cunningham writes.8 The substitution of ‘sexual’ with ‘technological’ refers to the conducting and preservation of intimate relationships over the phone. Cunningham’s The Ballad incorporates answering-machine messages from several friends set to photographs of them pictured on the phone, which are based on recollections from the previous year. His personal narratives and community are re-presented in this work as a cinematic drama detailing the minutiae of life in Sydney in the nineties.

In 2000, Cunningham revisited this work, producing a more editorialised sequel called Repeats, thus for the first time re-enacting his own work, which has since become an enduring trope. Repeats is, similarly, a slideshow-style video featuring a soundtrack of answering machine messages from friends and relatives, but also includes figures in Cunningham’s orbit with celebrity status such as Yang and the actor Deborah Mailman. Yang participated on the proviso that Cunningham pose nude for a series of his own photographs, aptly telling of the milieu in which Cunningham operated in which representations of queer life echoed the realities of social exchange and even exploitation. Extending upon the language of re-enactment, scenes in Repeats recreate those from famous films such as Pillow Talk (dir Michael Gordon, 1959) and Scream (dir Wes Craven, 1996). Eleven different narratives comprise the video, which wholly takes cues from Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée—a landmark experimental short made almost entirely from still images. Both The Ballad and Repeats draw from Cunningham’s archive of landline answering-machine messages from and photographs of friends (many of whom have since died), which are simultaneously re-archived as montages in these works. These artefacts of Cunningham’s life function in his work as ‘souvenirs’, which Alice Dailey aptly describes as ‘technolog[ies] through which the past returns to be re-experienced in the present, not unlike a history play which scripts the reappearance of pasts in an expanse of potential futures played out through bodies yet unknown.’9

Throughout his practice, Cunningham returns repeatedly to strategies of alternation and sublimation, such as drag and fictive celebrity. What defines their use within his oeuvre, however, is how lightly he impersonates. The intention, unlike conventional drag, is not illusion, but rather to expose the vagueness of identity and the ironies of rigid connotations. These seemingly frivolous enactments reveal Cunningham’s awareness of, perhaps even comfort with, being watched. In another of his Twitter posts from 2017, he declared, ‘God made me famous.’ This constant performance likely stems from more sinister psychological conditioning as a paranoia of constant surveillance. ‘Passing as straight’—camouflaging in society—is a survival mechanism. This costumed identity, Cunningham finds, can be subverted and used, rather, as a vehicle for expression and enfranchisement. Cunningham comes to occupy images of popular culture much like the drag performer re-enacts popular music, by exploiting the spectacle, which is by its very nature acceptable, familiar and shareable. The audience participates in the re-enactment by singing along, ingratiated or acquiesced. The re-enactments of performer and audience are thus reconciled as a new spectacle, wherein lies the potential for space and mobility when representations—in this instance, queer representations—are otherwise lacking. The adapted spectacle risks commodifying itself, but also has potential to radically subvert popular culture. The discriminations of sociocultural consensus are confronted and ‘othered’ through the tactical deft of what Chantal Mouffe has coined and championed as ‘leftist populism’.10 Within the vectored subjugations of neoliberalism, practices like Cunningham’s decipher possibilities for queerness within present configurations of the popular, as Sven Lütticken so eloquently encapsulates:

Basically, all acts have to be repetitions of the ultimate act: to play oneself in order to be visible and hence to have a certain exchange value in relation to other self-performers […] But if in the neoliberal theater everybody constantly re-enacts [themself] and indirectly everyone else as well, re-enactment becomes a crucial performative strategy […] If one is always re-enacting roles partially scripted by others, one might just as well use re-enactment against itself by recreating historical events […] Historical re-enactment may only be an escapist diversion from daily life, but perhaps it is also an anachronistic challenge to the present.11

Self-invention is not a new strategy. To perform oneself alternatively has deep cultural roots. Perhaps most notable of these within the histories of queer liberation is Ballroom culture, in which individuals (mostly queer, trans, African American and Latino youth) choreograph walks and routines that assimilate to specific categories such as ‘butch queen realness’, ‘femme queen realness’, and ‘executive realness’ (the categories adapt real-world stereotypes and are numerous). Trophies are awarded to performers who most convincingly portray the category, hence ‘realness’. Ballroom culture was popularised by Madonna’s hit song ‘Vogue’ and more recently through heavy referencing in the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. A commonly used expression in Ballroom and drag cultures—‘I’m living’—refers to the joy derived from the plausibility of a performance. To be ‘living’ is to be temporarily enfranchised through mimicry. The way to ‘live’ in Ballroom and drag is to become, to see oneself in the possibilities of identity rather than through the often traumatic details of the past.

Having struggled against a conservative upbringing—to the extent that he willingly enrolled in a church-led program of ex-gay conversion therapy in 1993, the same year his artistic identity bloomed with Lonesome Cowboy—Cunningham sought guidance and identity through popular culture. Enacting, in this sense, provided glimpses of liberation. Cunningham also produced one of his now most notable works in 1993, Gender is a Drag. His first public performance, it grappled presciently with the politics of gender and the performance of identity. It was staged across two window galleries at UWS Nepean. In one window, a looped VHS video played, documenting Cunningham in the process of performing conventional femininity by having his hair and make-up done. In the adjacent window, a reversal of this transformation was taking place, Cunningham shaving his shoulder-length hair to a live audience in an attempt to appear more masculine. Once shorn, Cunningham writes the English translation of a Mexican song lyric from Frida Kahlo’s painting Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940) in red lipstick on the window, ‘Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair; now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore,’ making an overt art-historical reference like in Lonesome Cowboy (created only months earlier) and in many works yet to come. The work’s title Gender is a Drag, echoing Judith Butler’s classic queer theory book Gender Trouble (1990), can be read as both a critique of conservative gender distinctions and an embrace of the complexities of gender through drag. This double meaning, this very doubling, is an enduring motif in Cunningham’s work. He also continues to employ a melange of performance, video and impersonation, making Gender is a Drag a formative, if not vatic, work within his oeuvre.

Performed through windows, Gender is a Drag symbolically incorporates a transparent threshold between performer and audience, transformation and observation. This threshold appears time and again in Cunningham’s work, most prosaically as the lenses he uses for videography and photography, and, of course, the screens on which his videos are shown. In a lesser-known series titled Hickey (1995), Cunningham viscerally analogises this transparent threshold to skin, face-mounting photographs to glass that picture his lips agape and hard-pressed alongside images of his hickey-stained neck. The transparency functions doubly as boundary and mediator. It is real and present but must perform invisibly, neutrally. Cunningham illuminates this symbology in a diary entry from the time: ‘Queer identity as transparent, glass-like, capable of being steamed, broken, reflected and refracted.’ As with Lonesome Cowboy and Repeats, Cunningham discovers and relays an ambivalent truth in the portrayal of lives on, off and through the screen.

Insofar as identity is enacted or re-enacted, Gender is a Drag imagines identity between or without conventional distinctions, much like the genderless alien species in Ursula K Le Guin’s 1969 speculative fiction The Left Hand of Darkness. Reflecting on her feminist ‘thought experiment’, Le Guin writes:

Because of our lifelong social conditioning, it is hard for us to see clearly what […] truly differentiates men and women. I eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left, would be, presumably, simply human […] If we were socially ambisexual, if men and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, […] then society would be a very different thing.12

In this sense, Cunningham creates a ‘third person’ (figuratively and literarily) from which to observe the dialectic of his performance, in which he performs masculinity and femininity with such little difference that we question the very utility and validity of their binarisation. We can apply this adoption of ambivalence to Cunningham’s practice broadly—he is always playing others to portray himself. Though commonplace now, this address of identity politics was, in 1993, a recent historical development. As with Le Guin’s work, identity politics has feminist roots. The term, coined by the Black lesbian feminist collective Combahee River Collective, appears in their landmark 1977 document ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’:

Focusing on our oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.13

This document is an early appraisal of the complex politics required to comprehend overlapping social identities, predating American civil-rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 conception of ‘intersectionality’. How to be female, queer, working-class and African American simultaneously? Cunningham’s work presents a similar conundrum. His work overtly intersects gender, sexuality, religion and social status, illuminating conflicting priorities. Identifying with the feminist and lesbian critiques, Cunningham fittingly develops a capsule within his practice titled The Jodie Foster Archive (1996–2011). The archive includes collected ephemera as well as video and performance works that critically satirise the public scrutiny of Jodie Foster’s homosexuality. This focus not only signals Cunningham’s fetishisation of celebrity but, more importantly, his empathy with the challenges faced by queer people who are pressured to simplify, obfuscate or reveal facets of their identity. Acting, in this instance, takes on a double meaning whereby fictional and sexual identity perform simultaneously. As José Da Silva’s essay on The Jodie Foster Archive explains, a complex array of identities and events are performed in this archive: real, fictional, enacted and re-enacted. All of which are invariably encompassed by, and subsequently archived in, Cunningham’s investigations into his own identity.

Around the same time Cunningham begins performing to camera, Marina Abramović produces The Biography (1992), which she describes as a ‘theatre piece in which I actually play myself’.14 The live stage performance narrated Abramović’s life year by year, featuring shorter re-enactments of past performances with some (namely collaborative works) represented as slide projections. Pierre Saurisse observes:

As pivotal moments of her career were narrated by her own recorded voice […] she presented herself as taking responsibility for cataloguing, and ultimately historicising, her career […] assum[ing] the roles of both artist and historian.15

Making yet another art-historical reference, Cunningham’s 2012 video performance Take My Breath Away riffs on Abramović’s collaborations with Ulay: Cunningham captures a visceral exchange with Australian artist Dani Marti with whom he exchanges breath back and forth, using a white balloon like a shared lung. The collaboration echoes the life-dependency of Cunningham’s ongoing participations with the past. Like Abramović does in The Biography, he re-enacts memories and works from personal and shared histories throughout his practice, forming something of an evolving documentary of the artist’s life and work, which remain profoundly intertwined. To mark its twentieth anniversary, Cunningham re-performed Gender is a Drag at Alaska Projects, Sydney, in 2013, dedicating the restaging to his brother Christopher Lee Mudie (1979–2013), who had died a fortnight earlier. By 2013, re-enacting his own work is a device in Cunningham’s practice. Since 2007, he has been lip-syncing Tina Turner’s cover of ‘Proud Mary’ to camera every five years, committed to documenting his ageing process through restagings of this video performance until the series is interrupted by his death. As of 2023, Proud Mary collapses fifteen years of Cunningham’s life into a single video loop, memorialising the life of a queer optimist, a ‘proud Mary’ adamant, as the lyrics go, that he’ll ‘keep on burning’ and ‘rolling on the river’. This capsule of four chapters will come to represent two decades of Cunningham’s existence, simultaneously archiving inevitable endpoints and heralding a speculative number of future renditions. Within the ostensible iteration of Cunningham’s re-enactments, change and difference emerge unavoidably; as Dailey explains: ‘To “touch history” is not to make contact with an object fixed in a past time but to index the very unfixedness of time—the inhabitation of the present by an expanse of not only pasts but futures.’16

Like a ‘river’, Cunningham’s practice flows with the arrow of time, recording its histories in the topography of the pathways it forges. He knows there is no returning to the past. His time travels, then, are quests for seeking new possibilities, to assess what baggage should be remembered and brought forward. So, how do we remember? Cunningham raises this very question frequently, most notably in Funeral Songs (2007–), the driving precursor to Proud Mary, which is also his chosen funeral song. Adopting the mnemonic device, Funeral Songs is an archive of songs people want played at their funeral. He commenced the project in 2007 by inviting people within his network to nominate their preferred song, the responses to which are catalogued in a repurposed 1990s jukebox. Song choices are both profound and playful, some pulling at the heartstrings, others intended for a dance. The compilation has become an archive of how people wish to be remembered, pointing to the powerful capacity of music to hold memories and elicit emotions. Cunningham initiated Funeral Songs to remember and acknowledge the funeral song his brother Trevor Alec Mudie (1980–2001) identified just prior to his untimely death. A childhood photograph of Trevor buried with his head above sand at the beach in the early 1980s—one of Cunningham’s earliest photographs—is embedded in the jukebox. Each funeral song re-enacts the person it honours. Fittingly, the term ‘re-enactment’ commonly denotes re-creations of war scenes—collective traumas of supreme historical consequence. A song, Cunningham knows, has the power to represent and archive particular moments in time. To capture feeling in his records of personal narratives is a crucial and defining feature of his work. As Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro and Arianna Sforzini specify in their essay ‘The Re-enactment of Time’:

To re-enact is to experience the past by reactivating either a particular cultural heritage or unexplored utopias. If to re-enact means not to restore but to challenge the past, history is thus turned into a possible and perpetual becoming, a site for invention and renewal.17

The urgency of memory, of course, feels greater in the presence of absence, potential erasure or amnesia. Such is the threat posed to queer people, especially for Cunningham’s generation, and to Cunningham himself, whose work has memorialised the loss of numerous relatives and friends. Though his obsession with finding and re-enacting queer representation in popular culture has been described as ‘fandom’—even by the artist himself—it can also be read more innocently as a form of necessary acquaintance, healing or preservation. That which is perceived as ‘queer’ in the media that Cunningham gravitates towards lacks precise definition as such, especially when considering the number of queer celebrities who have been, and continue to be, ‘closeted’. Similarly, songs now thought of as ‘gay anthems’ are the products of heterosexual women such as Turner, Midler, Minnelli and Madonna.

In this sense, it is popular culture that is in fact ‘queered’ by its re-enactments in emerging queer cultures, including in the work of Cunningham. Indeed, his work might also extend ‘queering’ to broader experiences, including time. A diary entry of his from 1995 speculates on this possibility, declaring, ‘on a queer day, you can see forever’. Adapted from the adage ‘on a clear day you can see forever’ (also the title for a 1970 film starring Barbra Streisand), this note was subsequently fabricated into neon text in 2023. The possibility of ‘forever’ that looms prominently throughout Cunningham’s practice—how long is time? How many re-enactments are possible?—is reimagined through simple rephrasing as a sequence of queer fragments. The ‘queer days’ of Cunningham’s life, now symbolically luminescent and interchangeable with ‘clear’, are those which have retrospectively brought clarity to his configurations of time and memory.

So, how to participate with the past while ensuring evolution? This is the question central to Cunningham’s ongoing practice. The solution lies in working with the dynamism of time, in the sense that, as Boris Groys claims, ‘the present is originally corrupted by past and future, there is always absence at the heart of presence, and that history, including art history, cannot be interpreted, to use Derrida’s expression, as “a procession of presences”.’18 Instead, Cunningham works with the knowledge that urgencies inevitably become anachronistic, aligning with Hannah Arendt’s view that ‘the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution’. Cunningham’s unique, personal navigation of history hinges on the paradox, or dialectical, presented by the onus of the past. On one hand, he resists amnesia, remembering and re-performing the historical; on the other, his preoccupation with the past can cause a ‘slow cancellation of the future’ (to borrow from Franco Berardi), creating a problematic situation in which ‘nothing ever dies, we’re assailed on all sides by zombie forms, numerous revivals, anything can come back, and there’s an excessive tolerance for the archaic’.19 The success of Cunningham’s interrelations of past, present and future lies in his alchemising of the stuff between—that which is residual, which Raymond Williams defines as follows:

The residual, by definition, has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings and values are lived and practised on the basis of residue of some previous social and cultural institution or formation.20

Having returned frequently to previous chapters of his life has formed what Deleuze describes as ‘pleats’ or ‘folds’ in Cunningham’s history, which continue to concertina, simultaneously archiving and extending his own story. Despite deferring to video and photography—media renowned for faithful reproductions and reproducibility—Cunningham’s various enactments and re-enactments reveal that even the most prolific and diligent of record-keepers are not immune from the whims of time. There is always residue. Rather, Cunningham’s historicity focuses on this space between enactment and re-enactment, on the potential becomingness of the residual. In the future, it is predicted that artificial intelligence (AI) will utilise the content of archives left behind (voice identity, photographs, videos, social media posts, blog uploads, et cetera) to create perpetual virtual simulations of the deceased. For some, this possibility is comforting; for others, it is distressing. Cunningham’s assurance of his own detailed archive would certainly facilitate a plausible virtual reproduction, but would this re-enactment be capable of re-enacting? I think not—though the answer lies in the extent to which re-enactments can inscribe possibilities for the future.

James Gatt

Daniel Mudie Cunningham, On a Queer Day You Can See Forever, 2023
  1. Christopher Hitchens quoted in Sven Lutticken, ‘An Arena in Which to Reenactin Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (With De With, Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2005), p. 42.
  2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, EPZ Thousand Plateaus (A&C Black, 2004), p. 275.
  3. Okwui Enwezor, ‘Archive Fever: Photography Between History and the Monument(International Center of Photography, New York, 2008), p. 12.
  4. Rosenberg quoted in Lutticken, ‘An Arena in Which to Reenact’ in Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (With De With, Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2005), p. 17.
  5. A comprehensive list of articles is available on the artist’s website.
  6. Daniel Mudie Cunningham, ‘Moviein Riding Through Air (Wollongong Art Gallery, 2023).
  7. Alice Dailey, How to do Things with Dead People: History, Technology, and Temporality from Shakespeare to Warhol (Cornell University Press, 2022), pp. 6-7.
  8. See Chantal Mouff, For a Left Populism (Verso Books, 2018).
  9. Lutticken, ‘An Arena in Which to Reenact’ in Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (With De With, Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam), p. 19.
  10. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Is Gender Necessary?’, in Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979), p. 172.
  11. ibid.
  12. BlackPast, B (1977) 'The Combahee River Collective Statement' (BlackPast.org, November, 2012).
  13. See José Da Silva, ‘The Jodie Foster Archive’ in Oh Industry. (MOP Projects, 2009)
  14. Marina Abramović quoted in Thomas McEvilley, ‘Stages of Energy: Performance Art Ground Zero?’, in Marina Abramović: Artist Body: Performances 1969–1998, ed. by Emanuel Belloni (Charta, Milan, 1998), p.17.
  15. Pierre Saurisse, ‘Performance Art in the 1990s and the Generation Gap’, in Over and Over and Over Again, ed. by Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, and Arianna Sforzini (Berlin Press, Berlin, 2022), p. 164.
  16. Dailey, How to do Things with Dead People: History, Technology, and Temporality from Shakespeare to Warhol (Cornell University Press, 2022), pp. 6-7.
  17. Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, and Arianna Sforzini, ‘The Reenactment of Time’, in Over and Over and Over Again, ed. by Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, and Arianna Sforzini (Berlin Press, Berlin, 2022), p. ix.
  18. Boris Groys, ‘Comrades of Time, (e-flux Journal 11, December, 2009), accessed 1 March 2021.
  19. Mark Fisher Cyberfield, ‘Mark Fisher–The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ (YouTube, November 17, 2020), video.
  20. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 122-123.

Curatorial essay by James Gatt for the exhibition Daniel Mudie Cunningham: Are You There? at Wollongong Art Gallery, 30 June – 10 September 2023

Published by Wollongong Art Gallery in 2023.