‘Totally tantalizing’ Aussie artist wows List audience

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Imagine standing in a clean and airy art gallery.

A small television set in the corner plays a movie – perhaps a cowboy western.

As the broadcast stops for a commercial break, the sound stops and is replaced by an amplified woman’s voice telling you about the other art hanging on the walls.

The only evident movement in the gallery is a tall, white, woven sculpture with protruding sticks that seem to sway slightly even though there’s no wind in the room. On second glance, you notice an inert human body whose head disappears into the tall white shape.

That body would belong to Barbara Campbell, an Australian performance artist who brings text, visual arts, movement and speech together.

Campbell visited Brown on Tuesday and Wednesday to give a lecture, work with a class and hold a workshop in List Art Center while she was in the United States for a few weeks.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful opportunity for students to start to work between different media and disciplines,” said Richard Fishman, a professor of visual art whose class – VISA1800L: “Hybrid Art” – Campbell visited on Wednesday.

“There’s something really funny about a lot of her work. I think it’s absolutely great,” said Anna Fisher GS, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media who specializes in female performance art practices.

“In some ways her work took from recognizable performance practices, but it was also really imaginative, idiosyncratic and employed a lot of her own self and memory,” Fisher said.

Campbell’s workshop on Tuesday had students painting, writing and moving to the rhythm of their breath.

Rebecca Schneider, an associate professor of theatre, speech and dance who helped bring Campbell to campus, was most excited about the idea that Campbell would bring students from a variety of disciplines together.

“We really emphasize becoming talented in your own craft. But, if you forget to look up from your own craft and look around, you can become limited,” Schneider said.

“This is a great opportunity for students who don’t normally cross paths to do so and step out of their comfort zones,” she said.

Schneider first heard about Campbell after being asked to take part in her most recent performance art piece, “1001 Nights,” which ran from 2005 to 2008. The project, inspired by the Iraq war and the “1001 Nights” folk tales, was a daily cycle of artistic creation that connected artists from all over the world.

Every morning for 1001 days, Campbell would wake up and read the latest news stories from Iraq. She would then pick one phrase from one article – like “frenetic failure,” “lull” or “mopping his brow” – and make a simple watercolor painting of the phrase, which she would post on a Web site.

Then, one previously contacted artist would have until three hours before sunset to create a 1001-word story using that prompt.

Once the story was e-mailed to Campbell, she would read it out loud on a live streaming video webcast that showed only her mouth. Each webcast would begin with an image of Campbell’s tongue ornamented with a stud displaying the day of the project.

“I wanted to explore the idea of a frame story and how one story could generate other stories,” Campbell said Wednesday.

She explained that she first had the idea in 2005 shortly after former President George W. Bush spoke to the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

“Everyone’s hearts sank at this moment knowing it would be a long war and that we had all been sucked into it,” she said.

Campbell’s Wednesday lecture used photographs to document some of her other strange, funny and insightful performance art pieces that explore political, historical and purely abstract themes.

The first piece she described was inspired by the diary of Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, during the filming of “Apocalypse Now,” as well as by a plane crash in the forests near Campbell’s hometown and Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.”

Another piece, entitled “I have been given the name Tania,” was inspired by the kidnapping of newspaper heiress and socialite Patty Hearst into the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Campbell recreated the iconic photograph of Hearst wielding a machine gun in front of an SLA banner and encouraged passersby to pose as Hearst for Polaroid pictures and read an SLA mission statement.

“The Polaroids were given to the people, and I like to imagine the final work of the project is all these little Polaroids stuck to fridges around Perth (Australia) as proof of this secret group,” Campbell said.

Her other works included one in which she glued a hat to her hair and then proceeded to cut the hat off, a five-day project in which she examined the trial of alleged axe murderess Lizzie Borden and one in which she hid – naked except for a coat of glow paint – in an art exhibit.

Andrew Starner GS, who studies performance art, said he was left wondering what it would be like to witness Campbell’s pieces.

“I thought Barbara was quirky, but totally tantalizing,” he said.