News, Reviews, Visual arts

Less is more

Review: Hatched National Graduate Show 2019 ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

The 2019 edition of “Hatched National Graduate Show” is more of a minimalist affair than previous years.

Hosted by Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), “Hatched” is an annual survey of works by selected artists who have recently graduated from tertiary institutions nationwide. This year’s exhibition features 18 artists (including three from WA), scaled back from the 30 graduates chosen for the 2018 show. As a result the PICA galleries feel more spacious, encouraging visitors to pay sustained attention to the works on display, and allowing links to be drawn between art from across the country – with shared concerns including mass consumption in global capitalism, sustainability and the natural environment, and explorations of cultural traditions and gender identity.

Many of the works in the ground floor galleries have been created with a sense of human scale in mind – such as Jonathan Kim’s finely balanced assemblages which sit directly (and vulnerably) on the floor, or Ómra Caoimhe’s intricate knitted structures hung from knotted wool. The deeply personal woven domes of Kim Ah Sam have been suspended at head height, as if waiting for someone to duck under and feel the rim of feathers around their neck.

On the back wall is a brightly lit satin cape by Dennis Golding, who has decorated the fabric with hand-sewn symbols of personal and cultural significance. Stunning footage of other richly coloured capes can be found in Golding’s two-channel video Empowering Identity (2018). Fluttering in the breeze, these lush garments conjure the power, strength and symbolic nationhood of the superhero, presenting a powerful representation of contemporary Aboriginal cultural identity.

Anita Cummin’s ‘feelings’. Photo: Matt Schild, Ok Media.

In the adjacent room is Anita Cummins’ feelings (2019), a radiant carpet of crushed Cheezels which is a sight (and smell) to behold. Close inspection shows hand prints in the neatly-packed surface of the powdered snack food, revealing the intimate labour performed by the artist during its installation. The winner of the prestigious 2019 Schenberg Art Fellowship, Cummins is concerned with mental illness and emotional processing, and this all-too-relatable work evokes feelings of excess, compulsion and short-term gratification.

Upstairs, the installations of Yvette James make the gallery space seem a little unstable, encouraging a heightened sense of bodily awareness and a feeling of potential disaster. An uncovered hole in the floor exposes an oil pool of indeterminate volume, while honey seems to leak from the bottom of a wall, and a heavy chunk of basalt rock hangs tenuously above. Evocative yet stylishly minimalist, these works pair nicely with the subtleties of Louis Grant’s nearby pastel blocks, which are seemingly solid forms that bear the bubbles and imperfections of kiln formed glass.

Across the room, Annette An-Jen Liu’s Reconsidering Time in the Ritual of the Joss Paper (2018) produces interesting tensions between the archival and the ephemeral, documenting the ceremonial tradition of burning joss paper. Liu has arranged display cases containing piles of ash alongside screens blaring an overlapping cacophony of news reports, signalling to the complexities of performing cultural heritage practices during the age of mass media.

As a whole, “Hatched 2019” offers a compelling and vital cross section of current contemporary art produced by emerging practitioners, in which the works of each artist bear witness to their considered academic enquiry and commitment to their developing practice.

“Hatched 2019” runs until 7 July.

Pictured top: ‘Empowering Identity’ (2018) by Dennis Golding. Photo: Matt Schild, Ok Media.

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Calendar, May 19, May 19

Dance: A Call to Dance

7-18 May @ PICA ·
Presented by Amrita Hepi ·

It’s your move

A Call to Dance is a participatory dance work that’s all about you.

Join acclaimed choreographer and dancer Amrita Hepi for a yarn about heritage, belonging, public expression and cultural authenticity. Together you’ll have fun and open conversation about some big issues facing us all, and come up with a small movement of personal rebellion: a move that’s all about you.

Each evening, she’ll perform the moves discovered from the community that day. At the end of her residency, Amrita will create a performance that captures the character and people of Perth.

This is A Call To Dance.

Produced by Performing Lines

Date, Time & Location
One-on-one Conversation
7-9, 11-12, 14-16 May
Daily sessions: 10.05am, 10.55am, 11.45am, 12.35pm, 2.25pm, & 3.15pm
Location: PICA Education Studio
Duration: 40 minutes each session
Price: Only $10!

Tickets on sale here

Daily performance
7-9, 11-12, 14-16 May at 5.30pm
Location: PICA Performance Space and various spaces across Perth
Duration: 10 minutes
FREE

Final performance
Saturday 18 May at 3pm
Location: PICA Performance Space
Duration: 30 minutes
Price: $10

Tickets on sale here

“Pop culture, the dynamism of tradition and the permeability of cultures play into Hepi’s work.” – Sydney Morning Herald

“Seeing the finished Hammerfest dance made us realise new perspectives on the city we know so well.” – Susanne Naess Nielsen, DanseArena Nord, Norway

More info: http://pica.org.au/show/a-call-to-dance/

Photo: Anthony Gattari

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Film, Immersive Experience, News, Perth Festival, Reviews, Theatre

A star is born

Perth Festival review: The Last Great Hunt, Lé Nør   ·
PICA, February 13 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Lé Nør  (The Rain) is the most ambitious work yet by The Last Great Hunt. It’s also the first time that all six members of the West Australian company have combined their talents as devisers, operators and performers in one production.

The result is awe-inspiring.

Here’s the bare bones: Lé Nør is set on the imagined North Atlantic island city-state of Sólset (from now on I’m going to dispense with the accents and umlauts; more on them later) that has endured a terrible seven-year drought that has reduced its inhabitants to water-hoarding, water-blackmailing obsessives. When the rains finally come, they keep coming. Before long the little island faces an even more existential threat.

We follow the lives of the inhabitants of one apartment block, Inez (Gita Bezard), a pregnant rescue helicopter pilot, and her husband Leal (Jeffrey Jay Fowler), Petri (Chris Isaacs) and his inseparable mate Tobe (also Fowler), and two single women drawn to each other, Eliza (Arielle Gray) and Soren (Adriane Daff). Another woman, Suzette (Jo Morris, the only non-Hunter in the cast) pines for her fled boyfriend in her lonely flat, endlessly playing and replaying Phil Collins’s Against All Odds.

All of their shenanigans are overseen with mild menace by the narrator, TLGH’s gamester-in-chief, Tim Watts.

That’s the last you need bother about the plot. It’s the how, not the what, that this thing is about.

As well as the Collins dirge, there’s I’m Not in Love, White Wing Dove, Head over Heels, How Do I Get You Alone, steak knives and more in the exquisitely hideous 1980s soundtrack ­– is there a word for nostalgia for a time you didn’t have to endure yourself?

That’s only part of the referential delight of the work. It’s a deep dive into a world transformed by the lens of a camera, a stage show that becomes, more completely than anything I can remember, the Grand Illusion, the making of cinema.

Effectively the set is a screen that dominates the PICA stage, designed, along with its attendant gadgetry, by the “seventh Hunter”, Anthony Watts. All the show’s action, all its effects, are created for, and live on, that screen. Around it bustle the Hunters and stage manager Clare Testoni, setting scenes, setting up camera shots, striking poses, delivering lines, all to be distilled into images on it.

It’s a phenomenally intense ride – if anything a little too dizzying to actively engage in for 90 minutes – wildly funny and sexy. It’s a technical achievement, with a personality and charisma, like nothing we’ve seen from a West Australian company.

The title, the Hunters say, means “The Rain” in the hilarious gibberish-language they have concocted for the show (there are English surtitles), but we know better.

It really means film noir (although some of the shots, of Gray and Daff in particular, owe as much to flicks like David Hamilton’s soft focus, gauzy 1977 Bilitis as anything grittier) but film theory is probably as unimportant here as narrative. Nothing is important (when nothing is real, there’s nothing to get hung about).

So just sit back and watch Jo Morris in a phone box climbing up the walls and across the ceiling while you see how it’s done; watch two fight superstars (Gray and Daff as goodie and baddie respectively) suddenly come to life on their billboard; watch Bezard’s matchbox helicopter swoop down to rescue our heroes from Solset’s last unsubmerged rooftop (the one with the billboard) like eagles on the slopes of Mt Doom.

With Lé Nør The Last Great Hunt have confirmed their individual and collective stardom and their mastery of their craft. Now it’s time for the real fun to begin.

“Lé Nør” is playing at PICA until February 24, and Mandurah Performing Arts Centre February 28 – March 2.

Pictured top: Visual marvel – Jo Morris and The Last Great Hunt soar. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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Three dancers, all covering their eyes. One wears grey shiny leggings and is naked aside from that. One wears a bottle green criushed velvet unitard One wears hot pink shiny leggings and a black shirt
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Provocative and challenging

Review: Jo Lloyd, Confusion for Three ·
PICA Performance Space, 15 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Jo Lloyd is a Melbourne-based independent choreographer and one who has interested me for a couple of years now. It was in 2016 that I had my first chance to see Lloyd’s work; she was the choreographer for Nicola Gunn’s quirky and clever Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, presented at PICA as part of Fringe World. Lloyd’s witty and perceptive choreography capitalised on Gunn’s exuberance and was as integral to the storytelling as the script. The absurdity, the unexpectedness of the movement appealed to me enormously. Reading about Lloyd’s other work, it seemed that this is characteristic of her style. So when I saw that Lloyd’s Confusion for Three was coming to Perth, I was excited.

The name Confusion for Three is apt. There are three dancers (Rebecca Jensen, Shian Law and Lloyd) and there is confusion on many levels. For me, the most striking of the confusing elements was aesthetic. Clad in clashing colours, patterns and textures (think shiny hot pink leggings, a bottle green crushed velvet unitard teamed with a red shirt), the dancers perform movement that is deliberately awkward.

From corners of the startlingly white stage, the dancers either eye one another (and fleetingly the audience) warily, or ignore the other dancers completely. Duane Morrison’s evocative soundscape is ominous, rumbling and hissing. One by one, the dancers traverse the blinding whiteness, with movements that are angular, stuttering, uncomfortable. At times, bodies intersect but these meetings feel like unwanted entanglements rather than unions.

Two dancers how a third upside down. There appears to be a struggle.
Bodies intersect but these meetings feel like unwanted entanglements rather than unions. L-R: Shian Law, Jo Lloyd, Rebecca Jensen. Photo: Christophe Canato.

The discomfort is heightened by the bright lighting that ensures there is no cloak of darkness to protect the audience. Though it’s the dancers who shed their layers to finish naked from the waist up, it almost feels like we’re the ones who are exposed.

Reading the program notes by dramaturg Anny Mokotow, there is no question that this discomfort is intended. “Confusion,” she says, “… is a conversation on the state of the body as a contemporary beast, one that ventures to challenge aesthetics.” Later she says, “Confusion is a physical language, a means of communication that will always remain in process. The process continues, the confusion never quite sorted.”

There are occasional moments of harmony, levity and relief. Towards the end, the dancers clamber up a series of suspended straps to form a twisting and swinging rope of bodies. Peppered throughout are moments of humour. “There’s no story,” Shian Law confides quietly to the front row. Other moments teeter perilously between slapstick and violence. Are we meant to laugh? Again, I think the uncertainty is intended.

I found Confusion for Three perplexing – but clearly that is what it hopes to achieve. As a work that seeks to provoke and challenge our assumptions about the aesthetics and purpose of movement, Confusion for Three is successful. The three dancers, too, are to be commended for their po-faced intensity and commitment to movement that is often harsh and unforgiving.

Nonetheless, I found it hard to engage with the concept. Call me old-fashioned, but I enjoy watching dance that is designed to appeal aesthetically in some way, whether it be through movement quality, spectacle or comedy. Confusion for Three was, however, warmly and enthusiastically applauded on opening night, so maybe you should come down to PICA and see for yourself?

Confusion for Three plays PICA Performance Space until November 17.

Pictured top L-R: Jo Lloyd, Shian Law, Rebecca Jensen. Photo: Christophe Canato.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A wonderful thing in Wellies

Awesome Festival review: Indepen-dance, Four Go Wild in Wellies ·
PICA Performance Space, 3 October ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

There’s not a thing wrong with a little fun, and if you’re a wee bairn of three, or four, or five, that means play.

A girl dressed in a green beanie, yellow raincoat and green wellington boots, kicking one leg high in the air
The games that kids play are the stuff of Indepen-dance’s ‘Four Go Wild in Wellies’ (pictured in 2016).

And the games that kids play are the stuff of the Scottish dance company Indepen-dance’s Four Go Wild in Wellies, a tiny drop of colour that brightens up the Awesome Festival for little ‘uns and those who dote on them.

Wellies is simplicity itself. Four orange one-person tents disgorge four kids (played by adults Hayley Earlam, Emma Smith, Neil Price and Adam Sloan in yellow, red, green and orange).

They play games, or variations of games, every child knows. Tag, statues, hide and seek. They get tired and go back to their tents. Lights out.

That’s not all there is to it, though. As we watch them play we see those traits that kids learn and begin to master as they play. Aggression and co-operation. Teasing and sympathy. Enmity and forgiveness. All those small lessons in life, those human strengths and weaknesses, that help define us.

For all its modesty, Wellies is neatly constructed (by director Anna Newell and choreographer Stevie Prikett) and sounds and looks just fine (set and costumes by Brian Hartley, music – a sweet continuing tune on, I suspect, the electronic forms of banjos, mandolins, accordions, balalaikas, bass and drums, composed by David Goodall).

Earlam and Smith are lithe, energetic dancers, and Price and Sloan, both of whom have Down Syndrome, perform with zest and humour.

It’s worth noting that we are seeing more and more productions featuring people with Down Syndrome – Julia Hales’ Perth Festival hit You Know We Belong Together (making a welcome return in Black Swan’s 2019 season) and Back to Back Theatre’s Lady Eats Apple at the 2017 Festival are two outstanding recent examples.

This recent growth in opportunities for people with Down Syndrome to create and perform is due, in part, to vastly improved opportunities, more generally, for those with Down Syndrome – thanks to a combination of social advances and a significant increase in life expectancy.

It’s a wonderful thing to witness in Wellies.

Four Go Wild in Wellies plays the PICA Performance Space until October 6.

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A woman wearing a clown nose, dancing with a shadow
Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Finding light in melancholy

Awesome Festival review: Rachael Woodward, Valentine ·
PICA Performance Space, 1 October ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

It’s not often that grief and loss are central themes in theatre for children, but these are the concepts at the core of Rachael Woodward’s Valentine, which premiered at PICA this week, as part of the 2018 Awesome Festival.

On one hand, Valentine is your typical children’s theatre show, complete with fairytale-like narration, mesmerising puppetry and slapstick performance style. But it’s the raw and literal way the work deals with loss that surprises. The titular character loses her grandfather and, in the process, loses her heart. It’s close to home for most adults and for Woodward as well. The character of Grandpa is an amalgamation of her own grandparents.

Brought to life through a combination of clowning and shadow puppetry, the work sees Valentine (played by Woodward) alone on stage, while Grandpa (puppeteer Rhiannon Petersen) exists as a shadow behind a curtain, along with the scenery. Petersen and Woodward perform with perfect synchronicity, like cogs in a well-oiled machine.

With bold, black and white images, and red accents, the simple set is charming. Shadows run seamlessly, and were relished by my junior companions. The show is interactive in parts, an excellent device to use in a room full of children. Comedy is another valuable resource in children’s theatre and thankfully there is humour here, too, bracketing the sorrow. As the subject matter would suggest, Valentine is really very sad.

It is Woodward’s charm on stage, however, that gives the work its punch. She captivates audiences young and old with her engagement, range of emotion and honesty, all of which are conveyed without speech.

As an adult watching Valentine, I found it heart wrenching. I was a little uneasy about how a room full of children would react when confronted with such real and intense emotion, but the young audience members drew on the happy moments. They adored the interactive elements; a simple game of catch with members of the audience was an unexpected highlight.

Despite the melancholic themes, my young friends savoured the comedy and saw the lightness in the performance. And that sums up the lesson that Valentine hopes to teach us, that shutting your heart to pain and sadness means that you also miss all the warmth and happiness in the world. We have to embrace the full spectrum of our feelings, because then we have a life worth living.

Although Valentine‘s two show run is finished, the Awesome Festival runs until October 12. 

Pictured top are Rachael Woodward and and Rhiannon Petersen in “Valentine”.

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

Channels of communication

Review: Khaled Sabsabi, “A Self Portrait” and Amalia Pica, “please open hurry” ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

Showing concurrently at PICA, Khaled Sabsabi’s “A Self Portrait” and Amalia Pica’s “please open hurry” are exhibitions that require the viewer to actively engage with the works on display; to listen, watch and interpret. By embracing both non-verbal and verbal messaging, the exhibitions demonstrate the complexities involved in communicating between and within cultures, political structures, histories and species.

“A Self Portrait” commands a reverence as soon as one enters the darkened ground floor gallery. Featuring Arabic script, a colourful banner in a tented shape hangs from the wall, illuminated. While there is an immediate awareness of the “other”, Sabsabi is seeking to have a conversation through his pieces, deliberately positioned for us to experience more than one at a time.

The video installation We Kill You plays on both sides of three screens suspended in the main space. We hear and see someone speaking Arabic, snippets of English catching the ear; the moving, blurred background landscape symbolising the challenge of remaining fully focused when attempting to converse across differences. The moving images of mass human movement, worship and conflict, and the background score accompany us as we walk around the space to view Guerrilla. This is a series of 99 hand-coloured photos of Beirut in ruins, that form an evocative palette of neutrals, giving the rubble a jarring softness in places, alongside stark highlights of yellow, for police tape, and teal, for plastic sheeting. These are scenes of destruction in fresco form; highly effective.

Moving into another room, projected faces watch, eyes shifting. Here, 114 photo montages, each comprised of seven layers and the Arabic script for Allah, are displayed on low-lying plinths and also on the walls in frames. As with Guerrilla, there is so much detail in each singular component, suggesting, perhaps, that it would be wrong to reduce the collective into one, oversimplified image. With intolerance, anti-Muslim sentiment and everyday racism still prevailing in Western society, the exhibition highlights that it is possible to appreciate the richness and weight of meaning in an ideology and culture different to our own, if we focus our efforts on trying to understand, rather than trying to tear it down.

Upstairs, “please open hurry” is an engaging set of multi-media works exploring language and communication, specifically human attempts to communicate with the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorilla and orangutans). A monochrome video installation in a darkened room positions the viewer as viewed; the apes stare at you from their vantage point, trying to communicate verbally and non-verbally. It’s an interesting reversal of a zoo experience; outside the cinema room, an installed monitor plays surveillance footage of gallery visitors entering, heads tilted in curiosity, and then exiting with pensive expressions.

Amalia Pica, ‘Extended ears’, 2017, gypsum. Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti. Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Casts of human hands spell out a sentence in American Sign Language in the corridor. A piece in the next room is also a cast, this time of two hands held together in a formation to act as “extended ears”. The main feature in this room, however, is Yerkish, a large-scale depiction of abstract symbols called lexigrams, which humans trained apes to understand. With each colourful tile stripped of its translation, visitors can pick up one of the handouts in the gallery space to start deciphering the sentences. This task takes longer than might be anticipated and, while the viewer searches the handouts for the right lexigram, a recording of humans imitating primate calls plays as an audio installation. Nearby, the video In alphabetical order plays on a screen, the dancer’s choreography serving as a catalogue of great ape gestures. The whole experience encourages the visitor to ponder which technique is better: training apes to point to corresponding tiles in human-led experiments, or humans studying and attempting to understand the apes’ calls and gestures.

There is a spotlight on power imbalance through these works, with both Pica and Sabsabi questioning whether humans have the right to frame the validity of another language or form of communication. Personally, I came out of both viewings aware that I had not been able to comprehend all of the messages presented, that a full translation would take time and patience. Yet this double feature at PICA seems to suggest that, through art, we are at least attempting to connect, and that this is how we should be moving through life… trying to tune in to what is going on around us, despite our limitations.

‘A Self Portrait’ and ‘please open hurry’ are exhibiting through to 7 October 2018.

Pictured top:  “A self-portrait”, 2014-2018. Mixed media installation (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. 

abstract symbols called lexigrams which humans trained apes to understand.
Amalia Pica, ‘Yerkish’, 2018, timber, paper, paint. Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti. Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
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Title: Disembodied Cuisine Installation Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary) Medium: mix Date: 2003 Photography: Axel Heise
Installation, Mixed media, News, Visual arts

A peek inside the lab

A monstrous arts event is about to take place in Perth. Named “Unhallowed Arts”, it’s timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and features exhibitions and events that explore that seminal text’s influence on contemporary life and culture.

While Frankenstein’s laboratory may be fiction, behind the monstrosity that is “Unhallowed Arts” is a real lab, SymbioticA. Curious, Nina Levy got in touch with Symbiotica’s director, Oron Catts, to find out more.

Nestled deep in the heart of the School of Human Sciences building at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is a laboratory with a difference. Make your way up to the second floor, past the fridges storing biological material, and you’ll find the home of SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory in a biological sciences department. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then you’re about to have your mind opened. Rather than viewing science and the arts as mutually exclusive disciplines, SymbioticA is predicated on the idea that the two are inextricably linked.

“We are interested in the concept of life and how our relationship to that concept is changing and shifting,” explains SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts. “So it makes sense for us to park ourselves in the biological science department, where the most radical shifts in dealing with the idea of life, and life in general, are happening. Our research scope ranges from the molecular to the ecological but with a keen interest in contemporary biotechnological ways of engaging with life. What makes us really special is that we have our own research lab, a level two biological lab, specifically for artistic research.” For the non-scientists amongst us, according to Wikipedia, “level 2” refers to the level of precautions that need to be taken in order to ensure that dangerous biological agents remain contained within the lab.

Wow.

In addition to enabling artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices, SymbioticA also hosts residents, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. Based at UWA since 2000, SymbioticA was founded by Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr, now the academic co-ordinator. As Catts explains, from the beginning SymbioticA has been concerned with the idea that the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, which allows biological and genetic materials to be manipulated, needs the input of artists as well as scientists.

“The main reason SymbioticA got started was this interest in the idea that biology is becoming more and more of an engineering pursuit and [that] life [is becoming] the raw material for human wants and needs,” he elaborates. “We felt it was really important for artists to also start to use the living biological materials … if other professions are allowed to do it, it’s particularly important for artists to explore this area because we need to make sense of what it means to treat life in such a way.

“We try to be non-prescriptive … We’re not trying to tell [our residents and students] how to think about these issues, we’re trying to make them aware of those issues and trying to find different strategies to open up those questions to the wider community and get them involved in the awareness that something very, very strange is happening to life and that we shouldn’t leave those decisions about we’re doing [solely] to scientists, business people and engineers.”

As the name suggests, SymbioticA is founded on the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between science and the arts – “the capital S stands for science and the capital A for arts,” says Catts – but he is anxious to emphasise that it’s not about outcomes or benefits for either field. He is wary of what he refers to as “the innovation paradigm.” He elaborates, “That’s the neoliberal idea that we always have to come up with gadgets and innovations to justify our existence. We try not to revert to that rhetoric because we believe that there’s way more important things to think about than just short-term profits… in most cases, they’re not even benefits.” Instead, he says, SymbioticA is engaged in a “critique of life science.”

This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.
‘Tissue Engineered Steak No.1’, 2000, A study for “Disembodied Cuisine” by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary). Medium: Pre-Natal sheep skeletal muscle and degradable PGA polymer scaffold. This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.

That said, SymbioticA has been involved in some exciting scientific developments, continues Catts. “We have quite a few scientific applications that have come out of SymbioticA … because the nature of the questions we ask can generate new knowledge, just by engaging with queries that artists have around the materiality of living systems and what can be done to them. We are credited, for example, with being the first place that was growing meat in the lab, and growing leather. We did that very early in the game. We have an artist here, Guy Ben Ary, who is also one of the technicians and is doing a lot of work with neuroscience and stem cell research and he has worked very closely with scientists to develop new ways of doing things.

“But first and foremost, we focus on the idea that we are living in a time when life is going through major transformations and there is a need for a wide variety of approaches in dealing with [the questions that arise as a result]. We represent one approach, which is experiential … we train the artists in techniques, so that they’re not looking over the shoulder of scientists, they’re actually working in the lab, with the materials and they gain a very intimate understanding of the field which allows them to be much more informed about the possibilities. This is another issue we have at the moment – the meat is a prime example, it’s being hailed as something that might save the world, but we see it as a symptom of the ailments of the world, rather than solving the [world’s] problems.”

It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that in spite of keeping a relatively low profile at home, SymbioticA has an international reputation. That low profile at home is about to change, however. Throughout September and October SymbioticA will be revealing itself on a monstrous scale, with “Unhallowed Arts”, a collection of arts events at various venues in Perth and Fremantle. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to comparisons that have been made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, and the SymbioticA artists working in their lab. Initially unwanted, the group has decided to embrace the comparison. It’s timely, as 2018 is the bicentenary of the publication of Shelley’s gothic novel.

The initial idea for “Unhallowed Arts” was to hold a conference, says Catts, but with overwhelming interest, it quickly developed into a much larger scale event, with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Old Customs House (Fremantle), UWA’s Cullity Gallery and Paper Mountain, and a film program at the State Library, in addition to “Quite Frankly”, the conference being held at UWA.

One of these exhibitions is developed by Catts and Zurr as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. Intriguingly entitled “Biomess”, it is curated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art, Robert Cook, and opens at AGWA, September 8. As the name suggests, the exhibition looks at what Catts describes as “the messiness of biology”.

“Biomess” started with Catts and Zurr approaching curators at the WA Museum. “We asked them if they have any specimens in their collection of organisms that defy a sense of self or body or reproduction,” says Catts. “We were starting to thinking about it around the time of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when conservatives would use [arguments] like, it’s not natural to engage in particular sexual relationships. When you look at the way living biological systems deal with [sexual relationships], there is such a variety, so many organisms that change their gender in their lifetime, organisms that reproduce in different ways. One example, which unfortunately we don’t have in our show, is a bird that has two variants of the male, where one male looks like a female. The [female-looking male] gets the male-male to mount them. When they do so they transfer the sperm into the male-male and then that bird mounts the female. So the manly male is the vehicle for the feminised male to transfer its sperm into the female.”

While that example won’t be seen, there are plenty of fascinating specimens that will be part of the exhibition, says Catts. “An amazing example is that there’s a beetle where the male started to fall in love with a specific beer bottle, to such an extent that they lost interest in females and were only mounting the bottles. Biologists went to the brewery and asked them to change the design of the beer bottle because there was a risk that the beetle would go extinct from fetishizing the bottle.

“We have a marsupial that the males, when they reach sexual maturity, they stop everything and just procreate until they die of exhaustion.

“There are other organisms that are hermaphrodites, there’s fish that change their gender from female to male. There’s only one dominant male, so if that male disappears or dies, one of the females in the group becomes male.”

While that sounds fascinating enough, there’s another twist. “We’ve commissioned the designers who build the luxury display cases for David Jones to build display cases for the specimens. The idea is that when you enter the gallery you’re not sure if you’re in art museum, a natural history museum or a luxury shop,” elaborates Catts. “That will be contrasted with an incubator that we’re designing here. We’ll have living organisms there: snails, slugs…” he pauses to throw the question to taxidermist Teori Shannon, “What else will we have?”

“Stick insects, these pink sea cucumbers, some starfish… we’ve got these snails that can grow bigger than a tennis ball. They’re really nice,” replies Shannon.

“And then we’ll have lab-grown life,” continues Catts. “We are working with what’s called the hybridomas. As early as the late 1960s scientists found a way to fuse cells from different organisms to grow together and become one new organism … it’s a lifeform which can only exist within the confines of a lab, but defies any form of classification. You have human/mouse hybridomas, you have mouse/horse hybridomas, some of them have three different organisms.”

Listening to Catts talk I feel like I’ve slipped into some kind of futuristic sci-fi fantasy film set… except that I know that I am sitting in the Biological Sciences building at UWA. At the point where arts and science intersect it seems that anything is possible.

Catch Biomess at the Art Gallery of WA, September 8 – December 3. Find out more about that exhibition and the rest of the “Unhallowed Arts” program at https://unhallowedarts.org/

Pictured top: Disembodied Cuisine Installation, by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary), medium: mix, 2003. Photo: Axel Heise.

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Howl by Aphids. Man on a segue.
News, Performance art, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A camp, joyful parade of art history

Review: Aphids, Howl ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth, 27 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Howl, by Australian contemporary art company Aphids, is an enormously enjoyable homage to art controversies, mostly from the last 20 years, which is joyously staged as an incongruous, camp fashion parade. The pieces featured are not necessarily well known, even to those in the arts, so the printed program offers a much-appreciated guide. The triumph of the show is that the three central performers effectively embody, in their staging and physicality, fifteen different moments in art.

The piece functions as a performative essay in art history and debates around censorship and artist responsibility. In staging the work, creators and performers Lz Dunn, Lara Thoms and Willoh S Weiland reclaim the female nude as a form of empowering self-expression. Howl commences with one of their number embodying Gustave Courbet’s painting of a woman’s crotch, The Origin of the World (1866), after standing upright and meeting the audience’s eyes. Later, the trio turn Lynda Benglis’s infamous nude photograph with a large dildo at her groin, from Artforum magazine (1974), into a carefully choreographed set of four discrete adjustments of that pose, whilst gazing out masterfully from behind sunglasses. These gestures impart a camp and broadly queer ambience.

Howl by Aphids
A giant sunflower, scattering seeds with gay abandon. Photo: Aaron Claringbold

Other sequences include a giant sunflower seed prancing below us and scattering seeds with gay abandon, before giving us the finger (Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010). The trio later enter bearing a floppy recreation of an oversized white urinal turned on its side (Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917) and then spout water from pursed lips as if in a Baroque fountain. Captain Cook weaves across the floor on a Segway, his face obscured with a black mask, shaping his fingers into a gun which he points at us (Jason Wing, Australia Was Stolen By Armed Robbery, 2012).

My favourite section saw seven performers appear on stage. Three were dressed as inflatable sex dolls, the masks skewed such that the patterned eyes were not even close to the real eyes beneath. This trio was accompanied by figures in white overalls, some of whom had inflatable killer whales strapped to their backs. All bore either a blue hoop (for the orcas to pass through), a smaller inflatable orca, or a sex doll. They then proceeded to prance, punch and frolic about the stage in a celebration of the erotic meeting of human, object and animal. This alludes to an abortive live-streamed event where artist Amber Swanson was to transform a sex doll, modelled on herself, into an orca (the broadcast was cut).

Howl by Aphids
A scene that alludes to an abortive live-streamed event where artist Amber Swanson was to transform a sex doll, modelled on herself, into an orca. Photo: Aaron Claringbold.

Howl is fun and provocative, but the selected artworks are extremely diverse. While all attracted discussion at the time of exhibition (and after), only some were subject to censorship. When arrayed together in a celebratory way, Howl coalesces into a polemic in favour of unfettered freedom of speech and the idea that artists need not consider audience sensibilities or safety. Seeds was not actually censored, but was roped off because it became clear that allowing thousands of visitors to mingle freely in the same pile of breakable ceramic seeds for weeks was becoming dangerous. To draw close links between this and the treatment of photographer Connie Petrillo, who police effectively abducted because concerns had been raised regarding the nude photographs of her children, is misleading.

While I hugely enjoyed fêting these artworks, running through these pieces as a homage simplifies complex issues. Although much uninformed commentary suggests otherwise, complaints subsequently published by feminist critics and editors Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss against Benglis are not without merit.
By purchasing an advertisement rather than seeking critical coverage, Benglis did indeed have her image published without it being subject to editorial review. The editors were therefore justified in claiming that the subversion of their control required “critical analysis” and that Benglis’s act of “self promotion” could — at least potentially — be seen as an affront to recent feminist critiques and advances in the depiction of women in media and art. Rosalind Krauss later curated the landmark exhibition of Surrealist photography, L’amour fou (1986) which included a profusion of nude feminine forms juxtaposed with dildos and phallic symbols, notably works by Hans Bellmer and Pierre Moliner. She was no anti-porn puritan.

Howl by Aphids
The trio turn Lynda Benglis’ infamous nude photograph with a large dildo at her groin, from Artforum magazine (1974), into a carefully choreographed set of four discrete adjustments of that pose. Photo: Aaron Claringbold.

In short, while Howl is fantastic, it does not offer a coherent alternative history of art (as some have claimed). Moreover, inventive and fantasmatic though it is, the visual allusions to the artworks are not always ideal, given that many in the audience are unlikely to be familiar with the originals. Cook’s Segway ride recalls Daniel Boyd’s We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) and related works by Gordon Bennet, more than it does Wing’s 2012 bronze bust. The Petrillo work denoted here (Esse Quam Videri) is incorrectly dated to when criminal proceedings began against Petrillo in 1995 but it is actually from 2014. It was not involved in the prosecution, nor, indeed, is it as visually sophisticated in depicting the ambiguous drama of children’s games as Vanished Innocence, Petrillo’s wonderful 2008 collaboration with her daughter.

To some extent, though, these are quibbles. As a work of “Live Art,” the strength of Howl lies in its ambiguous incarnation as a staged physical allusion to something which is not actually present in the performance itself. Bodies are offered as substitutes, often compelling ones, but the largely flat, unaffected presentation means that the audience always has the niggling sense that something else is going on beneath this surface. Howl destabilises and provokes more than it preaches, and in this it is a triumph.

Note/disclaimer: Jonathan W. Marshall chaired a 2008 forum in Fotofreo which featured Petrillo, and in 2014, the photomedia series “Meat Fence” by Justin Spiers with Jonathan W. Marshall, was presented at the Perth Centre of Photography as part of a program alongside Connie Petrillo’s “Esse Quam Videri”.

Photos: Aaron Claringbold.

To find out more about the artworks referred to above see:

Gustave Courbet, Origin du monde (1866), http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/the-origin-of-the-world-3122.html

Lynda Benglis, “Artforum” advertisement for exhibition with Robert Morris (1974), http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/index/ratcliff/ratcliff6-13-97.asp https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/in-circulation/2015/ad-art

Rosalind Krauss, L’amour fou: Photography & Surrealism (1986), https://monoskop.org/images/9/96/Krauss_Rosalind_1985_Photography_in_the_Service_of_Surrealism.pdf

Ai Weiwei, Seeds (2010), https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/15/tate-modern-sunflower-seeds-ban

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573

Jason Wing, Australia Was Stolen By Armed Robbery (2012; alternative version 2013), https://nga.gov.au/defyingempire/artists.cfm?artistirn=37727 ; https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/artists-dark-mask-over-the-past-portrays-captain-cook-as-a-crook-20121003-26zs2.html

Daniel Boyd, We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006), https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/we-call-them-priates-out-here/news-story/56a4d1e93d24bb32fc9f5774282bb749?sv=2e048c6b6f48af53e97f2b7f0d10cd9a; https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/2006.25/

Gordon Bennet, Possession Island (Abstract), (1991), https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/2016.16/

Connie Petrillo, Esse Quam Videri (2014) http://www.gothamstudios.org/connie-petrillo.html https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/196/crossing-the-fine-line-the-case-of-concetta-petril/  http://www.metaphorimages.com/wordpress/?p=6083 http://www.gothamstudios.org/uploads/6/4/5/1/64511063/connie_petrillo_cv__full__2015.doc

Amber Hawk Swanson, Amber Doll > Tilikum (2011), https://amberhawkswanson.com/artwork/2938405.html

Justin Spiers with Jonathan W. Marshall, “Meat Fence” (2014), https://www.academia.edu/6107525/Meat_Fence_curated_critical_photomedia_exhibition_catalogue_Perth_Centre_for_Photography_Feb_2014 https://www.academia.edu/36423362/Trophies_Remain_The_history_of_New_Zealand_resource_extraction_and_the_Meat_Fence_photo-project

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'Burrbgaja Yalirra - Three Short Works' - Marrugeku Production 2018 - PICA - 6th June 2018 / Photography © Jon Green 2018 - All Rights Reserved
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Not damnation but hope

Review: Marrugeku, “Burrbgaja Yalirra” (Dancing Forwards) ·
PICA Performance Space, 9 June ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

How can we look to the past to change the future?

That’s a question that Marrugeku’s triple bill, “Burrbgaja Yalirra” (Dancing Forwards) seems to be asking. All three of the short, solo dance theatre works programmed refer to stories of the past; stories of contact between humans and spirits, between Aboriginal people and invaders. As the title suggests, however, the gaze of the program is firmly forwards, learning from what has been and looking at what is to come.

Broome/Sydney based dance theatre company Marrugeku has a tradition of collaboration on numerous levels, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, contemporary and traditional dance, urban and remote dance communities, and various artistic disciplines. “Burrbgaja Yalirra” is no exception and the program includes an intricate web of creative co-credits, headed up by the company’s co-directors Dalisa Pigram (seen in the critically-acclaimed Gudirr Gudirr at the Studio Underground back in 2015) and Rachael Swain.

All three works share one set, a series of three concrete flats, designed by Stephen Curtis. Simple but effective, the industrial-looking slabs are softened by cracks that bring to mind meandering creek beds. Those flats leap into life, seething with colour, in the first work on the program, Ngarlimbah. Conceived, written and performed by Kimberley-based Aboriginal dancer, poet and painter Edwin Lee Mulligan and co-directed by Pigram and Swain, the work is a rich tapestry of dance, paintings, text and music. Mulligan’s paintings, animated by Sohan Ariel Hayes, depict traditional stories and Mulligan’s own dreams. In combination with his poetic narration and deft movement, and layers of music by Sam Serruys and Dazastah, the images plunge us into a Dreamtime and dream-like world.

miranda wheen
Intense, charismatic and precise: Miranda Wheen in ‘Miranda’. Photo: © Jon Green.

Like Ngarlimbah, Miranda, conceived and performed by Miranda Wheen and co-choreographed by Wheen and Belgian-based dancer/choreographer Serge Aimé Coulibaly, draws on both personal and shared stories, including that of Wheen’s namesake character in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It then takes a somewhat tangential turn (although the logic is explained in the notes) to explore the challenge that white Australia faces in moving forward from its past.

While Miranda feels somewhat disjointed because of the tenuous links between its key concepts, Wheen’s performance is highly engaging; intense, charismatic and precise. Now she struggles, arms and legs akimbo, like a rock climber. Now she moves robotically, popping and locking her way across the stage. Now she bourees, a balletic ghost. Now she shouts at us with increasing hysteria, to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. Now she gestures obscenely, her face comically grotesque. Throughout, Matthew Cox’s lighting casts appropriately spooky beams and shadows, while Sam Serruys’s composition builds and diminishes tension.

Eric Avery jumping
A joy to watch: Eric Avery in ‘Dancing with Strangers’. Photo: Jon Green.

The final work on the bill, Dancing with Strangers, was also the longest, and my favourite. Conceived, written and performed by Aboriginal dancer and musician Eric Avery, directed and co-choreographed by Avery with Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen and co-composed by Avery with Serruys, Dancing with Strangers has at its centre the story of Avery’s great, great, great, great grandfather seeing the first fleet as it sailed past Yuin country on the south coast of NSW. Avery’s description of the “whales ridden by white ghosts”, initially mistaken as “returned ancestors” is gut-wrenching.

Like the previous works, Dancing with Strangers deftly weaves together dance, theatre and music, with the added layer of Avery’s live violin. There is something dancerly in the movement of any musician playing an instrument, but Avery transforms the violin and bow into instruments of dance in their own right; the bow whipping, the violin twisting. A swift and powerful mover, Avery is a joy to watch.

While Dancing with Strangers explores the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people, its final message is not one of damnation but of hope; its spoken word finish talks about what could have been but also what might still be.

“Burrbgaja Yalirra” is a moving and uplifting triple bill. Catch it at the PICA Performance Space until June 16.

Pictured top: Edwin Lee Mulligan in ‘Ngarlimbah’ Photo: Jon Green.

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