Troppo Obscura: The postcolonial eye

Keith Gallasch

Crickets clack and distant babies cry, the room is quietly dense with tropical night sounds. Five huge 19th century cameras almost fill the small gallery space for the performance installation, Troppo Obscura: they look the real thing, bulky, long-legged, wide-eyed. They are fantastic reconstructions, one is even winged, and they incorporate authentic components, but also come with earphones attached. Beneath one, oddly, a pair of legs in tights is visible. When I look into the view-finder I don’t see the room; instead I’m seduced by the articulate gesturing of dancing fingers, the gently elegant moves of a crowned head and the beckoning of brilliantly bright eyes that pierce with such face to face proximity. It’s as if I have my own camera and am shooting in extreme closeup a court dancer from Java or Bali. Forced to move on by keen queuers, I squint into another camera to see old black and white footage, perhaps from the 20s, of village life and court dancing, children at play in water, the eruption of a volcano and the disturbing recurrence of the image of a westerner gazing sternly at me as he stands by his own camera.

Looking into the winged camera I see more film of engrossing traditional dance. I hear, however, contemporary Australian female voices intimately recorded, chatting, sometimes raucously and wickedly, about relationships they’ve had with Indonesian men, the pleasures and compromises. In another camera, I witness recent footage of an old woman sitting cross-legged, gesturing with a dancerly expressiveness as she tells the story of her first husband, a policeman who wouldn’t let her dance, and the second who was “stupid but obliging.” Her characterful eagerness and dancing hands counterpoint the horrors that spring from her lips of grim privations and dying children.

From above another camera rises the upper torso of a young man (Teik-Kim Pok), a red flower tucked behind his ear. He peers obsessively into a hand mirror. A peep into the machine reveals a different kind of dancing: a kitschy, naked, western blonde ‘tattooed’ on the boy’s belly gyrates to Bob Marley’s “No woman, no cry” and Garuda Airline airport announcements, making for a nicely droll postcolonial mix.

The piece de resistance of this already absorbing Troppo Obscura is a large projection onto one wall of the gallery, It’s a film in silent movie mode of the work’s creator, Monica Wulff (encountered also as the dancer in the camera), appearing as an Edwardian woman in white hat and long dress who plays with Indonesian masks and dance gestures and whose clothes disappear layer by layer and piece by piece. For all her adoption of an exotic otherness, a piece of old peep show trickery reveals her to be very real, naked and white, until the film reverses and dresses her again. Sam James’ filming is another example of the artist's virtuosity (as witnessed in Julie Ann Long’s Miss XL) and his ability to perfectly complement and expand his collaborators’ visions.

Troppo Obscura is a marvellous visual, aural and dance creation, a performance installation that not only seduces with its immediate magic but leaves you wanting to see more of the remarkable archival film that Wulff found in the Netherlands and to know more of the lives overheard. The installation’s wit and inventiveness evokes and subverts a world of photographic colonialism with more than enough contemporary hints that post does not mean past or finished, and that the orientalisms of dance and music that sprang primarily from the 19th and early 20th centuries are still with us as we struggle to nurture meaningful cross-cultural hybrids.

Monica Wulff devised the installation and performed (dedicatedly, her head in a box for hours at a time), Hedi Hariyanto from Indonesia created the wonderful objects, Sam James the video, RealTime’s Gail Priest the embracing ambient and other recordings, and Deborah Pollard was a very active artistic consultant. Troppo Obscura deserves to be seen more widely.

Carnivale & The Institute for International Studies, UTS, Troppo Obscura, Performance Space, Sydney, Oct 10-19

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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