Primary page content

Lily Greenham archives show the Art of Living

2024, Lily Greenham: An Art of Living, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (curated by James Bulley, Andrew Walsh-Lister, Anja Casser & Alex Balgiu) Mar 8 – May 26, 2024  

A selection of archives from the Lily Greenham archives held in Goldsmiths Library’s Special Collections and Archives is on display as part of a compelling exhibition presenting the scale of this artist’s life’s work. In a series of exhibition tables photos, ephemera, letters and documents are laid out. Two huge tables installed in space opening at the base of the gallery stairs display visual art thoughts: one holds working colour tests and sketches relating to the ‘light box’ paintings hung nearby and the other spread with fistfuls of small computer drawings. These covered displays feel more like studio work surfaces, and staged as if the artist has just left the room with a gesture indicating that there’s a lot more where this comes from! While on the walls are framed, specially lit and installed paintings we can view Lily is a visual artist, but the space is full of sound work, recorded voices and electronic musicmaking follows the visitor up and down the stairs and through the individually staged rooms. Lily’s life as a performer is revealed through different archives: photos, announcements, playbills and a group shot photograph is blown up, Lily smiling in a world of artistic men. She thrived as a trusted interpreter of composition and poetry while developing as a composer and poet herself. The exhibition is free of ponderous signage the projector set to display the details of the sound piece we are hearing at one time enhances the way the space is given over to the ephemeral and performative The only fixed texts printed topping the walls of each room are selected from Lily’s collection ‘aphorisms for contemplation’ printed using a font design based on the metal type set of Lily’s personal typewriterThe exhibition poster features one:  

fixed ideas 

hamper hinder thwart


Andrew Lister-Walsh has been cataloguing the collection and as he sorted through the papers brought to Special Collections, these typed notes slipped out of papers, correspondence, reading material. Did she know how much we’d enjoy them decades later? The exhibition organizers have printed some on coloured squares of paper to be taken away by visitors. I refrain from greedily pocketing the lot. Each one is a gem and they have been transformed into something to have and to hold, sprung from the finitude of making up a unique and rare archive.  

I read about another show in Germany, in Weimar looking at the relationship of the Bauhaus to National Socialism. The article is illustrated by the photograph of a textile sample, annotated as an item from a textile collection telling this story. It was made by a Bauhaus student, Ottie Berger, who was murdered at Auschwitz. Another student Fritz Ertl was the architect who designed the camp’s crematorium. The idea of this textile surviving to tell an overlooked tale of collaboration fostered in avantgarde artistic circles, relates to a folded poster publication donated to the Women’s Art Library collection. It features another group photograph found in the archives of the Austrian Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ) by the research group Secretariat of Ghosts (Nina Hoechtl and Julia Wieger) who published it in 2015. In contrast to the relaxed smiling group of mostly male artists taken in the 1960s telling Lily’s story, here we have a group of 20 women whose conservative dress style denotes 1930s Vienna and all but six are unknown. The organization’s records during and after the rise of National Socialism are lost, presumed destroyed. During that time all Jewish members of the organization were expelled including Louise Fraenkel-Hahn, the VBKÖ’s 3rd president who was a significant benefactor creating a retreat for women artists to work. She is second from the left in the first row. Under the image of the poster publication, the Secretariat of Ghosts superimposed the words EINLADUNG ZUR RECHERCHE (Invitation to Research). 

Lily Greenham’s life was shaped by exile driven by the Holocaust and the archives held in Goldsmiths are a tantalizing invitation to follow her trajectory that included the best of experimental art scenes, but characterized by a constant moving through. At the symposium Tune in to Reality exploring Lily Greenham’s work, Andrew began his paper on the cataloguing project by citing Greenham’s contribution to the travelling project of the 1970s, The Museum of Drawers: the message, “sorry! lily greenham cannot be pigeon-holed.”  

The material reflects the artist and resists yielding an airtight story. Alert to the gaps in the archive, Andrew eloquently cited them as ‘triggers to generate attention’ that maintains an awareness of ‘the bigness of life’ present in the archive, where he also feels himself caught up in the imagination of this artist. Andrew’s account of cataloguing Greenham’s archive included ideas like encircling and becoming part of the constellation of people that Lily’s life’s work created. How enlivening his work with this archive is and what a debt is owed to those who miraculously saved it: Hugh Davies, Michael Parsons and Jeffrey Steele.  As a member of the audience remarked about working with archives in general: No one was supposed to spend so much time with this stuff! But Lily Greenham’s relationship to her own writings and recordings is a creative force that the archives enable. As Ian Stonehouse remarked in his wonderfully detailed presentation of Lily Greenham’s biography, the exhibition itself was a means of laying out the archive to see and hear what the curators could discover and like a giant jig saw puzzle, witnessing these elements together to make an experience rather than a complete and final picture of her achievement. The curatorial team brought specialist knowledge to bear on the exhibition’s design that gives information but also space to this restless but deeply connected art practice  

James Bulley’s sound installations celebrate Greenham’s compositions and performance work optimising the pieces within the exhibition space in ways never done before, effectively working with the archived material to both animate the recordings and the building’s space. This is why I felt it was so important to make the trip to the Badischer Kunstverein and see how this artist’s archive will continue to unfold. The writing and discussion inspired by the archive generated an excitement that was beautifully expressed by the performative introduction given by Alex Balgiu initiating the symposium. He’d set up a typewriter amongst his personal collection of books and merrily played the keys as if it were a piano, bringing a burst of sound to our grasp of concrete poetry’s relationship to performance and distribution. Greenham’s work is still being recovered alongside the work of other women concrete poets which Balgiu has researched. (It would be great to get a copy of ) 

In addition to the production of reprints, Balgiu’s lively interactive website expands on the unpacking of the archive work and sharing in a digital space that again releases the work that is archived along with the life back into a living connection with new readers and listeners. Throughout the symposium, acknowledging insightful new research included recognizing Goldsmiths’ role in not just preserving but championing this project, between the Music Department and Special Collections in the Library. But this exhibition convinces me that something else has ensured that this material was activated, from academic investigation to spellbinding live performances from Valentina Traïanova, Anna Barham and Ute Wassermann we all became a new audience thoroughly caught up and held in the imagination of Lily Greenham.  

2024, Tune in to Reality!, symposium, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (talks, readings & performances by Valentina Traïanova, Alex Balgiu, Andrew Walsh-Lister, Eva Badura-Triska, Ian Stonehouse, Katrina Liberiou, Judith Milz, Anna Barham & Ute Wassermann) 

Publications, Records & Editions: 
2024, Lily Greenham: An Art of Living, catalogue / record, Badischer Kunstverein & Bricks from the Kiln 
2024, tendentious | neo-semantics, Bricks from the Kiln 
2022, Tune in to Reality!, Distance No Object 
2007, Lingual Music, CD, Paradigm Discs 

Althea Greenan Women’s Art Library, Curator

Comments are closed.