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“How can we preserve the fleeting nature of live art in an archive, given it only exists during its performance?”


Live performance exists only at the moment it is performed. Due to its ephemeral nature, it is transient and impermanent, and cannot be experienced in exactly the same way again.

How do artists hold on to the works they create? What about the invisible labor that is rarely acknowledged or named?

Over the past decade, performance artist Leisa Shelton has completed a series of participatory artworks that focus on the mutability of the archive: gathering audience testimonials and charting artistic lines.

Now her new show, Archiving the Ephemeral, brings together five works in a beautifully curated installation.

Archiving the Ephemeral is a celebration of the artist, the artistic process and the audience’s experience.

Shelton’s extensive career, built on collaboration, care and conversation, forms the basis of the exhibition. The show reflects her focus on curating and reframing interdisciplinary work to address the limited opportunities for recognition of contemporary Australian independent performance.

Read more: Politics, Pioneers, Performance: 50 Years of Australian Women’s Art and Feminist Ideas

Careful design

Characterized by a sober, distinctive design, Archiving the Ephemeral is located in the Magdalen Laundry at Abbotsford Convent.

Rich with a bright green wooden industrial interior and aged painted walls, the wax is a perfect backdrop for the specifically placed items, the carefully lit tables and the long rows of patterned artifacts.

Vulnerable ideas are framed and held in an artisanal, artisanal aesthetic. Objects are carefully made and remnants are carefully collected.

Along one side of the room, 132 packs of brown paper lie in a continuous line on the floor. Each package contains a set of burnt-to-ash archive material that corresponds to an artistic project from Shelton’s career.

Paper packages contain archival material, burned to ashes.
Sofie Dieu/Abbotsford Convent

An accompanying video shows Shelton’s meticulous process of burning her entire performance archive to ashes piece by piece.

In a methodical and meditative process, the ashes are sieved and packed in the handmade paper bags. The bags are then punched by hand and sewn with string, typed, labeled and categorized: a kind of devotional homage to the materials, even as they are reduced to dust.

A living archive

The exhibition offers each of us the chance to become part of the living archive through conversations with two pioneering elders from the Australian performance art scene, Jill Orr and Stelarc.

On the evening that I am present, I am with Stelarc. We discuss Kantian notions of time as he tells me about his Rewired/remixed dismembered body event (2015). It’s a wonderful moment of personal connection with an artist I’ve admired for years.

Couples sit at tables.
Personal archives built from conversations can be carried by each of us.
Sofie Dieu/Abbotsford Convent

On one wall are four large hanging papers with each artist’s name on each Art house program from 2006-2016, laboriously typed.

On the night I attend, these lists provoke lively conversation among the performers in attendance as we study names and dates (in my case, searching a little desperately to see if my own name is among them), and shows, folks, events, stories and collaborations.

Typed names.
Hundreds of artists have performed at Arts House.
Leisa Shelton/Abbotsford Convent

Much of Shelton’s work has been collected from audience conversations about art and artists.

In Mapping, a set of polished stainless steel canisters, beautifully marked with engraved identifications, sit on a bench beneath a suspended video screen on which artist names appear and disappear in an endless, floating loop.

The canisters contain details of highly memorable performers and performances collected from 1000 interviews, dated and stamped. They are hand-welded, lavish objects that keep the interview cards safely enclosed under refractory glass designed to withstand cyclones, fires, and floods.

Scribe’s many handwritten files contain multiple documents that can be extracted and read. The sheer number of pages is overwhelming and the breadth of audience commentary – joyful, moved, connected, inspired – is breathtaking.

People sit at a table
We can sit and read about the work that was.
Sofie Dieu/Abbotsford Convent

It is a poignant reminder of the traces left outside the artist’s own experience when performing a work: an often surreal and lonely moment once the audience has left the room.

A practice of care

Archiving the ephemeral fosters a practice of care and acknowledgment that extends to the practical ways in which our journey through the room and engagement with the artworks is facilitated.

The monastery is a suitable location for such a careful collection. Analogous processes and objects are in the foreground. Typewriters, brown paper, rope, awls and aprons are part of the painstaking construction process. Servants and scribes act as keepers in the room and facilitate the careful holding of the material.

We are given the opportunity to continue the archive as it evolves and passes around us. As I make my way through the room, I notice my own embodied archival actions – taking notes, talking to others – as I continue to document the documents. We are not only witnessing the oeuvre of one artist. Archiving the Ephemeral addresses the need for increased visibility, recognition and reverence for Australia’s experimental and independent artists, and speaks to the many collaborations, associations and intricate connections that mark an important – if unacknowledged – cultural legacy.

Archiving the ephemeral is until April 22 at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne.

Read more: A litany of losses: a new project charts our abandoned art events of 2020

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