Philippa Cullen by Diana Baker Smith
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
In a photograph taken during a rehearsal for Homage to Theremin II 1972, we see Philippa Cullen crouched on a small, circular stage. She is shown performing in an experimental dance work set to the sound of four theremins. It was one of a number of works Cullen presented with these electronic musical instruments, starting with Electronic aspects 1970, and culminating with Homage to Theremin III 1973. Two years later she died, aged 25.
During her lifetime, Cullen was driven by the desire to make visible that which is invisible. ‘My peculiar link with this movement’, she wrote, ‘is my interest in the unseen vibrations of the human body … The energy released can be converted into sound.’(1) In the photograph, Cullen is captured in a moment of play, improvising choreographic gestures to activate the haunting tune of the theremin. Behind her, there are a number of wire loop aerials and directional photo‑electric cells. Extending the instrument’s interactive capabilities, these strange set pieces were designed to detect the movement of the dancer and transform it into sound.
Of course, we can neither hear nor see the full picture. Cullen’s feet might be generating a low hum as she balances on the steel plate of the stage. She may have extended her arms, controlling the pitch to rise with a sudden intensity. Or maybe she danced off stage through the wire loop aerials.
This photograph of Cullen also appears in the program of one of her last performances, 24 hour concert 1974. Staged across several sites in Sydney, including Hogarth Galleries, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Domain, the event included more than 30 artists, dancers and musicians. Over a 24‑hour period, Cullen led a series of choreographic actions blurring the boundaries between dance and life, performance and process, artwork and audience.
However, it would seem the 24 hour concert took place on the day daylight saving began, meaning that the event ran for 23 hours, rather than 24. Although this is not mentioned in any of the surviving documentation, one of Cullen’s collaborators Greg Schiemer remembered this detail in an interview four decades later.(2)
What remains of Cullen’s work is some grainy video footage, black‑and‑white photographs and a few archival boxes. She is remembered fondly by her contemporaries as a leading artist of the period, and her work has been written about and restored by Stephen Jones, who knew Cullen and documented 24 hour concert. However, those memories have translated only sporadically into scholarship on Australian art, and they have not found her a place in any major art institutions across the country. Since her death in 1975, Cullen’s legacy has become as ephemeral as folklore, reliant on oral histories and a handful of old photographs and video tapes.
(1) Philippa Cullen, ‘Towards a philosophy of dance’, Writings on Dance, no 4, 1989, pp 19–25.
(2) Greg Schiemer, email interview with Diana Baker Smith, 2019.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Baker Smith, Diana. "Philippa Cullen" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 90–891.
DIANA BAKER SMITH is an artist and academic at UNSW Art & Design, Sydney.