When I was a teen babe grommet I used to keep my surfboard in a grotty old basement under a block of flats at the back of Sir Thomas Mitchell Rd in Bondi. I also stashed an old record player there with a small collection of vinyl including the classic psychadelic rock album ‘Cheap Thrills’. Featuring the electric vocals of Janis Joplin backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, this scratchy old disc never failed to ignite something deep inside me. After a surf session I’d put it on and towel off to tracks like ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Ball and Chain’ and examine the album’s cool art work by the kooky cartoonist Robert Crumb. It wasn’t easy changing back into my uptight school uniform with Joplin’s call of the wild ringing in my ears – my instinct was to run out into the twilight in some sort tattered jungle clobber. But Janis was always there waiting for me the next time I took the plunge into that untamed primal soup.
Last week I was super stoked to cycle deep down into the bowels of the Kings Cross Car Park and discover a happening in honor of the legendary singer who would’ve been celebrating her 70th birthday had she not died of an overdose aged just 27. This underground haunt is the latest space of Alaska Projects, an artist run initiative for contemporary art that has, for the month of February, given the space over to an eclectic mix of women all hell-bent on promoting female art practice. One of them, Justene Williams, had parked her dead Dad’s ute there and was busy giving away assorted items from his tool shed. I scored a few pieces of abrasive paper to use for filing my nails but there was all manner of heavy metal on display including wrenches, hammers and old engine parts. Country music belted out from the ute’s cassette deck while people perused the spread. It was a cheery if tragic affair. Like Song Dong’s exhibit at Carriageworks for this year’s Sydney Festival, Williams was making an inventory of a parent’s personal collection but she went one step further by dispersing it through the crowd. All that she was left with was a panel on which she traced an outline of each item before it went to its new home.
Over on the other side of the space a barefoot Zoe Robertson in a skin tight gold lame mini dress recited a poem punctuated by a riff that she sang over and over again; ‘He made me in his own image’. It was riveting in its repetition, echoing around the concrete bunker, and the audience was transfixed for the duration. I missed Hannah Furmage’s performance with the bikie gang that she’d assembled to do a smokin’ mass burn-out but she told me that she was unhappy with the result because she’d been instructed against her will to tone it down. Hannah is renowned for having spent time in Willacy Prison, Texas, and for submerging herself in a fish tank full of live eels for a durational performance in honour of underworld figure Sally Anne Huckstep.
Janis 2013 is accompanied by a pamphlet in which Diana Smith writes about the sad statistics accompanying contemporary female art practice; ‘Between 2000 and 2010 the National Gallery of Australia collected 222 men, but a mere 43 women’, she writes among a long list of similar disparities adding that; ‘women earn half of what men earn for their creative practice.’ Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that the JANIS 2013 project has emerged with a manifesto “dedicated to enabling female voices to be hard a little louder and to take up more space in the art world, and subsequently, in the annuls of art history.” Who knows? Maybe this little underground seed could start a whole new feminist wave? Watch this space.