Kate Murphy: Probable Portraits

It’s portraiture but with a twist. ‘Probable Portraits’ at the Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) is a survey exhibition of video portraits by Sydney-based artist Kate Murphy that brings together major works from the last 14 years of Murphy’s career. Presented across two gallery spaces, the exhibition features six video installations; Yia Yia’s song (2010) in one space, and Britney Love (2000, 2007), Cry me a future (Dublin) (2006) and Assembly (2009) in the other.

Murphy is well known for her unique practice of documentary filmmaking to create complex single and multi-screen video installations to render her portraits’ sitters. Her widely varying subjects – from school children and aspiring pop stars to her own mother and family members – are vehicles for her exploration of themes such as migration, childhood, motherhood and religious faith. Variously funny and deeply moving, Murphy’s appropriation of the conventions of portraiture, combined with interviews, cinematography and sound design has produced highly complex works that push the boundaries of art making, and traditional portraiture.

“I’ve always been interested in the codes and conventions that exist within portraiture and documentary practices,” Murphy says. “Initially, I explored these through photography, which I majored in at art school, but it wasn’t until my final year work, Prayers of a Mother… what excited me the most was not just video as a medium to capture my subject, but the ability to transform the gallery space by the way the work is installed which becomes another layer of communication with the audience.”

A suite of videos, Prayers of a Mother is a highly emotive portrait of Murphy’s family comprised of silent, individual portraits of family members – with the exception of Murphy’s mother who speaks of the prayers she offers for her children. The figures wordlessly respond to her sentiments, with a plethora of reactions and expressions ranging from happiness to sadness, amusement to shock.

“In the 14 years spanning my practice, four of my works have touched on religious faith. These works were influenced by my experiences and a response to my upbringing – my heritage and my family. I did not set out to explore the Catholic faith and, from my investigation, many other themes besides religion are present in these works such as death and performance.” Murphy says.

Born to a Greek-Australian mother, Murphy often looks into her heritage, as is reflected in Yia Yia’s song, spanning the entirety of one gallery space. Murphy had worked with a sound composer and designer with Greek heritage who found a cassette tape of his grandmother recording herself in the 1970s, singing a lament for her children who left her to migrate to Australia. The installation is a combination of her song playing in the gallery space, her children speaking from Australia, and another screen of her children and relatives listening and reacting to her lament.

Curator Elise Routledge suggests that the universal themes found in Murphy’s work will appeal to the Shepparton audience, a town founded on a strong and continuous history of migration. “This is the biggest exhibition of video art that we have ever produced, so that is pretty significant for us…Kate’s work is very compelling on a number of levels, and will appeal to anyone who is a part of a family. There are very universal ideas.”

Shepparton Art Museum
13 September to 24 November, 2013

Assembly, 2009, digital video still, single channel digital video installation, silent, 8m 53s

Cry me a future (Dublin), 2006, digital video still, single channel digital video installation with sound, 12m

Courtesy the artist and BREENSPACE, Sydney