Jill Orr by Anne Marsh

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Jill Orr’s 1979 series Bleeding trees is unique in the history of Australian performance art. Writing about her approach Orr says:

When all is said and done the final act is collaborative, not unlike a film and theatre director. The photographic and video documentation is the artwork. This is where I believe I differ from most other performance artists who have not necessarily worked with the image in mind as the final art work.(1)

For Bleeding trees Orr collaborated with professional photographer Elizabeth Campbell, who, under the artist’s instruction, made 21 photographs which were projected during the performance of the work for the Biennale of Sydney in 1979. The images show a naked, female body hanging, buried and strung between trees or posed in the landscape in dramatic ways. This image shows Orr performing a back bend with her arms stretched out of frame and her head buried in the earth, surrounded by a soft red cap. The red gives emphasis and suggests the bleeding of the earth. Immediately the viewer makes the connection between the female body, a body that bleeds, and nature. Orr says her idea was to create an ‘environmental work where the body is used as an “emotional barometer” placed in empathy with the natural and unnatural life cycles of trees’.

Orr went on to create many provocative performance works that used the power of lens‑based media. Many artists believe documentation to be the poor cousin of the live action. An enormous amount of critical literature has engaged with what is now called ‘the liveness debates’, with some arguing that ‘you had to be there’ to experience the performance.(2) This has been hotly debated by a younger generation familiar with the remediation of experience through the lens. Orr was a pioneer in this respect as she presented rituals and shamanistic events through photographs and later videos that managed to convey the presence of the artist.

Works such as Walking on planet earth 1989, The sleep of reason produces monsters – Goya 2002, Southern cross to bear and behold 2007 and Antipodean epic 2015 are visual requiems to the barbarism imposed on the world by humankind. Other works such as Lunch with the birds 1979, She had long golden hair 1980, Marriage of the bride to art and Raising the spirits (both 1994) have concentrated on gender, often compelling the viewer to think beyond conventional binaries. All have entered galleries as striking images that can be experienced by the viewer after the event.

(1) All Jill Orr quotes from jillorr.com.au, accessed 1 November 2019.

(2) For an overview of the liveness debates see Anne Marsh, Performance ritual document, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2014, pp23–36.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Marsh, Anne. "Jill Orr" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 290–291.

ANNE MARSH is Professorial Research Fellow, Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne.

Jill Orr appears in

  • The Book

    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.