In the last ten years, a sad symmetry enveloped the lives of the photographic artists Rose Farrell (1949–2015) and her life partner and collaborator George Parkin (1949–2012). Rose was the first to be struck with cancer but gratefully survived for several years. In the meantime, however, George was also hit by the fatal disease and succumbed to it rapidly; then Rose, days after George’s death, discovered that her own malignancy had returned in a terminal form.
Rose would not have wanted to be spoken about for long without mentioning George. She was viscerally devoted to him, as he was to her. Their lives were about art and one another; and the project that they maintained together was equally profound and sustaining for both and only took its peculiar shape because it connected them. All their friends, it seems, were people who could appreciate their enthusiasm; because if they couldn’t understand the artistic project, they also couldn’t fathom the human relationship that kept them in beautiful humour and growth for so many good decades.
For all their indivisibility as a single artistic persona, Rose and George were very distinct characters. Of the two, Rose was definitely the more placid. Her energy in doing or saying anything was unusually level, without highs and lows, deliberate, as if moderated by much reflexion, a thoughtfulness cultivated with wisdom, collectedness, judgement and humour.
Rose Farrell & George Parkin Self Portrait – Swimming Caps 2003.
Rose trained in science and worked in scientific laboratories for most of her life. She seemed to be as naturally suited to science as she was to art, because her analytical gifts were exercised in both investigative domains, always probing the causes of phenomena and the agency of all the variables and influences: what does what, which circumstances explain which phenomena… and how might we subject our best hunch to a rigorous test?
No one knows, or needs to know, the division of labour between these two gifted artists who created some of the most memorable and searching images in the history of Australian photography. Both artists planned, executed and even acted in their works. But I always imagine Rose thinking deeply about the critical and historical context, scrutinizing the method of investigation, carefully evaluating the work of other artists and working out the several surrounding discourses with George, who also had amazing gifts of discernment.
Rose Farrell & George Parkin Unforeseen Circumstances Random Acts 2004-05.
To speak to Rose, you would never imagine that she had a strong theatrical side. She came across as more of an observer than a histrion; and yet she and George converted the lounge room of their tiny rented flat into a stage-set where many of the signal images were made, sometimes featuring Rose as actress. The results of the images pleased her greatly—as they should have—and she looked at them with a particularly wicked smile, as if contemplating the preposterous side of make-believe, which you need for staging an image of anything. That model-making facility of the mind, racing headlong to match ideas with a likeness, is always both ahead of reality and behind it, always a bit grotesque and cheeky. The figments and historical phantoms that Rose and George staged with the solitary audience of the camera were both robust and flimsy, grim and hilarious, full of gravity evoked by papier mâché, an institutionality based on whim.
Rose took art seriously and art discourse seriously. But she also never let it get to her head. As one of the leaders of the avant garde in Australian photography, she remained astonishingly modest, almost self-effacing. She had a fair idea when other artists were inspired or pretentious, either in their work or their manner; but she made sure that her superior powers of evaluation never caused her to become conceited. Her native curiosity prevented her from catching any pomposity that sometimes comes with leadership and success.
As an artist with a scientific cast of mind, Rose adored the rational, the cool evaluation of material and objective judgement. But she was also in touch with the unconscious. I remember one example where Rose revealed her intimacy with the inner world of wishes and the stories that only we as individuals tell to ourselves. One day in our garden shortly after George had died, Rose said in an unusual outburst of copious tears: ‘he just seemed to give up.’ For a moment, I thought that this utterance was strange and felt an urge to console her with what she knew better than I did. After all, she was painfully aware of how powerfully George clung onto life when he was dying and how only a coma prevented him from expressing optimism to the end. But the complaint that ‘he just seemed to give up’ was her unconscious talking, that wellspring of inner bitterness which she allowed, under the licence of grief, to rise to the surface. In the unconscious, there is no mediation of reason: the mind in that zone knows only passion; and for Rose’s innermost feeling, the love for George couldn’t countenance his departure. It was unthinkable because in the unconscious, George was an omnipotent companion and wouldn’t have needed ever to abandon her.
Rose was deeply in touch with the inner workings of our intelligence, the non-scientific dimension of the mind which is fantasy, illusion and conceit. It was presumably what attracted her to an extravagantly baroque kind of theatre, in spite of her natural shyness, her matter-of-factness, her calm directness and unwavering honesty. She knew that many truths are revealed in enigmas, as St Paul says, ‘through a glass darkly’. So she and George went about constructing enigmas that yield insight unavailable to the empirical gaze.
It is hard to detach the memory of Rose from George; and what was said of George’s relationship with Rose we can always apply to Rose’s relationship with George: the two had a reciprocal and complementary bond, the one depositing each creative intuition in the imagination of the other. Thinking artistically meant cultivating a mind beyond, a potential only reached through mutuality. Rose and George enjoyed a way of thinking through one another; in their partnership, each was autonomous but intimately related. Like George, Rose reminds us that exceptional artists are exceptional people.
– Robert Nelson, Monash University, and art critic for The Age.
Featured image: Rose Farrell & George Parkin Mountain Evergreens and Stone Deer 2009.