Yesterday’s look at Leigh Bowery got me to thinking about another unlikely product of the suburbs of Australia.
Growing up in Sydney I remember the first time I became aware of artist Vali Myers. It was while watching a sensationalist current affairs show which profiled this strange flaming spirit, then living in Italy, with all the tact and openness you might expect of a sensationalist current affairs show. But despite the incredulous, faintly mocking tone I understood that this was a true original… an original what though, I couldn’t say. I found it hard to comprehend that this tattooed apparition and I might have originated from the same galaxy, let alone the same city. True, her Australian accent remained undimmed by years among global art nomads but her down-to-earth twang rendered her cosmic rambling even more exotic.
Born in Sydney in 1930, Vali made her way to Paris in 1949, staying on the Left Bank in dire post-war conditions which offered all of the deprivations of bohemian life and few of the socio-hedonistic advantages. Returning after a few years’ vagabondage she lived in slightly better conditions and in tonier company, supposedly sharing an opium pipe with Jean Cocteau (although this was some years after he was supposed to have kicked his habit). Vali herself became hooked and fled the city.
Before the 60s had even worked out that they were the 60s, Vali was practising the kind of back-to-the-garden existence which would be the ultimate elusive goal for many Aquarian spirits. She found a secluded valley in Positano and lived there with a tame fox and a menagerie of other animals. Her excursions back into the real world often brought her to New York’s Hotel Chelsea, periods of excess to balance the eremitic isolation.
And long after the 60s had become fixed as a montage of stock footage with an inevitable Hendrix accompaniment, Vali continued to live with such singular gypsy abandon that she seemed to be living out not just her own free spirited ideals, but those discarded by former fellow travellers as well. Rather than washing off her war paint and settling down, she turned those queer curls into a permanent feature. After decades away she returned to Australia in the 1990s and died of cancer in 2003, bowing out with wit and courage.
Sadly despite an extensive search I’ve come up short on footage of her; none of the various documentaries about her have made it online in their original form it seems. There’s no sign of Patti and Vali, for instance, in which Vali tattoos Patti Smith’s knee. The best I can offer you for now is an extract from a 1990 documentary by Ruth Cullen here, and a 2002 follow-up here, a trailer for a promised new documentary below (though the trail seems to have gone cold on that one) and, finally, a piece on her lover Gianni Manichetti which probably best preserves her spirit. As none of these really gives you an idea of her startling visual impact, I also suggest a visit to this comprehensive visual archive.