Next Wave Festival: The evocative power of abstraction

Miriam Kelly: Admission Into The Everyday Sublime

Admission Into The Everyday Sublime, Next Wave 2016

Admission Into The Everyday Sublime, Next Wave 2016

Admission Into The Everyday Sublime, Next Wave 2016

As bright white lights dim to a dull red glow in a thick haze of smoke, all sound drops to a dull, bass-filled growl. Two male figures stand motionless and strikingly silhouetted, foreboding, almost threatening in this dark redness. I trace the outline of the human form, the shape created by loose strands of hair, the curve of a shoulder, the formlessness of loose clothing, and that forearm, outstretched to support a rock the size of the open palm. This is one of those moments that I will take away from the performance that personally resonates for reasons that I may never quite know. It is neither from start nor finish, I can’t place what happened before or after, and as other memories diminish and merge, this stays crisp.

Is this some kind of experience of the sublime? Can we in fact witness the sublime in the present day? In the everyday? The word ‘sublime’ carries heavy associations of danger and wildness and a positioning of the human race as belittled in the face of the insurmountable grandeur of nature. There are certainly those moments when the mundane delights; the way a beam of light gleans dust particles along its journey towards the earth momentarily quickens the breath and sharpens the senses. But those moments are so fleeting that we mostly miss them within the pace and distractions of the everyday. Lilian Steiner invites us into an immersive space that seeks to encourage a renewed state of awareness.

Over the hour of her Admission Into The Everyday Sublime, Steiner offers a compelling and hypnotic rhythm, reaching both extremes of feverishly fast and achingly slow across platforms of vision, sound and movement. Steiner’s work is highly stylised and tightly choreographed. She and co-performer Briarna Longville move almost seamlessly at times between simplified motion—running, turning, walking—and contrasting phrases characterised by open graceful lines suggest Steiner’s balletic training. In one extended sequence they traverse the space, bodies elongated in a type of elegant ‘trot,’ as in a human form of dressage, while in another their frantic motion feels as though they are completing a full day’s mundane movements in the space of a minute. I started to read playing basketball, washing the body, hailing a taxi among other things in their wild abstract gestures.

This work slows us down, requiring an extension of focus to engage with the subtlety and evocative power of its abstraction. In a superbly drawn out sequence, the two petitely built women drag their male counterparts Jonathon Nokes and Atticus Bastow on long lengths of cloth across the stage. The men are curled up at one end, while the women hold the length close to the opposite creating a cradle effect. Completed in near darkness, the action is slow and purposeful, sculpting visual form out of the effort of shifting such weight. When the women reach centre stage they turn to face the resting men. They carefully re-grip the fabric and with feet firmly planted on the floor, bodies erect, they lean back in an exquisite cantilever. Even in the low light we can see the sweat glistening on their necks. It crosses my mind what an extraordinary evocation this is of women’s unseen labour; the thought passes just as quickly as the performers enter a new movement phrase. Steiner writes of her desire to create “kinesthetic experiences;” there is certainly an unavoidable empathetic response elicited from such passages.

It feels like Steiner is non-verbally training the audience in a form of meditation. The audience is positioned within a traverse arrangement—part chapel, part valley—bookended by four ominous podiums at one end and blackness at the other. Splitting the audience either side of the stage at once heightens our awareness of each other, but also of the roles that attention and observation play in this piece. These ideas are eloquently articulated in Steiner’s finale: a classic ‘slow art’ moment.

Steiner and her co-performers settle statue-like on the podiums, and one performer provides experimental sounds that are like fragments of information being gleaned from all that is buzzing soundlessly in the world around us. In the blackness at the opposite end of the room, red and green lights slowly reveal a central ovular form. As the colours intensify, they also illuminate the surrounding textural quality of an expansive painting. Is this an aerial image of the Earth, perhaps the cosmos? Incrementally, over what must have been about 10 minutes, earthy tones in Ash Keating’s canvas shift as the light whitens to expose the oval to be in fact bright blue surrounded by silvery black. I can’t shake that feeling that I am staring at the sky through a hole in the wall, despite knowing that it is night outside. It is a process that rewards in a way not dissimilar to the perceptual experiences within the ‘sky space’ installations of American visual artist James Turrell.

Hypnotic and mesmerising, Admission Into The Everyday Sublime reminds us that art and abstraction are often most enriched with extended viewing. Ironically, one of the things that thrills me most across all art forms is not necessarily technical prowess, but this capacity of something or someone to re-awaken the value of a mundane moment—providing the perceptual tools of insight that can admit us into the everyday sublime.

Next Wave Festival 2016: Admission Into The Everyday Sublime, choreographer Lilian Steiner, performers Atticus Bastow, Briarna Longville, Jonathon Nokes, Lilian Steiner, sound Atticus Bastow, Jonathon Nokes, lighting Matthew Adey, costumes Shio Otani, commissioned artwork Ash Keating; Arts House, North Melbourne, 18-22 May

Sydney-based Miriam Kelly is currently the curator and collection coordinator at Artbank, sub-editor of the visual arts and culture publication Sturgeon and Chair of the online magazine Runway Experimental Australian Art. Kelly has curated exhibitions independently, for Artbank and for the National Gallery of Australia in her former role as assistant curator of Australian paintings and sculpture and published on a range of contemporary and historical areas of Australian art.

This review was written in the DanceWrite dance reviewing workshop. Read more reviews here.

DanceWrite was conducted by RealTime editors Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter with mentors Andrew Fuhrmann and Jana Perkovic. The workshop was an initiative of Hannah Matthews as part of her Australia Council-funded Sharing Space program and was presented in collaboration with Next Wave and RealTime.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016

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

25 May 2016