A few years ago, artist Mike Parr mentioned his encounters with Barbara Cleveland. “She used to sit at the end of my bed and sing songs from Broadway musicals,” he recalled. “She was really famous in Sydney and she had different personas.” These memories, however, are unreal; Parr was in on the ruse. Barbara Cleveland is a mythic persona reclaimed from 1970s Australian art history. She’s a fictional front-person for a collaboration between four artists, who use performance and video to explore Cleveland’s ‘forgotten’ life and practice—which is to say, the forgotten practices of non-male creatives at large.
Made up of Sydney artists Diana Baker Smith, Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, and Kelly Doley, the four are surveying 15 years of Barbara Cleveland in Thinking Business. Taking a cue from philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea of female friendship as “thinking-business”, the exhibition displays five performance-based videos that explore the links between friendship, creativity and collaboration.
“Our practice is very much based on our relationship with each other and our friendship,” explains Blackmore. “We all met at art school in 2002 and quite quickly developed a friendship which then turned into a creative relationship. The exhibition is really about putting that relationship on display and highlighting our collaborative mode of working.”
A mixture of intelligence, wit, vaudeville and performance, Barbara Cleveland often uses queer and feminist ways of thinking to look at myriad subjects, like the links between art and labour, and the marginal history of female artists. And humour, says Blackmore, is central: “The works are all bound by a particular sense of humour—sort of an absurdist, Dada-esque humour we’ve been interested in from the start.”
By speaking the history of a ‘forgotten’ feminist artist in a collaborative way, the four creatives look beyond the idea of the individual—whether the individual promoted by capitalism or the individual genius artist—to conceive different ways of working together.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Art Guide.