Brushed Against Life
by Evelyn Juers
At first, it is difficult to determine what’s on the television screen. Static shivers overwhelm. But then: a baby carriage, a body walking – maybe dancing – across the frame. This is how Diana Baker Smith begins The Lost Hour, a video essay about the Sydney artist Philippa Cullen and her 24 hour concert. Staged in 1974, the original event was durational and improvisational, involving over thirty performers and presented at several sites, including Hogarth Galleries and the Art Gallery of NSW. What remains of the performance are only a few photographs and a video recording. In these materials, the camera cannot keep up with Cullen’s movement: her body, lithe in a leotard, blurs, and her gestures are choppy, dimmed by the degraded film.
In the video, Baker Smith searches for Cullen’s papers, specifically two folders gathered by her friend Jilba Wallace after her death, and donated to the Paddington Library, now housed in the National Library archive. But only one folder is found, containing research, diagrams, and directives for the 24 hour concert. The instructions are purposefully vague, open-ended, like: ‘MAKE A MOVEMENT. MAKE IT FOR SO LONG UNTIL YOU FEEL THAT YOU SHOULD STOP’. And: ‘EXPLORE YOUR AREA UNTIL YOU FIND THE BOUNDARIES OF YOUR WORKING SPACE.’ In one scene, Baker Smith follows the latter direction, lightly pressing her fingertips against the white brick of what once was Hogarth Galleries, determining her boundary, building an echo out of the debris. Or as her voiceover explains: ‘I’m walking between what remains and what disappears.’
After Cullen’s death in 1975, Evelyn Juers begins compiling a ‘skimpy folder’ entitled ‘Philippa’. She puts in old letters, notes, newspaper clippings and a piece of orange cloth from Africa that Cullen had gifted her. ‘The archive grew until it no longer fitted into a single folder,’ writes Juers.
Now it takes up a whole filing cabinet, large storage containers, much of my computer desktop and the top of my desk. There’s a grocery box full of notes and another emblazoned ‘The Sweet Taste of Home Grown Pure Aussie Pines’ starting to pile up. It’s time to cut a path between memory and documentation and to follow Philippa back into the world. Several paths. To write something.
Evelyn Juers’ The Dancer: A Biography for Philippa Cullen is not a slender volume about a short life. It is nearly six hundred pages long; in the breadth and scope of the work, and in her tendency to digress, Juers dismisses the idea of a curt biography entirely. Instead of treating archival material as research to inform a portrait of an artist, Juers treats it as the stuff of life itself. Poring through letters, reports, records, articles, and papers, Juers presents the detritus of Cullen’s life, often unadorned and in length. Her inquiry does not begin or end with Cullen, but includes anyone whose life was linked, or brushed against hers.
This is not the first time that Juers has dedicated herself to recording the lives of a person neglected by history. The Recluse (2012), took as its subject Eliza Donnithorne, a Sydney woman, who was rumoured to have been jilted at the altar and worn her wedding dress until her death and who may have been the basis for Miss Havisham in Charlies Dickens’ Great Expectations. House of Exile (2011), meanwhile, was a ‘collective biography’ of the novelist and activist Heinrich Mann and his wife, Nelly Kroger, a work which also knotted together the histories of their friends, and the lives of other artists and writers.
As the title of the book makes apparent, The Dancer isn’t a biography of Cullen, but rather for her, chronicling the waves of history, politics and art that crashed into her, or that she swam in, during her time on earth. This ‘for’ also signals a pledge Juers had made to the artist. In the 1970s, when Cullen was almost run over by a car while the pair were walking through London, she told Juers that she believed she would die young. If so, Juers would have to write something. They shook hands on it. ‘I shrugged it off. In the 70s people talked about destiny and divination, they consulted the I Ching, read palms and tea leaves and tarots. They said things like that. But Phillipa knitted her brow, she looked stern,’ writes Juers.
Before I go on, it’s probably best I surmise Cullen’s work and life. The Sydney artist was a preternaturally gifted dancer, a Bodenweiser girl who attended Sydney University and fell in with a bunch of experimental composers and artists. Her work was concerned with stretching the limits of sound technology, and bringing electronic innovation to dance. She spent years tinkering with the theremin, creating choreographed pieces that let her dancers also be the stewards of sound – music generated and controlled by gesture and movement. Other works involved dances that took place completely in the dark, and the development of pressure-sensitive timber floors which would emit thrums and squeaks. ‘Perhaps you are wondering what this is all about; I’m trying to make electronic music with my body… electronics are the transfer of energy… We’ve got to rule our own lives; create something beautiful with all that so-called ugly technology,’ Cullen said in a radio interview. ‘Your mind and body are intricately related, and I just want to make visible and audible that relation.’ She collaborated with experimental Sydney collective AZ music, had an affair with German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, studied in Utrecht, taught extensively, and travelled widely, devoting herself to learning the dance traditions of Africa and India. She died suddenly on one of these trips, in 1975, at the age of 25.
A linear biography might begin with the subject’s birth, or a little earlier – gathering small details about the parents, maybe the grandparents as well. Juers’ book subverts the expectation of the truncated family tree. The first hundred pages are concerned only with Cullen’s ancestors, going back all the way to the seventeenth century. Their lives are not particularly interesting nor notable. Their stories are the stories of most families throughout the West in the last five hundred years: marriage, babies, illness, everyday tragedies. They move around, migrate and consequently dispossess.
Juers uses the early sections of The Dancer to strike out the idea of coincidence, uncovering patterns and entanglements that shape the unending line of mothers and fathers. Juers draws a line between Cullen and one of her ancestors, a young woman who also dies suddenly and very young. Should this fact of tragedy, repeating and cycling through family, provide comfort or warning? Juers resists offering a straightforward answer, and lets the thought dangle over the text.
Much of The Dancer is about a woman preoccupied with the future. Cullen is constantly planning travel, organising performances, researching new work, and wondering if her time ahead will involve solitude or settling down. She is stuck in the difficult, awkward middle of self-discovery, but this rarely causes paralysis. Instead, her life is constant motion, almost frenzy. The prose follows her in a propulsive stream, chronicling her ever-evolving friendships, agonies, affairs and artworks – while dipping into various connected histories. But Juers disassembles the hierarchy that splits Cullen’s waking life and the subconscious, weaving her dreams (logged in her diary) into these passages. Cullen dreams repeatedly, and with increasing lucidity, of crying babies, blood and being married off. In the last couple of years of her life, these visions offer an insight into the specific, almost too obvious, anxieties of being an unmoored female artist in the 70s.
Juers cedes narrative authority often to Cullen, quoting her diary entries and correspondences at length. Some pages are just letter after letter, Juers only stepping in to provide context. Cullen’s dispatches are full of agitations and obsessions, sometimes needy but also threatening in their brilliance and insight, the kind of personal documents that glow with intellect. They lock us into a forced intimacy with Cullen, something difficult to achieve when mediated by a biographer’s voice. As I read the book, I compiled a list of my favourites: ‘There is no hope of meeting anyone in Geelong – no interesting man would ever live in Geelong.’ And, ‘Just before concerts, I always seem to be tearful, in a melting mood and feel like being private.’ From her diary at sixteen, about an older boyfriend, wisdom I would benefit from taking on board at 27: ‘By making everything intellectual/poetical he was able to twist me around his little finger… I shall meet a lot of intellectuals, artists, poets, whom I shall be attracted to. But I must remember they make just as many mistakes as dullards.’ A diary excerpt that Juers uses to preface the book, from 1972: ‘The struggle for solitude and peace is more difficult for a woman than a man. People do not expect a woman to like solitude and they continually intrude. So I keep moving on.’
The texture of The Dancer oscillates across its duration, but the style remains the same: dreamy but also plainspoken, and full of compact, neat sentences. Juers herself is making movements like a dancer, stepping precisely and lightly, gliding from one place to the next. This of course, clashes with the project of this complicated biography, Juers’ impulse to loop, link and let her own recollections intercept. She wants nothing to fall away in the book’s construction.
As I read The Dancer, I did find myself getting lost in the thicket of great-great-grandfathers, overwhelmed by the book’s density, its ambitious and sometimes unclear arc. There are passages that meander, and long digressions. My response swung from impatience to awe. But I felt galvanised by the book’s refusal to submit to summary, and its commitment to specificity. It is a difficult document of a life, painstakingly arranged, seeking to represent personhood as unresolved as it always is.
Over the past two years, the National Gallery of Australia held the two-part exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now. It was one of the country’s most comprehensive surveys of women’s art, an atonement for past omissions, promising not a complete account, but rather ‘proposing alternative histories, challenging stereotypes and highlighting the stories and achievements of all women artists.’ Cullen’s work was not included in the exhibition itself, but instead represented through live dances and film screenings from contemporary artists – Diana Baker Smith’s pieces on Cullen, as well as Jo Lloyd’s Archive the Archive (2020), in which the dancer used Cullen’s works as inspiration for a new performance.
I couldn’t see the exhibition, so I looked at photographs online. I saw a large wall clogged with portraiture, frames squished together, streaks of primary colours clashing with images muddier and muted. Large, surreal paintings were placed in close proximity to tiny, dainty black and white photographs, dwarfing them even further. The singular artist is subsumed, squashed into an amorphous mass of female art-making.
I also bought the accompanying catalogue, an extension of the initiative. It is a hefty tome, almost a textbook, taking the reader through the life and work of Australian female artists methodically, A-to-Z. Each artist is given (at least) a double spread, which features one artwork and a little essay. The cover is lurid, pink and green, with giant text that reads: KNOW MY NAME. On the back, this phrase is mirrored with an equally demanding, but essentially empty proclamation: KNOW MY ART.
The book is an expansive testament, overflowing with the famous and forgotten. The essays contained in its pages make a convincing argument for recognition. It is a necessary amendment to the archive, certainly. But holding the heavy book in my hands, it felt like a dead weight. Why do these initiatives just seem like more filing away, artists resurrected and brought into the light one last time, before being pushed back permanently into the darkness? (I am thinking also of the National Gallery of Victoria’s overstuffed ‘Queer’ exhibition earlier this year, which positioned tangentially ‘queer-coded’ portraits alongside bracing AIDS-related works, a move I found cruel and thoughtless.) The totalising approach also presents another way for artists to get lost: bombastic, big works are destined to engulf all the attention, while the smaller, more mercurial ones are bound to receive only a cursory glance.
But what I want from institutions – for marginal artists to be propped up with all their unsettled selves, to refuse to siphon them into one thing, or be represented by a single work only – is total fantasy. There will never be enough wall for satisfactory redress.
‘Since her death in 1975, Cullen’s legacy has become as ephemeral as folklore, reliant on oral histories and a handful of old photographs and videotape,’ writes Baker Smith in her affectionate, sharp essay on Cullen for Know My Name. I would also add that Cullen’s legacy is reliant on friendships – certain and abiding, even in death – that halt obliteration in its tracks. Jilba Wallace, who bundles up her papers in Paddington, protecting them from landing in the rubbish heap. Stephen Jones, who records and then restores Cullen’s taped performances, publishes papers on her work, and curates a small exhibition around her ephemera and videos. And Evelyn Juers, who spends years consumed by old papers and family records, calling Cullen’s acquaintances, clarifying pockets of personal memory, in order for a friend to be known as more than just a trace.
Like Juers, Maria Stepanova is fixated with questions of legacy and how we remember. The Russian poet and novelist’s first English-translated work In Memory of Memory, published last year, is a lesson in devotion and disseminated focus. I read it at the same time I was writing down lines from Juers’ book.
Stepanova’s subject is her family, their seemingly incidental, ordinary lives, set against the last century of cultural and political upheaval in Russia, and the repressions that continually haunt and mould Jewish life. Stepanova is a salvager in the Sebaldian sense, dedicated to fragments and photographs, trying to build something that eschews linear trajectory, that instead expands forever outwards. It is work that can never be fully finished, work that might consume an entire life.
But Stepanova’s book is also a gesture toward democratising memory. She is drawn towards old, accidental photographs made without the narrative force of gaze – she wants these opaque images to be preserved, not disregarded as worthless. She wants the archival footage at museums to not loop around the most obvious signifiers of unrest and social mores; she would rather see these clips play on, cease their educational arcs, slip into the banal or boring. She desires that the lives of the dead, all of them, be cared for and cobbled together, thrust into the spotlight. She does not want to leave anything behind – even if the archive is so unwieldy and inexhaustible that to try to grasp it will always be fraught, even ruinous:
There is too much past, and everybody knows it: the excess (which is continually being compared to a flood) oppresses, the force of its surge crashes against the bulwark of any amount of consciousness, it is beyond control and beyond description. So it is driven between banks, simplified, straightened out, chased still-living into the channels of narrative.
How to write against annihilation, without causing destruction? Here are some of Stepanova’s attempts: a late aunt’s apartment, littered with organised scraps, unsentimental diaries and hoarded objects; an analysis of deteriorating photographs; painted porcelain dolls; heirlooms preserved despite the Soviet dictum that dismissed the past and fetishised the future; family letters that are wrenching in their everyday longing and sacrifice. Stepanova’s writing does not neatly braid her family within the larger socio-political reality of Russia, but rather she hacks into the rope of solidified cultural history. Threads come undone, frayed and fragmented, unravelling in their multiplicity.
I find Stepanova’s and Juers’ approaches to re-assemble the lives of loved ones noble. By entrenching themselves in the wreckage of the past, facing decay, and letting the hierarchies of the body and lived experience melt away, their writing is akin to opening a window in a suffocating, stuffy room, and allowing matter of all kinds to rush in and restore.
Philippa Cullen is constantly seeking out new forms of working and living, hoping that a path will materialise soon. At the very end of her life, this place is Auroville, a experimental township in India, recently established by occultists, driven by vague aims of ‘human unity.’ Among the flock of white Westerners that have descended to the township, Cullen meets Joss, and quickly falls in love. Their relationship is painfully cliché: she loses herself in passion, sketching out a future that puts him at the centre. He is too busy assisting in the construction of a utopian society to give her any attention.
These realities hit Cullen when she returns to Auroville after a long absence, illness emerging as the same time as heartbreak. Her death isn’t sudden but drawn-out. No one can determine what is wrong with her. Jaundice, roundworms, acute hepatitis, acute appendicitis. She travels to nearby Pondicherry and to the remote hilltown of Kodaikanal, looking for refuge from the heat. She rests, but grows sicker and sicker, until she is hospitalised, undergoes two emergency surgeries, and dies. Juers tasks herself with pulling together all the disparate stories, rumours and conjecture, searching for some kind of answer, even though her illness and the actions of doctors remain clouded by the distant past and the unreliability of memory. But Juers clarifies one fact that might provide some relief to Cullen’s friends and family: that she was not alone at the end.
After Cullen’s death, The Dancer turns on its hinges. Narrative structure collapses, and a rush of images fill the void. In big blocks of text, Juers compiles something of an inventory for the inner world of the deceased, filled with Courbet paintings, Chekhov, ballet, unset postcards, folksongs on the theremin, Kangaroo Valley, and a body curling and twisting. Juers’ language becomes brief and staccato, mirroring how these personal artifacts and memories have become unglued from the life that had given them order and meaning ( ‘A stalker behind a door. Stanislavski. Stockhausen pushing something to its limit. Teachers at Chakola. Thisbe. Hans Uitman the dance historian. Vivaldi springs. Xenakis builds.’) Like Stepanova’s dead aunt and her apartment full of hoarded, organised papers and objects, logic is lost. ‘All these objects were inextricably bound together, everything had its meaning only in the whole, in the accumulation, within the frame of a continuing life, and now it was all turning to dust before me,’ writes Stepanova.
In the opening pages of Annie Ernaux’s The Years (classified as a ‘collective autobiography’ by Edmund White, similar to the ‘collective biography’ marker that has been placed on Juers’ work) the French writer lists, in jagged snippets, images and words from her life that will disappear upon her death. ‘Everything will be erased in a second. The dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deadbed, eliminated,’ Ernaux writes, ‘All there will be is silence and no words to say it.’
The concert doesn’t even last twenty-four hours. The changeover to daylight savings on the day meant the performance went for only twenty-three. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Cullen, after wrangling together dozens of performers, performing for hours, to find out afterward that her durational work was incomplete, short only by the smallest margins. Cullen plans a one-hour performance to make up for the lost hour, but she dies before it can happen. This is not contained in the archive. Diana Baker Smith finds this out later, from Cullen’s friend, the composer Greg Schiemer. This concert that never took place forms the basis for Baker Smith’s other work about Cullen, The One Hour Concert (2021) where the artist returns with dancer and choreographer Brooke Stamp to the old location of Hogarth Galleries, now an upmarket tailor. Dressed in a blue leotard, Stamp crosses the former gallery space, in a series of elegiac movements, based on scraps of directives found in Cullen’s archive. She points her hands up to the ceiling, stretches her body over tables and windows, contorts her body on the floor. At one point, she extends her arms outwards, tracing an invisible circle with her hands. This gesture mirrors precisely what Juers insists on the page – that there be no last witness, that remembrance not be a one-off, but an infinite, ever-evolving act, that dissolves the boundary that divides the past and the present, the dead and the living.