Vivienne Binns, Vag dens, 1967, polymer paint and vitreous enamel on composition board, 48 × 36".

Vivienne Binns, Vag dens, 1967, polymer paint and vitreous enamel on composition board, 48 × 36".

Vivienne Binns

Vivienne Binns’s first full retrospective, “On and through the Surface,” was an archive in multiple senses. The show contained numerous documents, including photographs, exhibition flyers, postcards, posters, and slideshows representing Binns’s ephemeral and community-based practice from the 1970s and ’80s. These were displayed in a vitrine-cum-architectural intervention (designed by Youssofzay + Hart) that spanned more than 140 feet and operated as a conceptual spine for the show. Further archival images, for instance installation shots of Binns’s inaugural solo show of 1967, were transmitted on chunky circa 1980 Trinitron televisions. And of course the show included Binns’s paintings and drawings. The retrospective presented 116 works from the 1960s to today and revealed the ways in which, over six decades, the artist has grappled with the shifting politics of gender, sexuality, community, memory, art historiography, and living as an Anglo Australian on Indigenous land.

The exhibition, curated by Anneke Jaspers and Hannah Mathews and previously seen at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, was thematically organized and loosely chronological. It began with Binns’s iconic psychedelic paintings Phallic Monument, 1966, and Vag dens, 1967, and related biomorphic, Surrealist, and Dada-inspired drawings and paintings made either for, or in the lead-up to, Binns’s 1967 solo debut at Sydney’s Watters Gallery. The show was described by one critic as “pure obscene horror”; similar sentiments ricocheted across reviews in almost all the major newspapers. Here, the works, which in today’s terms depict gender-diverse, more-than-human animals as well as playful representations of vulvas and penises, hung beside a conventional nude of a demure seated woman that Binns had made in art school just a few years earlier. The painting is modest, and inconsequential in the artist’s career, but by including it the curators shed light, especially for a younger generation, on the radicality of Binns’s work in the late ’60s (which anticipated the feminist and gay-liberation movements of the ’70s).

After the Watters show, Binns turned away from painting for more than a decade, shifting her attention to collaborative and participatory works such as WOOM, 1971, an environmental installation that aimed to offer participants the experience of being in womb. This piece—and its engagement with participation, dematerialization, and gender—helped shape the emergence of not only post-object art in Australia, but also feminist and community practices, such as Binns’s own Mothers’ Memories Others’ Memories, 1979–81. Perhaps Binns’s most recognized piece, it comprised a series of workshops that invited participants to create minor monuments for their mothers by drawing on memories, memorabilia, and archives. Such work was contingent on the Australian government’s establishment in 1977 of the Community Arts Board, which provided funding for artists to engage with peripheral communities across Australia. But as the show’s didactics make clear, these projects also advanced in lockstep with the Women’s Art Movement, ongoing since 1974, for which Binns was a key instigator, underscoring structural sexism in the arts.

Indelibly marked by her community work, Binns returned to painting in the mid-’80s, now engaging the politics of location and of living in the Pacific on unceded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander country. Kitschy archetypal landscapes, tapa cloths (bark cloths of the Pacific Islands), or colonial icons (e.g., the ship of Captain James Cook, Australia’s Columbus) are cited in many of these works. In her contemporaneous series “In memory of unknown artists,” ca. 1995–, acts of citation not only grapple with her own participation in canon formation in Australia, but also seek to bring to the fore memories of practitioners, such as designers of textile patterns, and of her feminist comrades, such as artist Pat Larter, who are otherwise forgotten by Australian art history.

The stakes of remembering were surely at the forefront of the curators’ minds. The show, focusing—let’s not forget—on the work of an octogenarian, underscored the slow but, one hopes, consistently growing acknowledgment of senior non-cis-male artists. Such conditions are always subject to change, and in this sense the Binns show was not just an archive but a catalyst for something new. Archives are, after all, living things, capable of transforming the ways in which history is read.