Missing in action

Kathryn Kelly: Mira Oosterweghel, Unstable Moments

Marianna Joslin, Unstable Moments, Metro Arts

Marianna Joslin, Unstable Moments, Metro Arts

Marianna Joslin, Unstable Moments, Metro Arts

“‘Delegated performance’ is the act of hiring non-professionals or specialists in other fields to be present and performing…on behalf of the artist, and following his or her instructions.” Claire Bishop, “Delegated performance: outsourcing authenticity,” October, No 140, Spring 2012.

Flying or falling, supported or bound, what are the visible and invisible structures in landscape and culture that hold our vulnerable bodies in suspension? These are the strictures explored in the new solo exhibition at Metro Arts by Melbourne-based performance artist Mira Oosterweghel.

In the essay accompanying the exhibition, academic Anne Marsh comments that Oosterweghel has rapidly built “a strong practice in the field of body art and delegated performance.” The latter is a distinctive preoccupation for a young Australian performance artist in a small national scene that still heavily emphasises the actual artist’s presence.

Oosterweghel’s elegant installation at Metro Arts seems like the climax of a long journey from sculptural form to large-scale delegated performance. Indeed, when I interviewed her she described how that ‘intuitive’ process began. “During my training in sculpture I would often use my own body to experiment with my works…This was how I developed my first performative work, where I filmed myself laboriously pushing around a lump of play-dough equal to my own weight.’’

While drawn to the feminist ideals of body art, Oosterweghel became frustrated with the autobiographical readings of her work that would sometimes undermine her political or conceptual intentions. She turned to delegated performance to provide a sense of clarity. This involved not just working with performers but accepting delegations from other performance artists, such as Australian performance art pioneer Jill Scott. Oosterweghel’s delegated works have grown from solo pieces to complex installations such as My Technique is my Own (2015) which involved four performers straining in suspension harnesses anchored to a gallery floor.

What is fascinating about her body of work is the evident care with which the artist frames the performances. Dressed in monotones (grey, white or black) her collaborators look ordinary but somehow uniform; capable of performing the physical tasks required but in no way ‘trained.’ There is a sense of looseness about the tasks in which they have been instructed despite the physical skill and exertion required to be bound, suspended or harnessed.

Indeed, these signature apparatus make their appearance in the Metro exhibition. Oosterweghel’s work is highly responsive to site and she was excited to work in the large white heritage open space of the Metro Gallery which is separated by low walls and large pillars into three sections.

In the first section, the first male performer and veteran of Oosterweghel’s work, Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart, was in a harness anchored to the wall closest to the entrance. He strained against the harness, rebounding like a rubber band but stopping often to interact with people in the space. The second male performer worked in the middle space, which was diagonally cut across by a rope ladder, anchored at the bottom of the wall and the top. Slowly, methodically and resisting eye contact, he ascended the constantly wobbling ladder with a great deal of concentration.

The final installation was the most precarious and engaging. A birdlike woman in skinny jeans and with painted red toenails balanced on a paddle-shaped board. The board was held in a complex set of suspension lines that radiated like a spider’s web from a central anchor on the floor of the gallery where the floating white gallery wall met the broad planks of the wooden floor.

Slumped over the board, the performer’s arms and legs dangled, only her toes tensed. Next, she raised her arms and propelled herself through the air. As she flew, she was constantly making tiny adjustments to stop falling. She did not acknowledge us watching her fly, but when we came close, she smiled and invited us to push.

Viewed from the side of the gallery the three installations could be seen together in a mesmerising tableau: cogs in a wheel, mice in a cage, vulnerable bodies in webs of pressure and balance. The strength of the work was that sense of line and tension, detachment and experimentation. Yet these qualities were also problematic, the stripped elegance and formal composition lacking that abjected body, that strain or compromise that had given some of Oosterweghel’s prior works their edge and that primal quality needed in body art.

However, this is a minor quibble about an installation that had been meticulously planned and constructed and that showed a true artist navigating her own path, blazing a new generational trail in performance art.

Mira Oosterweghel, Unstable Moments, Metro Arts, Brisbane, 22 April-9 May 2015

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 14

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

11 June 2015