Claire Lambe was born in the United Kingdom, studied at Goldsmiths College, London, and has lived and worked in Melbourne since the 1990s. Her playful work gently critiques conventional understandings of gender and sexual normality. Georgia spoke to Claire about her current installation for Melbourne Now.
Your installation for Melbourne Now, Shhh, men at work is a combination of previous sculptures (Candy Barr, Yakety Sax and Sisterhood) together with new works. Does this particular display mark a turning point in the series’ evolution?
With each new body of work, you process a set of problems, as soon as you have resolved that problem, you lose interest and move on to the next. Rather than a turning point, I see this work as an ending point. As soon as the work is finished and leaves the studio it is over. Of course there is then anxiety of how it is seen, but you have already moved on.
For me this is the first time I have seen works from different exhibitions and years together in one space, and they all sit quite comfortably together, maybe too comfortably, now I want to add a problem, sully it up somehow. To answer the question again, no turning, just the end.
Tell us about your experiences of the experimental art, music and club scene in the UK during the 1970s and how this has influenced your practice.
Being there at a specific time of musical history is not as interesting as it is in retrospect, by that I mean, at the moment of experience you are trying to work it out for yourself. How can you understand what’s going on when you have never experienced it before?
I was only 13 when our babysitter took me to Wigan casino, god knows how I got in, girls can look very mature from an early age. I have always thought of that time, it was like watching the world from behind glass, a barrier or protection that allowed me to be there, but not totally. I think that’s how I felt about most of that period. You were trying to work it out as you were taking part.
I slipped from northern soul, beautiful whirling skirts, gliding, everyone moving in harmony together, to Joy Division playing in a boot boys venue, tense, jerking watching out for trouble. Then dancing to disco at the Millionaires club – so sleazy, voyeuristic on the lit pulsating floor, flirting and keeping back the wolves by looking down your nose and never making eye contact. Rafters, where all the New Wave London bands came up to try out. The clubs were a refuge and a creative space to escape.
Each scene had different codes, different uniforms and different rituals. Such a physical, visceral time, the sweat, pinching, slapping, groping, lots of drinks been thrown, never did like being spat on.
Alongside your experiences of the 70s, you also cite a recent trip to Europe as the source of inspiration for this work.
The chance to see all those historical works that you have grown up with and until now I have never given a second thought, being too interested it what you bring to the world rather than what has already gone before. The objects, buildings and art works have been there, not moving or changing, just sitting there all that time, it is only now I am really looking at them.
Your explorations of sexuality and the body tend to waver between aggression and playfulness, how do you reconcile the two?
Two different ways of expression, two learnt ways of behaviour, two strong points of memory with a history of layers in between.
These are two of my learnt responses. My memory groves of repetition, as if your memory is like your own personal vinyl record. An emotive question is asked, and before you know it the turntable lever is up, the needle settles slowly into the grove and you are responding automatically, even though you have learnt through time and experience that life is complex, nothing is black or white, you see the needle settle in the grove and out pops the emotive response learnt when you were a child.
The playfulness is also very aggressive; humour is often a way of defusing aggression or telling someone exactly what you think.
Humour in the north of England is both weapon and armour, you are judged if you don’t have either.