A reason to care for strangers

John Bailey: Bryony Kimmings, Melbourne International Comedy Festival, FOLA

 Bryony Kimmings, Taylor Houchen, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

Bryony Kimmings, Taylor Houchen, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

Bryony Kimmings, Taylor Houchen, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

The memory of a critic reserves permanent house seats for those works that provide an introduction to some new form or practice, no matter that it’s old hat to everyone else. Even more treasured are those experiences that provide some novelty shared by a wider artistic community, a ‘where does this even come from?’ effect that gets everybody talking. But there’s a place of privilege that can only be accorded those rare works that don’t just grab that collective attention, but feel as if they’re going to shape the practice of some or even many of those in the room in months and years to come.

These works plant seeds whose flowering can’t be predicted. Rather than inspiring imitators, they enable mutations in the practices of those who enter their gravitational field. There was no doubt that just such a moment had occurred when UK performance artist Bryony Kimmings brought two works to two very different festivals in Melbourne this year.

One is a melancholic/comic retrospective on Kimmings’ own history that expertly milks the pain inherent in any nostalgic turn. The other is a work whose investigative premise leads to a transformation that will likely influence everything she produces from now on.

Sex Idiot was an entry in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and is perhaps the first and last time that a performance artist will command the main room of the Melbourne Town Hall. It began after an STI test came back positive and Kimmings embarked on a mission to contact her former lovers—all forty-something—and produce a new artwork to honour each who responded.

Kimmings’ sense of visual design is a maximalist one, and the many wardrobe transformations that take place here include lederhosen, toreador garb, bride, shaman. The stage is littered with flowers and the steady accumulation of props takes on more and more of a ritualistic aspect as the work progresses. In some ways this is an exorcism, in others a funeral.

She’s certainly a fearless and original performer, delivering a monologue through a transparent speculum, beating her face with a bouquet and in a jawdropping stretch of audience participation managing to collect enough pubic hair from her viewers’ bodies to fashion a voluminous moustache.

It’s not theatre as therapy. Kimmings reveals enough of the unpleasantness that likely accompanies anyone’s relationship history to let us know she’s no angel, and when several of her past lovers make it clear in no uncertain terms that they never want to hear from her again, you can imagine there’s probably a reason. Kimmings isn’t revelling in any of that, or seeking approval or forgiveness, and indeed the work as a whole avoids the usual narrative of self-discovery or transformation, even though the artist herself is constantly morphing in front of us and as an audience we are perpetually discovering new things about her.

Bryony Kimmings, Sex Idiot

Bryony Kimmings, Sex Idiot

Bryony Kimmings, Sex Idiot

Sex Idiot makes us laugh. It doesn’t end with a lesson, or pose an obvious question. By its very existence, though, it invites us to consider the very act of looking back, and how what is seen will always be shaped by the eyes that do the looking.

Kimmings’ inclusion in the inaugural Festival of Live Art (FOLA) turns in the opposite direction. It’s just as bravura an enterprise as Sex Idiot, but here Kimmings is joined on the stage by her tween niece Taylor. Auntie Bry began to wonder how the world today appeared to her at the time nine-year-old relative, and took to seeking out answers. What she found was enough to inspire a terrible fury and sadness. This is a work so fuelled by a deep and abiding love and a fathomless need to make things better that these emotions spill over into the crowd, who are left weeping, shaking with anger or buoyed by affection in turns. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model doesn’t tell its audience a problem and then retreat into the safety of ‘raising awareness.’ Kimmings’ rage is too gut-knotting for that. She’s made something that makes its audience want to do something.

The world in which Taylor is growing up is one where she is a prime marketing demographic, a potential sex object, a being whose agency must be methodically stripped away and whose function is to both consume and be consumed. The icons offered her—the Katy Perrys of stardom—have celebrity so glamorous that Taylor’s is the first generation to list ‘fame’ above ‘kindness’ as a desirable trait. It was this finding that inspired Kimmings to collaborate with her niece in order to produce a new role model for girls her age. With Taylor determining the figure’s various attributes, Kimmings set about making her a reality.

Children, it turns out, are surprisingly conservative. Taylor’s prized traits included ‘tradition’ and ‘safety’; the role model, named Catherine Bennett, was to wear glasses, work as a palaeontologist and enjoy tuna pasta. She’s also a singer, and as the work proceeds Catherine Bennett becomes more of a tangible presence, eventually appearing to perform one of her songs and lead the audience in a dance routine.

But Catherine Bennett’s reality extends beyond the stage. To many people Taylor’s age, CB is as real as any other popstar—she has a sizeable online presence, tours schools and has been invited to Parliament. One of Taylor’s demands was that the creation make celebrity friends, and Bennett counts Yoko Ono among her admirers.

Against the scale of Kimmings’ accomplishment is the simple presence of Taylor on stage. Throughout the work, the pair dance together, play games, orate, joke, mime warfare, share silence. The visual palette is just as rich as that deployed in Sex Idiot—against a fairytale forest, the two will become princesses, Victorian boys, knights, stars. But the greatest transformation is that of the Bryony Kimmings of Sex Idiot when placed in the presence of the small person who usually stands behind and to one side, always unconsciously glancing at her aunt to see if she’s pulled off that last move right.

By collaborating with Taylor, Kimmings was impelled to make a work that moved beyond the self-examining, the autobiographical and to create something that in the end was much larger than both of them. Catherine Bennett took on a reality that could not have been predicted, and in watching this creation myth playing out her audience can’t help but want to add to its mass. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model gives its audience a reason to care deeply about somebody they’ve never met, and to want to change the world in order to protect them, and how could any artist not be spurred on to act differently as a result? I have no idea what this will mean for Melbourne’s own artistic output, but the outpouring of emotion and praise that followed this work ensures that I can’t wait to see what flowerings are yet to come.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Sex Idiot, writer, performer Bryony Kimmings, Melbourne Town Hall, 27 March-5 April; Festival of Live Art: Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, writer, director, performer Bryony Kimmings, performer Taylor Houchen, music, co-directionTom Parkinson, lighting Marty Langthorne, design David Curtis Ring, Theatre Works, 25 March-6 April

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 14

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014