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A wild flowering of new works

Keith Gallasch: Overview

The Black Stump, Jonathan Jones The Black Stump, Jonathan Jones
photo Zan Wimberley
The springtime flowering of Performance Space’s Liveworks was well worth waiting for to revel in a wild garden of strange varieties, brilliant hybrids, spooky ornamentals and unnamed species. But brightness can bite the spirit and the darkness in undergrowth eat at the soul. New experiences disoriented us aesthetically, perceptually and morally in a festival that realised the best part of Performance Space’s annual program in three delirium-inducing weeks.

Jonathan Jones, guguma guriin/black stump

Desecrated nature was a grim presence in Jonathan Jones’ guguma guriin, black stump—an eerie field of 32 inverted native tree stumps hoisted low on small black metal stems, entwined roots twisting painfully out and upwards as if tormented at the moment of the trees’ passing.

The darkened gallery, the formally arranged stumps, charcoal rubbings of their cross sections on a wall and the recorded singing ‘in language’ of “Amazing Grace” conjures a memorial place, a complex spiritual space in which the pain of loss of sacred land to colonisation coexists with Christian optimism and without contradiction. Guguma guriin was a hauntingly memorable Liveworks centrepiece, its ‘liveness’ manifest in the triggering of learning and sad reflection.

Wade Marynowsky, Robot Opera

A different kind of immersion was experienced in Wade Marynowsky’s Robot Opera, a spectacle which I mostly enjoyed in the moment but less so on reflection. Stephen Jones (p20) addresses the issue of autonomy and control, so important if we are to believe that we are meeting robots, not animatrons. At least these robots were not pretend humans and were about as agile as Daleks. Robots are fascinating but do we need to dramatise their effects on us; movies have long done so. Here, in the vast Bay 17 we sight the robots; they signal us, it’s beautiful but we don’t get it; they advance; we mingle cautiously; they appear to track some of us, we’re fascinated; they form two lines between which we are corralled; the robots flicker and buzz, huge lights cross over us, the sound score erupts, warlike, with soaring quasi-spiritual soprano choiring, we feel threatened (are they Dalek cousins?); and then, entropy—the robots turn off, save for one which wanders among us (‘Sadly?,’ we finally project) to a halt. No messages. No exchange. The end. No narrative payoff, after all that. Not such a strange encounter, even if adroitly engineered, produced, composed and lit.

Victoria Hunt, Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water

The issue of heightened production values at the expense of content came up strongly at the RealTime forum at the end of Liveworks, in which a couple of festival-goers worried at a superfluity of effects in Victoria Hunt’s Tangi Wai…The Cry of Water, a work they nonetheless appreciated in many respects. The effects were truly remarkable but their relationship with the moving bodies of the performers uncertain, frequently veiling them and some seemingly key design elements. Had we witnessed a dance/movement work or an enormous light and water sculpture in which was buried an evocation of the cultural/spiritual life of women of the South Pacific? Some moments stood out: Hunt’s primordial birthing figure and Kristina Chan’s crawling, panic-breathing creature (who or what is she?) struggling to stand. Otherwise how central was movement to the work? As in Robot Opera, an overwhelming sound score demanded attention, here evoking the power of wind and water, complementing the visually dominant beauty of falling mist and the ebb and flow of low shoreline waves in a female water world inhabited by barely discernible gods and spirits. Experience of Hunt’s previous work helped (Copper Promise: Hinemiki Haka, 2012, RT109, p6), but Tangi Wai is not an exposition of cultural knowledge, it’s Hunt’s embodied expression of her culture, if with far less body than anticipated. The work concluded with a deeply alarming image, a surprisingly literal one that evoked the end of traditional South Pacific womanhood with the advent of European colonisation.

Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer Eisa Jocson, Macho Dancer
photo Zan Wimberley
Eisa Jocson, Death of a Pole Dancer, Macho Dancer, Host

Context was again an issue, if in a different way, in the performances by Filipino dancer Eisa Jocson. “The invisibility of the original context was problematic,” writes Fiona McGregor. Meaning is clear enough: example, the three figures Jocson represents are exploited workers—pole dancer, macho dancer and a Filipina who takes on the traditional dance young Japanese won’t. But MacGregor sees these dances (she saw the first two) as abstracted from reality by European dramaturgy, making them purely art objects for delectation for a certain class of viewer not likely to have experienced the gritty reality of the venues where the dancers perform. The truth of that aside, Jocson’s works are nonetheless powerful expressions of empathy and protest by an artist committed to learning these demanding forms. The full power of her performances will doubtless be felt at home in the Philippines where context will be a given.

In Death of the Pole Dancer I was taken by Jocson’s considered construction and testing of her pole—circling and rhythmically thrusting herself against it with a complementary sharp clicking of her heels and inherent musicality. The repeated, slow upside down slide that concludes the work portrays the pole dancer’s demise (Jocson admitting in an interview a few days after that she is now almost beyond executing the demanding move). In Macho Dancer, Jocson becomes a young, gum-chewing male dancer passing though a series of telling phases in which he is variously proud, defiant, calculatingly erotic and sulky; at one point he stops dancing and withdraws into upstage shadow—a tease or a moment of existential doubt?

In Host, as we hear the lap and drip of water to temple bells and gradually distorted chanting, Jocson’s foreign worker appears in a kitschily glittering kimono, dances with a Noh devil mask and then peels off her outfit to reveal a finer, more tasteful kimono in which she dances with great refinement. Another layer, and another, is removed to near nakedness with erotic intent, but the outwardness of the performance turns bhuto-ishly inward, until the dancer is finally transformed into a grinning pretend teenage Korean pop star. Jocson’s entertainment industry worker is never less than adaptable, meeting market demands for Japanese refinement but also for the satisfaction of darker desires that lie beneath.

Garth Knight, Nemeton, Liveworks Garth Knight, Nemeton, Liveworks
photo Amanda James
Garth Knight, Nemeton

Also ‘out of context’ was Garth Knight’s Nemeton. Staged in Carriageworks’ vast foyer it brought to the fascinated public gaze the usually more private display, often photographic, of Japanese rope bondage, shibari. With a timber frame, rope and rocks Knight constructed a striking series of sculptural creations, each night incorporating a naked or near naked participant. When I saw the artist at work he had meticulously knotted the rope into something that looked like a three-trunked tree emerging from a bed of suspended rocks beneath which he was hanging a woman horizontally, her head arched back tautly, mouth stopped, legs flexing, muscles twitching involuntarily. Beautifully crafted but quite disturbing, the work prompted thoughts variously of being buried alive, crimes against women, the right to explore one’s physical and emotional limits and the complexities of ‘beauty.’ Foyer noise, audience movement, bright light, disco music and the artist going about his work partly undercut a sense of voyeurism, but not the power of the work.

Nicola Gunn Nicola Gunn
photo Alex Davies
Nicola Gunn, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet seen Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, you might not want to read further. Gunn brings words powerfully into play in Liveworks in surprising ways. The show’s kind of stand-up but utterly physicalised with a constant stream of exercises and emotionally illustrative poses and movements. It’s a moral and physical workout, exhausting for performer and audience in the best possible way. Central to the work is the artist’s recall of seeing a man, a refugee she thinks, throwing stones at a nesting duck. It’s “a sitting duck,” she explains, incubating eggs and therefore will not move. A duck admirer in particular (“You are so awesome, duck”) she is outraged but worries at the refugee’s state of mind, triggering a relentless stream of moral speculations, relativities and contradictions. These are connected through a series of motifs, including the film Brief Encounter and things Belgian—Ghent (where she sees the assault on the duck), Poirot (well, the actor who plays him) and 19th century playwright Maeterlinck whose symbolist theatre made puppets of actors. Also recurrent are observations about artists: “How do you make something you don’t know to create? Artists do it all the time!” and, self-defensively in imagined conversation with the refugee, “I’m not on the lookout for material.” Plus there’s some “What would Marina do?” sniping at Marina Abramovic (Gunn was one of the 12 Kaldor Public Art Projects artists recently working with her). The motifs begin to add up when Gunn reveals her own anxieties—she’s concerned about lacking energy, being in her “early late 30s” and admits to having behaved badly in Ghent, rationalising this with the philosopher Levinas’ notion of “the temptation of temptation.”

The breathtaking workout having pretty much run out of words and puff and Gunn having failed ‘to stand in the refugee’s shoes,’ she spectacularly transforms into the object of her admiration, the mother duck, slowly repeating just a few words which are increasingly swamped by Kelly Ryall’s score, now deep organ notes and high shrill ones—including “I’ll sit and think awhile” as laser beams sweep around us in a self-mocking, over-the-top fantasia of identification and evasion.

Witty, outright funny, deeply intelligent and, as intended, morally perplexing, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster joined Eisa Jocson’s trio of performances, Jonathan Jones’ guguma guriin and Vicki Van Hout’s Les Festivités Lubrifier as festival experiences I’ll long remember. Gunn and Van Hout make a great pair: wickedly funny, self-deprecating ironists and highly inventive artists, both playing experimentally with form in ways that make their works rewardingly unpredictable. To again quote Gunn, “How do you make something you don’t know to create? Artists do it all the time!” That’s experimentalism, which is the thrill of Liveworks, an intensive gathering of works that test forms, ideas and the senses and, above all, our openness to new experiences. I look forward to the next of these annual wild flowerings.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 14-15

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to

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