What is Performance Art? Australian Perspectives

Art + Book Extract


In What is Performance Art? Australian Perspectives editors Adam Geczy and Mimi Kelly present a wide range of essays that tackle the question from different angles. The book examines the scope and impact of Australian performance art from the 1970s until the present day, and is divided into four self-explanatory parts: Histories, Theories, Interpretations and Testimonials. The 18 artists in this last section include such seminal performance practitioners as brother and sister Mike Parr and Julie Rrap, Peter Kennedy and Jill Orr. In the extract reproduced with permission below, from the Histories section, Heather Barker and Charles Green discuss the relationship of the journal Lip in particular, and feminist critique in general, to performance art practice in the 1970s and early 1980s.

‘To Give Lip’: Why Art Writing went Hand-in-Hand with the Appearance of Performance Art in Australia
by Heather Barker and Charles Green

Where do we go to find out about the new, performative art forms of the 1970s and the early 1980s? The answer cannot just be that all we have is memories because performances are ephemeral, surviving in photographs, videos and written descriptions, lingering in a museum’s archives as props or documents, as traces of memories. What we do is recover not just the art, but also what artists and their small and dedicated audiences were thinking. But the relationship between performance and document is not simply one of primary and secondary texts. To explain, this essay describes the art journal Lip, where art writing went hand-in-hand with the appearance of performance art in Australia (though of course there were other art magazines that covered some of the same turf). In Lip, performance art appeared in its intersection with feminism, leftist politics and environmentalism on the one hand, and was embedded in declamatory, cryptic artist statements and artist pages on the other. In addition, artists worked as interviewers and critics. We shall describe this journal in some detail, for Lip is the discursive context that underpins many of the other essays about performance art in this volume, even if the task of the present book—to ask ‘what is performance art’—moves into the background in our essay.

Lip: ‘Impudence’, ‘to Give Lip’, ‘to Sing’, and ‘to Carry a Stiff Upper Lip’

Lip was a feminist art journal that began in Melbourne in 1976.(1) It was published by the Women in the Visual Arts Collective, a group of women who had taken on a range of groundbreaking arts projects during International Women’s Year (1975). The Women in the Visual Arts Collective commissioned articles, edited, produced and published the journal. The final issue of Lip appeared in 1984 and the group disbanded in 1985. Among its other achievements, Lip recuperated performance art by women as part of the women’s movement in art; see, for example, the long and thoughtful meditation by German artist Ulrike Rosenbach on her performance art and video art (and we note the embeddedness of performance within other new art forms) in relation to the women’s movement, which appeared in the 1980 issue of Lip.(2) The journal appeared as part of the women’s movement that had begun in the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn grew out of wider unrest that had manifested itself worldwide in civil rights movements, the black rights movement and the anti-Vietnam-War movement. Feminist classics such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), Barbara Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) were all in Lip’s background, describing women’s ongoing struggle to win equality in the household, the labour force and leftist struggles, for women were long disillusioned with their role as dishwashers of the revolution. In her article ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, published in the New Left Review in 1966, Juliet Mitchell pointed out that women had been left out of the New Left’s vision.(3) They had, however, learned leftist methodologies of revolutionary organisation and collectivism, and used these organisational tools to form consciousness-raising groups.

In the process, women found each other and themselves to be interesting, stimulating and likeable. They cared about one another and developed a sense of collective power.

It is now hard to envisage an art world without an accompanying feminist critique and conscience, but until the 1970s women artists were substantially rendered invisible. An early manifestation of art-world feminism occurred in New York in 1970, when women protested against what critic Lucy Lippard called the ‘Whitney Museum’s lousy coverage of women artists in their Annual Exhibitions’.(4) In 1971 Linda Nochlin’s seminal article ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ appeared in ARTnews and the first Women’s Liberation Art Group exhibition was held in England.(5). The Australian Women’s Art Movement was formed in Sydney in 1974, the same year that the seminal, all-female exhibition A Room of One’s Own, was held at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in Melbourne. (6) Critic (and very occasional artist) Lucy Lippard visited Sydney and Melbourne to deliver the Power Lecture in 1975; her visit had an immense catalytic impact on Australian women artists. She spoke at ‘women only’ nights at the Central Street Gallery in Sydney and the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in Melbourne, discussing art by American women artists.(7) Her lectures were a revelation. How could so much historical and contemporary art have received so little attention? Artist Lesley Dumbrell, writing in the inaugural issue of Lip, exclaimed: ‘Because her interest in us was so much greater than the interest we had previously shown in each other, we suddenly realised how little we knew about the women artists who live and work in this city’.(8)

What is Performance Art? Australian Perspectives is available online from Power Publications and from all good bookstores.


1. See Vivienne Ziherl (ed.), The Lip Anthology: An Australian Feminist Art Journal, 1976–1984, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2013. This anthology of essays and artist projects reprinted from Lip is indispensible.

2. Ulrike Rosenbach, in conversation with Elizabeth Gower, Margaret Rose and Janine Burke, ‘I Don’t Believe I’m an Amazon’, in Lip, no. 5, 1980, pp. 84–9.

3. See Juliet Mitchell, ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, New Left Review, no. 40, December 1966, reprinted in Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 1971, pp. 75–122.

4. Lucy Lippard, From the Centre: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, E. Dutton, New York, NY, 1976, p. 4.

5. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ ARTnews, vol. 69, no. 9, January 1971, pp. 22–39; reprinted in Linda Nochlin, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, New York, NY, 1988, pp. 147–58. In this landmark article Nochlin, then a professor of art history at Vassar College, argued that there had been no great women artists because of the prevalent but flawed notion that great art was a result of innate individual artistic genius combined with social and institutional factors to oppress and discourage ‘all those—women included—who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and, above all, male’ (p. 27). Her argument is that the notion of genius failed to take account of the long period of study and/or experimentation that preceded the making of great art. Domestic and family obligations meant women did not have the necessary time to devote to art and institutional restrictions denied them equal access to art classes (her particular example is the unavailability of the nude model in life-drawing classes to ‘lady’ students). Her conclusion is that ‘it was institutionally impossible for women to achieve excellence or success on the same footing as men, no matter what their talent, or genius’ (p. 37). The article was immensely significant in the formation of the women’s art movement because it articulated an entirely new perspective from which to consider women artists.

6. The Ewing and George Paton Galleries were crucial in the establishment of the women’s art movement in Melbourne. At its most prosaic, it was a physical base and a space that was available for meetings, storage and exhibitions, but the staff of two—Kiffy Rubbo and Meredith Rogers—were also a source of friendship and moral support that was essential to the burgeoning movement.

7. See Helen Saniga, ‘Lippard in Australia’, Lip, no. 8, 1984, pp. 79–80.

8. Writing about the Women’s Art Register in the first issue of Lip, Dumbrell prefaced that insight with the recollection: ‘One of the most important aspects of Lucy Lippard’s stay in Melbourne was that she chose to spend her time exclusively with women artists’. Lesley Dumbrell, ‘The Victorian Women’s Art Register’, Lip, no. 1 (1976), pp. 11–12, 11.

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