Taking cues from Madonna and Prince, Nell doesn’t use a surname. A pop star moniker suits the New South Wales-based artist, much of whose work is inspired by rock n’ roll. In the catalogue of her survey show at Shepparton Art Museum, she’s even styled it with an AC/DC lightning bolt.
The show includes works that combine their artist’s rocker attitude with her deep spiritualism. A practicing Buddhist, she loves tranquil meditation as much as she loves loud, uncompromising noise. It is not, she tells The Creators Project, as much of a paradox as you’d think.
“You make art about what's around you, and what you love. I love going to meditation retreats, and I love rocking out,” she says.
In her video work QUIET/LOUD, the artist sits atop an amplifier, peacefully meditating in a robe while rocker Bec Machine riffs, jumps and struts. “When you sit still, usually your mind is racing,” Nell says. “Whereas she's wholly engaged in an activity, and rocking out, so in a way she's actually more present. Yet symbolically, I look like I'm the still one.”
Growing up in the rural town of Maitland, music and religion were integral to Nell’s childhood. “My first ever aesthetic was going to church, and my second ever aesthetic was the boy with long hair walking down the street with an AC/DC shirt and black ripped jeans,” she explains. “And I think I'm still making work about the collision of those two worlds.”
Another work in the show is a reappropriation of the iconic 1975 music video for AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top that features an all-female band performing, accompanied by the 1975 clip’s original bag pipists, on top of a moving truck at Hobart’s MONA FOMA festival.
“They said they had more fun playing with us than AC/DC,” Nell says. “It was honestly the most fun I've ever had in my entire life. It was awesome.”
In a way, Nell can’t help but pay tribute to an Australian band that defined lives. They're an inherent part of who she is. “If you grow up in a regional area, it's just part of your DNA,” the artist says. “You don't even know if you like it or you don't like it, it's just part of the backdrop, it's in the psyche of who you are.”
“That film clip is one of the most viewed Australian music videos in history, and it only cost Countdown about $200 to make. It's an incredible bona fide piece of Australian culture.”
In another work, Let There Be Robe, Nell has constructed an AC/DC-themed Buddhist robe, surrounded by crucifixes made from drum sticks. As well as a nod to the artist’s own spirituality, it’s a testament to the religious fervour that surrounds the band’s music. “I find it quite interesting that the aesthetics of rock and roll are so similar to a lot of Christian iconography and symbolism, Nell says. “The cross, the gothic fonts, the rose and thorn, the skull. There's actually quite a lot of overlap.”
The most recent of the show’s installations, The Wake, takes up an entire room. The artist has constructed 41 eerily smiling spirit creatures from various materials, all facing in one direction and surrounding the viewer as they walk through the space. It took her two years to put together.
“The creatures range from the darkest kind of sadness and anger to the most sweet, light hearted feelings. All of the joy and sorrow of my whole life is contained in this work,” she says.
Some of that sorrow is very personal—after the death of her unborn child, making the artwork formed part of a grieving process. “I made the creatures have the same weight as a little baby so I could hold them in my arms,” she says. “And the title, The Wake, is about how we grieve and how every part of ourselves turns up in the grieving process—joy and sorrow.”
It’s that seamless mixing of contradictions which makes her work so affecting.
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