Nunsense in Hill End NSW

Erin Brannigan: Julie-Anne Long, A Nun’s Picnic

Julie-Anne Long, Kathy Cogill, The Nun's Picnic

Julie-Anne Long, Kathy Cogill, The Nun’s Picnic

A one-off performance by Julie-Anne Long with a cast including Narelle Benjamin, Kathy Cogill, Martin del Amo, Rakini Devi, Bernadette Walong and Michael Whaites, had a bunch of Sydney-siders driving to Hill End an hour west of Bathurst on a dirt road in the middle of summer for an overnight stay. With a 6 month-old baby, and technician Mark Mitchell in tow, we too set out. Of course 5 hours is a modest journey in Australian terms, but as expected, the journey amounted to more than the clicks of the odometer.

Like a breadcrumb marking the trail, the installation component of The Nun’s Picnic was exhibited at the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. Heidrun Löhr’s eerie oversized prints of Julie-Anne Long in nun’s habit were hung outside a room containing Samuel James’ footage of Long and the Hill End landscape projected on 2 adjacent walls. Inside an old wooden wardrobe, flickering images lurked in a drawer and deep inside the open closet. James’ black and white films are heavy with dark drama, drawing visual parallels between the nun and a magpie, both deliberate shapes against the spiky clutter of nature. These images were intercut with scenes of the nun’s living quarters, the camera revealing her alone at prayer, or scanning her possessions as if part of a narrative. The installation works up the striking visual spectacle of a nun in the Australian landscape, tantalising the visitor with what is to come at Hill End, while also drawing together the convent and the landscape to suggest an interior life.

Outside Bathurst we hit the dirt road which passed from dry, drought stricken contryside complete with ambling goanna, into the oddly green oasis of Hill End. Discovering that the centre of town is actually the town in its entirety, we joined other wandering souls in the heat for some nun spotting. We encountered them coming around a bend at the far end of town, walking solemnly in formation. There were more dotted in the following crowd—the crew had also donned habits—and it seemed we were surrounded by a black and white flock.

The figures moved like the nuns in The Sound of Music, floating serenely along as if on another plane. They popped up above fences, were seen kipping and twitching on the grass, revealing sexy underwear as they trudged across fields, praying before some grassy mounds and piling into a Tarago blaring Madonna’s Like A Prayer. Some more literal images such as a nun on a cross seemed misplaced in this otherwise gently poetic and humorous performance. The action led us around the town and eventually to the Catholic Church where picnics were distributed.

But the evening performance was definitely the hot ticket in town, the dress rehearsal open to the Hill End locals having stirred up controversy the night before. There were whispers of beautiful naked women and upset parents. The husband of our Bed and Breakfast host also had issues with the use of the crucifix during the day. Suddenly the 5 hours we had travelled from Sydney meant more than just a historical, rural location.

Long’s subject matter is bound to Hill End via Jeffrey Smart’s painting The Picnic (1957). Long has been regularly sneaking off to the town since May 2003 on a residency program instigated by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, taking collaborators James and Löhr along with her. The residents must be accustomed to having artists blow through town, but it is unlikely that many of the resulting works have inhabited Hill End in quite the way Long’s performance did. What did they make of the curious, old-fashioned and entertaining ‘vaudeville’ that erupted in their steamy town hall that night?

Everyone sang along to Too Good to be True, guffawed at sight gags and ogled amazing physical feats. After a couple of teaser acts, including a deadpan version of the ridiculously patriotic G’day G’day by Martin del Amo, Long opened the proceedings as a Mae West-style show ring mistress, strutting across the stage in a bustle and a feather, whetting our appetite for the coming acts with an introductory song and a montage of mock one-reelers projected onto her skirt.

The acts rolled on. Benjamin and Cogill performed a take on contortionism in white bloomers to Aren’t Women Wonderful? Whaites, Del Amo and Long all appeared in drag, the latter 2 lip-synching to Nellie Lutcher and Nat King Cole’s Can I Come in for a Second? (Hats off to Long’s choice of music throughout and Drew Crawford’s impeccable job as music advisor.) Four bearded, heavy footed dancers performed the iconic choreography of the 4 cygnets to The Flat Foot Floogie. And my favourite (and cause of the aforementioned controversy): Cogill’s erotic fan dance, into which Long entered as a grumpy red rabbit to consume Cogill in a flurry of feathers.

The show shifted gear after a del Amo monologue about a relative who was a nun; she quit the convent and was outraged when she rang them and was put on hold to Ravel’s Bolero. Did his aunty know this was music people had sex to? Segue to a simple walking dance by Whaites against James’ video projections of the dancer in the Hill End landscape. The mood became sombre for this ‘postmodern turn’ played out to Bolero’s musical drama. Then we were back again with Cogill’s rendition of My Heart Will Go On and a stirring finale with audience participating in a quickly taught dance sequence.

Our first response was how the hell did Julie-Anne Long do it? This idea, that team, those songs, costumes, films…in this town? As Mitchell put it, she is just remarkable, and the audience, locals and blow-ins alike, went off like a cracker in the big Hill End night sky.

****

Hill End is popular with visual artists as an ideal location for residencies. Recent artists-in-residence have also included video artist Sam James, new media artists Andrew Gadow and the Svenja Kratz and Sarah-Mace Dennis team whose pre-Electrofringe encounter with a Hill End ghost was reported in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. Photographer Heidrun Löhr will take up a residency in the town this year, as will ceramicist Toni Warburton, poet Rudi Krausmann, painter Marnie Wark (SA), painter Kate Dorrough, sculptor Mary Douglas, photographers Tamara Dean and Dean Sewell and new media arts curator Sarah Last (of Wagga Wagga’s unsound) among others. Bathurst Regional Art Gallery has invited a total of 20 artists to participate in 2005. RT

The installation component of A Nun’s Picnic will appear at Performance Space as part of Reeldance Installations #1, One Extra, February 10-March 5.

The Nun’s Picnic, director/choreographer/performer Julie-Anne Long; performers/collaborators Narelle Benjamin, Kathy Cogill, Martin del Amo, Rakini Devi, Bernadette Walong, Michael Whaites; video Samuel James; music advisor Drew Crawford; photography Heidrun Löhr; Hill End, NSW, December 4, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 13

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005
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