Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley by Victoria Perin

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

The artistic partnership of Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, established in 1983, has always been open to appropriative ‘collaborations’ from additional parties, in particular co‑opting the titles of films, novels and other artworks. An outstanding example of this practice, Fear eats the soul 2003 uses the bewitching title of West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf (internationally, Ali: fear eats the soul). By adopting Fassbinder’s title Burchill and McCamley intend to point at, and beyond, the original film. In one of their most telling statements, the artists wrote that:

While there is often an element of homage in the choices, the pieces aren’t primarily meant to invoke the original work. Titles are chosen because of the tenor and sentiment that they evoke and, in a way, our selection constitutes a new type of genealogy of art. The titles we choose have a hard poetic tenor, a tenor which is carried through in the materiality of the artworks. We aim to make our works highly condensed, both materially and conceptually.(1)

To achieve this ‘highly condensed’ appearance, Fear eats the soul fuses Fassbinder’s words with an elemental medium and a simple form: neon gas caught in the familiar way (in glass tubes for electronic charge) fashioned into the shape of a biblical snake and a doomed green apple.

Along with the cunning snake, the other characters drawn into this work are the absent Eve, for whom the apple is destined, and the couple Ali and Emmi who traverse societal norms in Fassbinder’s film by getting married despite language barriers and their differences in age, race, class and culture.

The two stories—the fall of Eve and the romance of Ali and Emmi—have common notes. Ali: fear eats the soul is a film about social shame that should be felt but isn’t (at least not initially). And Eve, we know, lacked all shame prior to the serpent’s intervention. All three characters have a soaring courage and an equal and opposite decline. ‘Fear eats the soul’ comes from Ali’s dialogue and is an encouragement for boldness. Yet, from the snake’s mouth, the line becomes a manipulative entreaty to reckless deeds.

Neon, with its hypnotic brilliance, is an immediate material. The danger of the snake and the forbidden apple, which appears to us as a ‘gigantic tattoo’, is an immediate allusion.(2) The phrase ‘fear eats the soul’ is burned into the mind of any viewer of Fassbinder’s masterpiece. Yet for all this immediacy, Burchill and McCamley’s work is curiously reserved. The elements are crystalline, yet the experience of the work is anything but. This neat, hard knot of poetic ambiguity is Burchill and McCamley’s defining ambition.

(1) Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, artists’ statement from exhibition roomsheet for Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley: All that rises must converge, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, August 2004, np.

(2) Justin Clemens, ‘Neon: A material conceptualism manifesto for Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley’, in Neon: Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, np.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Perin, Victoria. "Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 64–65.

VICTORIA PERIN is a PhD graduate researcher at the University of Melbourne.

Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley appear in