Art

At Heide Museum of Modern Art, Temptation to Co-Exist looks back on the decades-long collaboration between Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, which has produced a richly layered body of work. By Rosemary Forde.

Temptation to Co-Exist

An installation view of Temptation to Co-Exist at Heide Museum of Modern Art.
Credit: Christian Capurro

I left Heide with a long list of women’s names in my notes. Barbara Hepworth, groundbreaking Modernist sculptor; Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto; poet Emily Dickinson; actress Tippi Hedren; porn star Linda Lovelace; Australian Modernist Erica McGilchrist; and contemporary artist Melinda Harper, among others. Each appears in the exhibition Temptation to Co-Exist as interlocutor, quoted in imagery or in text, or – in Harper’s case – as collaborator. All are artistic women who were, or still are, at the forefront of their fields.

At the centre of this constructed network of female figures cast through the exhibition is the collaborative partnership of artists Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, who first began making work together in Sydney in 1983. Immersed at the time in postmodern theories and debates about poststructuralism, feminism, film, psychoanalysis and philosophy, the pair started experimenting with a range of media, using text, painting, Super 8 film and careful exhibition design.

After 36 years of collaboration, Burchill and McCamley’s practice remains diverse, slipping easily between media. Their willingness to experiment is retained, alongside recurring, consistent concerns. In Temptation to Co-Exist, a comprehensive survey of their work at Heide Museum of Modern Art, there is hard-edged painting, assemblage, sculpture, furniture, photography, video and neon-light works.

An early work included here and referenced in the exhibition title, Temptation to Exist (Tippi) (1986), uses two photographs of Tippi Hedren in her most iconic role: Melanie Daniels in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The close-cropped images of Hedren’s cut and bleeding face are mounted on aluminium and split down the middle by a long black strip, making the work sculptural in a physical sense but also filmic in its split-screen effect. The violence, horror and glamour of Hedren’s ravaged face is aligned with the editing-room cuts and crops of its image. The gritty combination of violence and beauty is to return in later works.

I return to my list of names. Hepworth’s innovations are historically attributed to Henry Moore; Solanas is better known as the woman who shot Andy Warhol; critique of Dickinson’s poetry is accompanied by speculation on her reclusive lifestyle and possible lesbian relationship. A pattern emerges: not only of artistic women, but also of haunted and thwarted women. Suppressed women. Underestimated women.

Exhibition curator Sue Cramer is an advocate for Burchill and McCamley, making the unequivocal statement in the exhibition catalogue that “in short, their work deserves to be better known, and in much greater depth”. To this I would add: their work deserves a much larger space than is afforded it at Heide. The 36-year survey is densely packed, aiming to provide access to that depth of practice, presenting layers of cleverly referential and self-referential works across time, media and theme. This entry into the archive of Burchill and McCamley’s work is more than welcome, but many works pack such a gut punch that a little more breathing space would help the viewer take it all in. It is the nature of the neon-light works that they can occupy as much space as they are given, and these have been better served in a space such as Neon Parc’s Brunswick warehouse venue, where the artists have also shown.

The works themselves are often dense with intertextual references. The list of women above traces one line of “genealogy” through their practice, one that is examined in more detail by Kyla McFarlane in the exhibition catalogue. Elsewhere, Rex Butler traces a genealogy of conceptual artists in relation to Burchill and McCamley’s word works. Critic Francis Plagne identifies references to Duchamp, Warhol and Donald Judd.

But for all the quotation, the semiotics, the readings and references that provide satisfying puzzles for art historians and Modernist fetishists, this work is not dry, not academic. These works buzz; they are charged, literally, thanks to the pulsing neon. Cramer describes the condensed layering of meaning and form in Burchill and McCamley’s works as creating a “force-field effect”, meaning the “relation of the viewer to the artwork is often one of encounter rather than interpretation”. Much like the diffuse, soft light of bright neon, there is an aura around these works.

I remember my first encounter with Burchill and McCamley. It was also at Heide: the 2007 exhibition Combine, made in collaboration with Melinda Harper and integrating a number of works selected from the Heide collection. Sited in Heide II, the building designed by David McGlashan in the mid-1960s as the Reed family’s home or “gallery to be lived in”, the works sang and vibed with the architecture and the history of the place. I was struck by how bright, how unapologetically aesthetically pleasing, how funny and how poetic the works were.

Soon after that, I took the opportunity to include an image of their work Fear Eats the Soul (2003) on the cover of a magazine I was editing. A few years later, I included that same work, on loan from the publisher of this newspaper, in a group exhibition. One of Burchill and McCamley’s earliest works in neon light, Fear Eats the Soul takes its text from a 1974 Fassbinder film of the same name, a drama of forbidden love in the face of racism and social disapproval. The work is a neon rendition of the fall of man – a serpent winds around the title text; a glowing green apple hangs tantalisingly to the right. It is the fateful moment when innocence is lost, and the concept of shame is introduced to humanity. But here it is exquisite. Defiant.

As I walk into Temptation to Co-Exist, I first scan the room to find this work, as though seeking out a friend at a party. For an art practice that’s often described in formal or theoretical terms, as Burchill and McCamley’s is, the word “soul” appears a surprising number of times – fear eats the soul; a single screw of flesh is all that pins the soul; I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. There are also allusions to the cosmos, the world and the universe.

In Wall Unit (Origin of the World) (2001), five birds’ nests cast in bronze are displayed in a wall-mounted cabinet made of compound timber, each framed and made visible by a round window or peephole. Burchill and McCamley have treated the birds’ creations as architectural objects, and they are elevated by the material transformation, but the display speaks to our imposition of containment and control over nature. The artists’ desire to capture and preserve the beauty of the nests ultimately destroys them. There’s a correlation made between the feminine and the natural world through the title’s direct reference to Gustave Courbet’s explicit female nude Origin of the World (1866).

The joy of a significant survey exhibition, such as this one, is that it presents us with a long-durational conversation of the artist with their work, and of the works with each other. In this case of collaborating artists, we are also witness to ongoing material conversations between the two women. Temptation to Co-Exist, then, is an apt title. The critic Justin Clemens has suggested working together may have been a way for Burchill and McCamley to avoid “the temptations of self-expression”. This also resonates with the strategy of using other people’s words, imagery and design within their work. It is echoed by the functionality of camouflage, shields and screens, emblems and structures that populate the exhibition.

But is it really possible to maintain this suppression when works from more than three decades of practice are brought together? Or, rather than self-expression, are we instead looking at an expression of the collaborating couple? In Temptation to Co-Exist, we find carefully held tensions and beauty, intellectual investigations and material responses, multiple conversation trails that have intertwined and recur in different ways at different moments. A good retrospective can show a life in art. This one shows a shared life.

 

Temptation to Co-Exist is showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art (7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, Vic) until July 14.

 

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EXHIBITION Jurassic Creatures

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Fusion energy". Subscribe here.

Rosemary Forde
is a curator and an academic.