Jill Orr

1952 | Melbourne, Australia
Jill Orr — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Portrait of Jill Orr, Courtesy of the artist and This is No Fantasy

Australian performance artist.

Jill Orr’s performance art is poetic and political, and distinctive for its sustained focus on environmental concerns. Using the sensory impact of the performing body to draw out an affective response to ecological damage across the Australian landscape, she creates unforgettable images that anticipate a broader engagement with climate crisis in contemporary art in recent years. Originally trained as a sculptor, J. Orr was a key figure in the burgeoning Australian performance art movement of the 1970s. Over subsequent decades her unique process of staged performances has addressed a range of social, political and environmental issues. She studied secondary art and craft teaching before undertaking postgraduate research in fine arts (RMIT University, Melbourne, 1994, PhD Monash, Melbourne, 2012).

Works such as Bleeding Trees (1979) initiated J. Orr’s process of staging physically demanding performance within the Australian landscape. Her contorted body was embedded in the earth or strung from trees at various sites across regional Victoria, in dialogue with, but also as a proxy for, trees broken and damaged by human neglect and interference. Rather than a direct critique of the representation of women in art history, J. Orr’s images harness the vulnerability of the naked body as a psychic extension of the violence enacted on and in the Australian environment. She has described this use of the body in the landscape as an “emotional barometer”, a way to communicate the emotional impact of environmental destruction through her own physicality. Her works are “performances for the camera” – site specific works conceived as images. The images of Bleeding Trees, for example, were projected through a live performance at the 3rd Biennale of Sydney in 1979. Presented as complete artworks, or projected in live performances, these images double J. Orr’s body across time and space. Both live works and photographs are carefully staged performances that are storyboarded and highly constructed, to recreate what she has called her “imagined images”.

J. Orr’s performances often deploy symbolism through costume and props. In Southern Cross to bear and behold (2009), she dressed in 19th-century garb to traverse a salt lake on the traditional lands of Djurid Balug people of the Wotjobaluk Tribe. Her “missionary protagonist” carried a cross that burst into flame against the field of white salt, an apocalyptic vision of an Australian present scarred by its past, and a reference to the earlier Walking on Planet Earth (1989) where J. Orr in colonial dress holds aloft a burning umbrella. The repetition over time in her practice of this futile action draws an analogy between European colonialism and climate crisis. The artist’s choice of highly symbolic materials such as fire, ice, ash, earth and water, places the body constantly at the brink of destruction and danger but also of transformation. In Antipodean Epic (2015-2016) the human body has become three new posthuman creatures, each costumed in seed pods to become a living embodiment of anxieties over food scarcity and biodiversity. Rather than looking at the consequences of environmental damage, this work imagines what the future of our relationship to land could be.

J. Orr’s work is in major collections such as the National Gallery of Australia. She has been invited to present live works at events such as the inaugural Venice International Performance Art Week, Italy (2012) and the Bipolar Performance Art Meeting in Sopot, Poland (2014).

Genevieve Thornton & Dre Caroline Wallace

A notice produced as part of the TEAM international academic network: Teaching, E-learning, Agency and Mentoring

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