Elvis Richardson is known as a feminist artist and activist. But when she met writer Anna Dunnill they discovered that they both also have a passion for crime, or at least detective stories.
When I’m in need of comfort, I turn to detective stories. Ideally, I select one set in an English village, populated by vicars and army Colonels, school teachers and church organists, servants and nobility. These stories are safe havens, jetsam washed up from a vanished world where the chemist will happily sell you arsenic in any quantity, afternoon tea is a critical meal, and everyone is terribly polite despite the bludgeoned corpse in the next room.
Artist Elvis Richardson shares this love of murder mystery, although her passion is True Crime, not fiction. The Melbourne based artist has been drawing on a “detective methodology” for years, moving between worlds, gathering evidence. She has collected op-shopped trophies, videotapes with recorded TV shows, True Crime books, photographs, artworld data. “I’m interested, when I find things, in finding out who they belong to,” Richardson says. “It’s a recognition of my own story, of being an adopted person and looking for my birth parents…it’s about how identity gets constructed.”
She says, “I would have loved to have been a detective! But I think the character of an artist is interesting too: they’re rule breakers, they cross over with a criminal type.” She tells me about one of the earliest detectives in Scotland Yard. “They were infiltrating trade unions, and the detective went undercover as an artist, because that character allows you to meld into all these different worlds. You can be with the rich people having dinner because you’re interesting,” she says. I chime in, “But you live in a poor area so you have friends who are disreputable…” She counters, “And yet you’re still middle class, because you’re an artist.”
Being adopted, I sort of melded these stories together in my mind. When I was growing up I knew other people who were adopted and of course you had the Stolen Generation and that culture of removing people…it was about women as well, you know? It switched on a thing when I was young about what it was to be a woman, what could happen to you.”
Richardson admits, “There’s a lot of anxiety in my work.” For the series Slide Show Land, first shown in 2004, she bought boxes of photographic slides online, tracing event sequences and putting together narratives: family dinners, parties, the life of a middle-aged couple. This is the detective’s job, of course, to take a jumble of evidence, much of it contradictory, and make sense of it. To lay it out, neat as a knife rack. Sometimes, though, the evidence doesn’t quite add up, or there isn’t enough of it to resolve the story. This is often the case Richardson’s practice: her accumulations of objects and information frequently reach towards some kind of order, but don’t settle. They remain unsolved.
Of course, Richardson likes a mystery. One of her most celebrated collections started as a blog, The CoUNTess Project. At first, it was anonymous. “It felt a bit clandestine,” she says, “like going undercover.” Since 2008 Richardson has literally counted women in art, crunching the data on gender disparity in Biennales, exhibitions, prizes and gallery representation, and publishing the results online. In early 2016 she released the Countess Report, a broad study of data from 2014. Now the Countess blog is undergoing a change. It’s about to re-launch, with a panel of new editors taking it over from Richardson.
Another project on the boil is The Collective Estate, a new gallery space which Richardson will launch towards the end of the year. Of course it’s about collecting, and she says, “the estate part relates to death and inheritance, but also to housing. I’m very interested in housing in terms of artists. Artists come to the city because this is where there is exchange.”
In her recent series Settlement, 2016, Richardson searched online for real estate photographs from houses under $250,000 (the price bracket she could afford) and posted the photos on social media, without commentary. Often poorly cropped or out of focus, they show rooms with out-of-date carpet, socks strewn on the floor, peeling wallpaper, soccer trophies and ornaments on display. In one haunting picture, the living room is bare except for a sepia photograph on the mantelpiece, through a half-open door, an empty hospital bed can be seen, piled with bedding.
Looking through the images from Settlement, I found myself scouring each picture for clues, putting together a mental image of their occupants, now moved on, or moving on. “These are lives in transition,” Richardson says. Captured at this one frozen moment, we can’t know their stories, but we can draw lines between them, dig deeper, try to piece it all together. Here, as Melinda Rackham writes in the catalogue essay, “The crime is the unaffordability of the ‘Australian Dream’ of home ownership.” An ever-growing anxiety.
When the detective genre emerged in the 1840s, it reflected a general sense of worry about a rapidly changing world. Increasingly, people were moving from small rural communities, where everyone was familiar, to the relative anonymity of cities. Trust in religion was giving way to science and uncertainty. A comfortable and enclosed world, with known quantities and an omniscient God, was suddenly thrown open, tipped off-balance. Into this maelstrom of anxiety came the detectives: Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, a bevy of clever, honourable, slightly peculiar men and women who could analyse the world and make sense from it. They saw what no-one else could see, even the police. They could move between worlds. You might not want them at dinner (unless you had found a body in the larder) but you breathed easier knowing they were there, waiting to be called on.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the so-called Golden Age of British detective fiction was in the 1930s, when fascism was a growing force in Europe. Given the state of the world today, it’s not surprising that we still crave the security of knowing that there is someone in charge: someone who can see patterns in chaos, who’ll do the job of gathering the evidence, a representative of justice. Elvis Richardson continues to collect, and analyse, and present the data, fragmented and ambiguous as it may be. This crime scene is no less anxious, but it’s reassuring to know that she is there.