In the wrong place at the right time

Remembering Jennifer Phipps

unpublished obituary

In an era when art museums are effectively managed by their marketing people who plan things like lame art trivia events for creative industry office plebs, and glorified pop-up crèches for over-privileged toddlers who like immersive installations as much as their hip parents, the dowdy 1970s ‘art world’ seems like a distant planet.

My early and formative encounters with the tiny asteroid of Melbourne ‘contemporary art’ back then coincided with meeting Jennifer Phipps. It was the latter half of the seventies – I’d say 1977 – and for me and others, experimental music, experimental film and experimental art collectively defined the landscape of art. We never said ‘contemporary’: that was a word only fashion designers and architects used. 70s experimental art wasn’t glorious, heroic or even relevant. It was just the stuff that didn’t fit according to preceding decades’ binaries which had navigated Modernism down a long and winding path of chauvinist myth-making. Experimentalism for sure had its own portentous and delusional traits, but coming on like a bad hangover of ‘60s utopianism, its saving grace was its lack of power.

Maria Kozic and I met Jennifer at such random events. A John Dunkley-Smith multi-screen projection here; a Warren Burt gig there; a Lyndall Jones performance somewhere else. These sporadic occasions didn’t comprise a scene: it was just peripheral, groundless activity by people truly focused on their work, before the word ‘practice’ became institutional short-hand for careerist self-commodification. It took a while before I was told that Jennifer worked at the NGV. The NGV? Maria and I wondered: that place in St. Kilda road, kind of like a big wog-tombstone with old op-shop paintings and bucket loads of nauseous bank art? We never took that place seriously as it seemed so entirely irrelevant to anything and everything.

Seeing Jennifer at these different experimental events became perversely entertaining. It was like meeting a stripper at a library convention. There was nothing about her that represented our picture of the NGV, so we could only imagine what she did there. We didn’t even know what a curator really was back then. Maria and I hailed from Reservoir, and Jennifer’s accent always amazed us – especially how she could drawl simultaneously in a Ballarat farmer whine and the acidic tone of oral Victoriana.

What we didn’t fully realise at the time was how generous Jennifer was in even talking to us kids from the Northern suburbs who found ourselves in the middle of these experimental activities. We never once felt out of place there, as everyone really was interested in doing the work and actively talking about it. There was no clear purpose, no established outcomes, and no projected goals. It took a few decades to reflect on how rare it was for a gallery professional to operate and behave in this way.

Come the mid-80s, I personally became less and less interested in ‘the art world’, as it became codified first by the philosophical flirtations of writers, then by the political posturing of academics, and then ultimately by the globalised humanism proffered by curators. ‘Contemporary Art’ – with its fetishization of ‘now-ness’ – perfectly describes a conservative notion of linear history while completely missing out on the sense of location and environment that is so important to the cultural engagement with the arts.

Meeting Jennifer in an experimental climate and terrain proved that she was attuned to art by going to places where things didn’t fit, moments didn’t cohere, and actions required perceptual re-alignment. Lots of ‘non-institutionalised’ people were gathering at that formative moment on this small asteroid. Jennifer somehow worked out how to dimensionally shift between there and the museum. As she did this during her tenure at the NGV and afterwards at places like Art & Australia, she demonstrated something often absent in today’s art professionals: she lived by a pluralist inclusive code, and her critical wit was sharpened by it.

Across the intervening decades, I would still unexpectedly pop into Jennifer somewhere – usually at a place that didn’t fit notions of contemporaneity. This is why I asked Jennifer to open my exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art a few years ago (Colour Me Dead). For me, that exhibition was returning to the museum an ideal of experimental enquiry which had long shaped my work. Engaging Jennifer there was a small thank-you note to someone who travelled in similar arcs.

Philip Brophy - Friday August 29th 2014

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Robert Rooney.