A brightly coloured sculptural depiction of a deity.
News, Perth Festival, Reviews, Visual arts

Two transporting experiences

Perth Festival review: David Noonan, “A Dark and Quiet Place”; Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran & Renee So, “Idols” ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

Fremantle Arts Centre has opened its 2019 programming with an impressively curated double-bill of exhibitions presented as part of the Perth Festival, both of which raise questions about visibility and power. David Noonan’s monochromatic film, collage and tapestry works transport us into a wholly immersive experience of stagecraft; while Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s and Renee So’s ceramic works “face off” in a gallery space of their own.

Noonan’s 28-minute film Untitled, A Dark and Quiet Place is the main feature of his exhibition. Noonan describes the piece as “art directing existing images, stripping them back”. Black and white photographs are overlayed, juxtaposed and collaged together in a shifting tableau that draws parallels between the way in which theatre productions are staged and the way in which we stage our own lives. Often the camera will pan out from what initially looks like a simple pattern of lines or shapes, to reveal the theatre stage, various props, audio-visual components, actors dissolving into the next frame or exiting stage left… all the elements of a performance. The viewing experience is immersive, even three dimensional; at times I felt I was in a fragment of an MC Escher sketch or inside a Magic Eye puzzle. While the images are not quite surrealist, they do conjure a sense of awe.

Black and white image of women sunbathing, with vertical lines running through it
Noonan’s untitled jacquard tapestry. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

The film includes a variety of interchangeable actors who are never afforded staying power. This theme echoes into the untitled jacquard tapestry hanging in the adjacent room. The stage actors are performing, but are lying on their backs with their heads raised, as if they are aware of a potential audience but lack the agency to make the next move. In thematic contrast, the other three untitled works in this exhibition are prints that juxtapose actors in poses with collages of lines where patterns appear in the vertical. While these columns appear rigid, like the test pattern on a television set, the variation in the horizontal lines’ height and opacity demonstrates that not everything is fixed, that even within a set structure, there is room to move.

A Bellarmine jug depicting a naked woman
So’s enigmatic idols. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

The playful sculptures in Nithiyendran and So’s “Idols” provide an equally evocative commentary on agency and representation, this time in the context of gender expectations and idol worship. So’s stoneware works Bellarmine XV and XVI and Woman III, IV and V present as artefacts from another world, the evocative, deep earthy brown colour a result of the oxidisation process during firing. But these enigmatic idols are tongue-in-cheek, from their peculiar heads and voluptuous figures, down to their alien-like three-legged bases. Questions are raised: Are they both male and female? From which body parts do their authoritative auras come?

One theory of the origin of Bellarmine, or Bartmann, jugs is that they were conceived to make fun of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and his anti-alcohol stance. This context makes So’s subversive decision – to sculpt a womanly figure with a face of grapes as a drinking vessel – particularly satisfying. The grape motif reappears in the neutral-coloured, knitted pieces Legs II and Circle – protest interwoven in body, a resistance to labels or instructions.

Nithiyendran’s background as a painter serves him well in his outlandishly colourful depictions of deities. Having taught himself ceramics via YouTube tutorials, his sense of adventure comes through in the deliberately unrefined sculpting and glazing of the giant heads. Throughout history, idols have been, typically, serene but Nithiyendran embraces chaos, firing smaller pieces in the kiln before assembling them in totems of unexpected scale and textural detail – exaggerated facial features, a king’s crown of tubular creatures, coral-like beards, bones as limbs, piercings and tribal-like jewellery – on stages of vibrant yellow. His signature is painted haphazardly in huge letters on the back of one head, while the letters of his first name are implanted across two eyes in another.

Foreground: brightly coloured idol, background: painting of child-like faces
Nithiyendran embraces chaos. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

Rather than worshipping order and rules, should we not celebrate the freeform and unique? Perhaps, as the large collage Trio of selves at the proverbial gym appears to suggest, it is unhealthy to subscribe to the myth of the ideal male body, an Instagram goal that doesn’t seem even remotely achievable when juxtaposed behind three figures whose features more closely resemble those of a child’s drawing.

Thought-provoking and visually arresting, these three artists’ curated works are an excellent example of worthy investment in visual art by the Perth Festival. Fremantle Art Centre’s installation and use of gallery space is particularly well executed and their staff knowledgeable. I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour for this free event – you’ll be transported to stages unknown.

A Dark and Quiet Place and Idols show until 31 March at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Pictured top: One of Nithiyendran’s outlandishly colourful depictions of deities.

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Making America Great Gatsby again

Perth Festival review: Elevator Repair Service, Gatz ⋅
Octagon Theatre, March 1 ⋅
Review by David Zampatti ⋅

It’s impossible to claim that Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s heroic word-for-word performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a reaction to the state of America under its current president (after all, the project was conceived under Clinton and first performed under Bush II).

But I doubt if anyone who experienced this demanding, adventurous, beautiful, funny, desperately sad tour de force of theatrical daring and skill during the dying days of this year’s Perth Festival would have failed to feel the sense and personality of Trump reverberating uncannily through it.

ERS performs The Great Gatsby in its entirety, and without a single additional word of dialogue. For the record, the performance of those roughly 50,000 words takes 360 minutes (there are three intervals, one long enough for a meal). According to one ready reckoner, Fitzgerald’s novella (he insisted it was a novel for commercial reasons, complaining that novellas didn’t sell) takes a minute under three hours for the average reader to complete.

There’s little needs saying about the story – it’s a known commodity: the mysterious, obsessed tycoon and the woman he (foolishly but inevitably) loves to his death, and the damage they do, as reported by a decent, ordinary man who fell into their web, ensnared by their charm and his timidity.

It’s hard to believe that performing a novel word for word could work so perfectly on stage, but Gatsby is no typical novel. As Gertrude Stein wrote admiringly to Fitzgerald: “You write naturally in sentences.” T.S. Eliot, for whom compliments did not come easy, was also a fan. He read Gatsby three times, repaying, I think, a compliment Fitzgerald had paid him through the novel’s tone and sensibility – Gatsby may be the great American novel, but it is also its Waste Land.

That natural economy of Fitzgerald’s phrase and structure makes the transition to the spoken word and the stage easy. Whether it’s in the long narrations that Nick Carraway (Scott Shepherd) delivers, or in the dialogue between the book’s characters – Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), Daisy (Annie McNamara) and Tom (Pete Simpson), Jordan (April Matthis), George (Frank Boyd) and Myrtle (Laurena Allan) – Fitzgerald’s language is vivid, easy to grasp and imbued with life.

Let me explain: the world of the play is a humdrum office some time in the late 1980s, judging by the computers and remnant typewriters. One office worker (Shepherd) fills the tedious hours reading The Great Gatsby aloud. Others go about the desultory business of the modern administrative workplace until, unobtrusively at first, they assume the personages of Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg on Long Island and hurtle down to the book’s scandal and its tragedy.

Three men in office attire lean against a desk.
In the office: Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan and Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

Once the characters are established and the action mounts in the first “section”, it’s an exhilarating ride, with the atmospherics created by Fitzgerald – and amplified and enriched by director John Collins – anticipating much of the best of American literature, cinema and theatre.

When it moves to the Gatsby mansion parties and Jay and Daisy’s reunion, the production becomes a comedy of New York manners worthy of Damon Runyon and Dorothy Parker. As the screws tighten in the Plaza Suite scene – where Gatsby and Tom Buchanan battle for possession of Daisy – there’s a Tennessee Williams shift in mood. And later, when Myrtle Wilson goes under the wheels of Gatsby’s automobile and their battle turns fatal, Gatz reads like James M. Cain.

Finally, we are left with Nick looking out over Long Island Sound at the dark water and the green light, and the voice – its admonition and its premonition – belongs to Fitzgerald alone.

Shepherd is astounding as Nick Carraway. Apart from the enormous feat of remembering almost an entire book (he pretends to be reading it, but that ain’t so) and holding the stage for six hours, his habitation of the character of Nick is complete. You don’t doubt him for a second.

Nor do you doubt the other characters. Fletcher’s Gatsby is imposing, humorous and threatening (he’d be an extraordinary Kerry Packer); McNamara makes Daisy not an alabaster beauty but a woman a man might ache for; and Simpson’s Tom Buchanan is manspread and dangerous. Even the sound designer, Ben Williams, who steps out from his cleverly camouflaged sound desk to play minor characters, is perfect.

Daisy sits by a window, flooded with light from behind.
Annie McNamara’s Daisy Buchanan is a woman a man might ache for. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

But it is the contemporary parallels – Gatsby/Tom Buchanan as precursors to Trump, the inheritance man and cagey outsider; Gatsby’s bootlegger Wolfsheim and Trump’s Russian oligarchs; the racism and the womanising – that make Gatz such a fascinatingly relevant work.

For Gatsby, it was not enough that Daisy loved him; he needed her to have always loved him. It’s his expectation of, and demand for, complete loyalty and possession that destroy him. Perhaps it will destroy this president, too.

The worst thing about them all – the Gatsbys, the Buchanans, the Trumps – is that, as Fitzgerald says, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.

And the worst mess they have made – the one they are still making now, from Wall Street to the Oval Office, from sea to shining sea – is the retreat from the promise of the American future: the green light that Gatsby believed in but was too greedy to attain. And so “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

POSTSCRIPT

Two years ago, we marvelled at The Gabriels – another eight-hour American epic, set, coincidentally, in the year leading up to the election of Donald Trump. It remains the best experience I’ve had at the theatre. I would gladly see both plays – The Gabriels followed by Gatz – back to back over 16 hours.

I thank Perth Festival’s departing director, Wendy Martin, for bringing them both here, and congratulate her on a wonderful four years of theatre programming. I’ll have more to say about it later.

Picture Top:  (left to right) Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, April Matthis as Jordan Baker, Annie McNamara as Daisy Buchanan and  Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

 

 

 

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Dada Masilo reaching out to audience
Dance, News, Perth Festival, Reviews

The marvellous Masilo

Perth Festival review: Dada Masilo’s Giselle ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 28 February ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Like all the great Romantic ballets, Giselle doesn’t read well from a contemporary feminist perspective. Its female protagonist goes mad and dies halfway through the work because she’s been deceived by a man. Then the second act is populated by wilis – ethereal, evil female spirits bent on dancing men to their deaths. And at the end of it all, the man is forgiven and saved, as the female lead disappears.

Hmph.

What is both clever and immensely satisfying about South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s version of Giselle is that she tweaks this plot only slightly to achieve a completely different result. The magic of the transformation is embedded as much in the choreographic, musical and design choices as it is in the storyline.

From early on in Masilo’s Giselle, those familiar with the traditional version will notice that Philip Miller’s eclectic composition includes pops of the original Adolphe Adam score, but manipulated; distorted, distended, overlain with African drumming.

The dancers make occasional references to the original choreography too, but predominantly the movement is a blend of contemporary and traditional African dance. Feet skitter, arms curlicue, heads dip. It’s peppered with claps, calls and – occasionally – conversation, and framed by William Kentridge’s whimsical pencil sketch of a sparse South African rural vista. In contrast to Act I’s delicate, simpering balletic “Friends”, here we see Giselle’s friends get down with some serious booty-shaking. Later, the vibe shifts to swing; the music, big band style.

And then there are the two Act I pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht, danced with joyful abandon by Masilo and Xola Willie (on opening night). Whereas in traditional Romantic pas de deux the dancers’ bodies barely touch and passion is communicated with longing glances, here we see Giselle’s body slide down Albrecht’s. The dance is punctuated by their audible breaths; arms fling skyward with an exhalation and float sensuously down. When Albrecht whirls Giselle around we feel the dizziness of their attraction. Their final kiss rings through the air.

As Masilo notes in the program, in the traditional Giselle, the famous “mad scene relies on messy hair”. Shaven-headed, Masilo’s Giselle pulls not at her hair but at her clothes. Writhing and screaming she is stripped back in every sense. The baying onlookers are, perhaps, figments of her imagination who fade away with the light, leaving her to die alone, her crumpled outline just discernible.

And so to the Wilis.

Forget other-worldly wraiths in ghostly white. Against a minimalist forest of shards and slivers lit luminous green, these wilis are crimson-clad, their tulle bustles a tongue-in-cheek nod to tutus past. Wafting port de bras and delicate bourees are replaced with flicking hands, stamping feet and war calls. Turning the whole wispy women trope on its head, they’re earthly and androgynous. Male and female, they’re led by a transgender Myrtha – a sangoma (a traditional South African healer) rather than a spirit – danced by the sensational and stately Lllewellyn Mnguni. Towering and muscular she wields long blonde hair and a blonde-haired switch, both of which she whips with ferocity.

Dado Masilo’s Giselle is at once liberating and devastating. It is performed with power and conviction by its compelling cast.  Leading her dancers as Giselle, Masilo is simply captivating, as she moves through innocence, heartbreak and anger to freedom.

If you aren’t familiar with original Giselle, it’s worth taking some time on YouTube to fill in the gaps before you see this version.

But most importantly – whatever you do – make sure you see Masilo’s marvellous Giselle.

Dada Masilo’s Giselle plays His Majesty’s Theatre until March 2.

Pictured top: Dada Masilo (centre) is simply captivating as Giselle. Photo: John Hogg.

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Brutal ghosting

Perth Festival review: Dickie Beau, Re-Member Me ·
Studio Underground, February 27 ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Near the commencement of Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me the audience is treated to a silhouette of a man seated in a pose reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, accompanied by a synchronised voice-over provided by the actor Ian McKellen. McKellen claims blithely that “Anyone can play Hamlet!” before clarifying that Hamlet is such an open theatrical part that it can be easily re-shaped to be about anyone. We are then rapidly treated to an array of distorted Hamlets, now accompanied by the live lip-synching Beau, leaping about and posing while dressed like an extra from the film version of the Village People’s YMCA.

Complete with Max Headroom-style stutters and reboots and a dazzling day-glo disco projection, the combination is deliberately jarring, garish but also stilted. It’s full of light, colour and joyous action, but it is also — like the best drag performance — slightly distanced, or as Susan Sontag used to say of Andy Warhol, affectively flat and hence “camp”.

Although Re-Member Me focusses on a version of Hamlet performed by the late Ian Charleson (best known for Chariots of Fire) it is, in fact, about the gay subculture of London and West End theatre. Beau playing the late Sir John Gielgud bookends the evening, initially with a recording of Gielgud’s incomparable vocal performance of Hamlet, returning to perform a rather tragic late recording of Gielgud discussing how horrible becoming truly old is since all of one’s friends are dead and one knows that one is next. Gielgud was charged in 1953 for “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes”, while Charleson played Hamlet shortly after it had become known to friends and colleagues that he was dying of AIDS. Both Gielgud and Charleson suffered, albeit in different ways, for their sexuality.

Beau sets up a horizontal space running across the back of the stage, which is bounded by partially see-through plastic curtains, as in a hospital. Above this is hung a wide projection screen onto which four versions of Beau’s head are beamed. For much of the production it is these heads, not the “living” actor below who lip-syncs interviews with Charleson’s friends and colleagues such as McKellen, the former director of the Royal National Theatre, a one-time costume assistant and others. Representing that generation of very English thespians who were taught that correct pronunciation and the Queen’s English was the very essence of their trade, these voice-overs themselves sound vaguely unreal and staged. The equally mannered, exaggerated movements of the mouth and face which Beau adopts when seeming to recite this material increases this sense of unreality and distance.

At a crucial point one of the subjects asks if maybe they are all now creating this romantic myth about how this was one of the best Hamlets ever out of nostalgia, and from their retrospective knowledge that this was to be Charleson’s last major role. Having put this forward, the speaker immediately rejects this, insisting it really was one of those once in a lifetime moments in the theatre. As if to prove this, a recording of a critic from The Times reciting a frankly ludicrous, hagiographic review is then played. One is therefore left with a niggling doubt that, tragic though the tale of Charleson’s death may be, the show is something of an act of smoke and mirrors, an attempt to “re-member” something that maybe never was. It is less a deeply affective myth or piece of stage magic than perhaps a rather brutal, deliberately clunky mixtape of memories and incomplete actorly presences — like the lifeless plastic mannequins which Beau sets up below the disembodied heads.

This is therefore a rather more thoughtful and jarring show than it might at first appear, both homage and debunking all in one, and all the more fascinating for this.

Re-Member Me is playing at Studio Underground until March 3,

Pictured top: Dickie Beau conjuring the ghosts of Hamlets past.  Photo: Sarah Lewis.

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Three people in an art gallery, watching a film of a person in a fire-proof suit, engulfed in flames.
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Flux and fluidity

Review: Cassils, “Alchemic” and Marco Fusinato, “Lower Power” ·
PICA, 16 February ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Curated by Anne Loxley and Eugenio Viola, “Alchemic” offers an overview of the powerful works by US-based artist and bodybuilder Cassils, who is known for moulding, challenging and manipulating their body as their artistic medium. One of two exhibitions presented by PICA in association with the 2019 Perth Festival, “Alchemic” investigates and interrogates cultural and gendered narratives surrounding the body; exploring themes of resilience, vulnerability and the documentation of violence and trauma. Referencing the four elements of Western occultism (earth, fire, air, and water), these selected works are both aesthetically stunning and vital in their political intent.

In Tiresias (2013), a 15 minute video work documenting a four-hour durational performance, the artist presses their body against the male torso of a classical Greek sculpture that has been carved from ice. The artist stares stoically out at the viewer as the ice slowly melts, their stillness belying the pain they must have felt during such an act of endurance. Referencing a Greek mythological figure who was transformed from man to woman, this work speaks to the fluidity of gender – with Cassils describing their own transgender identity as “a continual process of becoming”.

The installation Becoming an Image (2012 – current) presents the remnants of a live performance that took place during this year’s Perth Festival. During this event, Cassils physically attacked a 900kg lump of modelling clay whilst being documented by a white male photographer, whose camera flash provided the only source of light. The resulting mushed clay obelisk sits in the gallery as a misshapen monument to the artist’s force and energy, while the surrounding walls are papered with a huge composite photograph of the audience members looking disoriented, shocked, bemused and grim. Overlaid on this wallpaper is a series of glossy shots showing Cassils in action, their muscles taut and eyes wild as they strike the clay. Approaching these walls, the gallery-goer views the viewers and the viewed. It’s a reminder of the power of the gaze; the impact the audience has upon its subject, and of the accountability of being a witness.

One whole wall of the Central Galleries is taken up by the cinematic video Inextinguishable Fire (2007-2015), which offers a close-up view of the artist as they endure a full-body stunt burn in a fire-proof suit. Alluding to the use of fire in protests and as a punishment, the footage has been dramatically slowed – 14 seconds of action extended to 14 minutes – which makes the flickering flames seem otherworldly. At a casual glance the sheer spectacle of this work is enjoyable, but extended time spent with this agonisingly slow piece makes the viewer appreciate the high tensions felt by both Cassils and the audience during the original performance.

Two photographs on the wall of a gallery, showing a woman about to throw a rock, at a protest.
Provoking a sense of unease: Marco Fusinato’s “Lower Power”. Photo: Bo Wong.

Ideas surrounding evidence, spectacle and the depiction of violence are also explored in the works of Australian artist Marco Fusinato found upstairs in the Westend Gallery. In this space, however, the urgent and visceral vitality of Cassil’s works has been replaced with the cool remove of high-end, commercially printed images. Produced for this exhibition, each of the two huge prints in “Lower Power” depicts a protester with their face covered, in the moment before they throw the rock visible in their upraised hand. These works belong to Fusinato’s series “Infinitives” (2009 – ongoing), in which the artist sources images of rioting published by contemporary mass media and enlarges them to monumental scale, printed on massive sheets of aluminium.

By removing these photographs from their original contexts and presenting them without any identifying information about the protesters or their circumstances, Fusinato has ensured that the images become depoliticised – they seem to retain only a generalised sense of “revolution”. The viewer becomes a voyeur, free to appreciate or dismiss the images at their leisure, perhaps choosing to admire only the formal composition or the precise rendering of the prints.

There is a sense of unease provoked by this aestheticization of anonymous rioters, whose intentions and beliefs remain unknown, and who are depicted in dire and possibly deadly circumstances. These works raise questions that are worthy of consideration for citizens of the Information Age, where images depicting violence and suffering are always just a click away.

Cassils “Alchemic” and Marco Fusinato’s “Lower Power” both run at PICA until April 14.

Pictured top: Cassils, “Alchemic”, as part of Perth Festival, at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2019. Photo: Christophe Canato. Image courtesy of Cassils and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

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A privilege to witness

Perth Festival review: Art Gallery of WA, ‘Desert River Sea’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Step into the world of “Desert River Sea”, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the expansiveness of this Perth Festival exhibition is striking. Delve further and you will discover that this sense of breadth is about much more than installation  choices.

“Desert River Sea” is the culmination of an extensive six-year research and development project between the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) and Aboriginal artists and art centres throughout the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Documenting, commissioning and exhibiting works expressing the cultural and artistic life of the area, the project bridges the distance between the Kimberley and Perth, and – in turn – between art centres and artists working throughout the Kimberley, who are often just as isolated from one another. The resulting exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of the art practices and important cultural narratives embedded in the Kimberley region and spanning the past half-century of Aboriginal art centre production and individual creative practice.

This spirit of collaboration and the establishment of networks between art centres, language groups and geographic locations permeates the exhibition itself. Whilst “Desert River Sea” is divided into separate galleries titled Commissions (works made especially for the exhibition), Legacy (works selected by Indigenous curators for their cultural and historical importance) and the State Collection (works drawn from AGWA’s existing collection as well as some private collectors), stories and images thread their way throughout the exhibition and between the galleries.

Mrs Taylor Aru 2018 ochre pigments on paper 57.5 x 76 cm Courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre
Mrs Taylor, ‘Aru’ 2018, ochre pigments on paper, 57.5 x 76 cm, courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre.

Passed from generation to generation, these stories often date back an untold number of years. The Wandjina (spirits) float through the skies in new works by the Kira Kiro Collective, a collaboration of works by artists Betty Bundamurra, Mary Punchi Clement, Mercy Fredericks, Mrs Taylor, and Valerie Mangolamara celebrating the seasons, animals and spiritual practices of the artists’ Country. In the State Art Collection, this Wandjina figure appears again, in Alec Mingelmanganu’s ochre on bark piece from c.1972-74. Wanjina images are present, too, in much of the ancient rock art of the area. As I traversed the exhibition, I saw that such conversations abound between the separate galleries, with stories, artists and locations arising multiple times, refusing to stay firmly in the past or present.

As the curator’s introduction reminds us, whilst art from the Kimberley does not conform to any one medium, subject or style, what unites all work from the area is the synthesis of artwork, story and Country – Kimberley art is what it is because it carries the essence of the Kimberley itself. It is no surprise, then, that many of the works are made through collaboration or by collectives, with the act of making or developing the work as much a part of sharing cultural knowledge as the presentation of the final works.

Central to the exhibition is the stunning installation by Waringarri Aboriginal Artists, which takes as a starting point the cultural practice of Wirnan, or exchange. Comprising video projection as well as an installation of important artefacts used in the ceremony, the work provides an insight into the particularities of the ceremony for viewers, whilst also successfully synthesising old and new materials – paperbark and stone, through to metal, wood, and film.

This use of traditional and new technology features strongly throughout the other commissioned pieces in “Desert River Sea”. Warmun Art Centre’s commissions are both paintings and new animations based on paintings, celebrating the multiple ways in which stories can be communicated and voices heard. This is also an inter-generational act of knowledge exchange. Many of the paintings are by senior artists, whose stories of living on stations and experiencing first-hand the effects of violent frontier colonialism – such as Kathy Ramsey’s emotional Mistake Creek Massacre (2018) – are passed on to the younger generation, not only through their paintings and stories but through experimentation with digital media. This combination of traditional and contemporary forms of art-making continues, from luminously bright and colourful acrylic paints on cow hide of the Mangkaja artists to the pool salt used in Daniel Walbidi’s installation Wirnpa (2016-19).

Daniel Walbidi, ‘Wirnpa’ 2016–2019 (detail), sand installation and digital video, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and Short Street Gallery.

In a similar manner, the concerns and local issues presented throughout the exhibition traverse time, from massacres and slavery to life on colonial cattle stations, and into present concerns about the impact of environmental disaster, land grabs by mining corporations, and native title settlements. This responsiveness to the present as well as the ongoing impact of past trauma is, perhaps, typified by curator Lynley Nargoodah’s selection of works on paper by Mangkaja artists, all of which address the importance of water as a life-giving and life-saving resource that is increasingly threatened by the environmental impact of fracking, mining and agriculture. It is not just the recently commissioned works that look to the future of life in the Kimberley, but historical and legacy works as well.

The stories and art practices in “Desert River Sea” gesture towards not only the vibrancy of the region, but the strength of spirit and survival of Aboriginal artists and art centre workers seeking to ensure this living and responsive cultural legacy continues into the future in a generous and thoughtful exhibition that is an honour and a privilege to witness.

Pictured top: Helicopter Joey Tjungurrayi, “Wangkartu'” 2017, kiln fired glass, 31.2 x 21.7 cm, courtesy Warlayirti Artists.

“Desert River Sea” is on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until May 27.

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Playing with time

Perth Festival review: Kate McIntosh, Worktable ·
Gallery Central, North Metropolitan TAFE, 21 February ·
Review by Robert Housley ·

Undertaking any activity at break-neck speed is commensurate with doing it on the edge of certain death. In literal terms, the spine just can’t take the pressure.

Life in the 21st Century is moving at such a pace that neck problems abound. Many struggle to keep up and it is not just those with generational lag. There is seemingly so much to do and so little time.

So what happens when you slow down time? What is that experience like? Is it even possible?

Belgium-based Kiwi Kate McIntosh’s well-travelled piece Worktable encourages that experience while “giving you the power to unleash your creativity and to potentially discover things you didn’t know about yourself”.

Her “fascination with the misuse of objects and playfulness with audiences” is the basis of this interactive work, which has audience members selecting, deconstructing and repurposing second-hand objects.

How quickly or slowly you do it is up to you.

It begins with you being asked to select a used object – for example, clock, shoe, keyboard, stuffed wombat – sitting atop a long row of shelves in the foyer. Then you wait, seated in an informal queue, to be ushered alone in to the installation space.

Once inside, you are taken to one of three “work rooms”, replete with work bench, light and an assembly of tools and safety equipment. On the wall are your instructions – essentially, break the object and take it in pieces in to the next room.

It is there that you meet the rest of the “audience”, who beaver away with crafty endeavour in a communal environment devoid of digital intrusion.

There is a feeling of connection and the time to make it, much like the Slow Movement encourages people to make real connections in their time-poor lives.

What this Perth Festival offering also reminds us of is the by-product of our busy lives – objects, things for which we no longer have a use.

At first glance, Worktable is a simple piece that champions our inner selves and the sharing of experiences. But there is a lot more to it, if you take the time.

Bookings for Worktable are available at 15-minute intervals. The installation is open 22-24 February and 27 February – 3 March.

Photo: Kate McIntosh

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Clear intentions

Perth Festival review: Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, Five Short Blasts ·
Derbil Yerrigan (Swan River), 20 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

A small flotilla of bright yellow boats bobs along the river, carrying four passengers apiece. It’s 6:15 on a still Wednesday evening and we’re taking part in Five Short Blasts, a place-based work from Melbourne artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. Five short blasts is the maritime signal for uncertainty – literally, “I do not understand your intention.” It’s a funny title for a work with a very clear intention – to illuminate the beauty and utility of our waterways. In this case, the Derbil Yerrigan (Swan River) is the centrepiece, but this work has been staged in waterways worldwide – in Prague, Hamburg, Brighton and Melbourne. For the Perth Festival variant, it’s a cliff-lined corner of East and North Fremantle that is the focal point, with Freo’s working harbour thrown in for good measure.

Most of us regard Perth’s coastline as its defining geographical glory, but the river that leads to that coast is an underappreciated wonder all its own. Bordered with limestone cliffs and sandy beaches; populated by more birds than humans; our river is often overlooked in favour of its more vivid oceanic cousin. Five Short Blasts gently persuades us of the error of oversight. Weaving together a varied narrative of voices, it’s a compelling aural journey that shares the rich history of this part of our world, while celebrating the social currency of the modern-day river.

Beginning with a brief history of Noongar use of the area, we are taken on an evocative ride into the personal experiences of others when they are in, on or near the river. Aided by local artists Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch and Bec Reid, community members were asked to contribute their memories or experiences of the river, as was the case for the Festival’s previous oral history works – A Mile in My Shoes (2016) and The Museum of Water (2017). One woman talks about diving for prawns and scallops; another about her childhood experiences of boating; a Noongar elder shares the history of the riverside camps and the importance of campfires; a man talks about fishing; another about working on the boats in the port. The experiences are personal, visceral… we feel as though we’re sharing secrets.

Meanwhile, the four of us are having our own experience of the river. We notice the pelicans, their beaks wriggling with catch; the amber reflection of the sunset over the hills of North Freo; the bump and loll of the waves as other crafts pass; the immensity of the container ships, piled high with their multi-hued cargo; the gasps of delight as the fins of dolphins slice the water right next to our tiny boat.

Children from North Fremantle Primary and Spearwood Alternative School have been recruited to provide additional riverside antics. On this night, this means synchronised bombies off Harvey Beach jetty and some very eager waving. Other “plants” included two trombonists, knee deep in the water; a sketching artist, and a yoga class.

As our little pod made its way back to the East Fremantle beach, we stopped near the modernist fabulousness that is Stirling Bridge for tea and biscuits. Each passenger filled out a manifest with details of the journey and we headed into shore, the sun slipping out of sight. We disembarked, all of us grinning, grateful for the opportunity of seeing our world anew.

Five Short Blasts is sold out! But you can be part of the event by coming down to the riverside in East or North Fremantle at 5am, 7am or 6pm every day until March 2.

Photo: Toni Wilkinson

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News, Performing arts, Perth Festival, Reviews, story telling, Theatre

Treasure trove

Perth Festival review: Danny Braverman, Wot? No Fish!! ·
Studio Underground, February 20 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

The stories of the great ones are carved in stone.

Around them teem millions of people with lives that pass unknown, their stories unnoticed and then forgotten – evidence of their joys and sorrows, their increase and decrease, the circumstances of their coming and their going reduced to a few dusty lines in government files, a photograph album soon to be discarded or fading from living memory.

Or left, forgotten, in a shoebox under a bed.

Which is where the English storyteller Danny Braverman and his mother found a treasure-trove of common life – and a long, ordinary love affair told in an extraordinary way – as they were clearing out her deceased cousin’s flat in Chelsea.

Since 1926 when he married his beautiful next-door neighbour Celie, Braverman’s great-uncle Ab Solomon had taken home his payslip from the shoe factory where he worked and given it to his wife with the housekeeping inside and a simple drawing or a painting on the outside.

When he retired he kept giving her an envelope with a painting on it every week until she died in 1982.

It’s the history of their marriage, from their ardent newlyweddedness through to ailing old age.

History – depression, wars, austerity, the exodus of the middle-class from old cities to new, milquetoast suburbia – comes and goes; Abe and Celie suffer hardships and personal tragedies, feel their ardour cool and, sometimes,  distances grow, but Abe’s little sketches tells the story of an enduring love that recalls John Donne’s great metaphor, “If they be two, they are two so, as stiff twin compasses are two”.

Braverman tells Ab and Celie’s story in the simplest possible way, projecting a selection of these little doodles on a screen while commentating – and often speculating – about what’s happening in them.

He has a broad, knowing East-End Jewishness that disarms you immediately. If you enjoy words starting with schm… you’ll have a ball; if you love fishballs dipped in chrain (the traditional relish made from beetroot and horseradish that Braverman hands around as an icebreaker)  you will be with him from the get-go.

As you should be, whatever your taste in dialects and finger-food, because the story of Ab and Celie that he tells with good humour, taste and emotional precision is a window into the world of real people that will survive, in our common humanity, when all the statues have crumbled and there’s nothing left of the great ones they memorialise but names.

Wot?  No Fish!!  is playing at Studio Underground until February 24,

Pictured top: Danny Braverman diving deep into his family history. Photo: Tony Lewis.

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An Aboriginal man, dressed in an animal skin, standing with his arms outstretched
Dance, News, Perth Festival, Reviews

Ambition vs art

Perth Festival review: Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & Daksha Sheth Dance Company, Kwongkan (Sand) ·
Fremantle Arts Centre, 16 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Creating overtly political art is hard. As an artist, how do you strike the balance between missed message and straight-up didacticism? Where does beauty fit into the picture, or should it not matter? Considering the fraught nature of the path, it’s unsurprising that many artists steer clear of broader political messages, irrespective of the depth of their personal convictions.

As a creator, Mark Howett has always dived fearlessly into this fray. As artistic director of WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company he has directed 3.3 (2018), Kaya (2016) and Good Little Soldier (2017). Each of these productions was notable for its deft handling of thorny social issues and for the high calibre of technique and artistry. Whether the topic was Indigenous incarceration (3.3) or PTSD (Good Little Soldier), Howett straddled the line between preachiness and meaning with certainty, creating compelling shows that spoke truth as they engaged. With Kwongkan (Sand) however, that sweet spot is missed. It’s a deeply felt, impassioned treatise about climate change… but it’s also deeply flawed.

Like Kaya before it, Kwongkan is the fruit of a cross-cultural exchange between Ochre and Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Kerala, India. The work began life as a film, which some audience members may have seen preceding 3.3 last year. This first, film version of the work is lushly evocative, signalling an interest in the environment, but lacking the overt political agenda that forms the core of Kwongkan as a dance work. The most effective parts of 2019’s Kwongkan feature sections from the original film as backdrop, with dancers Ian Wilkes, Isha Sharvani and Kate Harman silhouetted in the foreground.

As a former lighting designer, Howett has a terrific eye for the visual and in this way, Kwongkan meets the high bar set by his previous efforts. Unfurling plastic film sheaths Harman, as she leaps across the grassed stage of the Fremantle Arts Centre; a blanket of soft plastics unrolls down an incline; Sharvani shinnies up a silk suspended from one of the eucalypts bordering the stage – there are some wonderful visual elements here but they feel like additions bolted onto what is an unfocused and uncertain narrative.

Kwongkan’s troubles begin with a split narrative focus – we start with climate change and humanity’s destruction of the planet, then we shift suddenly to the Stolen Generation and back again to the climate, this time with an emphasis on plastics. Each of these themes is worthy of a dance work of its own – to combine them all into one hour feels cruelly brief.

There is some truly remarkable filmed footage of the camps Aboriginal children lived in after being torn from their parents. This is complemented by incredible traditional dancing from Wilkes, who is one of the best young dancers at work in Australia. Sharvani and Harman join him in this sequence, one of the only joint sequences that enjoys a synchronicity noticeably elusive elsewhere. The accompanying skit of Wilkes’ forced adherence to Western dress codes is embarrassingly simplistic, seriously underestimating the audience’s capacity for a more nuanced depiction of this abhorrent period of our shared history.

Then, without notice, we are back to the environment. Admittedly, Howett faces a tremendous challenge in creating work about climate change – socio-cultural fatigue. Even the most ardent among us are sinking into a kind of inert despair at the lack of political action on this front. We understand the danger, we make lifestyle changes… but I’m ashamed to admit that I now actively avoid looking at the plastic ocean imagery because it makes me feel so awfully hopeless. There’s no avoidance to be had here – image after image of plastic-choked sea creatures were projected in a sequence that had many in the Fremantle audience in tears. This was followed by the dancers chanting (“we can’t eat money”) and exhorting the audience to join in. But rather than feeling like an uprising, it felt to me like a sad, desperate refrain.

There is no doubting the urgency of the themes tackled here, or the passion of the players. But despite these noble aims and some flashes of brilliance, Kwongkan fails to live up to expectations, both of Howett’s work and of Festival curated fare.

Kwongkan plays Fremantle Arts Centre until February 20.

Pictured top: Ian Wilkes in “Kwongkan”. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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