A live performance only exists when it is performed. Their ephemeral nature means they are fleeting, impermanent and cannot be experienced in exactly the same way.
How do artists preserve their works? What about the invisible work that is rarely recognized or named?
Over the past decade, performance artist Lisa Shelton has created a series of collaborative works that highlight the transformative potential of archives by gathering public feedback and mapping artistic genealogies.
Now his new exhibition, Archives Temporary, brings together five works in one beautifully curated installation.
Archiving the Temporary is a celebration of the artist, the artistic process and the audience experience.
Shelton's extensive career, based on collaborations, interests and conversations, is at the heart of the exhibition. The exhibition reflects its focus on curating and redesigning interdisciplinary works to respond to the limited opportunities for recognition of contemporary independent Australian performance.
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The temporary archive has a clear, distinctive design and is housed in the Magdalen Laundry at Abbotsford Abbey.
Filled with industrial interiors with lime green wood and painted walls, the laundry room is the perfect backdrop for custom fixtures, softly lit tables and long rows of patterned pieces.
Delicate thoughts are framed and preserved in a handmade aesthetic. Items are carefully crafted and scraps are carefully collected.
Along one side of the room, 132 brown paper bags were laid out in a continuous row on the floor. Each package contains a series of ashes-turned archival documents that correspond to the art project of Shelton's career.
The accompanying video describes Shelton's painstaking process of reducing the entire archive of performances to ash piece by piece.
In a methodical and meditative process, the ashes are sifted and packed into handmade paper bags. The bags are then punched and stitched by hand, printed, glued and wrapped, a kind of devotion to the material, even as it turns to dust.
The exhibition gives each of us the opportunity to become part of a living archive through conversations with two leading figures in the Australian art scene, Gail Orr and Stelark.
I sit with Stellark in the evenings when I visit. We discuss Kantian notions of time when he tells me about the dismembered body event Re-Wired/Re-Mixed Body (2015). It's a wonderful moment of personal connection with an artist I've admired for years.
On one wall hung four large sheets of paper neatly printed with the names of all the artists in every Art House program from 2006 to 2016.
On the night I attend, these lists spark a lively dialogue between the artists present as we go over names, dates (in my case I was a little desperate to know if they had my name), and people and events that come to mind . Memorize stories and collaborate.
Much of Shelton's work comes from conversations with members of the public about art and artists.
On the map, a series of polished stainless steel containers, beautifully marked with engraved identifiers, sit beneath a video screen above the bench as the artists' names appear and disappear in an endless floating loop.
The boxes contain detailed information about memorable artists and performances, collected, dated and stamped from 1,000 interviews. These are gorgeous, hand-welded pieces that securely seal business letters under fireproof glass that can withstand hurricanes, fires, and floods.
Many Scribe script files contain multiple documents that can be extracted and read. The number of pages is staggering, and the breadth of feedback from the audience – happy, excited, connected, inspired – is staggering.
It is a painful reminder of how the artist interpreted the work outside of his experience; It's often a surreal, lonely moment when the audience leaves the room.
Archiving Time encourages practices of mindfulness and appreciation that extend to the practical means by which our journey through space and engagement with works of art come alive.
A suitable place for such a delicate gathering is a monastery. Analogous processes and objects are in the foreground. Typewriters, brown paper, thread, dies and aprons are all part of the painstaking construction process. Companions and writers act as keepers of the room and help proofread the material.
We have the opportunity to continue the archive as it develops and grows around us. As I walked around the room, I noticed my archival activity – taking notes and talking to others – and continued down the documentation path. We do not see the work of one artist. The Ephemeral Archive highlights the need for greater visibility, recognition and respect for experimental and independent Australian artists, and addresses the many complex collaborations, associations and connections that make up an important cultural legacy, even if unrecognised.
The temporary book will be kept at Abbotsford Abbey in Melbourne until April 22.
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