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James Cunningham, Jondi Keane, Tuning Fork James Cunningham, Jondi Keane, Tuning Fork
photo Suzon Fuks
THREE STANDOUT WORKS AT THE JUDITH WRIGHT CENTRE IN BRISBANE LATE LAST YEAR HAPPENED TO RUN CONCURRENTLY. SEEN CLOSE TOGETHER, WHAT STOOD OUT ABOUT THESE PERFORMANCES WAS THAT IN WILDLY DIVERSE WAYS THEY APPEARED MORE OR LESS CONSCIOUSLY TO BE MINING VEINS FROM THE 1960S AND 70S, NOT IN A RETRO SENSE BUT THE BETTER TO LEAP FORWARD. EACH CAN BE SEEN AS CONTINUING INVESTIGATIONS INTO “THE INTER-IMPLICATIONS AND MATERIAL PROCESSES THAT CONNECT ART TO DAILY LIFE” (JAMES CUNNINGHAM, JONDI KEANE) THAT PREOCCUPIED THE EARLIER PERIOD. THIS APPARENT RETURN TO THEORETICAL AND FORMAL CONCERNS OF A SEMINAL EPOCH SEEMS TO ME TO BE OPTIMISTIC RATHER THAN A GESTURE OF HELPLESSNESS IN THESE TIMES, AN ATTEMPT BY THOUGHTFUL ARTISTS, IN TS ELIOT’S PHRASE, AT “PURIFYING THE LANGUAGE OF THE TRIBE.” GOD KNOWS WE NEED IT.

This was most clearly the case in Tuning Fork, created and performed by James Cunningham and Jondi Keane. Theirs was a work that deliberately engaged with the new performance parameters propounded in the 60s by the likes of Kaprow and Cage, lending them an elasticity that authentically stretched to the present. Tuning Fork was a time-based performance which took place in the shopfront at the Judith Wright Centre and was thus visible to passersby. Monitors displayed time-lapse footage of the erection and dismantling of the work.

Discounting good natured exhibitionism and the odd caustic critic (“art wankers!”), this out of sync discrepancy with the live action proved a beguiling hook for many onlookers, while others apparently succumbed to that most peerless of activities: watching others work. Watching the audience inside too, working at being an audience. The performance, however skewed and unrelated to any pragmatic function, nevertheless resembled a construction site. Common construction materials—wooden doors, beams, steel, carbon fibre rods, tape measures, electrical tape—were all utilised to reconfigure and suggest new links between the height, length and breadth of the original site subdivided by I-beams and three large window boxes set into the shopfront. Carbon rods described parabolas within the space, imperceptibly suggesting the metaphysical tension of Cunningham’s lovely, Leunig-like image of a room as a little box (cube) on the curved surface of the round world. Held aloft, they shimmied together, emitting a susurrus from the natural world. At other times, rods were used as chitinous antennae. Steel rods slid along the floor smashed into walls, decrying limits. Cunningham leans backwards supported by the combined tensile strength of rods. At one point, Keane inserts rods through Cunningham’s clothing, transforming him into a weird kind of kinetic sculpture, a grunge creature reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Macbeth in Throne of Blood stuck like a porcupine with arrows. In the end, more rods connected the performers’ heads to the ceiling as they slowly revolved like a model of the Copernican universe.

Tape measures were given an anarchic life of their own in order to function as agents of misrule. Or else to pinpoint minute aspects of the space, as when suspended from a hitherto invisible nail or crevice in the wall. In this way attention often shifted from minutiae to larger dimensions of action in the space, lending the space itself the characteristic of a breathing animal. At other moments the silence and absolute stillness made it seem as if it was the space holding its breath. This tallied with the stated objective of trying to reverse the figure-ground relationship so that the site might come to the fore and take on new meaning. Moreover, the performers’ proposition that “a tuning, attuning, or retuning of the base-line of perception and action is the next productive (versus reactive) step” was more than ratified by moments I relate to the Buddhist idea of tathata, suchness, the recognition of the irreducible, indescribable nature of an object, a sound, a person. From this perspective, the work might be seen as incorporating a powerful environmental politics.

There was an obvious dialectic between the approaches of the two performers. Coming from a dance background, Cunningham seemed more focused on objects as extensions of the body, or touching other objects to elicit the life of the object itself. At the same time his movements were more abstract, more concerned with exploring the space as a performer. By contrast, Keane was task-orientated. As he says, he operates within a field of consciousness that is related to professional sports, performing actions with an awareness of how they are both backgrounded and foregrounded. While the architectonic result was a well mapped out composition, the process was not directed towards the creation of a work of art. Rather it was a case of enacting embodied moments that join the common world. As Keane expresses it, “we’re not doing art and we’re not doing non-art. We’re doing stuff together.” Sculptural and other elements in the course of the performance remained separate—constituting a performance of resistance where the dialectical process proceeds and contradictions are synthesised, only to break out again into contradictions. Tuning Fork was a valid demonstration of the concretisation of meaning and material processes as an essential element of the dialectical process itself. A source of quiet marvels. The good stuff.

Phluxus , The Opposite of Prompt, Dance Collective Phluxus , The Opposite of Prompt, Dance Collective
photo Marisa Cuzzolaro
The Opposite of Prompt, a collaboration between the independent artists of Phluxus Dance Collective and dancer-actor Brian Lucas, happily took on the self-critical and Brechtian strain of the 70s along with madcap elements of Dada. It delightfully deconstructs and demystifies, playing a tricksy match of handball with the audience, positing “the inescapable solid reality of performance versus the wildly imaginative and unpredictable thing that is reality.” A life-sized model of a black and white cow plays a prominent role in this regard (“Stop looking at the cow!”). Originally it was meant to be a real cow, but I can see the problems...Life, after all, is artifice, and Art? Well, Art has abandoned itself. Or at least abandoned us. Art occurred offstage, behind drawn curtains; we were only witnesses to the exits and entrances. To the hysteria. To the needs. We ourselves enter and exit OP side. Stuck in life. As Lucas says, “I’m in my apartment, in a wheelchair. I’m crippled, and I see a lot of suspicious things happening. But I connect the dots, I work out what’s happening. Or perhaps not.”

Certainly the Luciferian Lucas has the ability to pull the carpet from under our feet, revealing the abyss. He told the story of a woman who had a sick friend whom she helped to suicide to avoid needless suffering. She was convicted and sent to prison. But the woman was terminally ill and, terrified of dying alone in prison, in turn killed herself. The story is repeated several times during the performance, accompanied by a sequence of dance gestures. Finally it is the gestures themselves that tell the tale, in a characteristic Lucas move. It was pure pleasure to be reminded that Lucas is such a superb dancer, particularly in the beautifully clean, incredibly controlled, hence expressive and humorous duet performed with an equally polished Chaffia Brooks—all within the constraints of aircraft seats.

The Opposite of Prompt was a participatory sport. And there was so much more. It seduced the audience without resiling from the questions it blithely threw up in the air. Largely this was attributable to the quality of inclusiveness Phluxus extended, translating into a uniquely grounded collective style—seriously funky.

Jacqui Carroll’s To Have Done With The Judgement Of God for the Bell Tower 11 Series 2008 espoused the roots of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty first introduced to the Anglo-Saxon world by Peter Brook in the 1960s. Based on a 1947 radio performance by the man himself, this work-in-progress goes somewhere else in terms of Ozfrank’s previous work. Carroll’s investigation into the male psyche was shocking, scatalogical, darkly liturgical. I loved it.


Tuning Fork, created and performed by James Cunningham and Jondi Keane; Shopfront, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, Nov 19-23 & 26-29; Opposite Of Prompt, artists Phluxus Dance Collective (Nerida Matthaei, Chafia Brooks, Skye Sewell) and Brian Lucas, lighting design Keith Clark, soundscape construction Brian Lucas, costume design Rosa Hirakata, set construction Corrin Matthews, Shane Rynehart; Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, November 26-29; Ozfrank, To Have Done With The Judgement Of God, creator, Jacqui Carroll; Theatre Rehearsal Room, Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, November 27, 2008

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 32

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

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