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blood is such clever stuff

sarah-jane norman: performance-making

Sarah-Jane Norman is an artist and writer, originally from NSW, now living and working between Australia, Germany and the UK. She is of Wannarua, Wiradjuri and British heritage.

Sarah Jane Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body Sarah Jane Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body
photo Carl Newland
BLOOD IS JUST SUCH CLEVER STUFF. AS A SUBSTANCE AND AS A METAPHOR; EVEN THE WORD ITSELF ON THE PAGE HAS A UNIQUELY RICH POETIC TONE. IN THE COURSE OF MAKING UNSETTLING SUITE, MY CURRENT BODY OF WORK, I HAVE BECOME DEEPLY INTIMATE WITH BLOOD IN ALL ITS FACETS.

In preparation for Bone Library, I’ve spent nearly a year, it seems, with blood permanently encrusted under my fingernails, the result of months spent cleaning animal bones, pushing out plugs of bloody marrow; and I’ve gradually learnt the best spots on my own body, with its recalcitrant veins, to draw blood, having trained myself via the many DIY hotel-room phlebotomies that have had to be discreetly performed for Take this, for it is my body. Materially, physiologically and symbolically, blood is an undoubtedly fascinating substance.

Unsettling Suite as it stands comprises three finished works and one in development: Take this, for it is my Body (2010; RT101); Corpus Nullius (2011); one as yet forthcoming/untitled; and finally the monumental Bone Library (2011-ongoing). For the purpose of this article I’ll be speaking through only one of these works, Take this, for it is my Body. First presented at InBetweenTime in Bristol in 2010, this work had been more than six years in the making. It was subsequently performed twice in Sydney, once at Performance Space, which has been a home venue for me throughout all the years of my growing practice, and once at Elizabeth Bay House for the NSW History Council.

Take this, for it is my Body has gone through multiple reconfigurations, from a one-to-one performance, to a performance for small groups, back to one-to-one again but with my own performing body replaced by my mother’s. Through all its permutations, the core action remains unchanged: in the work the audience sits at a table and is offered a slice of warm, homemade bread. They can choose to consume or otherwise, in full knowledge that the ingredients include 6mls of my blood.

My mother was of a generation in which Aboriginal people were classed, like cattle, according to a quantitative judgment of blood. In an era prior to the granting of basic citizenship to Aboriginal people, the question of how much ‘native blood’ a person had in their veins could determine a great deal about their circumstances.

Sarah-Jane Norman, Bone Library Sarah-Jane Norman, Bone Library
photos Annaki Kissas


It enrages me to be asked, as an Indigenous person, how much Aboriginal blood I have in me, or worse, when people blithely attempt to classify my identity in halves or quarters. I’ll field such questions diplomatically, because ignorance is not a crime. People ask not out of racism but out of genuine curiosity. It’s questions, and not the people themselves, that are racist. They represent a continuation of the same apartheid consciousness which atomised my family, which put my olive-skinned mother on one side of the line in the post office and my black Aunty Launa on the other. The truth of my blood and my family heritage is this: I was born in Sydney. My father is British and my mother is Aboriginal. Where I am truly from is a question to which I don’t, and never will have, a single answer. I am a proud Aboriginal Australian, of Wannarua and Wiradjuri heritage. I am also a citizen of Great Britain and a sometime resident of the European Union. Indigenous artists have walked this line for a very long time. There is a natural facility with the discourses of cultural hybridity among Indigenous peoples from which I daily draw strength. I’ve learnt to reside in these ambiguities of self as a gesture towards a cultural paradigm which no longer asserts the power of absolutes.

The idea for Take this… arrived, as most things do, as a puzzle. A collection of separate parts, which held within them the potential to interlock. During the work’s development I thought about a great many things. I remember hearing about a very old French folk lyric, about village women making bread. The women sing of kneading the dough between their thighs, of its softness and warmth, and of bringing themselves to collective orgasm through their labour. I thought about my grandmother, Aunty Biddy, working as a shearer’s cook on a station in outback NSW in the early 1960s, and wondered if, in making the damper or the scones for the Boss and the Missus and the men, she ever considered doing the same. I thought about the mesmeric, earthy fecundity of that gesture, and of its generational continuity: why it was that I, who grew up on Sunblest and Tiger loaves from the local Vietnamese bakery, could feel such an old, archetypal and robustly female energy animating that gesture? Why, in the process of kneading dough on my benchtop in Darlinghurst, I could feel another body, or bodies, spectrally taking possession of my own, that my grandmother’s blood and spirit were alive in my own flesh.

When I was 12 I thought about cutting my finger and bleeding into the ANZAC biscuits. Of course, I thought about the Holy Communion. I thought about the so-called Syncretic religions, the absorption of the saints and rituals of the (usually Catholic) colonial power into the Indigenous belief systems of the area: Haitian Voudoun is one such religion, and I wondered if the Aboriginal relationship with Christianity and increasingly, Islam, might not fall in similar territory. Last of all I thought about the poisoning of the flour rations that were sent to Aboriginal missions, and how this represents for me one of the most frightening truths of human atrocity; that the processes of genocide are manifold, that its most effective modes are frequently the subtlest. I thought broadly about the notions of ‘contamination’ and ‘assimilation’ and their resonance; gestures of absolution, and modes of defiance. I thought about that powerfully awful expression, “a lick of the tar brush,” and how I have heard it used, without irony, in reference to myself by supposedly educated and politically aware people, as though my culture and heritage were some kind of cheeky smear on my otherwise passable ‘whiteness.’ I thought about this notion of being of ‘mixed blood’ and what it might mean to reclaim this as a position of strength: where is its poetry, its power? Is there an image to hold it and carry it? I thought about a great many things, all of which eventually culminated in a simple offering, which continues to develop and resound.

Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullius/Blood Country (2011), part of the Unsettling Suite Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullius/Blood Country (2011), part of the Unsettling Suite
photo Penelope Benton
Like most practitioners who move in that territory that might be broadly called performance (or Live Art, or Performance Art, or Contemporary Performance, or body-based or time-based art, depending on context and discursive vogue), I have come to my current location via multiple elsewheres. My background is varied: training in theatre, dance, visual arts and cultural studies have all shaped my practice.

My practice is transnational and inter-local by necessity. It was appropriate that the first performance of the Unsettling Suite cycle should be presented in Bristol, because Bristol was where the work was seeded. I moved there in 2006, by way of Tokyo and rural Devon. It was in Bristol, through the community of artists that I found there and with whom I still share close creative and personal bonds, that I first came into an awareness of what I now recognise to be one of the most significant gifts of artistic practice: connectivity, the potentiality of infinite, lateral movement through transnational communities, linked by common dialogues. I felt at home as an artist in England in a way that I didn’t as a human being. It was perhaps this tension that fostered the seed ideas for Unsettling Suite.

I feel confident in the assertion that Britain has not processed its history as a former colonial power to the extent that Australia, and certainly Aboriginal Australia, has had to interrogate its own history as a former colony. The brunt of the work, when it comes to unpicking the true meaning of this complex state we call “postcoloniality,” seems to fall more often than not on the former colonial territories. As an Aboriginal Australian artist it seems assumed that the business of interrogating postcoloniality falls squarely within my jurisdiction. That’s just the way it goes, I suppose. Postcoloniality is a shared state. We are all post-colonial: if there is one truly global dilemma that would have to be it. I feel privileged, as an Aboriginal artist, to be at the vanguard of rethinking that discourse.

Blood is such clever stuff: it has profound intelligence and a long memory. History is never history. It’s alive in the written and unwritten rules of our world. It’s alive in our language. It’s alive in the depths of our bodies. This is something that is traditionally understood by Aboriginal people; that our bodies are of the land and the land is of our ancestors. History is something to be understood viscerally. Perhaps the depth of grief that continues to haunt our culture/s is what fuels the necessity to tell and re-tell this history, and the articulation strikes home because of the sheer force of its necessity. Does grief make us eloquent? If every work of art is an exercise in cheating death, in defiance, in the re-ignition of the spirit, then yes, it does. I can’t be certain and I can’t speak collectively. Only through practice can I begin to grasp for insight.

Sarah-Jane Norman is an artist and writer, originally from NSW, now living and working between Australia, Germany and the UK. She is of Wannarua, Wiradjuri and British heritage.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 3

© Sarah-Jane Norman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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