Celebrating the body: plasticity & mutation

Kathryn Kelly: exist-ence 5, festival of live art, performance art and action art

Julie Vulcan, Redress #6 Hinc Illae Lacrimae, or Hence Those Tears

Julie Vulcan, Redress #6 Hinc Illae Lacrimae, or Hence Those Tears

Julie Vulcan, Redress #6 Hinc Illae Lacrimae, or Hence Those Tears

Existence equals one white room, one mesmerised spectator and one flame-haired woman in a blood-red dress. Julie Vulcan’s Redress #6 was one of the exquisite durational live artworks showcased at exist-ence 5, a festival organised by the exist collective “to cultivate an open and visible platform for live art, action and performance arts through altruistic curation.”

This exist-ence is their fifth international festival in six years (2008-2013), the impressive program including a two-day Symposium in Brisbane and a program of performance events in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. As Keith Gallasch noted in his preview in RT115, the exist-ence festival is “unique in terms of ambition, continuity and growing national and international scope.”

Live art demands body and flesh be witnessed and sometimes can be a mixed bag for spectators, but I had an absolute ball at the three-day Performance Festival because there was such a spirit of shambolic risk-taking and experimentation.

Live artists are not the contained and elegant greyhounds you see at so many art-show openings. As a tribe they remind me strongly of my own theatre muckers, ramshackle gypsies and shamanic chameleons, luminous with child-like curiosity. On the first night we all snuck into the printmakers’ opening night around the corridor at QCA where we quaffed free wine and ate expensive cheese before scarpering back for a tired but still crackerjack Labana Babylon, gyrating and prophesying via webcam from her bordello-like New York apartment.

That night ended on the moonlit quadrangle, where, between abutting concrete towers, Swedish artist Henrik Hedinge lay down on the grass in his green top and gold shorts (a nice touch I thought). With a motley crew of helpers he arranged large bamboo poles, which functioned as extensions of his prone body, making pleasing, slightly skewed, geometric patterns. This was an architectural body, but one augmented by wood rather than by techno-industrial material and therefore somehow more vulnerable in its irregularity.

Unlike other images in this series, Hedinge was not strapped into the bamboo extensions and there was an un-easiness watching the poles being moved, over there, here you go, no that isn’t right, try again. While this may have been a conscious strategy, the work lacked the sensitivity and layered detail of other documented images in this lying down series (see RT115, p23). However, images of the work taken on the night from the top of the large concrete towers showed that it was also a matter of scale and perspective. To fully appreciate the delicacy of the body in the flow of the wood extensions you needed to view, like Hedinge’s other documented images, from above and from a distance.

Grappling with body plasticity and mutation was also a theme of many of the local works including James Cunningham’s Antennae. Cunningham, bent double, had strapped to his back and arms bundles of black arcing plastic rods which made a quivering carapace over his body, dislodging ceiling tiles and scaling the floors. The act of standing up took Cunningham a gripping 20 minutes as he manipulated body and carapace, delicately choosing particular angles that would allow freedom of movement for both. In contrast, Karike Ashworth and Anja Homburg chose domestic materials, ribbons and strings, and offered their bodies for us to decorate. While the scissors and other implements looked the most dangerous, the fiercest provocation came from august live artist AñA Wojak who took one of the young women’s hair and plaited it, in full tension, to the back of spectator Henrik Hedinge’s fashionably asymmetrical quiff, a Rapunzel knot, its tension electrifying the sense of time and feminist discourse in the piece.

But I must confess that I was captured, like a rabbit in headlights by Redress #6 Hinc Illae Lacrimae, or Hence Those Tears. Julie Vulcan has a long career as both a solo artist and as part of the Unreasonable Adults and the Frumpus collectives.

This work explored the politics of standing, as protest and as subjugation, perhaps to domesticity, or obsession or even to the act of creation. The standing was interspersed with intense routine, marked by Vulcan’s iPhone timer: task, alarm, re-set, standing, alarm, re-set, task. There were occasional breaks to this extraordinary rhythm, like a long, slow walk through the rocky garden outside the window of the small white room. But the work built its intensity from the dignity given to this slowing and structuring of time through task. A long muslin sheet was kissed and cut and each piece laid on the floor in precise rows. Salt was poured in a long stream, pooling next to each of the muslin pieces and then kissed by Vulcan. Each sheet was wrapped in ice and hung, crying into the salt faces in the floor that echoed the broad and generous curves of the performer’s lips and nose. Hence those tears. The strain was evident, but Vulcan’s absolute commitment made the room like a church, alive with contemplation and shared grace.

My journey at exist-ence ended rather fortuitously with an engaging young animateur, Jamie Lewis, whose piece, untitled, involved a bbq chat filmed while she made us sambal and egg sandwiches on glowing white bread, a sneaky Singaporean comfort food that brokered conversations about place, identity and chili. I wondered about the recording though, sensing a further stage to the work yet to be revealed.

Commendation must go to the tireless and graceful co-curators Rebecca Clunn-Cunningham and Nicola Morton who were there seemingly all day and night, soothing young artists and endlessly resetting the small rooms or outdoor spaces for the next performance. Scuttlebutt around town was that Julie Vulcan had been censored with posters being put up on the glass walls to prevent her breasts being seen by the public when she took her dress off to write on her back with red pen. I’m not sure if this is in any way true, but to my mind, the whiff of indignation it implies is the ultimate accolade for this subversive artform and a tribute to this gathering of true believers.

exist-ence 5, festival of live art, performance art and action art, QCA Project Gallery, Brisbane, 17-30 June

See also Keith Gallasch’s account performances in the Sydney leg of exist ence 5 at PACT.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 40

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

19 August 2013