Nell’s installation at the MCA takes up almost a room with a collection of ‘stations’ (a wall piece; a painting; two object-covered tatami mats) vaguely unified by visual and aesthetic motifs: a colour palette of black and white and gold; crucifixes, AC/DC insignia, and ghost faces in various materials and sizes. The more you look at it, the more you feel as though there’s a code to unlocking what it all means, and how each item relates to the others. And there is, in a way.
The first thing to know about Nell is that she’s a buddhist; the second is that she grew up in Maitland at a time where Christianity and AC/DC were both religions. As if still curious about that polarity, she produces work that pivots between binary opposites: zen and rock; black and white; life and death; masculine and feminine. “AC/DC is also a colloquialism for bisexuality,” she points out.
For the National Biennial of New Australian Art, Nell presents a mix of existing and new work. The installation ‘With things being as they are’ (the title taken from a song by The Triffids) is in the latter camp, and comprised of various objects arranged on tatami mats: a golden poo, a tiny plastic blow-fly, rusty VB cans (from the ’70s, she says), an upended bucket with a smiley face, a Japanese buddhist bell (used by her in a performance at Glastonbury), drumsticks, happy ghosts…
Nell describes the objects as “little characters”. “Each character has relationships to other spirits on the mat. I’m hoping audiences will look at this and make their own little allegories or stories about those relationships.”
A couple of the ceramic figures call to mind Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – and not for nothing. “I was looking at these proto-historic Japanese ceramic ornaments when I made those,” she explains.
Her love affair with Japan began at 16 when she travelled there – her first overseas trip. “It was profoundly awesome. I absolutely loved it.” Looking over her installation, she quips: “It’s Maitland meets Japan – with a bit of rock’n’roll and Western art history thrown in.”