Friday, September 29, 2006

Rapt! - 20 Contemporary Artists from Japan

“Geek culture” sounds it should be in the dictionary under ‘oxymoron’. But “otaku culture” is on the rise in Japan, and those geeks are typically obsessed with anime and manga.

But a Japanese geek is a very different animal to a western geek. There’s an expressiveness as ingrained as language, and as visual as a kanji character. This is, after all, a culture where a reader not only interprets the meaning of what you have written, but judges the aesthetics of how you have written it. Every sentence is a signature.

The high-tech West is baffled by Japan’s contentment with 2-D animation and hand-drawn comics. The biggest animation industry in the world just doesn’t ‘do’ 3-D rendering on computers.

But as Australia’s resident manga and anime expert Philip Brophy explains, “In Japan, surface is sublime. Reality is not what they’re interested in. To them, it’s only an image!”

Understanding manga, says Brophy, helps you understand contemporary Japanese art. “They’re not [entirely] divorced from each other. Understanding those levels of difference allow you to read what is happening in Japan. The amount of energy that can be packed into surface in Japanese culture is mind boggling.”

Surfaces are, without question, all-important in the works on display at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography at the moment. The exhibition is the first of several around the country which form just one part of the Rapt! project. (The others parts are residencies, forums and symposia in Japan and Australia, and a catalog documenting the process and ‘outcomes’.)

It’s possible to breeze through the CCP exhibition and merely admire the work -- it has immediate appeal, visually and viscerally. Like good poetry, it communicates before it is fully understood.


Kazuna Taguchi: She Can’t Even Remember
(click on the image to enlarge)


At first glance, there are rich, dark, still-life images by Kazuna Taguchi; sublimely clinical architectural transparencies of office spaces by Hirofumi Katayama; and some clever photographs of beach resorts, taken from the perspective of a swimmer by Asako Narahashi.

A closer inspection of Taguchi’s prints reveals an inexplicable texture. Like fabric or canvas. I wondered, vaguely, if it was an effect introduced in printing... gauze between enlarger and paper perhaps, or a digital effect. Even more baffling were Katayama’s grainless office interiors, with their ever-so-slightly odd shadows.

I discover, from Philip Brophy, that these images are not what they seem. Taguchi “takes photos of the objects, then does paintings of them, then cuts them out, positions them together and then takes a photograph.”

Which is what is exhibited.

But this is not a Magritte-like ‘this-is-not-a-photograph’ joke. “It’s got nothing to do with illusionism of depth, it’s actually got to do with the celebration of surface. That’s what you get a lot in Japan.”

And Katayama’s oh-so-perfect images aren’t photographs at all. They’re creations on a computer. “It’s all vector with gradients using a graphic program. It’s all algorithms. They’re called vector scapes.”


Hirofumi Katayama: from Vectorscapes
(inkjet facemounted on acrylic, click to enlarge)


“In Photoshop, if you zoom in on a scanned image, you’ll eventually reach the bitmap threshold, the dpi right? Well, Vector has no end point. It’s literally a mathematical algorithm that outlines the shape and then tells the printer or the video monitor or whatever to fill it in, in a certain colour, so it’s completely computerised.”

So it could, theoretically, be enlarged to infinity?

“Absolutely. Those images, you could put them on the twin towers if they still stood!”

Even the sea-sickness inducing photographs from within the ocean’s swell -- unquestionably real photographs taken on a real camera -- have a classically Japanese back story.


Not drowning, perving: half awake and half asleep in the water
by Asako Narahashi (click on the image to enlarge)


According to Brophy, they’re a view of Japan “as a very frail island, [an] isolationist domain. And those shots very beautifully capture that sensibility.”

The diorama-like images are all of tourist sites.

“These are all the subtle gestures that are really part of the Japanese eye, even when it comes to something as straightforward conceptually as photographing the land from the water. There’s a lot of poetic depth in these kind of works.”

Rapt! is a most unusual project, quite unlike previous projects supported by the Japan Foundation in its open-endedness. But it is, in its way, an experiment. A research. A search for an alternative to pavillion-style exhibitions which attempt to package a culture -- to condense and summarise a culture -- and present it to the rest of the world. Hence the subtitle of Rapt! It’s not “Contemporary Japanese Art” or “Japanese Art Today.” It’s simply “20 Contemporary Artists from Japan.”

Its three Japanese curators are all in their thirties. And, as you’d expect from the Japanese, an advance party scoured just about every art gallery and museum in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne before venues were selected. Input was also sought from several Australians including Philip Brophy, Kathryn Hunyor, Max Delany and Stuart Koop.

The results, so far, are eye-opening and delightful.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the Financial Review.

See also Q & A: Philip Brophy on calligraphy, manga and the graphic novel at Sarsaparilla which is archived at Pandora.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

More echoes... Production photographs of The Lost Echo by Heidrun Lohr

That maddening bloody show, The Lost Echo, continues to decompose in my subconscious... and fertilise! The further I get from it, the more I admire it... certainly Part I. In a few months -- who knows -- it might rate as one of the year’s least forgettable productions.

I’ve added some production photographs by Heidrun Lohr and Tania Kelley -- the chorus line pic was mistakenly attributed to Heidrun -- to my review, here, as they’ve come to hand. (Thanks to the indefatigable Wesley Slattery and the team at the STC.)

I get the impression from my exchanges with the company, that these are some of the images that Barrie Kosky approved for use in the media. As you’d expect, they’re fairly confronting. There’s another one of some disemboweling, rape and pillage, below. Er... enjoy.

If you look carefully at the underwear chorus line pic, accompanying the review, you’ll see Barrie Kosky’s head peeking out of his one man pit... and Dan Spielman in drag. What more incentive do you need?


(Photo: Heidrun Lohn, click on the image to enlarge)

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

One for Abe Pogos... a literal heavyweight takes on a metaphorical one

Over at Theatre Notes, Alison Croggon has posted a terrific review -- passionate and eloquent -- of Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson and Garry Stewart’s account of the mistreatment of Adelaide boy David Hicks at Guantánamo Bay.

UPDATE: Review appended



Honour Bound... not just performers climbing walls!

The thing is... I happen to disagree with Alison’s critique. Rather strongly. Rather than duplicate the debate here, you can join the fray... or watch from outside the ropes.

My review, which will appear in the Herald Sun in a day or two, ends thus: “Instead of hitting its mark, Honour Bound sprays bullets all over the place. Far too many of them are blanks”

[Yeah, yeah, I know... you can’t spray blanks at all!]

UPDATE: Now that the review has been published -- and since Disgusted asked so nicely -- here ’tis... the director’s un/cut.


Honour Bound by Nigel Jamieson and Garry Stewart. Malthouse Theatre. Until October 1.

Even Chairman Mao knew that -- in art -- a straight line beats a correct line every time. In his Yan’an lectures, he put it bluntly: “Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically.” And this show fails to go beyond lecturing its audience. It fails to get beyond the ache to make a point.

Yes, the story of the appalling treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo has to be told -- the 20 hour interrogations, the humiliation of prisoners, the open-air cages, the extended periods in solitary confinement, the brutality and the breaches of the most basic rules of law and morality -- but our theatres are no places for documentaries, no matter how well-meaning. Nor are they the places for poster-and-slogan propaganda.

Honour Bound relies heavily on specially-filmed interviews with David Hicks’ parents Terry and Bev -- talking to camera -- and on voice-over reading from letters to and from David. The December 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also projected and read out. So too are Donald Rumsfeld’s rulings on acceptable interrogation techniques. (This is a masterpiece of euphemism in which, for example, “sleep deprivation” becomes “sleep adjustment.”)

Conceived and directed by Nigel Jamieson, Honour Bound takes its title from the motto of the task force responsible for detaining prisoners at Guantánamo Naval Base on the southeast corner of Cuba: “honor bound to defend freedom.”

Honour Bound is performed by a team of acrobats and dancers inside a huge, three-sided cage. They do extraordinarily well, under the circumstances. They mime walking shackled. They take turns at being oppressor and oppressed. They swing from straps, from harnesses and dance on the wire mesh itself. Best of all, they don’t overplay their hands. They don’t emote. David Garner’s strap routine is impressive, as is Marnie Palomares’ solo.

Garry Stewart’s choreography begins as a stylised and extreme form of break dancing. It’s all so agonisingly and unrelievedly literal, though sustained to the point of exhaustion, making a point of sorts.

Six near-naked performers -- four men, two women -- stride onto the stage at the start of the piece and dress in front of us: orange prison jump-suits and runners. Incomprehensibly, they have shoe laces. (Yes, there have been hangings at Gitmo, the first three happened in June this year -- men from Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- but sheets and clothing were used.) Black hoods were donned.

No attempt was made to distinguish jailer from jailed, fellow inmate from torturer. Actually, there wasn’t much attempt to distinguish Camp Delta from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Not that the point scoring against US military guards isn’t justified... it’s just lazy.

Instead of hitting its mark, Honour Bound sprays bullets all over the place. Far too many of them are blanks.


Honour Bound. Conceived and directed by Nigel Jamieson. Choreographed by Garry Stewart. Designed by Nigel Jamieson and Nicholas Dare. Costumes by Genevieve Dugard. Music and sound design by Paul Charlier. Lighting by Damien Cooper. Video by Scott Otto Anderson. Presented by Malthouse Theatre and the Sydney Opera House.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Alasdair Foster, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, on “open source” art

In the first part of our conversation, Alasdair Foster spoke about the shunting evolution of photography in the last century, and the challenges for an exhibition space. Here, he speaks more generally about art and commodification...



[Alasdair Foster:] One of the things that interests me, and I think is very much an area that public institutions should look at, is art works that don’t carry intrinsic financial value due to rarity or even their object nature.

[CHRIS BOYD:] FOR EXAMPLE?

Well, like images which are primarily code. So images which are made for transmission rather than printing, where the print is the secondary thing not the primary.

We’re moving from a time when you used to think of an image on screen as the duplicate, to one where we see the image on the screen as being the original and if it’s outputed as a hard print, well that’s just one way it might go.

It’s very interesting how the commercial market always finds a way to sell things -- the whole postmodern thing about the productless products like Calvin Klein underpants which were bog standard underpants where you bought, not the underpants really, but some caché that associated your average body with the fantastic one on the packet... or perfumes which contained probably not a great deal of product but come with a set of associations... So I guess there are ways in which you can sell the idea of an art work as the art work...




Dick Quan came [to the ACP in Sydney] and talked about collecting video art and about knowing that -- if there was an edition of three -- that there would be many other copies around. And saying: it wasn’t buying because of some absolute rarity, you bought it because the people who bought those three were part of the economic process by which that art could be made. And your sense of connection with the art work and the making of it and some level of authenticity was about engagement in the process of art-making not about a rarity value of there only being three or whatever.

ROBYN ARCHER ONCE TOLD ME SHE WOULD PREFER TO PAY TO WATCH ARTISTS PAINTING RATHER THAN BUYING THE “DETRITUS” OF THE CREATIVE ACT... YOU’RE TALKING MORE ABOUT THE ‘ECONOMY’, AREN’T YOU?

It’s probably more like patronage to be honest. In the best sense of that. It’s not about the patron who wants to own or shape an artist, but one who wants to be a part of the process by which that artist prospers. That’s a very different thing from simply seeing them as machines to create rare objects. Mechanisms to create rare objects.

A FEW YEARS BACK A TROY INNOCENT WORK -- LIKE A TWO SCREEN VIDEO GAME PEOPLED WITH 3D PACMAN CHARACTERS -- WAS OFFERED & SOLD FOR $16,500. ALL THE BUYER GOT WAS TWO DVDs PLUS BACK UP. AND THE LICENCE TO SCREEN IT. NO HARDWARE WHATSOEVER.

image © Troy Innocent

When I was in Scotland, there was a conceptual artist who had his signature tattooed onto his body and then auctioned it. He wasn’t intending to separate that from his body... [The buyer] just had some notional right to that.

LIKE “THIS SPACE IS SPONSORED BY...”

But then there are companies that sell real estate on the moon or a square foot of Scotland to Americans... I don’t think you could ever go and claim it...

YOU’D HAVE AIR SPACE ABOVE IT!

So it’s interesting, anyway, how things which apparently -- which are created with the intention of being art works that circumvent or transcend commerce -- very quickly then...

Conceptualism was a great example, supposed to completely circumvent that commercialisation. But all the by-products of conceptual art -- its documentation, it traces and so on -- became objects of rarity in themselves like religious relics.

FULL [TATTOOED] BODY SKINS HAVE SOLD, I’M SURE... TO BE REDEEMED AFTER DEATH!

There’s a man in New Zealand who has been stopped from selling his leg... Which he had in the freezer. He wanted to sell it through, um... It wasn’t eBay... I think he had two and a half grand. He was wanting it to pay off his daughter’s education. They wouldn’t let him do it. In Britain, once a body part leaves you, it’s not yours. It belongs to the state.

REALLY?! IT’S NOT YOURS TO SELL?! I MIGHT HAVE TO RETURN MY APPENDIX! I WAS ACTUALLY THINKING ABOUT ANDY WARHOL’S DRESSES, THE DISPOSABLE PAPER DRESSES THAT WERE SUPPOSED TO BE SOLD THROUGH VENDING MACHINES... KINDA OUT OF CHARACTER REALLY. ANTI-ANDY!

I think he manage to have his cake and eat it very nicely.

The Souper Dress by Andy Warhol c 1966-67
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

ANDY PROBABLY SOLD THE SLUGS FIRED INTO HIS CHEST!

YOU KNOW THOSE TINS OF SHIT -- PIERO MANZONI WASN’T IT? -- SELL FOR $30,000 APIECE! A LITTLE INSTALLATION OF THOSE IS WORTH HALF A MILLION BUCKS. (THANK GOD THEY’RE WELL SEALED!) [NOT ALL OF THEM, DEAR READER, SOME HAVE EXPLODED IN RECENT YEARS!!! EUUWWW!]


We’ve strayed into that area that one always does about the apparent ludicrous nature of how much is sold for when it’s called art. I’m really coming at it from the other end. Which is that I’m interested in art which has a cultural value, which moves people or which has benefit for them in some way or engages them in some way regardless of whether it’s sellable. And that, I think, is the area which, increasingly, a younger generation... (Artist Piero Manzoni and an autograph hunter, above, in 1961.)

We’ve got a younger generation coming up now that doesn’t have the overblown expectations of baby boomers who cruised through the accelleration of the 60s and imagined that it would keep going, they haven’t got the complete cynicism of Gen-Xers. They actually accept the world is the way it is, but they also work with it. And they’re very computer literate. And so art works that involve networking across mobile phones or working on the internet -- not spending a fortune to create prints and then slogging around Cork Street in London or Paddington in Sydney to see if a gallery will take it, but simply putting it on-line. Because, in the end, what they want is other people to look at their work and care about it rather than have to go into a machine of commerce and be repackaged.

It’s very much the music industry. Most of the costs of the music industry was the bit that came between when the artist had finished and the person passed their money over the counter to buy whatever it was. It was all to do with that. The manufacture had to be in bulk to make money and therefore you always had to reduce the ‘edge’ on music in order to sell it like the way that baked beans when they went into cans had to lose all their heat... baked beans were supposed to be hot... They’re really bland and sweet now. When you’re making them en masse you have to take the flavour out.

THERE’S A LOT MORE SPICE ON-LINE

Exactly. If you spend much time surfing the internet, it is actually a lot spicier than --

A lot of the arguments that are made for open source... When you reduce your overheads enormously, as you do when you’re working on the internet, you can actually give away your primary product because your secondary services actually can make a living for you...

WHAT’S THE LINE? SOME RIGHTS RESERVED

Like Creative Commons and that kind of thing where they allow everything except commercial exploitation. But mashing and remixing as well... which is this idea that nothing is finished and everything can be brought together and enriched and presented in a different way...

LIKE THE GREY ALBUM BY DJ DANGER MOUSE WHICH TOOK MUSIC FROM THE BEATLES’ WHITE ALBUM AND VOCALS FROM JAY-Z’S BLACK ALBUM... HE COULDN’T SELL IT... HE GAVE IT AWAY. IT’S ONLY AVAILABLE AS A BOOTLEG. IT’S STUNNING! ONE OF THE GREAT WORKS OF MUSICAL ART IN YEARS.

So, you have that, which is like the synthesis of actual existing material, and you also get the synthesis of cultural processes. In Scotland, just before I left, Celtic Salsa was really big. Bhangra Rap... Indian and African American.

The argument against that kind of thing is that everything becomes one thing, becomes Euro Pop or whatever. But it doesn’t. It’s an enriching. It’s a process of emergence of complexities not a process of dilution and greying.

SO WE JUST GET AN INFINITE NUMBER OF GHETTOS, WELL, ONE PER PERSON.

Well, yes. That is something that is so lively in the under-thirty age group. And most of it’s happening completely outside galleries and the art world. I know a number of practitioners who -- by any definition I would make -- are artists who don’t want the A-word art attached to them because they feel it will drag them down.

HOW THE HELL DO YOU OPERATE IN AN ENVIRONMENT LIKE THAT AND BE RESPECTFUL OF IT?

Carefully! We have then invited -- when we did the pop culture thing two or three years ago -- we invited people who are much more in that area to come in and work in the gallery. And one of our speakers who came in was saying this is a really potentially dangerous thing because galleries can so easily squash out and commodify.

UNITENTIONALLY...

Commodification happens not just in financial terms, but also in cultural terms. So there’s a cultural commodification process can happen where you give something snob value or you give it some kind of other value and I think we have to be really careful about those kinds of things. We don’t just simply rip the vigor out of something that lives and stuff it into something that’s dying.

AND RIPPING IS SUCH A GOOD VERB FOR IT TOO... LIKE STEALING MUSIC...

So I think our job -- and what we’re doing here -- is to look at ACP not as a building but as an institution. As a public service, if you like. And to think: what in the early part of this century is the role of a publicly-funded institution that’s job is to engage a wide public with the technological Visual Art forms of the moment in a meaningful way.

And I think that one has to start with that as the premise, not “we’ve got a building what should we put in it?” And then think about what kind of building... what should we be doing in it... Which is why I like the idea of a building that you keep moving things around in... There’s a limit here cos the first floor would fall in if you took too many walls down... It is after all a fire station! Which is what it was to begin with!

I must say that if and when we get around to building a new centre, the structural forms that interest me are those of shopping centres and tv studios and those kinds of places where everything inside the space is provisional. And everything can be changed. And you don’t have the art having to fit the architectural space.

If you look at the National Gallery [of Australia, in Canberra] as an institution, the National Gallery is fantastic. Much of the collection is fantastic. But I have to say that building is a disaster. It crushes almost everything that’s in it. It’s so egotistical.

If you build a building which is in the service of presenting the national collection of visual art you need something a little more modest...

YEAH. AGREED. IT IS A STUNNING BUILDING THOUGH. THERE’S PROBABLY ONLY TWO EXAMPLES IN AUSTRALIA OF THAT KIND OF BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE --

-- if you want to build a building that’s exciting to go around without the art, but if you build a building that’s in the service of presenting the national collection of visual art, you need something a little more modest.

BUT EVEN ACCA... I LOVE THAT BUILDING BECAUSE IT SAYS “FUCK OFF, YOU ARE INSIGNIFICANT.” LIKE OZYMANDIAS. LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY AND DESPAIR. GOING THROUGH THAT TINY DOOR... IT SAYS: “ART IS REALLY IMPORTANT. YOU’RE NOT!”

I’m not persuaded that’s the best attitude for a public institution, I have to say!



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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sydney Theatre Company: The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright

The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky (writer, director, music director and pianist) and Tom Wright (writer/translator). Stage design by Barrie Kosky and Ralph Myers. Costume design by Alice Babidge. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. Choreographed by Lisa O’Dea.

Performed by the STC Actors Company, Paul Capsis and second year NIDA drama students. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. September 9. Season ends September 30.


Back to back, the two parts of The Lost Echo run from one in the afternoon until 11 pm. Take out the two hour break between parts and a standard interval apiece, and you’ve still got upwards of seven hours of theatre. That’s about half a Ring Cycle in stage time. And, start to finish, Kosky is present -- conducting the action from the keyboard -- in his round, one-person pit.


The climax of seven hours of stage time...
(Photograph Tania Kelley, click on the image to enlarge)


The first full day was a family-and-friends occasion. The Sydney Theatre was jammed with playwrights and producers, actors and acolytes, opera and theatre directors, dance-makers and designers. And, of course, the odd parasitic critic. I could tell there were a lot of struggling artists in the audience... my program was stolen. Along with my notes. (It will take a team of cryptographers a lifetime to decipher them, I swear.)

Barrie Kosky’s relationship with the Sydney arts community has been an uneasy one -- more uneasy, even, than his relationship with the rest of country -- but his Ovidian extravaganza was received with rapture: tumultuous ovation after tumultuous ovation until the standing, stomping one at the end. This from the city that roundly booed his Nabucco for Opera Australia. (The same production, incidentally, later won a standing ovation at its premiere in Melbourne. It didn’t really deserve either response!)

Melbourne, of course, has seen much more of Kosky since his pro debut in the latter part of the 1980s. And Melbourne’s also seen the best of him. His Gilgul company -- which took up residence in a derelict motor workshop in Carlisle Street, East St Kilda -- was responsible for two of the most extraordinary theatre productions the city has had the privilege of hosting: The Dybbuk (1991) and Es Brent (1992).

Melbourne has learned to tolerate Kosky’s excesses. Just.

Here, though, the premiere audience delighted in what are fast becoming Kosky-cliches. But more of those -- a lot more of those -- in a moment.

The Lost Echo takes a dozen of the stories told by Ovid in Metamorphoses -- though not necessarily Ovid’s versions of those stories -- and brings them to licentious, bawdy life. The stories are mostly about intense love -- sometimes an intense and arrogant love of self -- and intense lust. These overwhelming feelings -- and the spin-off emotions of frustration, venegance, envy and so on -- change those that experience them. In Ovid, the transformations are literal.

The other thing to note about Ovid is that -- unlike Shakespeare, say -- there are no ‘just’ outcomes. The gods are bastards. Crass, casual, brutish, vindictive, peevish.

The first scene of the first part of Lost Echo is simplicity itself. Like the first low notes of Das Rheingold. The curtain slowly rises to reveal a small, Mozartean white sofa and John Gaden on an otherwise empty and dark stage... “There was a boy,” he says. “Son of the sun...” The curtain keeps rising to reveal a crane hook looming above.

I initially took Gaden’s character to be Ovid, telling the story of Phaeton in the third person. But he was Tireseus. The blind seer.

Here, at the origin, Kosky demonstrates that a body in space, a voice and some words, a single light and a resonant silence are stuff out of which one can conjure ever-expanding universes. But Kosky’s too impatient for evolution -- for genesis -- he wants big bangs and revelation.

Barely half an hour into the day and some butter-blonde blow-up doll Marilyn lookalikes shimmy on, with hole-mouths gaping and red-raw sausage-penises dangling. (Just like Kosky’s 101 dalmation dicks version of King Lear for Bell Shakespeare Company with ‘Mad About the Boy’ replacing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’.)

Jove (Peter Carroll in formal gear and grotesque make-up) looses a glorious arc of urine on the adoring Marilyns -- who lap it up more or less literally -- and Offenbach’s Barcarolle strikes up for the first of many times. We also get an old opera aria, a Riverdance routine, a couple of Cole Porter songs, one from Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern... you name it. The entire fourth quarter is a setting of Schubert’s Winterreise... (If that sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not wrong. Kosky’s Der verlorene Atem [The Lost Breath] for Schauspielhaus Wien ended with Schumann’s Dichterliebe performed in its entirety.) Kosky is nothing if not eclectic. Unless it’s eclectic and undergraduate.

Deb Mailman plays a horny, bum-fluffed boy willing to service any virgin desperate enough. In a pants-wettingly funny scene, Mailman bends a compliant girl over, spits on operative bits for lubrication and rogers her from behind in a rooting routine that wouldn’t look out of place in A Clockwork Orange. Moments later Juno (Pamela Rabe, like the queen of the night in a cocktail frock) slips in some spilt sperm. Ick!


Juno wreaks vegeance on one of her husband’s innocent conquests
(Photograph Heidrun Lohr, click on the image to enlarge)


As crass as these scenes sound -- and indeed are -- they are quite dignified compared to later set-pieces. (Lots of red raw prosthetic penises being rubbed until they bleed.)

It’s easy enough to excuse Kosky by drawing attention to the ancient roots of his perverse vaudeville. It’s as old as Aristophanes, king of what I call Aristophallic humour. But it’s hard not to suspect Kosky’s motives. It’s as if he doesn’t trust in the stories he is telling, their resonance in this godless world. It’s as if he doesn’t believe in the power of the word, written or spoken. Doesn’t trust acting. Doesn’t even trust drama. Doesn’t trust the theatrical medium he has used and abused so fruitfully for the last 20-odd years.

Yes, these particular stories are infinitely less complex than the stories of his Exile trilogy, with their accreted layers; they’re less natively musical. But if you have a full-time ensemble of actors at your disposal -- accomplished, fearless, multi-talented human beings -- why try to make a porno cartoon musical?

An ensemble like this one -- even augmented with a score of second year drama students from the National Institute of Dramatic Art -- can’t help but act, with commitment and passion. Amber McMahon is stunning in a variety of roles. Gaden, likewise, though his role has considerably less scope. Rabe is deliciously snakey and vindictive. Hayley McElhinney, arguably, has the most raw ability of the entire group. (She was far and away the best thing in Mother Courage and she was in the mute role!)

There’s so much to write about, here. Big picture and small picture. I was intrigued, for example, that Kosky and Tom Wright changed the story about Tiresius’s encounter with Jove and Juno. In the original, Tiresius is asked to settle a domestic dispute. Which sex gets the most pleasure from love? Jove says women, Juno says men.

But here, the question is turned on its head: which sex gets the most pleasure from sex?! No wonder Juno blinds Tiresius for answering that women do! (It’s a reflection on Jove, dear reader, not all men!) In the original, Juno’s punishment just looks churlish. (Of course women get off on love more than men!)

Wright’s translation is servicable rather than inspired, though there are some utterly indelible passages such as Callisto’s line about preserving and embalming memories.

And, it must be said, that the awe and goodwill built up in the first three quarters of The Lost Echo isn’t entirely squandered in the barely relevant meanderings of the final section. We still walk out amazed. Delighted. Even a little bit transformed.


OTHER SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY REVIEWS:

The Cherry Orchard adapted by Andrew Upton (January 2006)
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (February and April, 2006)



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Friday, September 08, 2006

Chunky Move: Glow by Gideon Obarzanek

Glow by Gideon Obarzanek and Frieder Weiß. Choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, interactive system design by Frieder Weiß. Original music and sound design by Luke Smiles (motion laboratories). Costume design by Paula Levis. Multimedia operation by Byron Scullin. Chunky Move Studios, Southbank, September 7, 2006. [Return season, October 12-27, 2007.]

Also Lublin, Poland, at 10 Międzynarodowe Spotkania Teatrów Tańca w Lublinie, November 12, 2006.

2007 dates:

Studio, Sydney Opera House, March 21 to 25. Noorderzen Festival, Groningen, The Netherlands, August 21 & 22, 2007. Chaoyang Cultural Centre, Beijing, November 1 to 4. Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, November 8 to 11. Byham Theatre, Pittsburg, November 15 & 16. PICA, Perth, November 19 to 21. Festspielhaus Hellerau, Dresden, November 23, 2007



Kristy Ayre in Glow (photo: Rom Anthonis, click to enlarge)

I was a little surprised to see Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek, Glow’s choreographer, sitting in on its 20th performance. A few minutes in, I decided that I’d probably want to see every one of its thirty performances -- three shows per day -- if I had the chance.

Two dancers were lined up to take turns performing the half-hour solo in its two week season. The senior of the two, Kristy Ayre, was given the first and third show, and Sara Black -- who I have only seen in student shows -- allocated the middle performance.

As it happens, the evening I attended, Ayre was injured. Black took Ayre’s performances and the show where I saw Obarzanek was a performance by understudy Lina Limosani. As so often happens in opera -- the whole big-break “star is born” scenario -- understudy performances can be crushingly disappointing (where one is cheated of seeing a star) or, like this one, utterly thrilling. I can’t imagine Glow better performed than it was by Limosani. I certainly couldn’t imagine any dancer committing to doing two performances as intense as hers in one evening!

Glow is a marvelous companion piece to Chunky Move’s last creation, Singularity. It’s a concentrated and complex work, yet has immediate visual and visceral appeal. Choreographically, theatrically and technically, this is a refined piece. The lighting and visual effects are so sophisticated that Glow would be perfectly at home as an installation in an art gallery.

Glow is a collaboration between Obarzanek and interactive system designer Frieder Weiß. Put simply, the lighting in this piece responds in real time to the movement of the dancer. Obarzanek writes:
“In Glow, light and moving graphics are not prerendered video playback but rather images constantly generated by various algorithms responding to movement. In most conventional works employing projection lighting, the dancer’s position and timing have to be completely fixed to the space and timeline of the video playback. Their role is reduced to the difficult chore of making every performance an exact facsimile of the original. In Glow, the machine sees the performer and responds to their actions, unlocking them from a relationship of restriction and tedium.”

While the applications of Weiß’s technology are, apparently, limited only by the imagination, Obarzanek concentrates here on enveloping the dancer. Capturing her in a noose of light. It’s solarised at the edges, then like a star-filter effect, then like a Kirlian photograph. We see, literally, the dancer’s aura.

Most of the dance -- at least to begin with -- is horizontal; swirls around a plain, rectangular, white mat. Stars and knots and figure fours. Splitty kicks and slides. Each move leaves a trace behind, projected from above: lazy loops, shell shaped patterns, decaying edges, pin-stripes, drizzling interference lines, puppet strings, wire-frames and bar-code trails.

If there is a lighting motif, it is the cross-hair. We’re constantly aware that the dancer is being found and scanned. Targetted. Bands of light -- like the swipe of a photocopier -- repeatedly locate the dancer in space. X-axis and Y-axis. Sometimes there are two bands in each axis and she’s caught in a cross-hatch.

A few times, I was reminded of early works by Alwin Nikolais. Nikolais would have smiled his famous smile to see the imaginary elastics that Limosani pushed at and stretched like something out of Tensile Involvement (1953) or the imaginary shroud, as in Water Studies (1964).

Yet this is not -- or not simply -- a pretty work. There’s Obarzanek’s trade-mark grotesquerie of old. The tortured yelping and grasping, the quivering, is almost Butoh-esque.

In another section, the dancer’s rolling leaves shadows behind, like one of those roll-on-the-canvas nudes by Yves Klein. These shadows, like the black oil in an episode of The X-Files, re-group, followed and re-infected the dancer like dybbuks. Doppelgangers. Later, dappled, dark clouds pass back-and-forward overhead.

Described like this, the lighting sounds like a series of stunning, but inessential effects. Incidental effects. But, no. Like all of Obarzanek’s recent theatre works, Glow continually aims higher than it has to. While I am uncertain what the dramatic agenda of Glow is -- it might be about depression, grief or some other kind of anguish -- I have no doubt that there are great conceptual depths here. Likewise, I feel sure that the choreography would stand up to the scrutiny of plain white light.

The bandage-fabric costume (by Paula Levis) didn’t add much to the dramatic equation, but it certainly didn’t get in the way. It allowed us to appreciate the weight -- the muscularity -- of the movement. High-key -- almost invisible -- music and sound effects by Luke Smiles were far more effective and essential.


OTHER CHUNKY MOVE REVIEWS:

Singularity (May 2006)

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth -- “bloody, bold, and resolute”

Macbeth. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s play by Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill. A film by Geoffrey Wright. Director of photography Will Gibson. Production designer David McKay. Costume designer Jane Johnston. Composer John Clifford White. (Additional music by Rowland S Howard, Devastations and others.) Sound designer Frank Lipson. Directed by Geoffrey Wright.

There’s much to admire in Geoffrey Wright’s plush film adaptation of Macbeth, which had its Australian premiere in Melbourne on Tuesday night. More importantly, there’s much to enjoy.


Sam Worthington as Macbeth (click on image to enlarge)

Doubtless, you’ve already heard that Wright and co-producer Victoria Hill (who also plays Lady Macbeth) have set the action in contemporary Melbourne, with Duncan more of a underworld king pin than royal King. The language, however, is not updated, though there are cuts and some reordering and the occasional reallocation of lines. (Sensibly, for example, Lady Macbeth gets to say “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,/Loyal and neutral, in a moment?”, springing to the defence of her husband after the slaughter of Duncan and his guards.)

The countless and thorny plotting challenges that follow on from those initial decision are handled with unselfconscious ease, from the obvious -- Macbeth’s “brandish’d steel” is now gunmetal -- to the cute: Birnam’s woods come to Dunsinane on the back of the lumber truck used to ram raid the gates of the compound.

This common sense approach (as if there’s anything common about sense!) extends to the relationships within the play. I can’t think of a single production of the play or filmed adaptation -- and I’ve seen more than a dozen -- that has drawn attention to the fact that Duncan has children but no queen. That Banquo, likewise, is a single father.


Gary Sweet as Duncan (in overcoat, centre)
Lachy Hulme as Macduff (the tall guy, right)


Rather than despair of ever making the play comprehensible to a modern audience, Wright concentrates on subtle but telling details such as these.

Surprisingly, too, given his filmography to date -- Romper Stomper, Metal Skin and straight-to-video teen slasher Cherry Falls -- Wright’s Macbeth is less like Scarface than Gone in Sixty Seconds. Well, a very sexy and very gory Gone in Sixty Seconds.

There are a couple of reverential nods to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible -- the use of the slow movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (transcribed, here, for solo piano) and the backward rolling credits -- and maybe even to Roger Avary’s film of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction.

Not surprisingly, red is the dominant colour in Wright’s film... from the vampire-red bangs on Weird Sister 1 (an unrecognisable Chloe Armstrong) -- as the girls romp their desecrating way through a cemetery -- to the balletic zigzag of infrared laser sights on automatic weapons at the final slo-mo shoot-out. The wine-dark blush in the cheek, the fine blown-back mist of blood from a kill shot, the cellars...

Macbeth is a luscious looking film. The wintry blacks on the water and on the streets of Melbourne’s Docklands, under the tiny indigo lights of Bolte Bridge, are viscous and glossy. Dunsinane is a palatial, established home. It stinks of old money, not drug money. Timber, velvet, candle-light, paneling. The costumes and cars are gorgeous.

Acting is generally very strong. The casting of Mick Molloy as a garrote-wielding murderer might sound as eccentric and inexcusable as Kenneth Branagh casting Billy Crystal as a gravedigger -- or Robin Williams as Osric -- in his 1996 film of Hamlet, but Molloy’s is a mighty cameo, surly and truthful.

Victoria Hill is captivating as Lady Macbeth, as she must be. Hill is better as hostess and sleepwalking madwoman than kill coach, it must be said. But she certainly earns a co-star billing.


Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth

Never one of my favourite actors, Lachy Hulme is compelling as Macduff. He towers over the rest of the cast, with the lone exception of Gary Sweet, as Duncan. In a play of massacres, Sweet is the only actor who doesn’t slaughter the sense of the script. Not a single syllable of it. (One can’t really count Cawdor’s “our father” on the plus side of the ledger -- “Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it” -- since his bit is not actually Shakespeare!)

This is hardly a new phenomenon in Australia, where hearing Shakespearean English used conversationally and meaningfully -- rather than as something to recite or parrot or declaim -- is still exasperatingly rare. But it’s a shame that less attention (apparently) was given to getting the words right -- getting the sense of the words right -- than capturing the perfect image here.

That description pretty much sums up Sam Worthington’s contribution to the project as well. Looks amazing, sounds ick. (Hmm... When I say he looks amazing, I’m not including that black leather kilt, okay?)

With the exception of the varied and rich musical score, the foley and fx are woeful. Cheap sounding. Cliched. Inexcusable.

There’s plenty more to be said, but further discussion would be at the expense of the many surprises -- both good and bad -- in this bloody, bold, and resolute film.


Photographs by John Tsiavis


This review was cross-posted at Sarsaparilla [archived here] where it provoked some vigorous discussion. Click here to check out the comments.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Alasdair Foster on photography, a conversation with the director of the Australian Centre for Photography

Alasdair Foster is the kind of dad teenage kids would be relieved to have... ‘relief’ being as close to ‘pride’ as any teen ever felt about a parent.

Foster is smart, articulate, unostentatiously hip, good looking and technologically savvy. He doesn’t look (or think) his age. The only daggy images on display in his office -- in the entire building -- are mugshots of a pair of well-scrubbed, smiling teens in school uniform.

When I spoke to Foster, the ACP was about to take over the restaurant at the front its Oxford Street premises and convert it into a second exhibition space. The ACP is only months away from owning the old Paddington Fire Station premises outright.


But I begin our conversation with something of a challenge. Apart from the technology, I say, there have been few advances in photography in my lifetime. Ways of seeing haven’t evolved at all.

[Alasdair Foster:] Photography has always been changing, but since the early part of the 20th century it keeps being defined as though it’s always been something static and that it is changing -- usually for the worse -- against that ‘ideal’.

In the 1930s, photography was seen as a mechanical process that “captured the truth” and made it apparent. But in the 19th century, representations of the true world involved a lot of manipulation because photographers wanted things to look like the way they were perceived. By the 1930s, you got the idea that a photograph “was what it was” and had a direct relationship with seeing.

Seeing is nothing like photography. We don’t see like film does, with complete pictures flashing in front of us. We perceive things, we integrate them with things we know from our memory and from logic. When we perceive, all we’re really doing is looking at the things that change and feeding them into perceptual framework.

We are a centre that began around photography in the 1970s. We have embraced photomedia but essentially we are a technological visual arts environment. We deal with video, we deal with computer-manipulated images, we deal with straight images, we deal with traditional analog. The range gets bigger. I’ve never known anyone in the public to have a problem with the widening scope.

The only people who ever care [about the widening scope] are funders and academics, both of whom require the continuum of life to be broken up artificially into boxes... otherwise how do know you’re spending the right amount on things? Or how do you know that this person is studying the right area?

The interesting thing is this: the adaptability of a general audience to changing technologies -- changing approaches to art practice and so on -- is very fluid and very fast. Particularly since most of our audience are under 35. 80% of our audience are under 35.

What we don’t do, of course, is assume that there is a revolution and only show moving images. It’s always an expanding, developing environment. It’s never the throwing over of one thing for another. There’ll be a few exceptions, I think, probably colour analog will go soon simply because the chemistry and paper will disappear. But for the most part it’s a process of enriching.

[CHRIS BOYD:] I THOUGHT SILVER NEGATIVES MIGHT BE MORE AT RISK.

Black and white, I think, will stay on. In fact, black and white -- we teach here -- and the black and white classes are going up not down. But it’s different. It’s more like a craft, it’s like lithography became...

IS THAT A REACTION TO THE UBIQUITOUSNESS AND IMMEDIACY OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY? EVERYONE’S GOT CAMERA PHONES... I HAVE NOTICED, FOR EXAMPLE, THE INCREASING USE OF BLACK AND WHITE, INCREASING USE OF POLARIOD, INCREASING USE OF BOX CAMERAS AND PINHOLE CAMERAS... PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO RECONNECT WITH THAT IDEA OF SONTAG’S THAT A PHOTOGRAPH IS SOMEHOW STENCILED OFF THE REAL, THAT THE PHOTOGRAPH IS “TRUTHFUL”? ISN’T THE PERSISTENCE OF BLACK AND WHITE -- AT LEAST IN PART -- A REACTION TO PHOTOSHOP MANIPULATION?

I used to work in the film industry in Scotland and we had a Renaissance every five years because nobody remembered that we had the last one.

If you take a long view, those things are constantly coming back, and coming in and out, for different reasons. It’s never the same. [At] the turn of the 19th to 20th century, alternative processes were very much in vogue because people wanted to get away from what they saw as the harshness of photography.

YOU MEAN THE JOHN KAUFFMANN ERA? PICTORIALISM?

People using gum bi-chromates, bromoil, they look like mezzotints...


Magnolia, John Kauffmann, c 1930. (click on the image to enlage)

THEY LOOK LIKE “ART” DIDN’T THEY?

The look like beaux arts. The first World War completely killed that Romanticism. The facing of harsh reality in the 1920s and 30s was what spawned -- particularly in America -- that idea of the f64: the absolutely sharp in-focus image that represented everything “as it was”... Of course it’s three dimensions to two and it’s colour to black and white... so it’s an ideological position.

We start with photography because that’s what the technological visual art form is. But as [photography] evolves, we remain a centre of the technological visual arts. And that means we don’t go too far into the things that, at the beginning of the 20th century, became film...

Images can move, they just really shouldn’t tell a story over a long time. Otherwise it’s film! If it’s got a beginning, middle and an end... these days -- whatever order you want to put that in -- that’s probably film. But if it’s something you can walk into at a number of different points... the fact that it’s moving doesn’t make it film not visual art. There’s a lot of cross-overs.

If one feels it rather trying to think it too hard, it’s really clear what you include within ACP as they become available, and it’s never a problem with the public. The public understand the relationship between people who want to use mobile phones to take pictures or use really large cameras, or if they want to use digital video or interactive computer programming.

[The ACP] is not here as a narrow space that defends an unchanging view of photography but, rather, one that embraces the nature of where the visual arts in their technical forms that involve lenses, if you like, are going...

And, as much as possible, it should be an energising space to come into. It’s not one you come to out of duty or habit or whatever. But you come because you actually get a pump from it. Or you get a sense of calmness, if it’s a meditative environment.

It actually is to engage people on an emotional and intuitive level and not just the intellectual level of “I saw that, I can talk about it” kind of thing. To know you felt something which might make a difference in the sense of how people feel... an emotional buzz or sense of cleansing or whatever.

We understand it really strongly from drama, we understand how looking at the dramatic representation of other people’s lives can somehow have a cathartic effect on us or a calming effect or help us work things out. I think the galleries can do that as well. I’m not sure whether they’re always engaged with on that level.

HAVE YOU -- I’M SURE YOU HAVE -- SEEN A LARGE NUMBER OF JOYCE TENNYSONS IN ONE ROOM? THOSE BEAUTIFUL POWDERY POLAROIDS, HUGE ETHEREAL IMAGES. I REMEMBER LEAVING ONE OF HER EXHIBITIONS AND JUST STARING AT STRANGERS ON BUSES AND SEEING ANGELS EVERYWHERE... I DON’T THINK I HAVE EVER BEEN SO AFFECTED IN TERMS OF HOW I SAW THE WORLD...

[Tennyson’s models] are not beautiful in a commercial, conventional sense, they are ordinary people who are somehow elevated to this ethereal quality. Which is an interesting shift you then take out into the world... where you begin to see potential and value and depth that commercial imagery tends to flatten and dismiss. We have this aspirational view that only certain things are worth the bother and the rest are those who came fourth and below.

You engage with images in a space like ACP in a very different way to that.

I’m struggling at the moment... I think we have to be careful not to perpetuate the modernist notion of galleries as a clear white space in which art is placed with some kind of clinical neutrality and in which cultural experimentation takes place... I never quite understood how we got all the way through postmodernism, but we’re still hanging things in white boxes.

In a dark space you’re less aware of the physicality of the environment, you’re able to hide the technology a lot easier, and you’re able to concentrate people on the art rather than the stylish environment.

Found objects can be placed in a white box and become subject for contemplation to very different level than you would if you encountered them in their normal use. That’s good to an extent, but how do you then know what what quality of artistic engagement is? Is it all to do with simply putting anything in that space? I don’t think it is. It’s got to be more sophisticated than that.

HOLD UP AN EMPTY FRAME, THE EYE WANTS TO SEE...

There is that thing about the fact we make pictures even when they’re not there. Like looking a clouds. It’s an innate -- I think it’s a hard-wiring thing, I don’t think it’s a culturally learned thing, this tendency to form symbolic representation out of things which were never intended to be.



WE ALSO NARRATIVISE THE WORLD, OUR LIVES.

Things are turned into stories. A lot of things are anthropomorphised. We tend to always place ourselves at the centre of things. If we’re going to see things in clouds, they tend to be faces.

I think it’s very interesting at the moment. There are aspects and conventions in photographic seeing which moved faster in the past than they are doing now... But they don’t mean now what they meant before. So you have somebody who makes apparently traditional documentary work now, it isn’t read by an audience in the way it would have been in the 1930s or 1940s.

So forms and how they’re read and how they’re applied are not all one thing. I think there are, though, many different forms, not all of them are necessarily sitting centrally in the gallery.


In the next part of the conversation, I ask Foster if 21st century art will be “open source”...

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