Next Wave Festival: Wrestling with monsters

Miriam Kelly: Desert Body Creep

Desert Body Creep promotional image

Desert Body Creep promotional image

We all have our monsters, our demons, those things we wrestle to come to grips with, to quash or overcome, perhaps daily. Right now, my monster is how to do justice to Angela Goh’s Desert Body Creep, a work in which Goh, alone on stage, struggles with her monster, evoked in the form of a worm.

Goh’s stage is furnished sparsely, like a contemporary installation art piece: a pile of fabric here, another flat on the floor over there; a microphone, a broom handle, some electronics and a piano. I didn’t notice the piano at first. It felt like the only natural presence in that space, perhaps a left-over from that morning’s community choir rehearsal at the little Northcote Town Hall studio. Goh has delineated a stage with black tarquette, but the rigging of lights is left exposed, as are the walls of the studio; hence the sense of the piano as natural.

I am surprised to see Goh standing patiently on stage, shifting from one foot to the other, not nervously, just slowly. She wanders to the side of the stage and drinks from a metal water bottle. Her face is emotionless, a mask framed by thick black hair dyed bright blonde. She’s dressed casually, in sneakers and mis-matching patterns, which give her the appearance of a child who has combined her favourite clothing with no regard for convention. Or perhaps she is just a woman, dressed as herself. It feels like she needed to see the audience enter, to clock us, before we spend 45 minutes watching her body and her battle. I remember this opening image—set and performer—in such detail as it is so intriguingly unspectacular and sets such a distinctive tone for the performance.

Lights dim and a familiar yet indistinct pop track plays. In one of only a small number of dramatically lit sequences, a spot reveals that Goh has entered a trance-like state, she won’t look at us again until her curtain call. She shifts her body slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. Sliding her feet across the floor, she establishes a series of purposeful shapes that are repeated slowly—hand following elbow, torso following legs—as though hearing the beat of the track at one-twentieth the speed. Here, Goh adds texture to her opening image, setting up a series of parameters—slowness, repetition and surreality—that she carries across the performance.

In these early stages, I am intrigued to find out how Goh will actually perform with “an oversized gummi worm,” as promised in her written introduction (which is accompanied by a digital image of the artist fancifully surfing a pink and blue serpent-like form through a desert). She knows we want to know—it is such a bizarre premise—but makes us wait. In the opening two trance-like scenes she starts a kind of journey towards the floor—perhaps the centre of the Earth—towards her worm, her monster.

It is thus almost unceremonious, a little humorous, when Goh introduces the flaccid, sticky form of the large but not exactly “oversized” worm. Her first actions of discovery and mimcry are equally hysterical and wonderful. On all fours, she positions the worm in relation to her own body by placing the invertebrate along the length of her spine as though training both it and herself. Then, like a puppeteer, she rolls the worm backwards and forwards over the broom handle, in deep concentration. These are delicate and sensual scenes that give no warning of the horror to come as Goh charts an eventual descent into full embodiment of the worm.

One of her most moving and unsettling images is achieved as she finally lowers herself all the way to the floor. Outstretched, she places her arms by her side and slowly rolls her shoulders to inch forward the chest, then stomach, pelvis and legs. Her chin pushes her head back to reveal her open mouth. It looks exceedingly uncomfortable as she wriggles forward pushing one of the outstretched fabrics with her mouth, as a worm would to dirt but as a woman should never have to. It is a bold evocation of the abject.

The long, following sequence—intended to be even more horrific, as indicated by a screaming soundscape—is a blur of Angela Goh in a state of possession traversing the stage, wrestling both with and as fictive monsters, until she herself has become an enormous, writhing worm form in a tube of pale green velour. In an allusion to both environmental destruction and personal cleansing we see Goh enact a frantic, yet still predominantly slow-moving and repetitive passage, cleansing the already sparse stage by ‘consuming’ all in her path into the belly of the beast.

Goh eventually emerges from the tube fully naked. This is another bold statement, that feels at first clichéd until it becomes apparent that no costume could convey the outcome of her battle sequence more accurately than her own skin. She stands, self possessed and for the first time since she began, breaks her trance. Goh punctuates the seriousness of her persona and the inferences of this work with moments of dry humour and this is one of them. Sweaty and naked, she takes a moment to drink from her water bottle, adorning herself only with a purple hair tie, then perfunctorily vacuum shrink-wraps the discarded ‘skin’, placing it to the side of the stage. I half expected her to dust off her hands.

While there is an implicit progression, Goh’s performance feels more like a striking collage of tableaux vivants. She ends the work with two of the more enduring images—which in themselves feel worthy of an essay contextualised by the work of Marina Abramovi? and the history of feminist performance art. In the first, Goh standing on a vibrating weight-loss machine, her back to the audience, slowly increases the speed of the vibration in several stages as the (minimal) fat on her taut body flails wildly until her whole flesh seems to have lost its solidity—all somehow perfectly in time with the increasing speed of a screaming guitar solo. Is she showing us that in embodying the qualities of the invertebrate, her monster, she has come to terms with it?

The second scene is Goh’s perfectly unspectacular finale. Still naked, she seats herself at the piano and slowly plays a simple two handed and vaguely familiar tune, as though recalling a muscle memory from the past. It is an ending that leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Is this a recollection of the song we heard at the start? What was the real nature of her battle, what did she learn from this time in/as the worm? Was this an allusion to the journey of a woman from childhood to adulthood? Or an acceptance, a harnessing and taming of her own internal monster? Is this final scene an indication of her new beginnings or a re-entry into an infinite loop?

Next Wave Festival 2016: Desert Body Creep, choreographer, performer Angela Goh, sound design Matt Cornell; Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, 17-22 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 pg.

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

25 May 2016