Ice, art & urgency: Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I & II

Fiona McGregor

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate II

How long does it take to transport ice? A time that depends on temperature as much as distance. Before electricity, ice in our part of the world was brought on big ships from continents whose climate made ice naturally. Buying an ice cream in Bondi as recently as 1915 meant dependence on this long voyage.

One hundred years later, ice is locally manufactured in refrigerators, powered by fossil fuels whose emissions help melt the northern icecaps. A 500 kilo pile of this ice dumped before the entrance of Carriageworks signals the beginning of punake [Tongan performer] Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate II.

The artist is dressed in a disposable body suit. She shovels up ice, carries it 20 metres then dumps it on the ground near a drain. It is a futile task, the second pile melting as it grows. Her labour contrasts with the audience idling by the bar, lulled perhaps by the repetition and stark beauty of the performance, until the abrasion of metal on concrete when Taumoepeau returns to the first pile, dragging the shovel behind her. Her pace is meditative, each gesture deliberate, the endless to-and-fro modulated by slight variations in carriage.

Repatriate II is a three-hour performance, as measured by the presence of the artist. The ice would have endured longer in the nocturnal iteration that I saw, than the diurnal one the following day, conducted before the busy commerce of Eveleigh markets that take over this forecourt on Saturdays.

Taumoepeau, Sydney (Eora) by birth and Tongan by ancestry, has been making works that address climate change in the Pacific for some years now. They become stronger and more refined with time. Repatriate I, which opened Liveworks, saw the artist seated in a high tank. Dressed in a black bikini and yellow floaties, she performed dances of her Pacific Island heritage as water gradually filled the tank. The vocabulary of the dance while unknown to this white viewer, resonated with myriad celebratory welcomes seen danced by Pacific Islanders.

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Latai Taumoepeau, Repatriate I

Repatriate I was more of a plangent goodbye, the dance initially limited to hand gestures when the artist was seated. Slowly, Taumoepeau began to float, valiantly continuing her dance. Upright, as the tank filled, the movements of her lower body were restrained by water. Night fell, the rain came, and we huddled under the eaves feeling her cold.

Insistent, thwarted, struggling, the dance continued til the bitter end. A long black wig added a note of absurdity. Yet there is nothing light-hearted about this work. Its seriousness of intent is refreshing and necessary in a cultural context often characterised by insincerity. An earlier performance in Sea Suite saw Taumoepeau stack ice into cardboard boxes, walling herself into a niche in a laneway behind a bar. It was the opening night of Sydney Contemporary, and a dozen or so artists were performing in the streets around the venue. Taumoepeau was the only one with gravitas. She has something urgent to say, these works so compelling and universal they could happen anywhere: Finland, London, Singapore, Chile, galleries, theatres, streets, bank foyers, shopping malls, parliaments.

Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Repatriate I and II from The Stitching (Up) The Sea Suite, artist Latai Taumoepeau; Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 17

© Fiona McGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015