Witnessing self-definition

9 July 2019

Review: Joshua Pether, Jupiter Orbiting ·
PICA, 24 May ·
Review by Patrick Gunasekera ·

Two years since its initial development at PICA for premiere at Next Wave Festival 2018, emerging choreographer/performer Joshua Pether’s experimental solo work Jupiter Orbiting returned to the PICA Performance Space. Seeing the work for the first time, I was captivated by the organic scope of its images and tones. Pether nonchalantly passes between aesthetics of kitsch, surrealism and expressionism, bending and at times erupting the language of the performance. The offbeat array of costuming, props, and other visuals, – including shadows, garish children’s cartoons and the projected words of a probing psychiatrist – build a world simultaneously tender and blunt.

For me, however, the most memorable aspect of Jupiter Orbiting was the painstaking honesty with which Pether examines the light and dark of trauma. As someone with a lived experience of psychosis and dissociation, I began to witness myself in Pether’s performance. This sense of familiarity, of coming home is not something I’ve experience previously in the context of an arts institution.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen debasing and twisted depictions of myself and other neurodivergent and disabled people on the walls of modern art galleries and on the stages of acclaimed theatres. Every sensationalised misrepresentation of our personhood is another powerful brick laid in the dense systemic social structure of ableism: an insidious kyriarchy excluding myself and too many others from education, work, meaningful relationships, and other kinds of basic agency, especially when combined with inaccessible capitalism (poverty) and traumas of colonial violence.

While non-disabled artists profit from the perceived melodrama of our lived experiences, art institutions construct precarious societies where self-definition and simple cultural safety have been rare finds for me and for other disabled artists, particularly those of us with the added vulnerabilities of being emerging practitioners in the field.

Jupiter Orbiting gives audiences a critical opportunity to witness some of our experiences of neurodivergence, through the vision of a disabled artist telling his own stories. For me, it was astoundingly empowering to see parts of myself acknowledged and given space without censorship or stigma, or indeed any of the prejudice which led to a number of significant others in my life (friends that others could not see or hear) hospitalised and medicated away non-consensually as a minor, because they were deemed no more than hallucinations. These are intense losses I’ve never been permitted to grieve. To observe Pether embodying obsessive compulsiveness as he meticulously arranges plastic toys on a white tabletop, or to see his numbness, alternative realities, and loss of control during the performance was to witness neurodivergence through its own mind, with a brazenly real voice.

Joshua Pether in ‘Jupiter Orbiting’, 2018. Presented at Next Wave Festival. Photo: Adele Wilkes.

Viewing such performance can be difficult. Whilst I watched the sombre, shadowy epilogue of the work with a wide and teary smile, uplifted in my welcoming of past selves, there are many who would prefer to look the other way when faced with such rawness of trauma and profoundly othered experience. Many believe that psychosis and dissociation are best hidden away from view of a public consciousness inundated with fear and tyrannical notions of bodily, racial, and class superiority.

Certainly, many authoritative powers within the arts industry continue to assert that our stories and our art are best handled by non-disabled practitioners, as directors or even as lead artists. The advantage or harmfulness of telling other people’s stories depends on context, but, nonetheless, speaking for or over disabled people from a position of power is an over-represented trope of modern and contemporary art. It perpetuates oppressive cycles of privileging non-disabled voices and marking out images of disabled people through a lens of an intergenerational fear we are very far from unlearning.

My hope is that through witnessing more works like Jupiter Orbiting and other declarations of neurodivergent self-definition in all its plastic and spectral glory, the arts will learn to greet us with love and freedom, granting us the same recognition and value as it does nondisabled artists using our stories. Indeed, Jupiter Orbiting already facilitates space for neurodivergents like myself to honour and witness ourselves without shame, denial or despondency, a space for us to be who we really are and radically dream of healing and understanding together.

Jupiter Orbiting is an ardent and honest investigation of Pether’s realities and impressions of the past, performed with copious life force and brilliant candour. It is an unmatched strength to both the contemporary performance art locale and the ongoing liberation work of the neurodivergent community.

Jupiter Orbiting played PICA 22-25 May 2019.

Pictured top is Joshua Pether in ‘Jupiter Orbiting’, 2018. Presented at Next Wave Festival. Photo: Adele Wilkes.

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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