Nell by Beatrice Gralton

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

When AC/DC released their classic song Let There Be Rock in 1977, Nell was just two years old. Born and raised in Maitland, New South Wales, she recalls a place of ‘hard work, rough edges and religious repression’,(1) ripe for the straight‑talking, sexist and celebratory anthems of rock ‘n’ roll music. There is no other Australian artist who has shaped their visual language through the lens of rock ‘n’ roll quite like Nell; an intersection of the sacred and profane, life and death, joy and despair, belonging and isolation.

The lived experience of objects new and old shape Nell’s oeuvre. It is a certain ‘thing power’ that attracts her to an object—the energy or dignity inherent in something that ‘provokes poetry or inspires fear’.(2) In Let There Be Robe 2012, the walls of the installation become a congregation of crosses crudely fabricated from paintbrushes, chopsticks, pencils, rulers, drumsticks and palette knives—the everyday work objects that populate the studio. Some of these items are the artist’s own, others are sourced from friends, musicians, found in op‑shops or collected through eBay. Many of the crosses are engraved NELL or adorned with keepsakes and talismans, including things frequently incorporated in the artist’s work such as feathers and blowflies in resin.

At the centre of the installation, a headless mannequin stands with arms outstretched in the pose of Christ the Redeemer. This figure is draped in a Zen Buddhist robe, which has been tenderly adorned with hand‑stitched patches cut from AC/DC t‑shirts, Tibetan mala prayer beads and band badges. These t‑shirts belong to a back‑catalogue of merchandise and are the relics of attendance and belonging, a testament to the longevity of the band itself. Over the years Nell has seen AC/DC in concert three times, an experience she recalls as ‘tribal, primal and spectacular’.(3) In a humorous twist the original AC/DC film clip for Let There Be Rock was filmed in a deconsecrated church in Sydney’s Surry Hills and features former frontman Bon Scott singing from the pulpit in priestly robes, his band below writhing and thrashing, dressed as altar boys.

Perhaps the most powerful objects in Let There Be Robe are the ragged pair of red Converse All Stars located at the base of the mannequin. Like Dorothy’s red‑sequinned slippers from The Wizard of Oz, these beat‑up sneakers symbolise nothing short of revolution; a radical transcendence of the artist through time and space. Purchased by Nell when she was 16 (with money saved from working a summer job at a beachside carnival at The Entrance) these All Stars marched the artist from Maitland to Sydney in 1993 to study art, experience live music and become an integral part of a community; a tribe across painting, performance, music, fashion, food, sculpture, glass and ceramics that reflects Nell’s spiritual belief that everything is connected.

(1) Nell in conversation with Beatrice Gralton, 5 December 2019.

(2) Jane Bennett, ‘The force of things: Steps towards an ecology of matter’, in Political Theory, vol 32, no 3, June 2004, p350.

(3) Nell in conversation with Beatrice Gralton, 5 December 2019.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Gralton, Beatrice. "Nell" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 270–271.

BEATRICE GRALTON is Head Curator Visual Art, Carriageworks, Sydney

Nell appears in