…the person or the thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call theSpectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (Barthes, 2000, p. 9)
It was apparently once said that the only times the name of a woman should appear in a newspaper were when she was born, when she gave birth, and when she died. To appear at other times, and for other reasons was to make a spectacle of oneself, and to risk acquiring a reputation. For the female artist in any medium, acquiring a reputation is essential, and for the female artist who chooses to mine her life and her own family history for material is to risk acquiring a reputation for narcissism and a lack of gravitas in dabbling in subject matter that apparently cannot, by any yardstick, be considered ‘universal’ and of interest to an audience. My subject is three apparently unrelated works which are linked by the fact that they emerge from a single family – my family. The most immediate story that links these seemingly disparate works – two plays, one visual arts exhibition – is a tale of family drama: of loss, grief and risk. My niece Bindi Cole’s installation and the series of photographs drawn from it, and my play Elegy are responses to the death of my sister Vicki Reynolds, who wrote Daily Grind while she was a trainee writer with Melbourne Worker’s Theatre in the early 1990s. Daily Grind was produced posthumously in 1992 after Vicki’s death from cancer in September 1991. For me, all three of these works represent that ‘terrible thing’ that Barthes writes of – the return of the dead.
Writing this essay represents, for me, one result of years of wondering what to say about these issues – a process that has previously always ended with a decision to say nothing. The reasons for that decision are intimately connected with the ramifications of using family stories and autobiographical material as the foundation of creative work and with that choice, both conscious and unconscious, that an artist makes about self-representation within their work and in relation to the reception of that work by an audience. It is perhaps easier, and certainly less potentially self-indulgent, to leave commentary on creative work to others who have no personal connection with it. The easy decision is not necessarily the right decision, however. In a way, this paper represents a reflexive response both to the selected works and their context and reception – to the characters in Daily Grind and Elegy based on my sister and myself, and to the “Bindi” presented in Bindi’s Boxes and Unpacking Bindi 1-3 as well as the interpretations of those representations present in the marketing and reviewing of the work. As a recent work on women’s self-representation suggests:
Autobiographical narratives…do not affirm a “true self” or a coherent and stable identity. They are performative, situated addresses that invite their readers’ collaboration in producing specific meanings for the “life”. (Smith and Watson, 2002, p.11)
For me, examining this work from a critical perspective is to extend the hall of mirrors effect that viewing the work creates. I try to unpack the representations of the “artist” that emerge from the reception of the work, whilst almost unconsciously comparing the characters in the plays to the “real” version of my family history. Attending the exhibition at Linden Gallery where my niece showed the works I will discuss was to become part of the hidden picture in a palimpsest – photographs of my niece and my sister are the foundation of, or a superimposition on, photographs of the award-winning artist and her mother. I – and the “I” become blurred, confused, unstable, as I stand with my mother and aunt viewing the photographs. My mother takes photographs of my aunt and me standing in front of the photograph of Bindi with a framed photograph of my sister at her feet. Barthes describes the feeling as:
…the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive the other critical, between several discourses… (Barthes, 2000, p.8)
Attending the performance of Daily Grind in 1992 was a similar experience; I searched for traces of my sister in the characters on the stage while knowing that they were never intended as portraiture. I listened to the rhythm of the words and heard her speech patterns that echoed mine. I relived the times when Vicki would read me drafts of scenes on the phone and we would laugh about what we thought would be the response from the audience – the audience that I was now part of, responding, listening, watching, all the time knowing her absence. In the work, outside the work, in the case of Elegy creating the work, my sister, my niece and I become fiction, jump cut to the real, morph into created character and become newspaper copy. I recorded the process of writing Elegy in my journal. I wrote ‘It’s like she’s dying all over again, only this time it’s murder’. Over and over, this dying occurred as I cut and polished and rewrote the play, workshopped and rehearsed the play, smiled and thanked the well-wishers on the opening night. Bindi’s reaction is equally personal. The catalogue essay for her exhibition notes: “My mother’s death shredded me…Now I’m shredding it” (Spilia, 2009) And yet it must be said that Barthes is right in saying that to view such work is to be caught ‘between several discourses’. I approached the rewriting of this paper after comments from friends, one of whom apologised for inadvertently “textualising the three of us” in her comments, another telling me that I was claiming special knowledge of the lives these works were based on. The pitfalls of theory mean that one part of me stands back and assesses the work, the other wants to claim ‘special’ knowledge. I know these people, these events. I was there. Yet as Barthes writes, ‘I am truly becoming a specter” (Barthes, 2000, p. 14), which I experience as being the spectacle and the spectator.
In both Daily Grind and, to a lesser extent, Elegy, fiction and autobiography blur and become impossible to distinguish: in the case of Daily Grind the audience is presented with a fiction that is given additional authenticity through the writer’s life experience cited in almost every review and accompanying text, and through the stated praxis and politics of the presenting company. The decision made by both Vicki and myself to fictionalise the stories we chose to tell – or to present it as fiction, was driven both by the nature of the role of the writer in theatre and by the sensitive nature of the material we were mining. Bindi’s installation Bindi’s Boxes, and the series of three photographs Unpacking Bindi 1-3 make a far clearer autobiographical claim. However both Daily Grind and, to a lesser extent, Elegy were received as being based upon the writer’s experiential history. Daily Grind in particular was placed in a context where the writer’s autobiography became an integral part of the play’s claims to truth and authenticity to the extent that one critic considers it ‘semi-documentary’(Radic, 2006, pp. 283-284) It is undoubtedly true that both plays draw on the writer’s life experience (though I could say what creative work does not?). What I’d like to examine are the ways in which that assumption conditions the reception and treatment of the work, and the decisions made by the authors of the works to place themselves within the work, and in relation to the presentation of the work. I will then contrast that reception to the use of autobiography in Bindi’s work – where family and personal history is harnessed in a confessional mode that claims authenticity almost as a genre in itself in its construction of the artist as daughter – and at the same time satirizes and questions that claim.
Daily Grind follows the story of Roxy, a young woman working as a stripper before entering university. She is taken under the wing of Louie – an older woman coming to the end of her time as a stripper. Both women experience the increasing pressure of change in their industry and the demand that they ‘work hot’ – an ever more explicit performance. The play was commissioned by Melbourne Workers Theatre under the Australia Council program ‘Art and Working Life’ and presented as part of MWT’s then new initiative of presenting their work in theatres rather than workplaces. Vicki completed a number of drafts of the play before her death, receiving dramaturgical input from Patricia Cornelius, John Romeril and Andrew Bovell – all of whom were then associated with MWT. A public reading of the play was held at the Builders Arms Hotel, and to this audience member it seemed in very good shape. Prior to her employment as a trainee writer with MWT, Vicki had been part of the first intake of RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing Diploma and had published short stories in literary magazines including Going Down Swinging. During her time with MWT she co-wrote a number of plays for the company with Patricia Cornelius, and completed outside projects such as The Bridge – about the collapse of the West Gate. I offer this short professional history to contextualise the picture of the woman who wrote Daily Grind that seems to have stayed on the record. In the history of MWT published to mark the company’s twentieth year, Alan Filewod and David Watt state in regard to Vicki and Daily Grind:
Reynolds’ career is a testament to MWT’s least-acknowledged but perhaps most important contribution to developing a working-class cultural practice. She had answered an advertised job for a trainee writer, was hired and began working as a team member on The Aftermath (Filewood and Watt, 2007, p. 52)
Unpacking this claim is difficult – the idea of a “working-class cultural practice” is slippery. Is this a cultural practice for the working class? Authored by the working class? And which definition of “working class” is being invoked? And how is that definition articulated within the Australian context? Where does this claim place “the woman who wrote Daily Grind”? Vicki was already establishing a track record as a writer before the application to MWT – but the implication here is that she has been discovered, unearthed, by MWT’s practice of advertising the job. Was she working class – under any definition? I can quite clearly state that she wasn’t – by any definition. Her life experience, however, is in this instance being used as a marker of authenticity and authority for the company’s practice. I’m happy to recognise that this particular volume of essays is intended as a celebration of MWT’s achievement and the difference of their practice to more mainstream theatre companies. However, questions need to be asked about the authenticity that is being constructed here, and the place of the artist within it.
There is an inevitable temptation for me to contrast my sister’s “real” life history with the characters in Daily Grind and the woman who emerges from the reviews and commentary on the work. This temptation is made almost impossible to resist by the nature of the research and development period that MWT organised in the months following Vicki’s death. I received a phone call asking for ways to contact “the woman Louie is based on”, together with a request for any other friends or acquaintances of Vicki’s who might be willing to be interviewed by the company about my sister’s time working as a stripper. From this distance, I can understand the drive behind these questions. My reaction at the time was to spit out something like “The author is dead. You have the text. That’s all you need. Go make art.” This statement was unfortunately followed by a possibly unnecessary threat of physical violence in the event that my mother or niece received a similar call. But my angry reaction points to one of the dilemmas behind this paper and the practice of a company like MWT in their early years. Julian Meyrick, in a paper titled ‘The Ontology of Dramaturgy’, discusses the truth-claims that attach themselves to a play, stating:
…let me assert that there are three, and only three, ways knowledge can be infused into a play – by what gets said and done, by what can be inferred from what gets said and done and by what is known ahead of time. It is at and through the intersection of these three forces that a play’s truth-claim is generated (Meyrick,2009, p.5)
In this analysis, my sister’s life experience as a “former stripper” and as “working class” must be placed under the heading of “what is known ahead of time”. Vicki becomes an expanded version of the standard cipher of the “playwright”, the name that is placed on the front page or in a smaller font under the title on the poster. She becomes part of the play’s, and by extension the company’s, claim to present an “authentic” window into a world that much of the theatre-going audience will never experience. It should be said that Vicki was entirely aware of this process – albeit assuming that she would be present to counter or extend some of the claims that might be made on her behalf. As it stands, the published commentaries on the workshopping period forDaily Grind stress that the script needed a great deal of work and further research before it was ready to be presented to the public (Stevenson, 1995) Lisa Dombrowski, the director of the first production of the play,noted:
I think I said to someone it was a bit like one of those half-made sculptures where you can see a form coming out – you can’t see the whole but you sort of know it’s there. In Vicki’s script there were already a lot of powerful situations…(Stevenson, 1995, p. 105)
This comment, of course, could be applied to any draft of a script heading into a workshop period. Shaping the work is, after all, what workshops are for, albeit complicated by the absence of the writer in this instance. I would argue, however, that the combination of statements such as this with the general harnessing of Vicki’s life experience as a marker of authenticity for MWT’s practice, contributes to a picture of the writer as a naïf. She is moulded by the company into an artist who brought with her the testimony of her time which shocks the director and actors who eventually work on the script. I have often heard it said that dramaturgical practice can infantilise the writer – a situation that is exacerbated by the equivocal status of the writer in current theories of the avant-garde in this country. If we take Filewod and Watt’s commentary on MWT’s practice at face value, and assume that Vicki was the working class naif whose career was a “testament” to a “working class cultural practice” – what picture of the working class is being presented? To paint the picture at its most extreme, Vicki becomes the artistic equivalent of the “deserving poor.”
To finish this section, I can only say that Daily Grind is about as far from “semi-documentary” as a piece of work can get. The major theatrical source of the work is the musical Gypsy – which is referenced a number of times in the script. The plot of the play bears no resemblance to Vicki’s actual experience, as I understood it. And the portrait of my sister that remains on the record is essentially a marketing tool for MWT’s early years. What is the status of the writer for performance when they are an integral part of the claims to truth presented in the play itself? If you search the Ausstage database for information relating to Daily Grind, you will find the following quote from an anonymous reviewer:
Daily Grind was written by an ex-stripper which accounts for the almost palpable aura of honesty (Ausstage, 2009)
Vicki’s artistic shaping of her material is elided here. It has to be said that I am surprised at my own ability to maintain my rage about such statements – and I’m unsure as to its source. There is a larger issue at stake here – a question embedded in feminist practice and the processes of generating work. The artist here is a ‘camera’, with no sense of the transmutation of experience into story. It feels uncomfortably like old times – when the female writer seemingly merely took notes on her life for the delectation of the reader- for gossip and scandal.
I will deal with my own play Elegy briefly. What is of interest to the central questions here relates to my experience of the rehearsal period of the play, and the effect of its placement in theInside 2000 season at Playbox. Elegy follows the story of two sisters and the lover they share – and is essentially one sister’s lament for the death of the other. Whilst the play was certainly received as autobiographical, there was little or no focus on the “facts” of the piece in the publicity or reviews. This was partially due to my own refusal to discuss the play as anything but fictional and on the context of the presentation of the work by the company. The Inside season was devised as a place for work that was “unsuitable” for the mainstage season – yet of sufficient merit to warrant production. This placed the work presented in a space where it was seen as somewhere between the “fringe” and the “mainstream” – a stepping stone to replace the much-lamented demise of the “middle range company” where work could be more experimental in form or content than the pressures of the main stage and the subscriber audience might allow. The pros and cons of the idea are far too large a subject to discuss here, but the point I’d like to make is that this placement served, perhaps, as a cancelling out of the autobiographical elements of the play. The marking of the work as “experimental” in its fractured chronology and supernatural elements, plus the perceived “harshness” of the content – dealing with heroin addiction and grief – undermined any claim it might make to “truth” – or perhaps that “truth” was felt to be so personal as to be somehow inviolate – unlike Vicki’s depictions of the world of the strip show.
There was no real cancelling out of the autobiographical elements of the piece in the rehearsal room, however. I was asked to discuss my sister, describe our relationship, to bring in family photographs. I did all these things, and mentioning them here is not any kind of indictment of the actors and the director – I have no doubt that I would have done the same in their shoes. What this raises, in the context of this paper, is the role of the writer in “authenticating” the work. Within the rehearsal room I was the witness to the original events as well as the playwright. In the reception of the work, I was the talented newcomer with the fresh voice – not ready for the main stage, but there all the same. It has to be said that I was complicit in both these roles, just as Vicki’s status as working class hero was at least partially her own creation. My point is that the roles played by the writer for performance need examination as they directly affect the status and reception of the work itself. This is a concept that is common in analysing literary history but less so in contemporary analysis of the history of performance. What brand is being constructed by the interpretation and marketing of a piece of work? And how does this reflect upon the self-representation of the artist? To what extent is the artist complicit in the construction of themselves as brand? I believe that these are questions that need to be asked more often – particularly in regard to the current theatrical avant-garde.
Bindi’s work focuses on the construction of Indigenous identity and the ways in which her own Indigenous subjectivity is misunderstood and manipulated in popular culture and elsewhere. She works in a medium which allows far more room for a personal statement than the plays that her mother wrote and I write – and those personal statements have made her a target for attack by some. To borrow words from a recent attack from Andrew Bolt, one of a number of columns he has devoted to the subject:
Meet the white face of a new black race – the political Aborigine. Meet, say, acclaimed St Kilda artist Bindi Cole, who was raised by her English-Jewish mother yet calls herself “Aboriginal but white”. She rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father, and could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features. She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout (Bolt, 2009)
I won’t dignify Bolt’s elegant prose by deconstructing it or pointing out the astonishing number of factual errors contained in this one paragraph – I quote it to indicate that contested issues of identity and authenticity are at the heart of Bindi’s sensibility. Bolt’s bile was directed at a Next Wave Festival show which contained a photograph of Bindi and some of her extended family wearing blackface titled Not Really Aboriginal – but irony is lost on Mr Bolt. The work that I’m looking at here focuses on her childhood and the death of her mother, and was exhibited in an Indigenous group show titled Just Can’t Get Enough at Linden Gallery in July 2009. While it is obvious that Bindi’s Indigenous identity is central to all her work, it is her construction of the artist as grieving daughter that I wish to examine.
Unlike Daily Grind and Elegy, the persona represented in Bindi’s work is named “Bindi” – and is offered by the artist as an autobiographical marker – allowing at least a superficial identification with the artist herself. Like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1999) the installation Bindi’s Boxes is a tangle of personal belongings – clothes, photographs, toys, trinkets and piles of shredded paper spilling onto the gallery floor, arranged around the hearth and fireplace of the gallery – formerly a grand Victorian home in Acland St, St Kilda. Above the fireplace Bindi is shown in a video loop, unpacking the boxes, holding items up for display, laughing and crying while her curious cat wanders in and out of the frame. It represents both a reclaiming and a purge of her past – the objects in the boxes are brought into the light and then discarded. I invoke Emin’s work here as an indication of the artistic lineage in which this work participates. Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson write of Emin:
…her work both mimics and questions the notion of autobiography’s authenticity, teasing the public as well as the art establishment about the limits and possibilities of the artist’s re-presentation of the “real” life in autobiographical acts and about the woman artist’s essentialized narcissism… (Smith and Watson, 2002, p. 4)
Bindi’s statement similarly exploits the idea of the “authentic” and the personal, performing an act of catharsis for her own benefit and that of the viewer. She constructs an identity that is layered – the artist performing herself, the “Bindi” present in the video, the “Bindi Cole” cited as the creator. In doing this, she demonstrates a control and autonomy not present in the autobiographical acts present in Daily Grind or Elegy – permitted perhaps by the latitude present in her chosen genre or the intended purpose of her work – or perhaps by a greater consciousness of the construction of herself as artist.
The three stills drawn from the video and shown on the wall nearby, Unpacking Bindi 1-3, present moments from Bindi’s performance of herself juxtaposed with texts drawn from Vicki’s journals. The texts are unattributed. Of Unpacking Bindi 3, Elina Spilia writes in the catalogue essay:
…the artist pictures herself holding a newly re-discovered poster of Sid and Nancy. The caption, which begins ‘I’d had affairs with the worst kind of men,’ attaches and detaches itself perplexingly in the personas of Nancy, Cole, and Cole’s mother. Cole negotiates narrow lines between intimacy, melodrama, performance and therapy. The locus in this psychological space is never settled (Spilia, 2009)
By juxtaposing Vicki’s text with her own autobiographical performance, Bindi suggests a continuity of experience from her mother to herself, creating a lineage which simultaneously exploits the “outsider” status of the artist – the texts reference drug use, violence and sex – and brings the personal back to the heart of human experience – the link between mother and daughter, the family romance. Bindi is witnessing her mother and herself and placing that unbreakable connection before the viewer – the meaning can only be unpacked by the viewer’s comparison to their own family and their own experience.
As I wrote this piece, the thing that seems most central to me about the hidden story presented here are portraits of Vicki – her own fictional alter-ego in Daily Grind, the working class hero of the commentaries written about the play and MWT, my own portrait of her in Elegy and the portrait drawn in my discussions during the rehearsal period for that play, and finally the dead mother of Bindi Cole, reclaimed, rejected, purged, quoted and finally witnessed in the silent photograph on the floor of the gallery. Both Elegy and Bindi’s Boxes are a testament to Vicki as woman and artist – a testament made with an artistic statement. As artists using autobiographical material, we perform ourselves for the viewer, and in doing so, we become spectacle and spectator. Colette, a writer who mined her own life experience obsessively, once wrote:
It is neither the true concern or the natural inclination of writers to love the future…Fortune-tellers and astrologers, readers of tarot cards and palmists are not interested in my past…The seeress briskly sweeps away bygone ‘ups and downs’ and a few vague ‘successes’ that have had no marked results, then hurriedly plants on the whole the plaster rose of a today shorn of mystery and a tomorrow of which I expect nothing. (Colette, 1985, p. 351)
The return to the past, the unpacking of memories is far more dangerous than an invented future. To perform autobiography is to risk the raising of the dead. Whatever is made of the idea of the artist, whatever the interpretation of the autobiographical elements that make up that idea, the central story here is one of grief for a life cut short.
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