Author Archives: Lizzil Gay

About Lizzil Gay

Lizzil Gay is a multidisciplinary artist, activist and researcher currently living and working on Wurundjeri country. Working at the intersections of art and activism, her creative work is deeply personal and is explored with and through the body. The relational body remains the central anchor point of Lizzil’s conceptual, philosophical and political explorations.

As a researcher Lizzil has completed a PhD in Media and Communications from RMIT, Melbourne. Her doctoral thesis Wounded bodies as sites of dissensus: Acts of resistance by detained people seeking asylum, and in the performance art of Mike Parr explores the philosophy of pain as political, and the body as a site of resistance.

With her own body as a site, Lizzil works with issues of depersonalisation and incarceration to explore the fragmentation of identity and the self. Drawing on her early training in Performance Studies, Suzuki Method, and Butoh at Melbourne University she has created works that animate the body as a site of expression and politics. Her seminal solo piece  ‘C’mon Mickey. I love you’ was an embodied response to the death of her long time creative partner Mango Dysfunkt in 2010. Lizzil performed a 3 day durational live art installation at Donkey Wheel House in Melbourne exploring complex trauma, grief and loss through expressions of live self-harm and body modification. 

Lizzil was one of the four founders of the notorious feminist burlesque group the Voodoo Trash Dolls in 2004 alongside Willow J, Sparkarella, and the late great Nikkity Splits. The Dolls unique and experimental blend of performance art, cabaret and burlesque culminated in their most acclaimed show ‘Dressed to Kill’ in December 2008 directed by John-Paul Hussey. She also co-founded, alongside Mango Dysfunkt, the political performance group Dysfunkt Productions whose provocative and daring multi-media events toured nationally and internationally from 1996 until 2002. Prior to this she worked with a number of experimental performance groups including Tedium and Wild Lunch Dance Theatre.

Lizzil has also been fortunate to work alongside a number of significant Australian performance artists such as Stelarc, Casey Jenkins, Glitta Supernova, and Jill Orr. She continues to explore her own body within a performance art context, whilst researching the body as a site for radical politics and social transformation.

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The decision by Dark Mofo to cancel the contentious work Union Flag by Santiago Sierra speaks volumes about the dynamic between art and activism. Whilst in the media-post apology we see a not unusual centring of the white male curators who originally pursued the work, I think what is most amazing is the power of voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Their media campaign was quick, smart and extensive. Dark Mofo and MONA were subsumed in voices of resistance at their call to take blood from First Nations people.

Initially, when the resistance from First Nations people began Leigh Carmichael marketed their curatorial decision to run Union Flag as an act of ‘self-expression (which) is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background’ (see Facebook). This was posted on the Dark Mofo Facebook page and attracted a barrage of critical comments including my own: ‘You are not upholding some artist’s so called ‘fundamental human right’. You are curating a work and paying an artist, which compounds the exploitative nature of the colonial project. Seems like a publicity stunt exploiting the political struggles of Indigenous people’ (Facebook). I stand by this perspective. Carmichael’s response appears to be, if not a publicity stunt, an inexcusably simplistic conception of fundamental human rights and what ‘self-expression’ means within this context.

Eventually, after a few days of media and controversy Dark Mofo cancelled the work and apologised to First Nations people. They stated the ‘hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it’.  However hurt was caused by the very idea that the blood of First Nations people is a commodity to be used for, in this case, art. And what about the hurt and re-traumatisation inflicted by the work First Nations people had to do to defend themselves against an inherently exploitative ‘artistic’ concept? As a non-Indigenous ally, I tried to amplify First Nations activist voices such as Cass Lynch, Jam and DRMNGNOW, but I can’t imagine how exhausting the task of mobilising resistance was for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in this country called Australia.  

Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the need for political art to be located within a space of direct activism for it to be genuinely disruptive and political. When it exists in a bubble of the artworld, I argue it fails to produce politics in a significant way or to disrupt the general social order. The campaign against Union Flag however shows exactly the point where art (albeit unrealised) collides with direct activism and grass roots mobilisation for its political potency. However, in this case, unlike my previous writing, the politics came from a rejection of the work. The artwork was not considered to align with the political cause it made claims to. What does this reveal about the artist and the curatorial team supporting and funding the work?

Significantly, it reveals the white privilege and colonial foundations of the artworld. I have criticised in past writing about the problematic space of privilege and complicity within the art world, especially in relation to the ongoing colonial project. At times the artworld has traded on the appearance of being progressive and supportive of those living in the margins. Here, once again we see that this is a pretence. The artworld needs to engage in genuine and focused de-colonizing practices lead by First Nations peoples. Activists who created the Blaklist Mona petition quickly circulated a list of demands which ask for a genuine commitment to de-colonise the art space that Mona and its associated entities occupy, and engage local First Nations people (specifically the pakana, Tasmanian Aboriginal People) as central to its future operations. I feel like I could write for pages about this issue, but to keep my blog short there are key links to other activists and writers who battled Mona and Dark Mofo head on.

Dark Mofo: we want your blood

Dark Mofo, a Tasmanian based art festival, have announced an artwork by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra called Union Flag.  First Nations people have been invited to volunteer to donate their blood to soak a Union Jack flag for Sierra to make the work. A Dark Mofo branded image circulated on Instagram with the words WE WANT YOUR BLOOD written in black on a red background. The caption read:

On behalf of artist Santiago Sierra, we are looking for people to take part in Union Flag: a new artwork that will see the Union Jack immersed in the blood of its colonised territories at Dark Mofo 2021.

Expressions of interest are now open to First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire at some point in history, who reside in Australia. Participants will be invited to donate a small amount of blood to the artwork, facilitated by a medical professional before the festival. Register now via link in bio.

The post, which included a link to the website, states in bold, black letters:

Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will immerse the Union Jack in the blood of its colonised territories. The blood will be volunteered by First Nations peoples from places claimed by the British Empire throughout history, including lutruwita / Tasmania.

To call on the blood of First Nations peoples is not dark and edgy. It is an act of colonial violence and exploitation. There is nothing radical in taking the blood of First Nations people and using their bodies to make art and money. If we consider that the bodies of First Nations peoples have been sites of resistance and politics throughout their ongoing fight against colonial forces, then this work is a negation of that. It is an exploitative act designed to amp up the profile of the festival, publicise the artist and his work and ultimately make money.

Many of us aren’t ‘offended’ by radical acts of political art, bodies, excrement, blood, corrupting flags and the like. In this case however it is the act of colonial exploitation that disturbs me. So much blood has and is spilled as part of the ongoing colonial project in this country called Australia. The announcement of this artwork demands that First Nations people not only ‘volunteer’ to donate their blood, but implicitly demands they work to once again defend their right to not be exploited by the colonial institution of art. Imagine if Dark Mofo had commissioned and given a platform to First Nations artists to create works of truth-telling, telling their story of bloodshed, war and colonial impact.

But they wouldn’t I guess. David Walsh, his cohort and the various business entities which flow from his wealth are steeped in the capitalist main frame of the institutionalised art world. His collection at Mona and his festival are not based on his radical politics or an ideology of collective care like some of us may hope.  I imagine Walsh right now sitting like some spoilt little white king of the colony overlooking his playpen, watching First Nations peoples, artists, critics and the caring public scramble as they try to make sense of a ‘senseless’ work. 

Did we forget that Walsh is an entrepreneur, a businessman, a gambler? He likes money and he likes attention. He has called Mona his ‘hotted-up Torana’ (1). His museum, his festival are HIS plaything, his hot rod and he’s out taking it for fast spin up the highway right now.  Walsh, Sierra and curator Leigh Carmichael clearly feel entitled to spill the blood of First Nations peoples for their purposes. It appears as a great stunt to draw attention to themselves and their festival and to ultimately make some cash. Did we ever really think money and prestige wasn’t the primary driver behind Mona and Dark Mofo?

I would like note that I am not an Indigenous Australian and write this in support of Indigenous Australians who have made public complaints about this work. I further pay my respects to the sacred and sovereign lands of the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the Kulin Nations where I work today. I acknowledge that the sovereignty of these lands has never been ceded and respectfully acknowledge their elder’s past, present and future. 

  1. Gabriella, C 2020 ‘MONA founder David Walsh says the museum is ‘my hotted-up Torana’’, Australian Financial Review (27 Nov 2020)

( … )

/ hollow charcoaled body sleeps / waking only to hindu mantras of peace / black rivers drain out eyelids / toes upright and cold / only i am not there / i am here /


Alway Was Always Will Be

‘I live, create and work on the sacred and sovereign lands of the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the Kulin Nations, and respectfully acknowledge the elder’s past, present and future becoming. I acknowledge that the sovereignty of these lands has never been ceded and the deep disrespect and brutality with which my ancestors illegally occupied the land of the Gunai Kurnai peoples on which I was born. I acknowledge that my sense of place and belonging is built on the struggle of dispossessed Aboriginal people and that I benefit from this as an occupier. I acknowledge and apologise for the continuing acts of colonial power, racism and violence which disregard the transgenerational trauma and pain of dispossession for Aboriginal people. I further acknowledge the rightful and Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors  of all the lands and waters across Australia which i travel. I commit to being open and humble and always respecting the knowledge and wisdom of the First Peoples of this land. Always was and always will be Aboriginal land.’

This acknowledgement is a work in progress for me. It was inspired by the generous conversations and musings with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at the recent AAANZ conference. I now look to reflect on my position as an occupier of this place called ‘Australia’ in my art, writing and creative practice and this is a step in that process. 

Glittering Feminist Threads

I recently had the pleasure of working with Casey Jenkins suturing her body for her art work: Broken and re-made, time stretches across my lives and my thighs piercing me with splendour. The video work she produced was part of the Pockmark Project produced by Liv_id. Casey’s work had an element of gentle beauty to it that I had not had the opportunity to experience for some time.

We spent a gentle morning of skin sewing in her home.The morning brought to mind thoughts of ‘women’s’ intimate or domestic space as a site of political contestation. Whilst we did not engage in a grandiose display of body modification, those moments of quietly sewing Casey’s body still occupied a space of resistance for me. Tracing the stretch marks on her hips and thighs reminded of me of growth and retraction, the movement of life lived in skin. It felt in such contrast to some of the more ‘violent’ or ‘forceful’ acts of piercing, cutting or ‘harming’ the body that I have been a part of. Pushing metal through skin is not always easy. The body is resilient and tough, it resists. But having enjoyed the peace found whilst gently stitching my own skin in performance I felt honoured to be able to share this peaceful action with another artist. A lot is said without words when we trust each other with our bodies. I also reflectively acknowledged that it was a moment of privilege that we could sit safely in her home and ritually embroidered her skin – such safety is not a privilege everyone has. Thanks so much to Casey for having me help her with this work, it was a beautiful.

The video work Casey produced for the Pockmark Project was showcased on selected tuk-tuk’s in Bangkok, Thailand and images of the work can be viewed on the Liv-id site via this link. More of Casey’s work can be found via this link.

Thoughts on Empty Ocean and Exhibit A by Mike Parr

Empty Ocean and Exhibit A  (Dark Mofo, Bruny Island and Detached Gallery)

Excited to be getting on a ferry at 1am to make the trip to Bruny Island, I was rugged up and already tired. The trip through the water with the full moon in the sky, and the cold arctic wind winding its way onto the deck, seemed a perfect way to be transported to Mike Parr’s latest performance work Empty Ocean. On arrival we were ushered off the ferry, asked to not speak, and walked with torches to a paddock close to the Island’s shoreline. Around 30 chairs made a square in the landscape like an empty auditorium, and we were instructed to stand around creating a three-sided square held in shape by a rope on the ground. We waited, wondering what would happen and when. After a short interlude, Mike Parr’s voice could be heard in the distance as he repeated the numbers 1,2,3,4 through a megaphone, reminiscent of ground troops in one of the old world wars, or maybe prisoners walking home to their quarters. If I turned around I could see a long group of people, wearing blue vertical striped pyjamas with navy dressing gowns, walking the same path we had, their torches facing down. The seats that were in the middle of the spectators were for them, with Parr, in everyday clothes of pants and a jacket, standing to the side. Parr’s pyjama clad volunteers, each had two stones, which,once sitting they started tapping together. This continued for about 90 minutes.

From the beginning we were part of the mise-en-scene. Our silence as we walked in a human line lit by torches. Our standing to attention in a 3 sided square as we waited eagerly for Par to arrive. As the clicking sounds of rocks set in, the expectant energy shifted to a slow realisaton that this was possibly the totality of the performance. It was cold and I lay down to relieve my aching back. I fell asleep for a bit. Many others took to lying on the ground, and whether sleeping or in a meditative state, shivering or cuddling a loved one for warmth, the giant moon above us, the undulating landscape around us and the shoreline close by, opened the empty ocean to our consciousness. The image was quite moving and surreal. The instruction not to talk was a godsend. The quietness was heaven.

In the harshness of the Island’s coastal elements this was a gentle work. I appreciated being forced to engage with the extremities around me. Becoming cold and tired made simple the need to surrender to the situation whilst the action occurred. This was perhaps an action of endurance for both performer and spectator. The cold serving to focus the senses ensuring the only choice was to submit and absorb the beautiful moon, the stillness of the scene and the sound of rocks clacking. Me, I like being pushed into the elements and feeling the intensity of nature gnaw at my body. I heard later that other people were not so impressed by this forced endurance spectating, but then performance art isn’t about making people comfortable or happy. Leave comfort and happy consumption for the objects one can buy in the Mona gift store.

I must admit the work was not what I expected, and others seemed confused at how it played out. I am familiar with Parr’s works where his own body is acted upon, often violently, whilst his spectators act as voluntary witnesses. This work kept us ‘captive’, whilst a group of people over 55 years old, sat rhythmically clinking rocks in a paddock. When I unintentionally ran into Parr on the street the next day we casually chatted about the work. He said the age of his volunteers was important to him. His generation were born on the back of WWII and that was the global crisis that shaped them. Now however, young people are facing different forms of crisis such as, climate change, rampant consumerism, and a whole new way of engaging in war. His war references in Empty Ocean were evident to me; the megaphone voice of 1,2,3,4 creating a marching troupe, the vertical striped penal like pajamas, and the audience standing to attention in the beginning but slowly fading onto the ground like soldiers in a field.

I didn’t realise until speaking with Parr the age of the performance volunteers which led me to ponder about those people clinking their rocks, who may not live to see the breaking point of current global crises, which they are part of creating. Members of their generation hold positions of power politically. Members of their generation own assets and have equity. Their generation has made, and continues to make policies that ignore the environment and compounds the complexities of the global security situation. Their drive for wealth and material comfort is leaving our oceans, our rivers, our forests and our farmlands devastated. Of course we, the younger generation are also playing a part in these disasters, but these people are our elders and our role models. Like they followed the 1,2,3,4 and marched to war in the 1940s, so we follow them into perhaps, an empty ocean.

Parr also staged an installation/exhibition Exhibit A in the city of Hobart at Detached Gallery. It was simple in form, and carried on a theme from many his works – urine in buckets. Literally rows of steel buckets of urine were arranged in the gallery similar in form to the rows of seats in the paddock on Bruny Island. The smell of the ammonia from the stale urine was overwhelming. It’s a smell that takes me back to my grandfather’s nursing home where he saw out his last days in striped pyjamas. When considered as a whole, these two separate yet linked art actions/works, Exhibit A and Empty Ocean, have shared associations; the smell of the urine in the gallery, tiny oceans of toxic human waste in each bucket, and the performers being over 55 years of age and wearing pyjamas as if they’d escaped the nursing home. The vulnerability of the old people in a freezing cold field perhaps speaks to the vulnerability of old people as they near the end, which may well be in a urine scented nursing home. Surely this is a time when they look back and see the results of their lives both individually, socially and globally. Ageing seems to be an issue here.

Similarly Asylum, created last year for Dark Mofo in the Willow Court Asylum, New Norfolk, spoke to Parr’s position as an ageing artist. In Asylum he wore the pyjamas, shuffled around the asylum making drawings and had a room with a urine bucket. These performative works take a step away from his early acts of self-aggression and severe body actions. Parr’s own role as an artist in Empty Ocean has him standing in the background, warm and safe, observing. Perhaps as he heads further into his seventies the ocean feels closer, the environment more precious, and his vulnerability present and real. I found Empty Ocean to be quite a profound work, and it has continued to speak to me well after the event. This is what I want art to do; hang around in my mind and body, remind me of what I experienced at random intervals, and encourage me to think about the world I live in and my place in it.