Enduring Déjà Vu: On Kate Murphy’s Lift
It’s difficult to imagine being stuck in a particular time in a particular place, acting out a mimetic tic or a memory loop over and over. Yet Kate Murphy succinctly evokes this experience in Lift, her response to observing people living with dementia.
Much of Murphy’s work uses portraiture as a kind of empathetic voyeurism into the lives of those close to her: the child she babysat; her mother’s daily prayers; her father’s incarceration in a nursing home. Her work always reveals something deeply personal, never far from memoir, but also universal. Excruciatingly beautiful and painful to watch, her installations demand that we respond with emotion, they search for affect, often conjuring a feeling of profound loss.
Murphy isn’t shy about tackling the big ideas that investigate the human condition. Her enduring concern with issues that are central to life and death has produced a body of work that acts as a visual time capsule for some of the most difficult ethical conundrums we face today.
Lift is Murphy’s testimony to the erosion of personal liberty in old age. Her scrutiny shifts between a poetic tribute to her subject and an objective inquiry into extension-of-life interventions. Watching Lift, it’s hard not to question whether extending one’s life against all odds is the morally correct thing to do.
A figure who is unmistakably aged, female, naked, but not exhibitionistic, is at the mercy of a machine. She is no longer an active social agent. She is both dependent on the machine and agitated by it. The machine enables her, it is her dancing partner, it takes the lead, dictates the moves, the dips, the choreography. She catches the sweep of her hand, a body memory perhaps? Her movement is balletic, yet she questions whether her limbs actually belong to her.
As with most of Murphy’s work, the actor plays against her performative status. Stripped of clothes, stripped of dignity, stripped of autonomy, the performer looks around as if searching for nursing staff, a family member, a friend, someone, something remotely human. We want to help her, touch her, but she is untouchable.
The locked-off camera evokes a conscious knowing, the audience is complicit, our vision is static, rendered dispassionate like the medical lens observing her. The digital screen mediates our experience of her subjectivity, the medium renders her symbolically immortal—watching her through the safety of projection allows us to escape the finitude of her physicality. It attenuates our anxiety, we are protected by the physical distanciation.
We are fascinated although nothing much happens. She is picked up. She is put down. As with the repetitive nature of dementia, we are played a similar sequence three times, the repetition, the replay, the mundanity is what fixates us.
Brighten up your day
Let the sun shine in
Murphy’s performances use voice as a vital component of each work. These words are traced back to a song she overheard a woman singing in the ward next to her father’s. The performer-patient recites this sing-song epitaph, a reworking of Georgie Fame’s song from 1964 (though tellingly the original ballad is brighten up ‘my’ day, not ‘your’–our patient denies her own subjectivity even further). She repeats these two lines over and over, underscored by an instrumental of the machine’s mechanical whirring at the beginning and end. Her voice evokes memory, retrieval, a whispery remnant down the line, a call to arms to a younger self.
We are transported to Breenspace, a third-floor gallery space via a lift—a symbolic double to the patient lifter. We enter and see the performer on the patient-lifter projected life-size in front of us. The installation space mirrors the patient’s experience, she is trapped by the machine in a dark, windowless room not dissimilar to the black box of the gallery space. Black boxes hide secrets, and we feel as if we have entered into a prohibited space, seeing something hidden. A shadowy, unflattering reality the patient’s family would not want to have access to. It is a site of dehumanisation. A place of mourning.
Lift can be viewed as a companion piece to several of Murphy’s other works. Consider Leaving Together (2005), a tribute to Murphy’s grandparents made when her grandfather was ninety and grandmother eighty-six. Dressed in winter coats and wearing matching backpacks, her grandparents wander around the home they still live in after seventy years together and record each other with a handheld camera. They pass the camera to one another and both lean in to count backwards, as if performing a defiant memory test. Leaving Together is a love poem, a living Will, a relic to a long life lived together that is on the cusp of ending. Lounge Therapy (2013) continues Murphy’s examination of ageing and aged care facilities and the fragility of selfdom within these spaces. Even though impassioned physical and emotional expression from the elderly is frowned upon in nursing homes, Murphy’s works give voice to them again.
Murphy doesn’t claim to be a didactic artist, but Lift exists as social criticism—the performer is vulnerable, she is denied her liberty through intervention of the machine. The work presents an existential conflict between love and liberty. The patient has signed over control of her mind and body and she will never get it back. She has gone down the rabbit hole. We live in a world where self-control is a widely shared cultural value. From toddlers wearing pull-ups to grannies in nappies, we’re told we mustn’t leak—physically or metaphorically—we must control our bodies at all cost. But technological and medical interventions such as patient lifters and dementia meds extend control and extend our life expectancy. What are the limits? Do diminished capacity and the loss of decision-making abilities really allow others to decide how people with dementia should live? Can compassion ever overrule social norms and medical pressures? Does keeping someone alive overtake our duty to let them die with dignity?
I’ve always enjoyed Murphy’s no-holds-barred attitude to her work. Whatever her content, she puts the audience on notice. It’s the uncomfortable questions her work provokes that stay with me as I press the down button and step inside the gallery lift.
Sinead Roarty is a Sydney-based writer