Tank & the Bangas
Music, News, Pop, Reviews

With a bang

Perth Festival review: Lee Fields & the Expressions + Tank & the Bangas ·
Chevron Gardens, 4 March ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

The organisers of Perth Festival had a huge task planning the final show at Chevron Gardens. Not only was it the closing party of the international arts festival, but it signified the end of Perth’s summer festival season, following the conclusion of Fringe World last week. Could they fill the venue with their choice of artists? How would they give the punters a night to remember?

Contrary to programming norms, Lee Fields & the Expressions were first, despite their position as headline act. Fields, a veteran soul singer from North Carolina, USA, was welcomed on stage by his six-piece band, the Expressions. They kicked things off with the swaggering, brass-infused number, “I Still Got It”. Fields strode out, dressed in a fine black evening suit, grabbed the mic, and – quite simply – owned the stage. At 67 years of age his confidence and level of showmanship were the kind you don’t see in younger performers.

Lee Fields & the Expressions
Expert at engaging the crowd: Lee Field fronting the Expressions. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Fields and his band were experts at engaging the crowd, wholesome and cheesy like musicians and entertainers I’ve seen only in film clips from the sixties and seventies. They made us shout, sing, dance, and wave our arms in the air, rewarding our willingness with lashings of praise. They singled out different clusters of the audience: “these happy people right here – put your hands up!” and “those beautiful people, way back there, y’all got SOUL!”.

Fields, who is often nicknamed “Little JB” for his resemblance to the legendary James Brown, made the audience swoon with the richness and surprising warmth of his voice in slower, Hammond organ-drenched numbers like “Magnolia”, “Honey Dove” and “Paralyzed”. The whole audience was grooving and clapping on the backbeat in the more audacious “How I Like It” and “Don’t Walk”. True to their aptly-titled new album – “Special Night” – Lee Fields and the Expressions promised, delivered, and left us wanting more.

At this point I must admit I had little to no knowledge of any of these musicians before attending the show on Sunday. I once shared a video of Tank & the Bangas – their winning submission for NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2017 – but I otherwise had no idea what I’d signed up for.

It seemed no one else was prepared for the tumultuous musical rollercoaster that is Tank & the Bangas either. At least three people turned around to me, mouths agape, exclaiming “whaaaaat?!” during their first few songs. Though to call them “songs” is really underselling the whole experience. Lead vocalist Tarriona Ball (Tank) burst onto stage while the rest of the band (the Bangas) concocted a flurry of synth, drums, sax and bass against a backdrop of manic stage lighting. There was no epilepsy warning but there should have been. Tank led the troops with her impressive vocal ability, moving effortlessly between rambling Nicki Minaj-esque rap; soulful nineties R&B lyricism; sweet, heady, girly folk; impassioned ecclesiastical cries; thoughtful, measured verses of slam poetry – often without warning.

The New Orleans act is a fascinating slice of music coming out of that city today: rooted in jazz, wild and free-spirited, a celebration of community and diversity, a product of all the musical styles that have flourished there. But these relative new-comers to the music scene (they found their fame online) are not afraid to explore darker personal and political themes. The epic twelve-minute “You So Dumb”, which left the audience speechless, is a journey through romantic disappointment, self-rejection and grief. The touching, confessional “Rollercoaster” (about fear and self-doubt) is a mix of poetry and stunning vocalism backed by smooth, new-age slow jams.

By the end of the night, Tank & the Bangas had the audience jumping and fist pumping to the frenetic “Hey Hey Hey!” as they lead the final hurrah – blasting, banging, roaring and slapping with full exuberance. I understood then why they had been programmed as the final act.

Good move, Perth Festival.

Pictured top are Tank and the Bangas. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Installation, News, Reviews, Visual arts

Dancing or drowning

Perth Festival review: Repatriate by Latai Taumoepeau ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Jess Boyce ·

At the end of a hall I’m filed into a single line with the crowd as we move into a room to view Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate, displayed in a dark tunnel-like structure. It’s the opening night of Fremantle Art Centre’s Perth Festival programming, and Repatriate sits alongside the main event, Amy Sharrocks’ “The Museum of Water”.

When it’s my turn I move into the narrow tunnel, where I’m presented with five iPad screens, each depicting a different stage in a recording of the Australian-Tongan artist/dancer’s 90-minute durational performance. The rhythmic soundtrack accompanying the work is encompassing, yet muffled, and I feel as if I am submersed in water.

The claustrophobic installation mimics Taumoepeau’s situation. Contained into a Perspex tank no larger than a standard shower, she performs a Pacific Island dance as the tank fills with water around her. The dance is an amalgamation of choreography informed by multiple Pacific Island cultures, including her own Tongan heritage. Her wrists, ankles and waist are encircled by yellow floaties, playfully referencing the body adornments for which Islander dancers are known.

As the work progresses, the water level in the tank begins to rise, and Taumoepeau’s movement becomes laboured. Eventually reduced to a series of kicks and awkward gestures, her movement is not only affected by the water, but the floaties. These pull her body towards the surface, a hindrance rather than a help. Perhaps these ineffectual “aids” symbolise the limited resources that small island nations, such as Tonga, have to combat the effects of climate change (in comparison to the larger, more powerful nations that have caused the problems).

Eventually reduced to a series of kicks and awkward gestures, Taumoepeau’s movement is not only affected by the water, but the floaties.

As Taumoepeau is submerged, details of the dance are lost, a poignant metaphor for the loss of culture that will occur as sea levels rise around Pacific Island nations and residents are displaced from their homes and traditions.

According to the wall text, the small screens on which the work is displayed recall “souvenir postcards depicting Indigenous people as primitive stereotypes inhabiting island paradises”.  This format also allows for an intimate experience, an almost one-on-one viewing. Rather than displaying a lengthy screen work as a grand projection, as is common in galleries, this series of postcard-like glimpses into the work provides a sense of the entire 90 minute performance in a manner that is both efficient and engaging.

Repatriate is a powerful performance work, although it deserves a more prominent placement than its hall-end location. Latai Taumoepeau presents a compelling art work that draws attention to the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels not only on the Pacific Islands, but the world. The use of the artist’s own body to demonstrate this impact, paired with the intimate setting of the small screens and confined space is both humanising and commanding.

“Repatriate” is on display until 23 March. 


Second Woman
News, Performance art, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Brave, intense, strange

Perth Festival review: The Second Woman by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, 3 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

How many ways can you say the words: I love you?

In sarcasm; anger; desperation; with nonchalance; with love.

Nat Randall’s revelatory performance at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art was a study in the nuances of language and in epic theatre.  Randall began the show at 3pm on Saturday and performed the same, fairly short scene with 100 different men over a period of 24 hours.  24 hours!  Is she mad?  Maybe.  But wow, it was good.

The scene is inspired by a very similar one from the John Cassavete classic, Opening Night.  In her version, Randall is a woman alone in what appears to be a hotel room.  She is visited by a man (well, 100 men), her partner.  They exchange about ten minutes of sparse dialogue, parsing some of the details of their relationship.  They dance, they drink, the man leaves.  This short exchange was performed over and over and over, separated by intervals of ten minutes during which the packed audience could leave, chat, or stay.  Most chose to stay, many for an hour.  Some stoic souls stayed for the whole fraught adventure.

Randall is a Sydney-based performance artist and a core member of the collectives Hissy Fit and Team MESS.  She’s no stranger to Perth audiences, having performed most recently in last year’s Proximity Festival.  She performed The Second Woman in Hobart’s famed Dark Mofo last year and in the Next Wave Festival in 2016 for which the piece was created.

Randall is incredible to watch.  Taking her cues from each new sparring partner, she changes the tone of the same piece as easily as you or I might change underwear.  The first iteration I saw was bursting with humour – the audience breaking into laughs at every second line.  The second was heartfelt, intimate.  It felt like we shouldn’t be there, hanging on each word.  Another was a scene of fatigued sadness, of love gone old and stale.  In each scene of course, the dialogue was almost identical.  The dramatic tension of the work arises from the chemistry between the players, and the audience’s concern (or investment) in the welfare of Randall.  (When) will she falter?  When will she get to go the toilet?  Is she wearing special senior’s knickers?  (Answer: she has a 15 minute break every two hours)

The male players were chosen from a general call-out made through the Festival’s publicity channels.  They called for men of diverse ages and backgrounds with non-performers specifically encouraged to apply.  Of course, some of those who were featured were certainly actors, but many (most?) were not.  They were blokes who might otherwise be in the audience…in some cases wonderfully unwitting of the thrills of live performance.  In preparation, each was given a script with the barest of stage directions.  They knew where to move, what to say and do, but the open question was how.  And therein lies the power of the piece.  I love you.  I love youI love you.  It was genuinely surprisingly to see how ten minutes of dialogue could be interpreted in such radically different ways.  How a tone can change an outcome.

The set, designed by Future Method Studio is a thing of great beauty.  A boxed room, red and lushly lit with the fourth wall sheared off for our viewing pleasure.  It feels a little Lynchian, as does Randall in her red fitted frock and tragically blonde wig.  This room dominates only half the stage with the other half of PICA’s black box taken up with a large screen – each scene is filmed in real time by two camera operators who hover just outside the room.  Randall’s collaborator for this project is Anna Breckon, a film writer and director who is the co-creator of The Second Woman.  It’s Breckon directing the footage as it gets projected onto the adjacent screen, resulting in a very unusual cinematic experience that is almost as compelling as the live action happening next door.

Audience members came and went.  And the line to get in grew ever larger (though I’m betting there was no line at 3am).  I wanted to get in for a third viewing – but alas, by that time, word had well and truly spread and the line snaked outside PICA.  A small band of brave ones (mostly artists themselves as I understand it) stayed for the full experience.  I wish I had.

Brave, intense, strange.  These are a few of my favourite things.

Photo: Perth Festival

White Spirit
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

On the outside, looking in

Perth Festival review: Ensemble Al Nabolsy & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus White Spirit ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 3 March ·
Review by Louisa Wales ·

It’s not every day that a well-heeled audience at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre gets itself into a clapping, rhythmic frenzy jamming with a bunch of Sufi musicians and whirling dervish dancers.

But when Perth Festival’s sold-out two night exclusive event White Spirit came to town last Friday and Saturday evenings, the rapture was catching.

The six musicians, three dancers (from Konya, Turkey) and Tunisian street artist Shoof created in their 80 minute set an utterly transporting and highly poetic portal into the mysterious and yearning world of the Sufi faith.  Combining songs of praise, Sufi poems and devotional invocations with the calligraphic live painting of Shoof and the vertigo-defying incessant spinning of the Whirling Dervishes, White Spirit was an exquisitely beautiful window onto a world both ancient and contemporary.

Hailing from Damascus in war-ravaged Syria, Ensemble Al Nabolsy – led by Noureddine Khourchid, the son of a Syrian Sufi sheik – evoked both a time and place, and a spiritual state, so far from that of the audience that at times it felt as though we were taking part in something quite voyeuristic.

The act of presenting Middle Eastern mysticism and spirituality as art and performance to viewers from the West led to some uncomfortable tensions in the experience.  Was the audience just “othering” the heck out of these people, exoticising their authentic religious beliefs and practices?  And why were the Sufi singers, dancers and artist presenting their practices and religious beliefs as a travelling show anyway?

Beneath the captivating, thrilling spectacle, it was all – in short – rather loaded.  And yet, by the end, White Spirit’s nominal exoticism and our consuming voyeurism were – albeit briefly – broken down as the audience summoned the artists back for a spontaneous encore, and then clapped themselves into an escalating frenzy of abandonment.

Then the lights went on and some in the audience looked a bit sheepish.  The realisation hit home that however sensually engaging this spectacle had just been – the mystical music, the trance-like dancing, the indecipherable exquisite white calligraphy painted by Shoof – we were still on the outside of the faith and mystical experience they were all evoking.

While acknowledging the indisputable beauty of both White Spirit’s components and its totality, the problematic nature of commodifying a spirituality and its devotion left this reviewer wondering if next year festival goers will be packing His Maj to the brim to hear Hillsong Church – and if we do, will we clap ourselves into a devotional frenzy then too?

Photo: Cyril Zannettacci


Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

We’re all animals

Perth Festival review: Damien Jalet & Kohei Nawa’s Vessel ·
State Theatre Centre, 2 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

“It sounds like crickets,” a woman behind me whispered loudly.  “And frogs.”

There’s something delicious about making an audience wait.  In our restless age of instantaneous gratification, making an audience just sit there is a powerful (but surprisingly under-used) theatrical device.  No, you can’t look at your phone; no, you can’t talk; you’ve just got to wait.  Was the waiting a clue that we were in for a transformative experience?  Was it the theatre-makers attempting to prepare us?

Nothing really prepares you for this.

Imagine if David Lynch and Hieronymus Bosch got together and created a dance work.  I use the term dance loosely.  Vessel is a collaboration between Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese artist Kohei Nawa.  If you extend the analogy I’m not sure who is Lynch and who is Bosch, but the product is as startling and compelling as you might imagine.  Employing a group of incredibly proficient Japanese dancers, as well as Australian Nicola Leahey and Greek dancer Aimilios Arapoglou, Vessel takes us on a journey into, as my companion aptly put it: “the primordial ooze.”

The seven dancers first appear melded together in three groupings.  Their heads are obscured by the contortions of their bodies, any humanizing feature is neatly tucked away.  The stage has been transformed into a pool filled with shallow water, the centrepiece of which is a white hillock.  Rippling through the water, the bodies slide, combine, grapple and intertwine.  We’re not quite sure what we’re watching, but because we’re human, we’re asking: are they naked?  Are those flesh-coloured knickers or is that his bottom?  Is that her elbow or a knee?  Is that breast or chest?

The water acts as a sucking anchor to this section of performance.  Only rarely is it sloshed around which gives the splash an extra sense of release when it finally happens.  Mostly, the action is tautly measured, tense with restraint.  As the bodies straddle and hold, evolving into a series of increasingly complex forms, the audience is transfixed.  This dance, if you can call it that, falls squarely into the realm of the super-weird but is as absorbing as it is strange.  The only respite from the intensity is a memorable phrase involving the seven bodies, knocking comically against each other – like Newton’s Cradle, one of those shiny desktop doo-dads popular in the 1980s.  It’s beautifully executed and provides a rare moment of hilarity.

Dripped over dancer’s bodies, the ‘adhesive’ creates a series of thick, milky waterfalls, cascading into a pool atop the hillock in the centre of the stage.

Writhing in the water, the headless bodies create grotesque forms reminiscent of the Japanese art of Butoh.  Butoh arose as a reaction to the dominance of Western culture in post WWII Japan and was renowned for tackling topics considered taboo in 1950s Japan.  The characteristic white body paint and grotesque poses both feature prominently in Vessel so it was not surprising to see that one of the dancers – Nobuyoshi Asai – is considered a modern master of the artform.  Butoh is considered by many to be a reaction to the atomic bombings of Japan, as well as Western dominance and the incorporation of these elements feels just as provocative here.

Rather than using the traditional white paint, sculptor Nawa created an adhesive for this performance that behaves as a solid when you touch it but then melts when you stop moving.  (My kids make this at home and call it “cornstarch goo”)  Dripped over dancers’ bodies, it creates a series of thick, milky waterfalls, cascading into a pool atop the hillock in the centre of the stage.

Accompanying all this is a spare, sinister soundtrack by Japanese composer Marihiko Hara featuring the famed Ryuichi Sakamoto.  The music swells and recedes, tidal-like as we witness the creation of yet another form.  Imagined insects; vulva-like folds; unfamiliar sea-creatures; evolution in flow.

Masterful and wonderfully weird.  We filed out of the theatre, spent.

‘Vessel’ plays Perth Festival until March 4.

Photos: Courtesy of Perth Festival.


Perfume Genius
Music, News, Performing arts, Pop, Reviews

A fitting farewell to summer

Perth Festival review: Perfume Genius and Mama Kin Spender: Perth Festival ·
Wednesday 28 February, 2018 Chevron Gardens ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

It was the last eve of February; I probably should have brought a cardigan. On the main stage of the Chevron Gardens stood Mama Kin Spender and the WAAPA Gospel Choir (dazzling in golden robes), ready to deliver a rockin’ send off to summer.

Mama Kin Spender
Infectious stripped-down alt-rock tunes and their luscious harmonies: Mama Kin on lead vocals and percussion, with Mama Kin Spender. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Mama Kin Spender is the musical project of three long-time friends – Fremantle’s Mama Kin (Danielle Caruana) on lead vocals and percussion with Melbourne-based musos Tommy Spender on guitar and vocals and Virginia Bott as choir director and arranger. The on-stage chemistry between these three was delicious – so genuine, alive and heart-warming. You could easily imagine all the jokes, the unspoken truces, and the late-night shenanigans that fuel their collaborations. These friends simply get each other – whether it’s knowing first-hand the subject matter of a bluesy confessional dirge, or flashing cheeky grins at one another during a rock ‘n’ roll number about “wanting to climb someone like a tree”.

The WAAPA Gospel Choir added impressive depth to the show. The two musical groups formed such a remarkable symbiosis in the short time they were together (only two days of rehearsal and sixty minutes on stage!) that it felt almost magical. They had the crowd swaying with their infectious stripped-down alt-rock tunes and their luscious harmonies, evoking PJ Harvey and The Dirty Projectors. The choir had their time in the spotlight too, performing a glorious rendition of “Lily In The Valley”, which Mama Kin liked so much that it made her “clench [her] butt cheeks”.

If the opening act was the sun rising over Chevron Gardens – bright and joyous with arms outstretched to the world – then Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas plus band) was the fitting spectacular (WA-style) sunset. What better way to farewell a season of endless balmy night-time entertainment than with Hadreas’ signature stage persona? His voice is powerfully vulnerable and he has a hypnotic, seductive way of twisting and moving around on stage.

Hadreas and his band opened with ‘Otherside’, the first track off their latest album, No Shape. The delicate piano arpeggiation and quiet crooning lulled us into a false sense of calm, before our nervous systems were jolted to life by a thunderous explosion of drums, synth, and distorted guitar – accented by brightly flashing stage lights, against which Hadreas’ lithe silhouette could be seen. Majestic in a cropped brown Victorian-era military jacket and black harem pants, his demeanour fluctuated between coquettish and commanding, depending on the song.

The set-list spanned the intimate confessional numbers like ‘Die 4 You’ (recalling ’90s trip-hop band Portishead); the cool, sophisticated ones like ‘Run Me Through’ (which Hadreas says was inspired by Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis); the whimsical ditties like ‘Valley’; the seriously dark songs like ‘My Body’ and the explosively defiant anthems which have been embraced by fans in the queer community, like ‘Queen’ and ‘Slip Away’.

Perfume Genius tests audiences with unconventional song structures; sometimes a song will trail off into an extended section of ambience or noise, without a hook in sight; other times boundaries are pushed with irregular drum beats, harsh screaming vocals and moments where Hadreas retreats into himself, murmuring under his breath, slowly curling into a back bend while heavily-reverbed sounds wash around him. But these difficult moments are worth it, because the band rewards us on the other side with triumphant, glittering chords, sumptuous layers of rhythmic texture and Hadreas’ lovely tenor voice having undergone some sort of heroic transformation on stage.

After Perfume Genius’ epic set, which dealt with grief, shame, longing and oblivion – followed by songs about love, self-acceptance, solidarity and discovery – I finally felt ready to say goodbye to summer, to festivals, to excitement. I felt less saddened by the imminent cool weather, marking the beginning of city’s cultural hibernation until next summer. Because I was reminded that no one can stop the turning of the seasons, inside or out.

Mike Hadreas certainly knows this; it’s how he made his art.

Top: A hypnotic and seductive Mike Hadreas fronting Perfume Genius. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Human Nature, Zadok Ben-David
Installation, News, Reviews, Sculpture, Visual arts

Arresting and apocalyptic

Perth Festival review: Zadok Ben-David, “Human Nature” ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Zadok Ben-David’s work is filled with trickery and illusion. Firstly, the illusion of a forest in Blackfield looks as though the work has sprung up overnight, when in fact, it took over 60 volunteers and many days of carefully unwrapping and assembling the tiny stainless-steel flowers, plants, and trees that make up the whole. The final number totals somewhere between 20-22,000 individual pieces, representing 900 botanical species from the world over – a truly huge undertaking.

Human Nature, Zadok Ben-David_cr. Cam Campbell, Perth Festival
“Blossoming into colour”. Zadok Ben-David’s ‘Blackfield’. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Standing over the field of miniature, blackened trees gives one a god-like feeling, as one errant step into this tiny landscape would crush whole swathes of it. As I carefully walked around the piece, I was struck by how different perspectives radically altered the landscape. A side-on view of these individual, paper-thin sculptures changed the effect of the whole piece, from a crowded forest to a nearly empty field. I was so distracted by this shift that I almost missed the more obvious and overwhelming transformation as the black sculptures gradually started blossoming into colour, their backs painted in a multitude of different hues. From the other side of the room it was an entirely different view – brimming with wonderment and the joys of biodiversity.

Ben-David’s work focuses on human emotion, in this instance, particularly related to the horrors of climate change. He states that his focus is more on the human response to this impending catastrophe than the environment itself, but I couldn’t help but feel that maybe focusing too much on human needs and emotions was what got us into this mess in the first place. I was struck by the field’s spreading renewal and replenishment – like the first shoots of green on a tree ravaged by fire. Why bring the human into this display of nature’s strength, when it’s so astonishing and striking on its own?

The second installation, The Other Side of Midnight, is similarly arresting. As I walked into the darkened room, I was unsure what I was looking at – was it a sphere, or a flat, circular object? It was only by walking around the piece that I became certain of its nature – a theme in this exhibition. Ben-David’s love of illusion is brought to the fore in this work. One side of the sphere is painted with colourful images of men with butterfly wings. On the back of the dish, the men have been replaced by swarms of cockroaches, reminding me that, as is commonly believed, cockroaches will be the only thing that survive the apocalypse. The title too, made me think of the end of the world – as the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight, we can’t predict what will happen on the other side. Certainly, we will need a little hope and trickery in the future.

‘Human Nature’ runs at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until April 21.

Picture top is the colourful side of ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ by Zadok Ben-David. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Miranda Johnson is an arts worker from Perth. She spent the past few years in London working as a record store clerk whilst studying an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Upon returning to Perth, she has been working for some of Perth’s major contemporary arts institutions, as well as co-directing Moana Project Space, an artist-run initiative. Miranda also sings in indie-pop choir Menagerie and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories.

For the duration of Perth Festival, Miranda is part of its customer service team.

Kimsooja Zone of Nowhere
News, Reviews, Visual arts

Flags for a new world order

Perth Festival review: Kimsooja’s “Zone of Nowhere” ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) ·
Review: Belinda Hermawan ·

When experiencing multi-disciplinary artist Kimsooja’s “Zone of Nowhere” at PICA and on the streets of Perth, one cannot help but think of the uncanny timing of the exhibition in relation to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Two weeks before the exhibition’s opening, millions of viewers around the globe tuned in to the Olympic opening ceremony, where athletes marched into the stadium by nation, led by their respective flagbearers, with South Korea and North Korea even marching under one flag in a conciliatory, if relatively brief, gesture of unity.

Zone to Nowhere by Kimsooja
“Kimsooja has cleverly superimposed the elements of national flags onto each other – stars, stripes, colours, crests, coats of arms, crosses.” Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti

Kimsooja herself is South Korea-born and New York-based, her work having transcended borders to international acclaim. Amongst the thirty translucent flags in her exhibition is one composed of the South Korean and North Korean flags superimposed on top of one another. The effect is striking; whether one considers it beautiful or jarring. To me it seemed, initially, an idealistic sign of unity and harmony. Indeed, the artist herself states that the work “expresses a wish for coexistence, for a utopian society in which individuals unite in celebration of their distinctions and common humanity”.

Flags are inherently symbolic, containing in their design the colours and motifs with which a group, nation or cause identifies. These days, flags are a form of visual branding in themselves – recognisable, distinct, message-laden and, in many cases, evoking a strong sense of pride. In “Zone of Nowhere”, Kimsooja has cleverly superimposed the elements of national flags onto each other – stars, stripes, colours, crests, coats of arms, crosses – creating new banners that are not necessarily identifiable as the simple combination of two countries’ emblems. I wondered whether these pieces contained fictional elements or if I simply couldn’t automatically place the flags of many other countries. The exhibition seems to probe at a modern question: in a world of increasing globalisation, technological advancement and internet connectivity, are we genuinely connected as a global community or are we simply more accessible to each other?

Kimsooja Zone of Nowhere
“Walking past these new artworks, displayed on walls or in shop windows on the otherwise familiar streets of Northbridge and the CBD, I felt eerily displaced.” Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti

Standing in the central gallery at PICA, under rows of these vertically displayed flags, the viewer is, arguably, positioned to feel overwhelmed by the beauty and vastness of these artworks, mimicking the sense of awe or smallness an individual may feel when contemplating the world as a whole.

Walking past these new artworks, displayed on walls or in shop windows on the otherwise familiar streets of Northbridge and the CBD, I felt eerily displaced. This unease stemmed, perhaps, from the flags functioning, not as a fixed marker of geographic location or cultural experience, but as a fluid symbol that I did not yet understand. Suddenly I felt like I was “nowhere”.

Returning to the two Korean flags as one, the cynic in me emerged, and I now wondered if the flag could be representative of conflict, two identities battling for significance over a finite area within set borders. Reality, it seemed, had slowly but surely superimposed itself on the idyllic vision Kimsooja had put forward. By the time I viewed the video installation Earth-Water-Fire-Air on the second floor, I was already jaded about the idea of movement of peoples and the crossing of oceans. Yet move forward we must, and, like the literal elements in the video and the symbolic elements in the flags, it is the exchange and interaction of our differences and commonalties that makes life truly rich and exciting.

“Zone of Nowhere” is showing at PICA from 17 February – 25 April 2018, with the public art showing from 15 February – 4 March 2018.

All photos: Alessandro Bianchetti

Kimsooja Zone of Nowhere
“Suddenly I felt like I was ‘nowhere’.” Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Oh! What a journey

Perth Festival review: Nassim by Nassim Soleimanpour ·
Studio Underground, 20 February ·
Review: Xan Ashbury ·

“Nassim means breeze – I knew when I named you, I could not hold on to you forever.”

There are plenty of touching moments in this unconventional and enlightening performance but it was that portentous line that really stirred my emotions.

This is a play about Nassim Soleimanpour’s mother tongue, Farsi. And at the heart of that is his relationship with his mother. We are told that it was on her lap, on the balcony of their home in Shiraz, Iran, that young Nassim learnt to read.

For years, the playwright was forbidden to leave the country of his birth because he refused military service on the grounds of conscience. Now he lives in Berlin.

Soleimanpour used to send off his plays “in big brown envelopes” for them to be performed overseas. Despite his success – Nassim’s work has been translated into 20 languages – there is a palpable sadness when the audience learns that his work has never been performed in Farsi in the country of his birth. Importantly, his mother has never heard his work in his mother tongue.

By the end of the performance, this painful issue has partially been addressed (though not resolved, obviously) thanks to the wonders of technology. But, oh, what a journey along the way. One full of discomfort and humour and longing and empathy.

Central to that journey is a special guest who reads Soleimanpour’s script, sight unseen. At the performance I saw, the willing victim (it’s a tough gig!) was home-grown indie-pop star Scarlett Stevens, of San Cisco.

Throughout the performance, the pages of the script are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. We see the playwright’s hands, turning the pages of the script, and occasionally writing words or drawing pictures. Part way through the performance, Nassim joins his guest on stage, with a bowl of cherry tomatoes.

When he was learning to read in Farsi, his mother played the tomato game with him: If he got a word wrong, he would have to eat a cherry tomato. (“Sometimes I would literally pee tomato juice.”) Now it was Steven’s turn to learn to read in Farsi…
Anyone who has picked up a phrase book while they are travelling will understand how difficult it is to be understood. And yes, Stevens (and the three volunteers from the audience) had to eat a fair few tomatoes.

I was reminded of the last time I saw Stevens on stage. It was at the Astor Theatre last July, accompanying my 13-year-old son to see San Cisco. I have never seen my son happier or more alive than on that night. That image of his arms swaying above him as he shouted the words to “Beach” – at one with the crowd – will be forever treasured. How much pleasure and sense of belonging we derive from a shared cultural experience – and how much pain is suffered from exclusion or invisibility.

Though clearly enthusiastic, Steven’s discomfort was obvious – that was the point. Even the most talented and intelligent people seem out of their depth and a little foolish struggling to be understood in an unfamiliar language. That is not to suggest that the scenario was cruel. Stevens took Soleimanpour’s playful humour with good grace and we were always laughing with her.

At other moments, the script’s gravity brought respectful silence. When Soleimanpour wrote Stevens’ name in Farsi, I could hear his pen squeaking on the paper.

“A writer’s heart always beats in their mother tongue,” we were told.

The Iranians in the audience – who’d made themselves known with some lively banter – were first to their feet at the end of the show. Their sense of sheer joy and delight was beautiful to witness – just like my son’s at the San Cisco gig. It is impossible to be unmoved by Soleimanpour’s resilience and inventiveness.

‘Nassim’ plays until 25 February, with a different guest for each performance.

Pictured top: Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.

Lisa Reihana Emissaries
Film, Mixed media, News, Photography, Reviews, Sculpture, Visual arts

A rich and tender alternative

Perth Festival review: “Emissaries” by Lisa Reihana ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Lisa Reihana’s “Emissaries” takes as its starting point a tapestry made in 1805, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. At the time, the popular tapestry provided an escapist-style insight into the lives and cultures of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific – told, of course, through the eyes of the white colonialists.

Reihana, who is of Māori and British descent, seeks to redress this one-sided depiction by reimagining vignettes of early contact between the First Nations peoples of the Pacific and European explorers. I had already seen this work at the Venice Biennale, so I was surprised to discover that the show has expanded, the more spacious and modern venue giving it room to breathe. The sleek rooms of John Curtin Gallery provide a series of antechambers, and, walking deeper into the show toward the rumbling, creaking soundtrack of Reihana’s epic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], I felt that I was entering the hull of a ship.

As an entrance, the first room shows portraits of certain ‘emissaries’, including Joseph Banks, astronomer and explorer, and the Chief Mourner of the Society Islands, a mysterious figure who can move between worlds. It is clear that these emissaries aren’t just from another time, but another place – otherworldly shadows. Reihana’s digital photography gives the figures a contemporary feel, whilst their garb and formal attitudes hearken back to Enlightenment portraiture. These are augmented by historical material from the Kerry Stokes Collection, a series of original eighteenth and nineteenth century works on paper depicting Captain Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific. History and fiction are combined to create a more complex narrative of colonialism, discovery, and myth-making.

This first two rooms provide an elegant introduction to the cinematic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. You can hear it echoing through the gallery, but you can’t see it until you face the single shadowy portrait of a Nootka ancestor and totem and enter the final room.

Here, the suggestions of Enlightenment values, colonial histories and reclaimed narratives become strikingly clear. The panoramic video uses modern imaging technology to digitally animate moments of Pacific life at the time of the original tapestry’s inception. It’s hypnotising and incredibly rich in detail.

Many of the stories show people simply living their culture: dancing, sparring, and singing. There are moments of humour (a grown man pretends to labour and joyfully birth another grown man) and, frequently, moments of confusion, violence, and awkwardness that come with groups of people with no common language or culture meeting for the first time. Sometimes they interact by exchanging tokens and gestures of friendliness. Sometimes the Europeans are shown to be painting the Pacific Islanders, presumably to bring home the taxonomic images we’ve just seen in the previous room. And sometimes it ends in unspeakable violence – lashings, murder, a disembodied limb.

As the soundtrack grows louder, the vignettes reach a breaking point – with weeping and agonised screams, and waves are breaking loudly nearby. But everything keeps on moving. Even the satisfying moment of Captain Cook’s murder by a Hawai’ian doesn’t stop the slow march of history. The moment of the fatal blow reverberates for just a minute – the people recoil and sit in stunned silence – before the moment rolls by.

“Emissaries” is a richly woven tapestry of its own, retelling historical narratives with inventiveness and tenderness. It’s a comment on what we think of as history, how we come to accept narratives, and who gets to tell these stories. Just as the narrative of In Pursuit of Venus [infected] cycles through its story without a clear beginning or end, Reihana’s work is never-ending.  Time is not linear, and history is always repeating itself – the implications of colonialism are always continuing in both new and old forms. Reihana’s work seeks to redress an imbalance, and to correct the record. It is, of course, partly fictionalised, but then, who is to say the accepted narratives we already think we know are real?

Emissaries runs at John Curtin Gallery until April 29.

Top: Lisa Reihana, detail in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Ultra HD video, colour, sound, 64 min. Image courtesy of the artist and New Zealand at Venice.

Miranda Johnson is an arts worker from Perth. She spent the past few years in London working as a record store clerk whilst studying an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Upon returning to Perth, she has been working for some of Perth’s major contemporary arts institutions, as well as co-directing Moana Project Space, an artist-run initiative. Miranda also sings in indie-pop choir Menagerie and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories.

For the duration of Perth Festival, Miranda is part of its customer service team.