A Performative Entanglement: The Art of Kellie O’Dempsey

Raised in the country, and now living back in regional Australia, Kellie O’Dempsey was the Flying Arts Alliance 2022 Queensland Regional Art Awards’ “Art for Life” winner. O’Dempsey creates a form of live performative collage, in which the viewer becomes an active participant in an intense, emergent, experiential energy that obliterates time and space.

O'Dempsey's current exhibition "Wish You Were Here" is on view at Grafton Regional Gallery, NSW, until 21st April 2024.

“Smashing the frame,” “moving past the border,” and “breaking out of our structures” are some of the expressions Kellie O’Dempsey uses to describe her need to represent or grasp at constant change.

Growing up in pubs that her parents managed in regional Victoria meant living and working amongst a daily swirl of high-pressure adult, predominantly male, interaction. This “lived” culture continued into the pubs and clubs of Melbourne’s alternative music scene, where O’Dempsey pursued her passion for music and drawing. She used to draw bands live and began by carrying sketchbooks to gigs and drawing the artists while in the audience. Drawings made in the crucible of these venues were not preparatory ideas for other 2D works, but the key medium to enable her to explore the energy of the musicians and sound. She says, “I somehow wanted to share the wonder and embodied experience of watching a drawing evolve in real time to music.” Inevitably, her works themselves became the “live event,” but drawing remained an integral component, moving from a representation of the body in action to the traces and extension of the body in space.

After a Victorian College of the Arts degree with a major in drawing, O’Dempsey then gained a Graduate Diploma in animation. Her early animation videos take us on intense internal journeys featuring tunnels and loops, and transformed bodies with a sense of abject uncertainty – themes and imagery that would appear in her later work. According to O’Dempsey, “I love the absurd, and making strange. It is an active method of dismantling toxic normativity, and highlights how weird and constant everyday life actually is.”

Her own artistic journey over the last decade, through many “performance drawing” works and collaborations with dancers, sound artists, and with added moving imagery – in Australia and overseas, indoors, outdoors, and during key festivals – has resulted in a unique interdisciplinary methodology. Drawing on the notion of constant change and movement without the need for an ending, the aim is not to structure a narrative or a pattern, but to create a unique event in which the audience is actively immersed. This kind of immersion is not the kind we experience in the darkened movie cinema, but one in which we take a journey in multiple directions. Like the early video works, we are in for a ride. O’Dempsey likens this to the Möbius loop: when you go forward you move sideways, when going inside you end up outside, and when you arrive at the start you may have not moved at all, or you are at a new beginning. She creates spaces where people are denied access to time. In some works, the artist is seen drawing and un-drawing lines in a mesmerising continuum of making. O’Dempsey draws on concepts of intra-action and aliveness as opposed to interaction and liveness; sound, bodies, materials, and place cease to operate as distinct elements, and experiences seem to grow and present new possibilities.

There are many precedents for her work, from the experimental performances of the futurists and Dadaists in the 1920s, to American Happenings, the female surrealists and feminist performance art. O’Dempsey’s work could be called a living collage, at times absurdist but more in keeping with German Dada artist Hannah Höch’s notion of fragmented collage that embraces diversity and difference.

In her 2021 gallery installation work Wish you were here, O’Dempsey introduces paper collage within the overall collaged installation. In Europe, she collected large torn sections of street posters, which reveal layer upon layer of imagery and text. These, in turn, she has used as fragmented landscape outcrops, on which her ghostly videoed image balances precariously and loops endlessly, going nowhere. Like Höch’s collage work and its social critique, particularly around the treatment of women, O’Dempsey explores not only the uncertainty and craziness of this era of compound crisis, but also her own balancing act of being the primary carer of her elderly father, and the unseen labour of women in domestic care roles, and her job as an artist.

In many of her live works, she combines the physical artist drawing in the space, the projected image of the artist drawing, and live digital projected drawing together with sound and performers constantly reshaping the space. These works take place with various combinations of their components inside galleries and other internal spaces. As in the traditional picture plane, the space in the performance drawing event can be reconfigured to alter the perception of the original location, but also reworked “to build a shared space for the interdisciplinary process to occur.” Other works exist in display windows and outdoor façades, and more recently in the natural environment. Not all are live performances, but rather longer-running exhibition works which nevertheless include interactivity such as augmented reality and time-based elements.

In What did you say?, 2021, a ten-day installation work for Botanica: Contemporary Art Outside in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, O’Dempsey and sound artist Mick Dick actively engaged with the site of the work as a living space, asking the audience to breathe with the trees. Whilst continuing with her mantra of “making strange,” this work politically deals with climate issues and our own performance on this planet. As she says, “There is nothing stranger than reality. It is truly our biggest durational improvised performance.”

This essay was originally published in issue 62 of Artist Profile 

Wish You Were Here
17 February – 21 April 2024 
Grafton Regional Gallery, NSW 

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