Artist Deborah Kelly was searching for a different way to amplify the conversation around climate change. She never expected it would lead to her most creative project yet. By Amy Campbell.
Artist Deborah Kelly never expected her conversation around climate change would lead to her most creative project yet.
Deborah Kelly is squinting at her phone. “I just received some new work from my animator,” says the Australian artist. “Do you want to come and take a look?” She hits play and the screen erupts with colour as Kelly’s collages – tiny nymph-like creatures she’s cut up and pieced together using old encyclopaedias and, not insignificantly, books on ‘the history of white male art’ – twirl and tango to the spellbinding tune of a piano scale. When the music stops, there is a childlike twinkle of excitement in Kelly’s eyes. “We’re the first people to see it,” she grins. “What do you think?”
If it seems unusual that an artist who’s exhibited all over the world would share this sneak peek with someone she’s never met, let alone ask for an opinion, it sort of is. But collaboration is at the heart of Kelly’s practice, and in particular, her latest interdisciplinary artwork Creation, a queer, insurrectionary science-fiction, climate change religion she is hoping to have registered. The work is currently on display at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art as part of The National 2021: New Australian Art. The animation will form part of the second phase of Creation, which was installed at the MCA this month.
“It’s completely serious,” insists MCA chief curator Rachel Kent of the project. “It’s very playful and engaging in some ways, but Deborah is serious, because the ideas behind the religion – climate change and environmental destruction, the way we interact with the planet and with each other – are all very serious. It’s a response to the faith-based logic that seems to dominate politics today.”
In a sense, Kelly has been preparing for this work her entire life. She spent 13 years at convent school and, for a while there, she was set on becoming a nun. She’s not exactly sure when she began to rebel against the establishment, but according to Kelly, “by the time I was 17, I was a rabid anti-Catholic. So, maybe I’ve been training to make this work since then?”
It sounds more straightforward in hindsight. But unlike many of her contemporaries, Kelly didn’t go to art school. She worked
as a cartoonist at a newspaper in Melbourne in the 1980s, when a meeting with Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus (the paper was shortstaffed, so Kelly found herself interviewing him for a story) got her thinking about the power of art to revise histories. She began to work more in photomedia and collage, and exhibited her work Beware of the God at the 2008 Singapore Biennale. Kelly’s collages, however, have become something of a signature.
“I really do believe I think with my hands. Sometimes the collages tell me things,” she explains. “But sometimes I’m just destroying the actual substance of white men’s domination of the world. I’m cutting it up and trying to put the pieces back together, to help imagine a world I can live in.”
In recent years, Kelly’s work has become more collaborative and multidisciplinary. There’s also a heightened sense of urgency to her most recent projects, Creation especially. Kelly says the work was inspired by “climate-change deniers” in her own family.
“They are completely immune to science and scientific evidence. No matter how many facts I would spout at them, it just had no impact whatsoever.” It got her thinking. “Maybe we need to be more hysterical? Maybe avoiding planetary destruction requires something very bold and kind of hysterical, with dancing and really great songs? Not to be too epic about it – but it is on the cards.”
Kelly says she didn’t set out for her work to evolve the way it has. Rather, her quest to find “the boldest, most fun, most serious but most ridiculous” way to congregate and fight against injustice led her to this point. “Maybe Creation is a way of being productively feverish?” posits the artist. So far, the response from her peers has been positive. “When people ask me: ‘What are you doing with yourself, Deborah?’ And I say: ‘Well, I’m founding a queer insurrectionary science-fiction, climate-change religion’ – every single person I’ve told this to has said: ‘Where can I sign?’
“It’s pretty gratifying. People are ready for this. They’re ready for worshipfulness, passion and to fight in an organised way in an amazing costume.”
Kelly is adamant we understand that she’s not the guru. “I am just an usher.” She’s not entirely sure who the guru is yet, or if there is one. But she refers to SJ Norman, a diasporic Koori artist of Wiradjuri descent who penned the Liturgy of the Saprophyte as being “a very central character”. After admiring Norman’s work from afar, Kelly became convinced he was the only person who could write the liturgy. “I was so shocked when I first got it. It was not at all what I was expecting,” she says.
The liturgy is the first thing you encounter as you enter the installation of Creation at the MCA; it outlines five Holy Orders – the Vulture, Serpent, Rodent, Bacterium, Spider and Fungus – which become motifs throughout the exhibition. “There are actually six
“I call it a science fiction religion because it’s about imagining a future other than the one we seem to be hurtling towards”
Holy Orders in the text,” chuckles Kelly. “SJ Norman is a genius who can’t count.”
Woven throughout the liturgy are references to the work of the American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. “I call it a science fiction religion because it’s about imagining a future other than the one we seem to be hurtling towards,” says Kelly.
The rest of Creation’s collaborator list reads like a roll call of emerging and established artists. Choreographer Angela Goh helped put together a Creation dance routine, while rising filmmaker Alia Ardon, who Kelly met through the dance company Seet, captured the procession on film. A step-by-step dance tutorial plays inside the installation at the MCA, should any new disciples feel the urge to join in. Dancer Amrita Hepi contributed to a poem, which composer Lex Lindsay has turned into a song – the exhibition features a karaoke version of it. Costume designer James Lionel King has fashioned six unique garments from fabric Kelly has collected over the years, each outfit inspired by one of the Holy Orders. Melody Pei Li is the talented animator in charge of bringing Kelly’s collages, including the one we got a preview of, to life.
It’s clear that Kelly delights in collaborating with people of different age groups and backgrounds, and the unexpected results that transpire. “It was quite important for me to not know where this work was going,” she explains of Creation. “This was a premise; a threadbare premise the collaborators have given flesh and blood to.”
Goh, the choreographer, also collaborated with Kelly on a series of collages, including the armed eyeball figure on the previous page. Kelly hadn’t planned to include any of her own collages in The National, but when Covid lockdowns ground the crowd-sourced aspect of Creation to a halt, she began to cut and paste. Those works are now hanging in a corner of the installation. “They are auditioning to be in the video,” says Kelly, nodding to her intricate creatures. “Do you remember which ones made the cut?”
Spending time with Kelly feels a bit like having an eccentric aunt. Her exuberance often belies the reason why she started Creation in the first place: that feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed that bubbles up the moment you remember the climate is changing and whatever preventative measures we have in place aren’t working. But maybe this is where Creation comes in.
“There’s so much longing for a way to change, and for somewhere to funnel the frustration and energy,” observes the artist. “Because it’s murder, what we’re doing to the planet and to each other. We’re in such a pinch. And at the same time, there’s this feeling of inertia, and this feeling that we’re hurtling out of control. We contain these impossible contradictions all the time. So a ridiculous and a serious religion isn’t actually that strange.”
As for where her work is headed, Kelly is keeping an open mind. “If people really gather and join Creation, it will become something I can’t even envisage,” she says, noting that interested people can learn more at creationtheproject.com. “But I really hope to be doing this for the foreseeable future, because it’s the best idea I’ve ever had.”
The National 2021: New Australian Art runs until September 2021. Creation will exhibit at the MCA until August 22. Go to the-national.com.au.