Exhibition review: Archiving the Ephemeral, Abbotsford Convent

Five major works honouring the role of Australian artists in society.

Imagine a cavernous space filled with the quiet whisperings of uniform-clad young women performing laundry services: the smell of starch permeating the air, the place a hive of activity under the ever watchful eye of the head sister. Regarded as a living archive, the Magdalen Laundry at the Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne – with its layers of worn paint, exposed brick and industrial plumbing – helps us recreate this scene and embody a way of life long passed.

Growing out of the ‘rescue movement’ of the 19th century, the building was seen as a place of refuge and rehabilitation for wayward young women to learn domestic skills. Now repurposed as places for artists to exhibit and community groups to gather, the National Heritage Listed Magdalen Laundry and asylum buildings are a physical representation of life’s fleeting moments – the perfect environment for the present exhibition, Archiving the Ephemeral, by performance artist, teacher and curator Leisa Shelton. 

Supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, the City of Yarra and the Abbotsford Convent, the exhibition brings together for the first time five completed major works: Archive, Mapping, Scribe, Addendum and Performing the Archive to explore such notions as ‘the role of artists within our society, and the potential to create dialogue and action for the future’.

In the vastness of the Magdalen Laundry space the exhibition, on first encounter, appears minimal in presentation. This initial perception, however, soon takes on another nature as each body of work draws the viewer into the bigger questions that lie behind their creation. Archive, commissioned in 2015 to celebrate Art House’s 10-year anniversary, is an installation piece composed of a series of scroll-like panels, accompanied by a durational video made with Miklos Janek. Listing every artist printed in a program between 2006 and 2015, the work presents names chronologically with the aim of mapping an artist’s development, interactions and change over time. 

Building on this conversation, Mapping presents a series of beautifully crafted metal archival boxes, each with a slit in the top and a small lock at the front, which contain a memory of an artist that has shaped a participant in the exhibition in some way. Documented on an archival card while in conversation with Shelton, the piece was first commissioned in 2014 for Experimenta Recharge: 6th International Biennial of Media Art, which toured nationally in 2015 and 2016. This body of work reflects on such things as the nature of storytelling, memory, the role of archives and the value of how and why we document.  

Overlapping with the previous project, Scribe, billed as a ‘live writing project where an “artist scribe” captures the experience of audiences’ touches on the nature of audience participation in the preservation of memory and experience, as well as the notion of this interaction as representing a “democratic document”. First commissioned in Australia in 2016 and representing an ongoing collection, it has also had many international commissions and iterations. The collection, housed in archival drawers made from cardboard and recessed into a section of the gallery wall, contains over 1400 documents, written in many languages, Brailled and drawn, and accessible to the public. 

The culmination to the piece, Addendum, is the ritual burning of 30 years of Shelton’s art practice and its repurposing as an installation work that snakes its way around a section of the gallery floor space. Consisting of 140 carefully bound, hand-sewn and labelled packages containing the ash of the artist’s archives, it represents the ongoing conversation around what matters, what we preserve and what we value.

The fifth project in this larger body of work captures the experience of the present and taking it into the future. Through a one-on-one encounter with iconic performance artists Stelarc and Jill Orr, Performing The Archive enables the artist to share with the audience a significant moment from their body of work with the aim that they will then pass on this knowledge or memory to others aided by something tangible such as an image card – thus completing the cyclical nature of a contemporary performance becoming a memory or mental archive that then become the memories of others.

Supported by suspended didactic panels and extended text labels, Archiving the Ephemeral is a fascinating interpretation and reflection on the concept of the fleeting nature of performance and the celebration of the completion of a body of performance-based works over a decade of practice. Embodying the transient nature of performance art through installation and live performance,

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Shelton captures living moments of her own practice, and the interactive nature and importance of audience participation through spoken and written feedback, as well as highlighting the importance of our oral tradition and conversations as a means to remembering and reflecting on art as a performative medium.

Archiving the Ephemeral will be on display until 22 April 2023 at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne

Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.