Nicola Gunn’s new autobiographical show is stranger than autofiction
“I’ve come to realise that I’m a slow burner,” admits Nicola Gunn. “When I was young I was convinced that by 18 I would have a boyfriend and know how to drive. I have a boyfriend but I still can’t drive.”
And yet this performance artist, still in her early 30s, is currently the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Melbourne Festival, with an exhibition including video, pictures, live performance and even sculpture.
It is, of course, a fictional retrospective, and Nicola Gunn is only pretending to be an internationally acclaimed performance artist.
In Spite of Myself is an ironic exercise in mythmaking and the deconstruction of artistic identity. The performance itself is part dramatic lecture, part exhibition, with the lecture an extension of the gallery space.
Gunn has invented Susan Becker – an American curator – to “unravel the many worlds of Nicola Gunn”.
This is a sort off-the-chart self reflexivity: at one point in the show, Becker admits to the audience that she could well be an artistic creation of Nicola Gunn.
“It’s full of such identity slippages,” says Gunn. “I think it gives the work a tragicomic quality. I hope something like Derek, the new Ricky Gervais show.”
For Gunn, the process of devising the work is a kind of rehearsed chaos, where the style shifts markedly between shows, and even within shows. "But," she says, "the themes remain the same – identity, failure, hopelessness.”
Failure for Gunn means death, both bodily death and the artistic death that can happen on stage. "I think about it constantly,” she says. “Failure is no longer being interesting, falling apart.”
And hopelessness? Hopelessness is another kind of failure, a failure of ambition.
“I guess because my work hovers in the mundane. There’s nothing spectacular about it. It’s just an everyday sort of failure. And maybe failure sounds too spectacular for that.”
This might come across as heavy sort of stuff, but in Gunn's world, the serious is always hidden behind a thick curtain of mischievous irony, which is only pulled back at the last minute.
“I set it up like that, then shift into something that’s not so playful,” she says. “I definitely gravitate to an ironic, subversive style of presentation, but now I’m even trying to subvert the subversion.”
In Spite of Myself is also a reflection on the process of its own creation, and specifically on the experience of working at the Arts Centre Melbourne. Gunn quizzed tourists on St Kilda Road about what they thought of the Arts Centre. Looking at the Arts Centre, did they think that it was the kind of place they wanted to visit?
“They were like, ‘Oh, is it open? What is it?’ They didn’t really know what it was," says Gunn. "‘It looks like you have to pay to go inside.’ I think it has an austere presence. I wanted this show to be a playful intervention on that.”
On the morning of our interview, Gunn and her collaborator Pier Carthew were causing havoc with Arts Centre staff, shooting a series of videos featuring Gunn dancing in her underwear at different locations around the Arts Centre. Staff were not impressed.
“Whatever I’m dealing with at the time influences what I’m making – the process of art making in this organisation, the Arts Centre, is a part of that."
On 12 October, there will be a one-off participatory public forum in which the audience will assist Gunn in the creation of her next work. It's all part of the very serious unseriousness with which Gunn develops her fascinating multi-disciplinary performance pieces.
"Hopefully people understand the irony and the playfulness," says Gunn. "Hopefully they get the joke, but also see the seriousness. We are very serious about it – it addresses issues of visibility and invisibility, significance and insignificance.”