Performance in the gallery is always site-specific. Focus on Val, The Invisible

Julie-Anne Long, Val,The Invisible. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is a landmark building nestled amongst the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House in Circular Quay. Like many metropolitan contemporary art museums, performance now makes up a large part of their program. Recently the ArtFacts.Net team met with local dance artist Julie-Anne Long to learn more about her choreographic practice and the development of performance art at MCA since the buildings reopening in 2012.

Here we are sitting outside the MCA in sunny Sydney where you first presented Val, The Invisible.

J-AL: Yes, I was part of the launch of the new building in 2012. The reopening was quite a big occasion and I was one of a group of performance artists commissioned to make a new work especially for the opening season. The MCA doesn’t have a long history of performing artists working in the gallery so it represented a shift in their programming.

Where did the idea to create Val, The Invisible come from?

J-AL: At the time I was in the midst of a project called ‘The invisibility project’, which I am still working on. It thinks about the invisibility of middle-aged women and specifically the performing female body. It doesn’t only focus on the negative things, which the media is full of, but also thinks about the great things you can do when no one is watching you.
So, Val, The Invisible was an artwork that many people didn’t even notice, which was quite confronting at first as the solo performer. I would perform cleaning the gallery for one hour, then rest for an hour, and continue this cycle. On the first day of my three week season I was so disturbed by the fact that no one even looked at me. Then I reminded myself that it was exactly what I set out to do!

How was the work contextualised?

J-AL: All the invigilators were briefed and understood the work. There was no set place where Val was present. I circuited the gallery over 60 minutes and I did the same route every time. It was highly choreographed and there was a set of tasks that I could re-enact. Simple tasks like ‘if I saw something on the ground I could pick it up and put it in my bucket’. There was also a window I always made sure was clean. The interesting thing was that there were some Pakistani guys with a cleaning trolley working in the gallery too that didn’t know what to make of it. Of course I wasn’t cleaning anything but I was performing work.

How did the audience respond?

J-AL: The children always saw me. They would come up and talk to me and look at me. I wasn’t acting so I would just talk to them as myself. Sometimes, someone would come over and put a tissue in my bucket or ask where the toilet was. It was very clear I was not a character. Val was my persona and the costume was a high visibility vest, fluorescent pink dress and orange hat so she was highly visible.

How did you find the contrast between the static, material artworks and your moving through the gallery which was very ephemeral?

J-AL: Even as I was moving I felt like a ‘snapshot in time’. I definitely absorbed the atmosphere of the gallery which was hustle-and-bustle, but counterpoised with the objects that were the main reason for the gallery and actually very solid and still. I really felt part of the ‘solid and still’. I didn’t feel like I got caught up in the business of the people but rather carved my way through the space.

Since presenting Val, The Invisible in 2012, how have you seen the MCA performance art program evolve?

J-AL: There was a peak during the 2016 Sydney Biennale when a raft of European conceptual choreographic work that was programmed by Stephanie Rosenthal. It was interesting to have that kind of work transplanted into this context. I was quite indignant because it negated the work being created here by local artists, many of whom actually ended up being performers in the works of the internationally acclaimed artists. That did not sit right with me.
More recently people are keen to be involved in putting choreography in the gallery. For me I definitely think of the gallery as being very site-specific. It is not just making a work and seeing where it fits. The viewing frame is very specific.

The National 2019: New Australian Art is now showing at MCA until the 24th of June 2019. The exhibition, which includes performance art, presents the latest ideas and forms in contemporary Australian art.It is curated across three of Sydneys premier cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks and the MCA. The National 2019: New Australian Art presents the work of 24 Australian artists from major cities, regional areas and remote communities.