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ten days on the island


art scars

judith abell: ten days on the island: floating, evolution, s20

Judith Abell is a writer, architect and sculptor who has recently been awarded a Moorilla scholarship for a show mid 2010.

Hugh Hughes, Sioned Rowlands, Floating Hugh Hughes, Sioned Rowlands, Floating
photo John Baucher
“HELLO EVERYONE!” HUGH HUGHES, THE CREATOR-PERFORMER OF FLOATING (FROM ANGLESEY, AN ISLAND OFF WALES) SMILES DISARMINGLY AT US ALL FROM FRONT OF STAGE. THE HOUSE LIGHTS ARE UP AND WE ALL SAY ”HELLO” BACK, IF A LITTLE SHEEPISHLY. “THIS SHOW IS ABOUT MAKING A CONNECTION.” HIS GRIN WIDENS AND HE WHIPS A SQUARE OF LAMINATED CARD OUT OF HIS POCKET. THE WORD “CONNECTION” IS HANDWRITTEN ON IT IN CAPITALS. HE GOES ON TO DESCRIBE, IN HIS WELSH BROGUE, HOW WE HAVE ALL MADE A “CHOICE” (ANOTHER CARD PRESENTED) TO BE HERE TONIGHT AND THAT FOR A MOMENT HE WOULD LIKE US TO FORGET EVERYTHING OUTSIDE OF THE WALLS OF THE THEATRE.

It could be said that every artist aims to make a connection with their audience, ranging from lodging an interesting proposition to leaving any one person transformed. Three Ten Days on the Island shows—Floating, Evolution and S20—explore the idea of connection in ways that push the comfort envelope.

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to shrink in my seat when confronted with participatory theatre. “No”, I cry in cowardice, “I want to be entertained, not be the entertainment.” The first few minutes of Floating are loaded with this fear. The show is a fantastical, low and high tech extravaganza devised to tell a ‘what if’ tale about the day the bridge connecting Anglesey and the mainland fell down, thereby setting the isle adrift in the Atlantic. With Hughes playing himself throughout and co-performer Sioned Rowlands flitting between characters, the pair first lead us painstakingly through all of the components of their story using props that include a few sticks of furniture, key pieces of clothing, a Powerpoint presentation, a slide projector, two screens and a large tub of water. They engage audience volunteers to connect with aspects of the imminent story from the comfort of their seats, handing around items like an inflated globe of the world, old wrestling magazines and a ‘clicky ball.’

Floating is a beautiful exercise in making do and getting by in order to tell a vast adventure of an island let loose in the Atlantic and it sits somewhere between theatre, school lesson and Powerpoint lecture. Beginning shrunk in my seat, I found myself sitting taller, engaging in the madness and delighting in being part of a room full of giggling adults. Ironically, once Hughes and Rowlands actually fell into the throes of their story telling, they slipped away from the interactive atmosphere which I felt was the heart of the show and my attention drifted like their island. Once they had followed Anglesey through a delightful loop of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans—including Hughes being temporarily snap frozen in the Arctic—the isle was returned to its rightful place and the players refocused their attentions on the audience. I’ve wondered since, what made this interactive experience different and I think it’s that these players were upfront about the discomfort, mitigating it with humour and charm. Having successfully dissolved that membrane between stage and seat, the show didn’t really end. Hughes had to cheekily tell us that we should probably ‘get back out there’ when nobody wanted to move from their seats. Many hovered outside, holding to this temporary bubble of community.

While interaction is not compulsory, I’m caught in the gaze of Patricia Piccinini’s Big Mother. Her liquid, brown eyes stare directly at me and in them I think I see pain, longing or perhaps conflict. A suckling human baby at her breast, this creature’s bodily characteristics mix human with ape. I find it hard to look away. I’m very familiar with images of Piccinini’s work, but I wasn’t prepared for the prickling, emotional sensation of standing in front of this life-sized primate built from silicone and animal hair.

In a coup for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Piccinini has mounted a large collection of her work in a show titled Evolution, including several custom-made pieces. Drawing from her family of creatures in silicone, automotive and video format, the works are spread throughout the entire museum, including witty installations within the colonial, archaeological and popular biological collections. The latter is where Bottom Feeder now lives—a small creature standing within one of the dioramas—its fleshy bottom presented to the room and its small shark-like head peering at us from behind.

Catching a lengthy floor talk by the artist, I’m equally surprised by Piccinini’s presence. Expecting someone cool in more ways than one, instead here is a woman who appears to wear her heart and her beliefs on her sleeve. Rather than trying to scare people with nightmarish visions of the future, she talks of her desire to present solutions to problems. For example, her Surrogate Mother, which has multiple pouches on her back, tiny clawed feet emerging, has been imagined as a safe way to raise hairy nosed wombats, thereby saving them from extinction. She says, “I hope that my work evokes a gut response.” It did.

Hiroaki Umeda, while going to a condition, S20 Hiroaki Umeda, while going to a condition, S20
photo Julieta Cervantes
Moving from unexpected comfort to its opposite, Japanese dancer Hiroaki Umeda suggests that his work is devised to strip thought in favour of pure, physical experience. The work comprises three distinct, yet linked pieces, exercises in bitter-sweet endurance—loud, silent, frustrating, uncomfortable, discordant, repetitive, meditative, poetic and delicate.

In the first work, Duo, Umeda barely moves from the one spot in front of a screen. Front lit, he and his sharply outlined shadow are twinned with a life sized digital avatar projected in real time onto a screen to his left. Initially he is completely still within the wall of white noise that greets our ears. We watch, we wait. What follows is dance that mirrors contemporary life, where we may find ourselves watching a screen version alongside nearby reality. Umeda’s fine movements, tiny flicks of the hands or legs, are utterly controlled and elegant, and yet my eyes constantly shift to his mimicking digital self, that is more flicker than flick. As the energy of the dance increases, the avatar is more manipulated, breaking into white noise or slowing such that the sweep of his digital arms leaves a painterly trace. Throughout, the blips and bass beats of the accompanying soundscape are loud and deep enough to resonate within the bodies of the audience.

Umeda’s last piece, titled While going to a condition, tests the bounds of our attention. With Butoh-like concentration, Umeda builds the work slowly. From complete stillness, he gradually layers in repetitive movements. Lines across the two screens behind him continually shift between notional column, arch, field and horizon, creating a space for the work. I find myself lost within the performance and its ‘noise scape’, my thoughts drifting. It’s difficult to remember Umeda’s exact movements, but I still register the feeling of muddled anticipation, as though we are wading towards a release, which eventually arrives after minutes of intense strobing. Umeda’s tight movements give way to fluid, passionate, exhausting dance madness, then return to silent stillness as the work ends. I, for one, sigh with a mixture of relief and respect. Umeda pants with exertion as he bows in thanks.

“Remember, the more you put in, the more you get out of it”, intones Hugh Hughes with a parental note in his voice and I feel that this is true for all of these works. Surrendering to Umeda’s wall of noise, Hughes’ moments of “connection”, or a Piccinini hybrid’s eyes provided for unique, if not always comfortable experiences. Registered in my body in ways that go beyond the cerebral, they’ve stayed with me—like tiny art scars.


Hoipolloi Theatre, Floating, creator-performers Hugh Hughes, Sioned Rowlands, Playhouse Theatre, April 2-5; Patricia Piccinini, Evolution, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, March 14-June 14; S20, Duo & while going to a condition, creator-performer Hiroaki Umeda; Montevideoaki, Hiroaki Umeda, video Octavio Itube, camera Miguel Gromponse; Peacock Theatre, March 27-29

Judith Abell is a writer, architect and sculptor who has recently been awarded a Moorilla scholarship for a show mid 2010.

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 16

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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