Deep in the Desert

Rachel Maher

Alice Springs, at the geographical and psychological heart of this country, captures the imagination of artists, residents and perennial visitors: the harsh grandeur of the desert lands, vast spaces surrounding the town, and a unique social layering that gives a platform to relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The very name, Alice Desert Festival, reveals the land’s integral significance to the arts community here. It is no surprise then, that 3 major shows were inspired by the nature of the desert and promised to explore a deeper understanding of our experience of it.

Red Shoes

a place, the latest work from Alice Springs performance group Red Shoes, is a series of arrangements using text, movement, sound and visual imagery. Animateur Dani Powell says, “questions about place reach deep into the psyche of Australians. The show is about reflecting on this land we love and the history that lives beneath our feet”. The performance is grounded self-consciously here. It is richly coloured with desert gestures, phrases and concepts that have been stylised for the performance: physical motions like kicking up red dust and swatting flies; collaged recordings featuring voices from town commenting on the uses of urban space; lighting and projections that describe horizons and rooftops.

The performance begins with Emily Cox and Nic Hempel walking through the crowd, Hempel extracting stretched notes from a violin, pulling the audience from the street and, like a herd of cattle, through an open gate into a tight space behind the Watch This Space gallery and theatre. a place is revealed in a fenced quadrangle of concrete and red earth, surrounded by industrial corrugated walls and domed by a starry night sky.

In one sequence, Anna Maclean offers a disturbing study of urbanisation and the meeting of the town and the desert through the careful placement of miniature houses and cars on grass squares. The concept of ownership is introduced quite literally by the presentation of a tiny “for sale” sign. Maclean plays out responses to the idea of property through increasingly reckless movements upon the mini suburban streets that she has created. The sequence ends with a very deliberate acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession and the greed of Western land values.

During Macleans’ urban scene, Sylvia Neale sits quietly by the back fence until the building frenzy sweeps right over her—houses also appear on her knees. It is her agonising wail that punctuates the end of this opening sequence, a raw view of Indigenous dispossession. Neale also contributed to researching and writing the show. This involvement in a place of a local Arrernte artist deepens the relevance of the show. Red Shoes attempts a genuine engagement with complex contemporary history, producing a work that springs perceptibly from the confines and opportunities of the town’s community and landscape.

De Quincey Co

Unconstrained by the limits of a theatre, Dictionary of Atmospheres sprawled along the dry riverbed in the centre of Alice Springs. The Todd River—Mparntwe in Arrernte—forms a spectacular natural stage, its sandy expanses fringed with shady gums. The river is a significant spiritual and geographical icon for the town, a space for Indigenous gatherings and the site of often aggressive move-on tactics of local police. It is into this disputed territory that Dictionary of Atmospheres quite literally steps.

Emerging from the distance into the rich gold light of late afternoon, 3 strange forms shrouded in plastic drift towards the gathering audience. A monologue is delivered by a man up a nearby tree while a fifth figure tears maniacally through the crowd. Following this dynamic opening, the performers settle into a series of collective movements. Their movements dig deep into the sand, responding to the drones and staccatos of live saxophone and recorded soundscape. These are haunting sounds in a powerful space, directing the variously edgy and frenetic, jostling and static improvisations that shape the next hour and form the basis of the show.

Dictionary of Atmospheres is a multimedia production presented by Sydney’s dance-performance group De Quincey Co and based in the Body Weather performance methodology, a contemporary practice “aspiring to generate a reflective performance environment.” For director Tess De Quincey the show is a culmination of 3 years of art-labs (the Triple Alice project) in the central desert “focusing on the nature of the land.”

Reading unfamiliar movement can be difficult for an audience searching for recognisable forms. However, each night a committed group of locals prepared to engage with and experience their environment as translated by the performance. The final stage of the show was by far the most engaging—a fascinating multimedia spectacle. Huge oil-drums housing TVs, intense lighting beneath grand trees and 3 huge video screens gave more stage to the performers in the deepening darkness. A lasting image from Dictionary of Atmospheres is of silhouetted figures moving through illuminated dust surrounded by digital distractions.

The hunt for logic in the performance is encouraged by its title, which implies a catalogue of desert themes and moods. Dictionary of Atmospheres was not forthcoming (though it is an evocative phrase); rather what dominated the piece was the experience of the desert dusk and the ancient presence of the riverbed.

Bek Mifsud

Traces: desires and presentiments is the richly textural exhibition of latest work by visual artist Bek Mifsud. Elegantly occupying the minimalist gallery at Watch this Space, Traces is a collection of black and white imagery of landscape in a variety of mediums. Enormous graphite rubbings and digitally modified photographs, sculpted forms, drawings and texts “pay homage to the legacy of the Great Inland Sea which once submerged the Central Australian region”, says Mifsud.

Recognisable forms abound in Mifsud’s work. The graphite renderings carefully capture the ripples that have been etched into the rocks of the Macdonnell Ranges of Central Australia. But the depictions shimmer: one minute solid rock, the next a pool of water. In Mifsud’s photographs these ripple formations and other watermarks emerge at first as minute studies of geological detail, then distant aerial views of the land. The compositions, though small in scale, sustain long and meditative observation.

The gallery space is commanded by a large central multiform installation. Mifsud’s mass of miniature paper boats, scattered across a glass-covered expanse of rock rubbings evokes the masses of water so absent now—a perfectly dry inland sea. Constructed simply from photocopied pages of text and diary drawings, the boats have an iconic presence, yet they are very fragile.

There is a strong autobiographical thread in Mifsud’s work. The pieces describe her own journey and compulsion to travel to the centre, most obvious in the featured text from her diary entries. Significantly, her investigation of the landscape of the Central Desert is rooted in science and history. The artist’s study of geology was motivated by a desire to inform her art and her journeys into the desert to find striking geological formations is reminiscent of explorers driven by scientific concerns. Her fascination with the allure of an inland sea—and its traces to be found in the desert—finds parallels in the diaries of others before her. The ruminations of explorers, artists and thinkers are sampled in her work, combined with her own words.

Traces is a careful, almost reverent translation of the artist’s landscape. It invokes the absolute proportions of the desert, the residual nature of water, the sheer age of this weathered land and the tenuousness of human interaction with the environment.

Alice Desert Festival, artistic director Craig Mathewson, Sept 2-11; Red Shoes, a place, Watch This Space, Sept 3-4, 9; Bek Mifsud, Traces: desires and presentiments; Watch This Space, Sept 3-4; De Quincey Co Dictionary of Atmospheres; Sept 4-7

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 11

© Rachel Maher; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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