Magic in detritus

Virginia Baxter: Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

There’s a subtle moment early on in The Object Lesson when the performance collapses in on itself. It proves to be just one of many magical moments in Geoff Sobelle’s intriguing work.

We’re invited into Sydney’s Town Hall, normally a tidily formal space but on this occasion looking more like domestic purging guru Marie Kondo’s worst nightmare. Cardboard cartons of every size are stacked almost ceiling high. Most appear to be loosely sealed and labelled; others spill their contents—golf clubs, broken toys, all sorts of clothing. Balanced on the boxes is a haphazard collection of vintage lamps. Turns out much of the clutter has been provided by St Vincent de Paul aided by audience members who are also invited to bring with them something they wish to discard. The email instructions state:

“Consider something that you have that you might want to get rid of. It might be big. It might be small. It might be clutter. Or it might have a tight grip on you. It doesn’t matter. Anything will do. But consider it… What might it be like to pack this thing up and let it go–never to be seen again?”

Somebody has left a box of bow ties (“The ties that bind.”); another a tin of corned beef from some Pacific Island (“not game to try this”).

That little moment of collapse I mentioned occurs after Geoff Sobelle has set up the first of a number of small performance zones among the clutter. The audience seated on upturned boxes moves whenever prompted by Sobelle to make room. Laps double as holding stations for variously shaped containers as he deftly unpacks carpet, standard lamp, leather armchair, table and antique phonograph and telephone, all the while addressing us in a strangely distracted monologue. There’s a lot of funny business with the phonograph, which appears to play without a record and, as will become a feature of the performance, lights unconnected with any obvious power source flick on and off at the performer’s will as if he is internally powered. Only when he relaxes into the chair, picks up the telephone and begins a conversation do we hear the reason for the pauses in the opening monologue. He’s captured it all on a portable recorder and now enters into a conversation with himself as if he were consulting his therapist. Sobelle is co-Artistic Director of Rainpan 43, a renegade absurdist outfit specialising in such “sublimely ridiculous” states of being. “Yep,” he says, seeking counsel: “I’m back in that place again.”

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

No logical sequence of events ensues, nor is there any clear lesson in The Object Lesson. Rather, Sobelle weaves his light-footed magic in a series of small episodes designed to amuse, intrigue, to charm and to hold us in thrall. And except for a couple of longueurs—which give you time to take in the several designers’ wild archival incursion into the city’s civic order—he pulls it off. At one point he’s Chaplin and then Groucho as he invites a woman in the audience to participate in his fantasy, conjuring a meal for her while tap-dancing on the table and slicing lettuce with the blade of his ice skates. (I’d like to see Heston Blumenthal better that one!)

Like all magicians, Geoff Sobelle saves the most puzzling and memorable trick for last. Moving to a wall of drawers labelled as in a library or museum, he pulls out one clearly empty box and over the next 15 minutes (or it might have been longer; I lost all track of time) he extracts the residue of ages from birth to death, the trash of a lifetime of objects received, bought, collected, acquired, loved, loathed, lost, found and unaccounted for. All of it impossibly materialises from this one small box, littering the floor between performer and audience. He finishes with a seemingly endless and increasingly scary tangle of electrical wires mixed with organic matter, finally unearthing chunks of concrete that might be the foundations of the Town Hall itself.

The item I took to the performance was a small lapel pin celebrating the town of Bendigo.

“Pick it up and put it in your hands. Feel the weight of this thing. Is it lighter or heavier than you’d imagined? Is there anything about it that you haven’t seen before? Or is it just the same? Where did it come from? Can you imagine the other hands that held it? That made it? That changed it?”

As I deposit the small box among the others I think of the elderly proprietor of the Bluebird Fruit & Vegetable Shop who presented the pin to me unprompted as a memento of my first visit to that town along with a free bag of apples. The object comes nowhere near to matching the weight of this man’s kind gesture but just as it’s hard to have a relaxed conversation with someone you once shared a house with, without the house, now that this tiny object is gone it occurs to me I may have some trouble holding on to the memory. Reflecting on Geoff Sobelle’s Object Lesson, I’m reassured my memory is safe.

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

Geoff Sobelle, The Object Lesson, Sydney Festival

The Object Lesson, creator, performer Geoff Sobelle, director David Neumann, scenic installation design Steven Dufala, integrated archive design Jamie Boyle, sound design Nick Kourtides; Sydney Town Hall January 7-22, Sydney Festival.

27 January 2016