How creator Lin van Hek makes it matter
I have no idea how I am perceived. I do not name myself. Others will always take on that responsibility. I will jump in and talk a little about influences, which are often as important as training.
The grandfather in our extensive family gave me an old brown folder in my youth. He told me that this would save me one day from hardship. He had been a judge in Nazi Germany and had escaped with nothing but a small suitcase and this folder sewn into the lining of his coat.
Inside the folder were original lithographs of Kathe Kollvitz who turned out to be one of the most important German artists of the 20th Century. I had no idea of their value but was tremendously influenced by the power of these works. I eventually sold the entire folder for two thousand pounds at a time when I thought hardship was upon me, not realising that they were priceless.
My father painted, he had joined the Air Force, a twenty-two year old lusty boy and came home after being a POW, suffering with tuberculosis. He lost a lung and a wife. He was given Last Rites at age twenty-five but managed another twenty-five years before he finally succumbed. He was a fine draughtsman. Precision and accuracy were his thing. And although I rebelled against his guidance, I nevertheless learned techniques that enabled me to work for architects and in advertising.
Dad didn’t live with us but he took me to the rabbit warren of studios that existed then in the city, most memorably in Collins St. The first exhibition I remember was Joy Hester whose drawings were pinned to the wall. Joy and Gray Smith sat at a little square table smoking. My father asked how much – “six pounds each”. I was about ten. It seemed a good sum for a drawing. I liked them. They did not follow my father’s directive of “colour between the lines”. My childish thoughts were, “I can do that”. And I told the artist and she laughed and said, “I’m sure you can.” Mirka Mora was there making her coffee in a little pot. She wore red harem pants. They made her bottom look very big, I was not used to bohemia, my own mother was, and remained, 40s couture.
All the women liked my father. He was bone-thin with violet eyes and sooty lashes. His friends were photographers, Gordon DeLisle, who had been in the Airforce with him. We drank coffee with Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot and other photographers of that time. At sixteen, I often posed for Gordon DeLisle, at Montsalvat, in the studios there, and was very interested in the paintings.
One day, I was posing at Clift Pugh’s place and he asked me could I stay the whole day, and I told him that I had an exam at art school and had to complete fifteen more drawings that very afternoon. He told me, “just help yourself to that pile of my drawings in the corner. They’ll never know the difference.”
I went to art school, in Melbourne, and my teacher told me never take lessons from an artist whose works you would not buy. Since he had already painted a gruesome portrait of me, which is now in my son’s shed, I lost interest in his teachings.
Later, I went to art school, in Avignon, France, that had a core group of Chagall and Matisse advocates and a marvellous group of Futurists and Post-Modernists. I was categorised as a ‘spiritual essentialist’ because I favoured Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele. All artworks I did at that school were chronicled as ‘The Complete Oeuvre of Lin van Hek’ regardless whether they were paintings, performances, poems or writings.
My greatest influence, back then, was a Flemish artist, Dees de Bruyne, both as an artist and a life force. I went on painting expeditions with him and his wife and children. He was unstoppable, drew like Rembrandt, acted as his own agent, bartered everything with an exchange of drawings or paintings. He kept his drugs at a brothel on the highway to Amsterdam. He tended to follow the old tradition of drawing the girls at work. His biggest collector was the head of the Vice Squad. He drew his wife and his children every morning then went on the road selling in the afternoon. He traded petrol for a couple of drawings, house rent, food, holidays. Direct exchanges. He is dead now and there are many drawings out there of his wife and me naked at table. He also sold my work whenever a possibility arose. He was amazingly generous and shared his customers without concern. He believed that the world was populated with people who would buy his work and he was never proved wrong. He never amassed work during the time I knew him for exhibitions. He sold them as they were completed. To a degree, I picked that habit up from him.
During the 70s, I gradually began to write a lot more and was encouraged by the fact that I won a couple of competitions and, being a shallow person, I was impressed by their cash prizes.
Tell me about the house you built by hand. It’s a rare and interesting pursuit. What motivated you to do it?
My interest in hand-made house began with my first husband. We traveled around Australia looking at old buildings and intended to forge this interest into our future. Later, after he died, when I was in Southern India, working for a man who had inherited a vast piece of that province, I was delegated a job of redesigning and relocating the village hospital. It was horrific, it had no water, all the patients were herded together, amputees, infectious diseases, mental patients, etc. Mortality rates were high. It served no food; water was carried in tin urns. I used local builders and materials. I threw myself into this project with gusto. I chose a clean new site covered in jackfruit trees.
First and foremost, I had to have a well dug. Well diggers were rare and exalted and I traveled by ox-cart to find one, who came with his water stick to locate a place where water existed underground. He would not speak to me directly because I was a young woman; only old mamas got respect in Southern India in those days. The well digging is a story unto itself, but suffice to say, three months later, with much chanting and worship, we had a deep beautiful well, the centre and mainstay of the new hospital.
Building began and was entirely of bamboo and timbers from the site fortified with mud bricks. Four distinct wings, infectious diseases distant from the others, surgery and beds for recovery. Women’s wards, all things female, including abandoned babies and children. Last, but not least, the loony bin, not to trivialise mental illness, but things got very basic down there in the jungle. The building was completed by participation of the entire village, the plumbing being my special interest. I had tin basins hand-forged and taps sent from Trivandrum. Each ward had four basins with taps coming directly from the well. Outside in a well-organised courtyard, was a line of fifteen small fire holes set in local stone. Each day, giant cauldrons of water were set to boil for the cleaning of everything hospital. Floors, walls, instruments and patients were scoured. Basic food was served to patients and their relatives – tea, rice and jackfruit curry. Gradually all patients were shifted into the new hospital from the old, which I wanted to burn down, but overnight, it disappeared, the villagers helping themselves to all components. It was a recycling process of some magnitude.
After this experience, I was hooked on the process and later, when I lived in Belgium, with the Gevaret family, who lived in a forest in St Martens Latem, and championed macrobiotic food and hand-crafted architecture as human ecology, I saw how well this lifestyle could work and this aristocratic family had been at it, for over a century.
When I was blessed to find a paradisiacal place of my own, the first thing I did was make a house from river rock with my children, which gave them a happy childhood with a satisfied mother. I must say that any man that passed by, during that time, told me, ‘it will never last.’ Now forty-six years later, it is a strong as ever, with a few mends along the way, and a tree falling and demolishing the back wall.
Tell me about ‘Intimacy’, the song you and Joe wrote for the film Terminator?
This came during a heightened wave of creativity between not only Joe and me, but also a group of musicians, dancers and sound technicians. The filmmaker, Chris Lofven, who made the film clip, was also an integral part of the process. It was one of those rare moments when a group came together and it all jelled. It was one of the first Australian-based electronic music tracks. The dancers all came to our house and there were several from the Australian Ballet. Finally, Budd Carr, who was knocked out by all of it, chose it as a pivotal moment in the film. It’s the nearest I’ve come to experiencing cult following. I still get emails from Brits who have ‘Intimacy’ parties and play the HD film and dance all night.
Is it important to be a ‘difficult woman’?
‘Difficult Women’ is a term used by the patriarchal system to denigrate women. It was used during the Inquisition as a term used to label women as witches – women who refused to conform to the teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church. These included wise women, healers, pagan women, as well as women who were property owners and possessed wealth that could be seized. Even today in the workplace, hearing yourself called ‘a difficult woman’ might well mean the end of your employment.
Can Art change the world and should it?
It can change the perceptions of the world and it definitely can be a healing force both personally and politically. It is with good reason that all known dictators have destroyed Art and killed or imprisoned artists, as a must on their lists of actions taken to control the masses.
I read that the character Lillian, from Helen Garner’s book, Monkey Grip is based on you. How did it make you feel to be represented as a character in the novel?
In following the threads stimulated by your question, I got stuck on the memory of a distant young day.
I had moved to a town in the Dandenongs called Cockatoo. I was strapping my youngest into his pushchair, to walk the four miles to the Cockatoo school to pick up my other three children. A knock on the door, opened to a curly-headed bright-eyed man who immediately announced his intention.
“Hi. I’m B. Helen told me to never be touched by you… or I would be destroyed. Here I am.”
I laughed but I was irritated. I had no time for this stupidity. Of course, when I saw Helen next, she wore that golly-gosh innocent expression that said butter would not melt in her mouth.
After jotting this memory down, I passed a mirror and saw myself there, a little old lady. I remember what John Lennon told us, ‘Ah, we love to look through our scrapbooks of madness.’
My relationship with this author goes back to the early 60s. It was a different world then. We went to parties at Germaine Greer’s loft and Rosemary Ryan hosted gatherings for visiting rock stars like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Helen was a friend of my husband, the architect, Gerald Anthony Hartwig, who was very fond of her. When he died, as a young man, she wrote me a touching letter, the first of many over the years. I retain affection for her from those days.
After I came home, after years working in Europe, I was having dinner at Betty Burstall’s – the woman who began La Mama Theatre. Her husband Tim asked me if ‘I had read that piss-awful novel by Helen Garner, published by that incestuous little mob at ‘McPhee and Gribble’. I had not.
As for being used in any part of this work, namely the character, Lillian, I thank and forgive Helen if this in fact true, I wasn’t impacted at all except that many a friend of Helen’s beat a hurried path to my door on the back of her mythologising of me. Eventually, I lived in the bush, no electricity, in a vise of creek river, sky and children. I could always use extra labor for moving all those rocks around for my hand-made house. We were all young nincompoops and did our fair share of making the sexual revolution pleasurable. After all, it was overlaid with a certain ‘Jules et Jim’ sentimentality. Not me, I had fantasies of Gertrude and Alice in the south of France. Soleri building his futuristic hand-made city. I could not get far enough away from the Carlton menagerie. I do thank them all for their foray into my world; sometimes they brought a bag of real coffee and stayed long enough to swim in the river. Usually they went on their way looking brown and refreshed from their days down the wallaby track. They went to bed exhausted from their labours and probably forty years on have good memories of those times, as I do.
Alas, sometimes the brute physical world intervened with their daydreams and messed with their expectations.
As for Helen, she does not enter into the Parthenon of my favourite authors, but I am reminded of a quote of Virginia Woolf, talking about the habits of women, historically:
‘When women speak of women, they should have something very unpleasant up their sleeve… a paper read by women to women should end with something particularly disagreeable.’
I hope I have avoided this.
You’ve worked with your partner, Joe Dolce, for decades. What’s the key to managing a good working relationship with your partner?
For Joe and I, where there is a predominant amount of laughter, we state our differences and our disagreements, and then we get on with it. Sometimes it might linger for a few days, but usually we either come to a standstill, or compromise, or the one who’s arguing particularly well that day usually gets their way.
I’m currently reading the biography of Camille Claudel, who was known for years only as Rodin’s lover, until recently when her work was recognised in its own right. Is this kind of overshadowing, by your male partner, something you think about and has it ever happened in media interviews, etc., and how did you deal with it?
There is no doubt that Rodin did all he could to suppress the works of Camille Claudel once she left his studio. She did, however, have people of substance, like Debussy, saying that she was the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo who could carve marble directly. This was said in her time and it probably really irritated the shit out of Rodin.
Luckily, for me, I have usually worked in isolation, never relying on male accreditation for the continuance of my work, or for financial backing.
In media interviews, I have experienced male shenanigans but I am a debater by nature and I use it to my advantage, it makes for a feisty, interesting interview, and I always take care to keep it good natured so that these poor bastards don’t lose face.
During the writing of Difficult Women performances, I was intellectually and emotionally engaged to an enormous degree. It was the research, you see, the sheer mountain of source material that I was occupied with. I applied such cross-referencing that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I lived in the shadow of Camille Claudel, Viv Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Louisa Lawson, Amelia Earhart, Sonja Tolstoi, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Emily Dickinson, Tina Modotti, Sylvia Plath, and all the rest. For fifteen years, I applied this knowledge to our creation and Joe was equally engaged in this venture. Lecturers sent their literature students to add to their theses and I spent hours talking to enthusiasts. I met a nurse who had tended Frida and Diego. She gave me a small guitar brooch that had been given to her by Frida. I was given a pair of Katherine Mansfield’s shoes by Mietta O’Donnell, who ran Mietta’s, a place that championed Difficult Women, most memorably, a performance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, A Yellow Wallpaper, executed in the sidebar, the last ten minutes completely naked, due to my own frenzy, as I tore the hated and imaginary yellow wallpaper from the walls.
Of all my pursuits, the most satisfying and rewarding is singing. I grew up in an unsteady violent environment in a country hotel with my grandmother, mother and many aunties. The saving grace of my childhood was that every day in that pub animal pre-television era, there existed the consistent presence of music. Every afternoon, the piano lid was opened, the instruments came out of their cases and people sang in all the cadences of joy and pain that were contained in that community. My grandmother had a beautiful dark contralto voice. My grandfather was a virtuoso on anything with strings. My mother had a gift for savage mimicry which usually involved standing on the piano in her father’s dress suit. I had a natural desire to sing louder and higher than anyone in the room. After these sessions, for a brief few hours, a much-needed feeling of goodwill and wellbeing prevailed. I relive this childhood euphoria when I sing with Joe.