Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pro Hart: “gutsy kook”

The madness in Pro Hart’s method made him one of Australia’s most recognisable artists, around the country and around the world.

When he wasn’t bodysurfing dessert into a Stainmaster carpet, he was dropping paint from hot air balloons, firing it at a canvas from a century-old cannon or swiping it on with an old credit card instead of a palette knife. Or he’d be dancing to avoid the shower of sparks while he hacked away at a metal sculpture with his angle grinder... wearing thongs or Ugg boots.

But the stirrer and stuntman of Australian art paid a price for his showmanship and commercial savvy. He was routinely overlooked when survey exhibitions of Australian art were assembled; his greatest works were dismissed as derivative while forgers gleefully attempted to cash in on his signature; and he never received the critical analysis and respect he deserved in his lifetime. Even after his death yesterday, aged 77, a couple of major public galleries pointedly declined to comment on his importance as an artist.

The Monday Morning Miner, 1981 (click on the image to enlarge)

Hart was 75 when he found a place in the public gallery system, when Monash Gallery of Art (on the outer fringes of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) assembled an impressive, mid-size, survey exhibition. The three-year, five-state tour is still going. Next stop: the Gold Coast.

Hart was delighted with the exhibition. “That would be one of the best shows I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s good to see some of your best work, the important ones, all together. I was pleased to see it.”

The survey exhibition includes several variations of Hart’s signature dragonfly: on carpet, in ceramic, in various etchings and, best of all, on board in oils -- one on a blood-orange background from 1967 (left) another in a darkly glowing emerald green.

Curated by MGA director Jane Scott, the exhibition includes sixty-odd works from Hart’s own holdings: paintings, etchings, sculptures and the 1973 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow painted in 1999 -- “for the millennium” -- to protest the move towards an Australian republic.

Hart’s aversion to Fabians, Republicans, gun-control and land-rights lobbies -- and all forms of secret societies and grand conspirators -- is the stuff of legend. In the flesh, he presented as a mad old coot. But if you dared scratch the surface of his bluff eccentricity, you found a gentle joker; a man happy to have a good stoush. A friendly, almost boyish, man.

There is a disarming ambiguity in his work which more than matches the visionary skill. Many of the paintings in the touring exhibition date from Hart’s first exhibitions in Adelaide in the early 1960s. At the very first exhibition, in 1962, Hart was dismayed that his paintings of masked, faceless men were seen as mimicking Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Hart told me, two years back, he “didn’t know Nolan from a bar of soap... I put masks on all the people I sent up, so I don’t get into trouble. So they can’t sue me.”

Yabbie Eaters, 1996 (click on the image to enlarge)

The mask is one of the great dramatic motifs in Hart’s paintings. And its use is as iconic and as memorable as the Kelly mask is in five decades of Nolan’s work. The other Hart trademark is a robe-like mantle. It typically represents a miner, though it is often as hollow as the cream-coloured leering Klan-like masks. In one painting, cottony puffs of smoke rise from an empty shirt as if from an exhausted volcano.

Miner Waiting for his Clothes to Dry, 1983 (click to enlarge)

Doubtless he would have cringed at the word, but Hart struck me as a good ol’ fashioned anarchist. He opposed rule. Hart was deeply suspicious of all kinds of institutions and organisations -- church and state alike -- from the TAB to the police force. And he was opposed to all kinds of organisers, from the humblest of union shop stewards to the architects of “the New World Order.”

Some of Hart’s most endearing and easily understood paintings take a fresh look at the Tower of Babel story. In Hart’s The Holy Tower (1972), for example, various religious denominations band together to contruct a huge Pisa-like Tower in a determined search for god. All the while, unseen by the builders, Christ-the-man leads a file of the ‘real’ faithful through the back streets. The church-goers can’t see the wood (of the cross) for the scaffolding.

“I believe inspiration comes from God,” Hart told me. “A lot of paintings I’ve done are from the Bible. Rembrandt done that, and even Arthur Boyd, he painted a lot of scriptural [stories].”

Yet Hart dodged specific questions about a painting in which a Christ-like figure (crowned with barbed wire and clutching a sad bunch of flowers) is lowered by a squad of AK47-toting thugs wearing grotesque laughing clown masks. There’s a pin through the unmasked man’s skin and INRI (an abbreviation of the Latin words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) pasted to his upper arm. Even more bizarrely, one of the menacing long-barrelled rifles has a metal badge with the word ‘Hart’ on it.

Now, Hart-the-inventor claimed responsibility for various machine gun designs and improved trigger mechanisms, and he is a crack pistol shooter to boot. But the placement of the signature still raises eyebrows... and plenty of ire.

He also declined to explain a painting in which a queue of people filing into a church yard is divided into left and right, like an extermination camp, with blacks sent off to the right. “I like stirring the joint up,” he said, and “[putting] people on their toes.”

Hart always had a soft spot for the foolhardy and for loners. For the people he called “gutsy kooks”: from Christ to Bruce Ruxton... to the unimbedded reporters in Iraq. He couldn’t abide bullies. Or crooks.

Asked if he was still keen, Hart replied: “I haven’t really started painting yet. I don’t think I’ve really started. I’m still learning after all the years I’ve been going.” When the memory of his antics fades, maybe there will be a new appreciation for the Drysdale-like intensity and Boyd-like spirituality in Hart’s vision of the world.

Jane Scott, who pitched the survey exhibition to Hart, reckons “there’s still a lot of snobbery in the arts” and that Hart is “an easy target.”
I think these people only know Pro’s landscapes they are not aware of his political or spiritual work. He has done a lot of successful commercial activities like the Stainmaster [tv commercials] which confirmed to many that he was too commercial.

In Australia we seem to be keen on the idea that our artists should be poor, struggling and depressed, Pro is none of these things. In Australia to be a successful artist must mean that you have compromised on quality.
A good sample of Pro Hart's work can be seen here.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Adelaide Festival: Three Atmospheric Studies. A work from The Forsythe Company.

Three Atmospheric Studies. Directed by William Forsythe. Music by David Morrow (Part II) and Thom Willems (Part III). Costumes by Satoru Choko and Dorothee Merg. Sound design and synthesis by Dietrich Kruger and Niels Lanz.

Also Paris, London, Zurich, Berkeley, New York and Antwerp. Full 2006/2007 tour details below.

Rare is the artist that can go beyond the desire to score a political point, that can turn great indignation into great art. Since the days of The Crucible, AIDS seems to have provoked the most interesting art in the widest variety of forms: from Tony Kushner (Angels in America) to Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane (Still/Here).

William Forsythe rates as one of the great choreographers and dance innovators of the last century, but his attempts at political comment -- especially in the last five years -- have been rather shrill.

Just weeks after 9/11, Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt responded to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington with a restaging of the 1995 work Eidos: Telos (left) and some gross-out shock tactics, screaming at audiences “I’ll shit on your baby’s face and force you to lick it off...” And that’s one of the less graphic lines.

Raised and trained in New York, Forsythe has worked in Europe since his early 20s and was director of Ballett Frankfurt from 1984 until the company was wound up in 2004.

Forsythe's new company is roughly half the size of Ballett Frankfurt. Sixteen of that squad of 18 appear in his new work, Three Atmospheric Studies. It continues his fascination with aggressively political dance theatre.

In the cross-hairs this time is US military imperialism, though the David and Goliath situation will be recognised and appreciated by any population that’s been on the receiving end of a colonial occupation or military intervention or any kind of collateral damage; from the West Bank to Chechnya, Serbia to Iraq, Afghanistan to Somalia.

To an Australian audience, the bad guys in Three Atmospheric Studies are the USA and inevitably Israel though, shrewdly, Forsythe allows some room for flexibility of interpretation.

The narrative is simple enough: a young man is arrested after a rocket attack on civilian targets. Not because he is implicated in the attack -- quite the contrary for it is a deliberate military operation -- but because he resists. According to his mother, the boy has acted to protect his sister and her friends.

The first section of this three-part work is fairly straight, floor-slapping modern dance. But it is so representational of street brawling and terror, of apprehension and escape, it’s hard not to watch it as the arrest of a dancer.

Three Atmospheric Studies, Part I (Clouds after Cranach)

Around ten minutes into the first section, the all-in scuffling slows and, suddenly, the prosaic movement is alchemically transformed into something transcendent. Miraculous. Form and function fall into line. And it lasts about sixty seconds.

The middle section is a predominantly spoken-word scene between the mother and a translator. The mother wants to make a statement to police about her son, and she needs it translated. This is a poetic and oddly surreal scene. The translator fishes around for the right words for her, unwittingly turning “apartment building” into “Byzantine citadel” and a bird into a plane. It doesn’t much matter if the translation is from Kurdish into Farsi, or Arabic into Hebrew. The point is made.

A third person occasionally interjects. The dramatic flow of the scene is dislocated. We’re invited to imagine we’re looking at a work of art, a 16th century painting; to conjure it up in our heads. We’re invited to look at the cats-cradle of threads (introduced to the stage in the brief pause between the first two sections) as if they were vanishing points on the painting.

But again, alchemically, gridlines become computer-generated bullet trajectories and a Cranach painting is suddenly a forensic analysis of a crime scene.

It’s a classic Forsythe ploy, to take us around the back of the building and show us the insides from an unfamiliar angle.

The last days of Ballett Frankfurt, 2004

It happens again in the third scene, after interval. Like the post-9/11 version of Eidos: Telos, Three Atmospheric Studies gets loud and grotesque. Ear-splittingly loud and gut-wrenchingly low. Explosive grunts into a microphone are digitally transposed down an octave or two. Even a high-pitched voice could do a passable impersonation of the possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. (You know: “The sow is mine!”)

Unlike Eidos: Telos, the shrillness here is harnessed, and eventually used to good effect.

A slightly absurd visual arts lecture becomes a disinterested guided tour of the aftermath of a rocket attack on a crowded market place. Our arm-waving guide points out bits of shrapnel and identifies bits of eviscerated bodies. A wedding ring is found... with finger still inside of it. It’s as coolly abstract -- as criminally abstract -- as a Dummy’s Guide to the Holocaust.

All the while, we hear the ingenuous and reassuring voice of an American woman (warped and lowered) speaking to the distraught mother. The platitudes pile up: “We’re offering you structure... We’re just cleaning things up... There’s no cause for alarm...”

Inevitably, as I watched Three Atmospheric Studies, I thought about Rachel Corrie. I wondered, idly, if a New York producer would tactfully postpone a scheduled production of this show. But then Forsythe is an American. And the Forsythe Company is bigger ticket, arguably, than Royal Court. And Forsythe has screwed on a dramatic silencer; the bullet is no less deadly, or well aimed...

I wondered, too, about the new Australian sedition laws. I questioned my stupidly sanguine belief that censorship won’t happen here. But of course it will. And has. It’s mostly self-imposed, but not always.

I recalled the scuttling of a University of Melbourne student theatre production of Stephen Sewell’s Sodomy & Cigarettes, a political satire about a Premier named Jeff Canute commissioned with funds from the Government of Jeff Kennett. The production was pulled after a dispute over the conditions of the original commission. Reportedly.

Sewell told me at the time: “I’d say we’re a much healthier society for looking, for knowing ourselves. It goes right back to bloody Socrates. It ain’t something that I dreamt up, that Karl Marx dreamt up, to know yourself is the most important thing that any human being can do...”

The inward gaze is essential, too, for cultures, for countries, for religions. For us all.

Three Atmospheric Studies 2006/2007 tour details:

Théâtre National de Chaillot, Paris, October 4 - 7
Sadler’s Wells, London, October 11 - 14
Schiffbauhalle, Schauspielhaus Zürich, Zurich, November 2 - 6
UCB, Berkeley, California, February 22 - 23, 2007
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, February 28 - March 3
deSingel, Antwerpen, May 30 - June 1

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Adelaide Festival: Parallelo’s Lontano Blu, Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution & Wanted Posse in Breakin’ Ground

Lontano Blu. Directed by Teresa Crea. Original text by Elio Gatti. Visual art and design by Dino Bruzzone. Choreographed by Walter Cammertoni. Music concept and direction by Claudio Pompili. Presented by Parallelo. Scott Theatre, Adelaide.

Devolution by Garry Stewart (choreographer and director) and Louis-Philippe Demers (robot and lighting designer). With Gina Czarnecki (film maker), Georg Meyer-Wiel (costume designer), Darrin Verhagen (composer) and Anne Thompson (dramaturg). Performed by Australian Dance Theatre. At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide.

UPDATE: Devolution is returning to Her Majesty’s Theatre for three nights, August 2 to August 4, 2007. The revised work will also be staged at the Théâtre de la Ville, in Paris, November 14 to November 18, 2007.

Breakin’ Ground. Featuring Wanted Posse. Artistic direction: Ousmane Sy and Njagui Hagbe. Stagecraft: Goyi Tangale and Tip Top. Lighting by Patrick Clitus. Costumes designed by Harry James and created by Isabelle Joly. Sets by Harry James. Thebarton Theatre.

Above all else, the director/curator of an Adelaide festival must have supremely good taste. Adelaide is a city that takes its cultural life very seriously indeed. It jealously -- and zealously -- guards the status of its biennial arts festival. It’s not the oldest in the nation -- the Perth International Arts Festival holds that title -- but the Adelaide Festival is the one to beat. And it has been since March 12, 1960.

This primacy is more than just a badge of honour. South Australian tourism depends, in part, on the Adelaide Festival remaining the nation’s one festival worth crossing borders to get to.

A week into Brett Sheehy’s first Adelaide Festival as artistic director, a couple of things are already screamingly obvious. Firstly, low-brow (or no-brow-at-all) is okay. And, secondly, that there’s a very fine line between eclecticism and a lack of discrimination.

Now, the naff outdoor extravaganza Il Cielo che Danza (The Dancing Sky) (picture left), by La Compagnia di Valerio Festi, certainly succeeded in bringing the masses to the banks of the River Torrens on three exquisitely balmy evenings, so it rates as a success of sorts. But festivals live and die on their commissions, on their premieres and on their exclusives... and this one -- a site-specific world premiere and Adelaide exclusive -- was about as hokey as the canned classical music that accompanied it. It had all the clichés: floating globes, acrobats in crinolines, circus tricks, dancers, you name it. It was like a South Park pisstake of Cirque du Soleil.

Another Adelaide exclusive, Lontano Blu, a multimedia play (with dance) about waves of European migration to the new worlds, was an unmitigated disaster. The intention of the project was clear enough: to use the skills and talents of Italian artists who had emigrated to Australia and the Americas after the Second World War. And it did that much, I guess. But the resulting work lacked integration and any obvious purpose. The piece premiered in Cordoba (Argentina) last October. One wonders if Mr Sheehy actually saw the piece before scheduling it here.

The audience reception at the matinee I attended was positively frosty, the applause almost mimed. It’s worth noting that this was a target audience -- older and predominantly Italian speaking -- rather than an unforgiving, critic-studded, first-night crowd.

Superstar French break dancing ensemble Wanted Posse is a much more interesting inclusion in the festival. This is an extraordinarily skilled squad capable of moves that beggar belief.

The Posse also pulls a young hip-hop audience to the Festival, an audience it rarely gets to. But the Posse’s hour-long set (which attempted to cobble a piece of theatre from a series of dance routines) finally looked like a high school eisteddfod... brilliantly executed, strikingly lit and designed, but utterly vacuous.

In one scene, tall “masters of the universe” (in Devo-style overalls) viciously suppress a bunch of tribal folk. But, guess what, they can’t keep them down. The design work is strong, particularly the use of white net masks (all the rage, now, on French catwalks apparently, see here) and ropey web backdrop, but the moves are infinitely more sophisticated and memorable than the story telling.

Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution was similarly frustrating. Created by ADT’s artistic director Garry Stewart and Louis-Philippe Demers, Devolution is an amazing spectacle with its breakneck, ballistic, twisty -- almost suicidal -- choreography (reminiscent of Édouard Locks choreography for Montreal company La La La Human Steps) and its extravagant use of robotics, often for lighting. It’s all very Alphaville; an antique vision of the future. Actually, more often than not, it’s more like Return to the Forbidden Planet or Pink Floyd’s The Wall with squads of tubular metal floodlights scissoring their way across the stage like slow-moving metal dinosaurs.

Likewise, Gina Czarnecki’s animated projections use cutting-edge technology to create anachronistic images. She multiplies and replicates knots of twitching limbs, creating human hash browns. A frieze of bodies sprays onto a scrim right-to-left, then wipes off.

Darrin Verhagen’s music sounds like it was aiming for 2001 but didn’t get beyond Thunderdome. Georg Meyer-Wiel has as much fun as anyone with his cheeky, butt-crack revealing costumes with their batmobile scales of light-sucking matt black.

In Devolution, the humans try to be robotic -- clawhanded and jerky -- and the robots try to be human. Neither succeeds. And neither beast does what it is best at.

Funnily enough, Wanted Posse pull off a few moves that Devolution’s metal men would be proud of: apparently impossible stops and rewinds. I was reminded of some of Carolyn Hammer’s work for Link Theatre in the early 1990s. There are few similarities choreographically speaking, but you could film both, play the footage backwards and not be able to tell which direction the film was playing.

Stewart’s company, ADT, is utterly committed to the choreography in Devolution. Lucky... Anything less than complete faith would be dangerous. Physically and aesthetically.

To be polite, Devolution is formalist. To be impolite, it’s a very physical and very poor relation to Michael Jackson’s choreography in the Thriller mini-movie... with a bit of nudity thrown in. (Actually, when the full-frontal stuff happens, we’re so used to the muscular bared bums that we watch a naked man writhe across the stage as if he were an animated écorché, one of those models or drawings of the human body with flesh removed... it’s as if we can see his sinews and musculature, he’s so lean.)

Some of the robots are just plain silly. 8 mini moonlanders scuttle around, then dangle like massive spiders in the wind. There are hydraulic dragons, one-legged cybermen, prosthetic legs, massive remotely-controlled Borg-like stinger attachments, you name it.

The technology becomes a spectacular end in itself. Yet this isn’t capitalised upon. I have no great objection to humans serving as drones for technology, something Stelarc has been exploring, indirectly, for 20-odd years with muscle stimulators and his third arm. But Devolution is a show that sets itself up as having something important to say about cyborg technology -- about the interface between human and inhuman -- then delivers a kind of circus act.

Perhaps Devolution should be approached as an installation, an amazingly well-designed techno-fashionista display, where the dance -- and thus humanity -- comes in a distant sixth behind machine, lighting, costume, film and sound design.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Adelaide Festival: Stau (anoukvandijk dc)

Stau. Conceived and choreographed by Anouk van Dijk. Dramaturgy by Jerry Remkes. Lighting design by Isabel Nielsen and Koen van Oosterhout. Performed by anoukvandijk dc. At The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 4. Season ends March 7. Then Sydney Opera House (The Studio) from March 10 through 12. Five performances.

“Spontaneous inevitability” is an expression that David Freeman uses to describe the ideal way of directing Shakespeare. The words are more-or-less fixed, but they have to be delivered with the jousting freshness of live conversation, with the drama (if you like) of having those words deal with an actual situation or having them solve a problem in the moment of delivery. They must retain the capacity to surprise.

There’s a similar challenge in dance which adapts and ‘fixes’ the ideas and moves pioneered in “contact improvisation”. It’s an apparent contradiction: choreographing improvisation.

Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk calls her system of movement Countertechnique. (It’s reminiscent, in more ways than one, of Mikel Rouse’s ‘counterpoetry’.) The central pillar is the lack of a central pillar! The pelvis is no longer the superstructure underlying all movement in this kind of dance. Instead of the “static balance” that comes from the pelvic keel, there is a constant whirl of limbs in van Dijk’s dancers which offsets each and every primary gesture, each lunge and lean and whirl.

Stau is a near-perfect example of van Dijk’s theories in action. ‘Stau’ is one of those looking-glass words: it can mean “traffic jam” or the moment when tides change... that point when ebb becomes flow or vice versa.

This 80 minute work is divided into two parts. The longer first half (performed by Birgit Gunzl and Nina Wollny) is an intimate and hushed study of that tidal turn-around. The second part (in which Gunzl and Wollny are joined by Philipp Fricke and Angela Mueller) turns those tidal forces into small but dynamic eddies. The audience itself becomes the cause of the traffic jam.

The seating arrangement for the opening section is a small boxing ring, with three concentric squares of tiered seats. Before entering The Space, audience members have to remove shoes and, optionally, socks. (I’m guessing this is a first for a show at the Festival Centre!) No bags are permitted in the theatre either.

Now, bags certainly might prove to be a problem for the dancers in the latter part of the show, in which the dancers storm through the crowd after all seating has been removed, but I’m guessing that the insistence on bare feet might have more to do with some of Stau’s sustaining themes, which directly or indirectly include intimacy and personal space. Moments before the performance started, we were urged to fill up the few empty seats left in the front row... which is when I traded the safety and anonymity of back row for a ringside seat. And I’m glad I did.

Stau begins with Gunzl and Wollny leaning into one another, face to face, chest to chest. Poised. Gradually that equilibrium is lost. Surrendered really. And the two women begin to spin and pivot and whirl around the edges of the square, even snaking under chairs at one point.

Part of the thrill of the piece is, of course, the dancers’ proximity to us. Not only do we hear their breathing and the rasp of taped soles skidding against the floor, we feel the flick of hair and the occasional touch. We can’t miss the sheen of sweat. Can’t help but wonder whose nudity we have been warned about in the festival guide...

Up this close, one can’t objectify a performer in any case. They’re too human to be reduced to a sum of their parts. Sitting there, I remembered being ringside at a performance of Penny Arcade’s Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore, a performance that was intended to be titillating. I realised, there, that I couldn’t objectify a dancer, even if she was lapdancing me. To objectify her, I had to look at a video screen, a live feed of her doing her stuff. The image had to be mediated somehow.

But, no, we are not invited to objectify. Not at any stage. And, yes, there is audience participation; but, by the time it happens, it is almost anticlimactic. It’s certainly not in the least bit embarrassing or humiliating or threatening. It’s celebratory. But it lacks the thrill of danger.

Van Dijk clearly wants her audiences discomforted, but she doesn’t betray the trust she exacts from us. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Festival audiences -- even audiences at festivals the calibre of Adelaide -- are all-too-capable of swallowing weirdness whole, without ever digesting it. Acceptance becomes a kind of dismissal. We’re all “unshockable” at festivals.

I didn’t find van Dijk’s choreography especially innovative or memorable, but the performances themselves were impressive. Indelible. As skilled as they were brave. And the first 50-odd minutes I would happily sit through again and again.

Stau is a wondrous experience without necessarily being wondrous art. I couldn’t help but recall seeing Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods in this very theatre, ten years ago. Everything since has been just steps.

N.B. Images are from an early version of Stau, performed at Studio Dok, Amsterdam.

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