Portrait

Artist Claire Lambe prepares an exhibition. By Ellen van Neerven.

Artist Claire Lambe

Hope she will be kind. The note is scrawled in my notebook, waiting nervously to meet her at the front of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. As Claire Lambe walks me around the exhibition space, I chide myself for such thoughts. The show is still a work in progress, still being installed. It continues the artist’s interrogation of pleasure, violence, ritual and commodity culture through the filter of anxiety and ambiguity. The five rooms host a different composition, works that are meant to be walked into.

Everyday life corrodes the identity of objects so often they go unnoticed. With sculpture, Claire awakens story. One of the rooms centres around a bronze flower ascending its role as object in a porn movie, becoming a character with agency of its own as expressed through “her” accompanying soundtrack. Daniel is installing when we walk in. “What does it sound like?” Claire attempts to fill in the blanks of my experience. Daniel runs off a list of evocative adjectives: “earthy”, “temperate”. Claire takes it further: “It feels like the spores are going to come and hit you in the face.”

Another object that appears in many incarnations throughout the show is a re-creation of Sigmund Freud’s chair, long fetishised by Claire. She sits down on it, resting her neck back into the curves, shapes herself into Freud’s reading position. She chiselled the chair while looking into the mirrors that fill this room like a maze, interested also in the image of the artist producing the work. I touch the smooth wood, look at the photographs stuck to the mirrors. Claire explains that the assemblage detailing will stay. There is boredom in perfection.

We are under the lights taken from her studio in Melbourne’s Northcote, which is also her living space. She hasn’t come out much – it has been 12 months of nonstop work since the phone call from ACCA artistic director Max Delany, and now Mother Holding Something Horrific will be here until June. She looks happy when I suggest a walk outside – her eyes go big like a dog that’s been cooped up. You mean I’m allowed to go outside? I interpret intense need.

She’s jumpy, stringy like a bird, bumps into things and goes the wrong way around as I follow her, bobs on her knees. Lean and taller than me, and with the same step I have when I’m mind over body; it is amazing we reach a destination, the Royal Botanic Gardens. On the way she indulges me by asking questions about my novel and family.

She doesn’t want her images of family members to be representing themselves – she wants them to be not what they are, to have more of the freedoms of novels and filmmaking. The photographs on the walls are stills with no story, no background. In one of them, her son is “Chocolate Woman” from the art house 1974 film Sweet Movie. In the next, her sister has been buried, dirt to her ears, framing her face. The addition of text in some of the stills creates further stimulation: Claire uses the subtitle trope to assume narrative and push against form and against structure. She speaks with gratitude that her family in England are so up for being part of her art. It is a lot of fun, though the anxious responsibility about this use of others is always present.

I am curious about her collaboration, notably with sound artist Daniel Jenatsch, whom I have just met, and performer and choreographer Atlanta Eke, who floated past earlier. We sit down at the fountain. The water is loud against our conversation, almost too loud, but not quite. I enjoy straining to hear. In choreography, artists come together for brainstorming days around a topic, a process Claire took to this work. These honest discussions opened up the ideas and questions Claire had been waiting to explore. She singles out the day of “rage”. Some people didn’t have any. Claire wasn’t one of them. “Thank God for that.” We laugh. A fierce exterior was required for a woman growing up in northern England in the 1970s. Now she is worried that she is becoming too soft, too aware of self. She had to wrestle with her discomfort in leading others. She had brought my attention to smaller photos of couples on screen – director’s hands forcing their faces together – she does not want to be the forcer. Claire defines collaboration as “trust in the process”. She’s not sure yet what Atlanta’s performances – live weekly, with music as accompaniment, and playback on TV screens – will be like.

And why, again, do I need Claire to be kind? I like her laugh, and the way she touches my shoulder as if she’s going to tell me a secret. I find myself mirroring her. In this space perhaps my own anxieties are understood.

We leave our spot by the fountain. I walk Claire back to the gallery, where there is still a lot to do. She says she is still needing to find the “horrific”. Perhaps it will come in the final stages. Perhaps with Atlanta. Or perhaps in the next work. She is not fussed.

Back at the gallery, Claire is told a photographer will come take pictures tomorrow. Could she be in them? Hands are fine. “Just not the ones that are like, ‘Here’s the artist.’ ” She shows me a ticket stub of the opera-novel Quicksand by Robert Ashley and Steve Paxton that she saw in London, a meditative experience. She wants to show me folders, photos, artist notes, it’s unclear what will make it into the exhibition or not. I hesitate before leaving.

“Was it okay to…?” I’m not sure what question I’m asking. To take her away from her work installing? To talk about my work? To want her to be kind?

“It was so okay,” she says immediately, kissing my forehead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "On the Lambe". Subscribe here.

Ellen van Neerven
is a Yugambeh writer​. Her books include Heat and Light and Comfort Food.

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