The Lucy R. Lippard Lecture

Dear Lucy,

Lucy Lippard LectureI saw a lecture of your lecture yesterday. I was in Brisbane, Australia, a city you visited several times in the 1980s. On Sunday 28 February 2016, Diana Smith and Kelly Doley, performance artists from Sydney, “reenacted” the POWER lecture you gave in Sydney in 1975. Here’s a description from the gallery’s website:

The Lucy R. Lippard Lecture is part of an ongoing project by artist/researchers Diana Smith and Kelly Doley that investigates pedagogical tools for reconsidering feminist art histories and futures. Join Sunday School as they re-visit the historic moment of Lucy Lippard’s 1975 visit to Australia through a performance lecture that incorporates oral histories and reenactment.

White walls, a projector, a lectern and a chair formed the stage for their performance lecture. It was a low-key affair, probably not the cacophony of bodies and anticipation you found in 1975. Kelly and Diane stood apart initially, had a brief dialogue, moved to a lectern where they stood together. They introduced you, the lecture, the historical context. They introduced themselves through their mothers, and used first hand testimony from interviews, themselves subject of frayed, impartial and incomplete memories. They illustrated Australian feminist art history but avoided the singular story in favour of a new relation to space and time. They spoke of your influence, wove it with the trace of your physical presence, and unraveled any rendering of a simple historical event. They turned their notes over together in a tightly choreographed rhythm, one page buried under the next, layering the immediate with the history.  They made connections through and across time, acting as time travellers trespassing across visible and invisible barriers.

Lucy Lippard Lecture2I was surprised to discover what I thought would be a clear reenactment became reflexive. What started out in dialogue, became a chorus of memories sounding out 1975 and parading it into the present. They cited what they could, (the archive of your talk is scant). They wove in thoughts from your contemporaries or presumed influences: Arendt, Benjamin, for instance. Collective and subjective experiences of history are threaded through their lecture, offering a poetic narrative of what was then as an interface to what is now. As a result it they wove a narrative with holes, which opened to the variegates of experiences, voices, and countermemories.

More than a reenactment, it was a precise exercise in feminist methodology. Their narrative and dialogue moved backwards and forwards, landing in the dialectical present with a polyvocal past not far behind. They spoke to you directly, “Dear Lucy” several times. I copy them with this letter.  As a feminist reenactment, it showed sensitivity to the fiction of a true historical representation, embracing the vulnerability of recall and the validity of research. As reenactments can do, it made us think of the original differently, it offered up a road into the past otherwise hidden from view.  As an audience we entered your history, and stood on shifting timeline between present and future with their words to help stabilize the shift, while at the same time activating its possible influence in the present.

They could have done a straight reenactment of your lecture, they could have staged a direct Q & A about the impact of your lecture on today’s feminist art practices in Australia and worldwide. They could have informed you they were performing this history in the present, interrupting both while the audience learned about, if they already didn’t, important Australian feminist artists. They could have dressed the part, invited some that were there to offer their thoughts. They could have done all of this, but they excavated the time period, and what they found was critical,  and how they displayed and represented it is what you’d find interesting. They performed an intergenerational dialogue.

Voices came in from all fronts: artists in the room, artists not there but who wanted to be there, scholars past and present. Faces, words, ideas forming layers of dialogue, multiplicity of voices, poking at the past with present work, looking toward the future with reconfigured memories.

The temporal elasticity with which they delivered your lecture at once mythologized the lecture but also called into question certain assumptions around it. The artists explained in the Q & A that their re-enactment embodied a feminist method that uses reenactment as a revisionist technique of feminist art history, and as such reassembles fragments of art and cultural history into a unique form of documentation that flirts with fiction. Kelly and Diane suggested this strategy allowed them as performers to become everyone there, including you. Their dialogue moved through different people, times and generations, geographies and perspectives.

A mythology has grown around your Australian visit in 1975, that you somehow activated a movement. The performers were in their own words “trying  to trouble” this mythology and to instead suggest (as you probably know already) their was already strong stream of feminist art practices carved out in Australia’s universities and gallery culture. Your lectures helped validate these movements.

Isn’t this what you did when you came to Australia? Time is important in your work. Documenting it, identifying trajectories, precedents, and you always give voice to counter memories/histories. In “Time Capsule” you track affinities between art and political activism since the 1960s. You promote to power of mythology as you did with the Trojan horse. Could you have imagined how these interlopers in time came to Brisbane (also performed it in Sydney, home of your famous POWER lecture) could have reimagined it so well? This unique vision that compressed time and space surely would be a welcome addition to any trojan horse. As you taught us this mythological creature shuttles political and social art from the outside into the inside (the art world, politics) as something aesthetic or masquerading as art to be unleashed when unsuspected. Your presence in 1975 continues to resonate. Your legacy has become a trace on which many women working before and after you, continue to follow.

What remains is a parafeminist contemporary artwork, one that Laura Castagnini, building on Amelia Jones’ articulation, identifies as “work that has a temporal parody of previous ‘waves’ of feminism,” yet with a homage that assigns its contemporary significance in current feminist discourse.  

You ended “Time Capsule” with the question: “So where are we now?”

There’s a cruel irony here, and I think you might agree. Art historian Anne Stephen’s question (as reenacted in 2016): “Lucy, do you think that it’s necessary to curate all woman shows or have magazines focused exclusively on feminist art?” Your response, “Look, in a few years women’s art exhibitions, issues magazine focused on women’s issues alone and the like will be unnecessary, but for the time being however discrimination against women pervades the international art world in subtle and often cruel forms.” Be assured, these performative time travelers, although quite young when you first unleashed your Trojan horse, continue to smuggle your words through time.  

Wishing you all the best,


All images courtesy of the author.

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  1. Laura Elizabeth Shea

    Thank you for your wonderful piece. I am particularly interested in a particular mode of feminist art history you mention, a “feminist method that uses reenactment as a revisionist technique of feminist art history, and as such reassembles fragments of art and cultural history into a unique form of documentation that flirts with fiction.” Could you perhaps suggest some further reading on this?

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