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the unexpected & the unexplored

douglas leonard: free range, metro arts


Home, Margi Brown-Ash, Free Range 2011 Home, Margi Brown-Ash, Free Range 2011
photo Bev Jensen
FREE RANGE AT METRO ARTS HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A FOUR-WEEK LONG CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT BOOT CAMP, AND THE METRO TEAM’S RESOLVE TO NURTURE PROCESS OVER PRODUCT MAKES IT A UNIQUE AND CRUCIAL INCUBATOR OF PERFORMANCE IN BRISBANE. IF THE AIM IS TO FOSTER NEW WORKS OUTSIDE DISTINCT ARTFORM PARAMETERS, FREE RANGE 2011 ALSO PROVIDED OPPORTUNITIES FOR AUDIENCES TO GAIN INSIGHTS INTO THE PROCESSES OF FAMILIAR, WELL-LOVED ARTISTS WHO HAVE BEEN WORKING INDEPENDENTLY ALONG THESE LINES FOR, WELL, A LONG TIME, IN ADDITION TO NEW AND EMERGING ARTISTS.

While ‘beautiful’ aesthetics were mainly on call (even the whimsical comedy of Neridah Waters trying to convince us she was ‘Dodgy’), I was drawn to works that were raw and seemed to emerge out of the corner of a frenetic eye, out of relatively unexplored emotional areas of the human psyche. These unexpected works weren’t age-related nor seeking to brand themselves. Circus artists Skye Gellmann and Ivan Smith in Something with Sabotage spelled out the nature of “attention seeking ego-driven self-indulgence (a performance).” On the surface, and this was true of the enthusiastic audience response to this piece of theatre larrikinism—they were a pair of likely lads. The show itself was hung on the bones of the tale of “Sinbad the Sailor and the Old Man of the Sea” from the Arabian Nights with Smith impersonating Sinbad as one of the great epic heroes “like Rambo and Rocky.” Gellmann, as the anti-hero and the old man basically perched on his head and shoulders strangling his performance. In the first act the audience was intimately on stage with the performers facing an alternative audience of balloon heads in the seats and gratefully escaping the attentions of the old man. However, there was a steely idea behind all this, as Gellmann notes, “Do I always feel the gaze (as a performer) even when I’m alone in the room? Does my shadow mock and reflection judge me?”

After an interval, when we were required to return through a different door, the second act conventionally distanced the audience and performers but witnessed the two performers in a meltdown deconstruction of the previous act, incorporating bizarre and disturbing imagery of male relations. Smith performed an immaculate juggling act in reverse that lost six balls while retaining one singing like a canary on his shoulder, while Gellmann, upside down, nude and utterly transfixing, like a creature from an Heironymous Bosch painting, inscribed hieroglyphics with his body around the walls of the theatre. More sabotage.

Artist's Gamble with Time A portrait of Clint (An Expanded Portrait of Everyone) Artist's Gamble with Time A portrait of Clint (An Expanded Portrait of Everyone)
When I met visual and installation artist David M Thomas he went for the chin by quoting Morrissey: “I don’t perform. Seals perform.” He stressed that his hybrid work, Artists Gamble with Time/ Portrait of Clint, An expanded portrait of Everyone was an enactment not a representation, putting it, of course, into the live art category; but nomenclature doesn’t go far enough to describe a work that was so refreshing and resonantly witty, seamlessly playing off elements of performance, music, photography, painting, installation and video like a form of free style jazz, “in order to explore the construction and maintenance of one’s self.”

Continuous video of a man and a woman constructing and deconstructing abstract, geometric assemblages of coloured blocks of wood evidenced the ecstasy of creative play as opposed to fetishism of the object. Plywood cut-outs evoking the abstract art of the early 20th century painter and poet Jean (Hans) Arp were surfaces for kinetic, op-art projections in vibrant pastels. Arp represented opposition at the time to the proscription of abstract art by both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. He sat on the editorial board of Abstraction-Creation which made the statement in Cahiers no. 2, 1933: “...free thought is being fiercely contested, in many ways, on all levels, in some countries more successfully than in others, but everywhere.”

There was a mini stage above which hung, like a stalactite or nest of night creatures, what turned out to be a ridiculously tall black wig with Gothic connotations when worn by Archie Moore, an urban Indigenous artist and lead singer in Egg Vein, accompanied by Thomas in a leather jump suit on guitar. Unfortunately what I interpreted from the look as ‘horror country’ lyrics about life on the Darling Downs were indecipherable due to sound quality. These seemingly diverse elements framed and commented on what was not so much a portrait but an evocation that amounted to an abstract, almost sculptural assemblage through consciously distancing effects—Clint conceived of as an absence. A second film featured young people speaking fragments of Doyle and Thomas’ email dialogues Godard-style direct to camera within clever re-arrangements of the Arp shapes and projections mirroring the play with blocks. In case you’re thinking all this sounds like a spoof, it was—of 80s video clips, for one—but it wonderfully caught the essence of art as process, a ‘doing,’ and Thomas’ notion that all art is performance art. Loved it.

The Process Project involved Margi Brown Ash, Nikki Heywood and Brian Lucas in a year-long colloquy and exploration of performance hybridity from their perspectives as mature artists and from meetings with a community landscape designer, a restaurateur and a Buddhist terminal care worker. In a summary report on their experiences to a Free Range audience, they created an elegant three-fold schemata of the artistic journey given vivid immediacy by the shapes of Lucas’ sand mandalas and embodied by the journeyman, the villager and a desperate wanderer negotiating the wasteland. It was striking that art and life skills (techne) shared in common with others in the community seemed to be equally compounded by grace, as the Greeks would have it, not just productive efficiency. In an age when the arts are marginalised and grace is considered an option the economy cannot afford, theirs provided a civilised and reassuring conclusion.

This mutual involvement also enabled Brown Ash, as a self-admitted “senior artist” shortly turning 60, to re-imagine (with long time collaborator Leah Mercer) her life as an artist, wife and mother in it for the long haul in Home presented by The Nest 4 Change. Brown Ash it was who famously announced at the presentation of The Process Project that “IF I should ever die...” she would prefer to do so under Buddhist palliative care. Brown Ash has always been a performer who constantly surprises you with her strengths, and is also a skilled art therapist and counsellor. Superficially, Home resembled a form of drama therapy, but it was soon clear that this was no unexamined life. We were caught up in the headlong rush of Brown Ash’s artfully fragmented myth and storytelling—dashing back and forth from teenage years to young womanhood to middle-age; spinning out into the cosmos on the wings of the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris; capturing members of the audience as her surrogates in different times and places as she roamed round the space with fierce, prowling energy. She was everyone’s bohemian mother (or the one you wanted), feeding you tea and biscuits—and home truths—with an unsentimental pellucidity that reminded me of the English poet Stevie Smith. Spawner of unusual progeny, one of whom went to Palestine to learn Arabic and another who went to Israel to learn Hebrew, Brown Ash’s new work is similarly prodigious in scope and potential. It was not intimate theatre but epic theatre about intimacy.


Free Range 2011: Something with Sabotage, Ivan Smith, Skye Gellmann; Home, Margi Brown Ash, Travis Ash, Bev Jensen, Leah Mercer; Artists Gamble with Time/ Portrait of Clint, an expanded portrait of Everyone, David M Thomas, Archie Moore, Suzanne Howard; The Process Project, Margi Brown Ash, Nikki Heywood, Brian Lucas’ Metro Arts Brisbane June 3-28

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 14

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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