Postcard from Perth Festival 2
Voices and Bodies
Opening Ceremony, Siren Song, Beyond Time, Repatriate, Museum of Water, Attractor
The opening week of the Perth Festival has me reflecting on voices and bodies: the voices and bodies of women, first nations and other minorities; the voices and bodies of non-artists, audiences and participants as well as artists, producers and curators. This is a Festival that gives space, time and even priority to these voices and bodies.
The opening ceremony Gnarnk-Ba Karla Waarnginy (‘Speaking Fires of our Mother’) took place at the west end of St George’s Terrace: hardly the most obviously scenic spot, despite what must once have been an impressive streetscape running eastwards through the CBD, and before that a glorious natural site overlooking the river beneath what was now King’s Park. It was now hemmed in by corporate high-rises obscuring the river and the park, and even dwarfing the Tudor-style convict-era relic of Barracks Archway that stands at the head of the Terrace, and in turn blocks the view of Parliament House behind it.
I sat on a low wall outside the new Channel 9 buildings with a group of onlookers, mostly older women. One of them told me she was in Perth because of the international golf tournament – she’d been a volunteer there for the last twenty years. She and her companions seemed to be regular Festival opening ceremony attendees. They proudly pointed out the branches of eucalypt that had been assembled beneath the temporary outdoor stage for the cleansing smoke-ritual, and remarked on the fact that this year the Noongar elders seated onstage to perform the Welcome to Country were all women – as were the dancers and singers who would be performing. Festival Director Wendy Martin was there amongst them, black hair and voluminous red scarf flying in the wind that barrelled down the ‘canyons of commerce’, as she called them. I wondered how the speakers and singers would cope with the eucalyptus smoke blowing straight into their faces – or for that matter how the helicopter that would soon be making its appearance to broadcast Siren Song would cope with the wind, and whether the sound of the sirens would prevail against it.
A gracious Welcome to Country speech from Noongar elder Aunty May McGuire acknowledged the generosity and inclusiveness of the Festival as well as gently reminding us of the history of violence, removal and segregation that haunted the site. She passed her ceremonial spear to Wendy; singer and dancer Rikeeta Walley took the stage; and a group of young women dancers, Kwarbah Djookian, crept through the crowd and joined her. After several songs and dances (Wendy joined the last one) and a tribal pop song by Honey Webb, the melody from the last song was taken up by the disembodied voice of Karla Hart through the speakers above the stage, and I felt a wave of emotion as more women’s voices began to echo and canon the same musical phrase down the corridor of buildings along the Terrace, and the beautiful, mournful sound of Siren Song began. The focus drifted away from the stage, and people began to drift out into the street, gazing up into the sky in search of the source of the sound.
Moments later, a helicopter appeared above Barracks Arch, and a single amplified voice pierced the sky. It was a dramatic change of tone, the source of the sound suddenly becoming visible in the form of this almost malevolent insect-machine, with its associations of war and conflict, reminding me that all was not sweetness and light. Like so many sacred sites across the country, this was a place of violence as well celebration; and the Sirens themselves, lest we forget, were harbingers of death as well as voices of seduction.
As the crowd applauded and dispersed, I wondered how Siren Song would affect the city over the next ten days, sounding each dawn and dusk, reminding its inhabitants of less comfortable times and places.
Alongside the sense of celebration and inclusiveness, then, there’s a more determined, uncompromising, even unflinching aspect to this Festival: an inner toughness in its acknowledgement of hard truths. This is evident in the choice of Beyond Time – which I went to straight from the Opening Ceremony and debut of Siren Song – as the opening show of the Festival. It’s a demanding, even austere production, that doesn’t pander to its audience, but makes us work almost as hard as its performers.
As I learned to my surprise when I opened the program, Taiwanese company U-theatre has its origins in the work of Grotowski, the Polish avant-garde director and teacher who sought to reconnect theatre with its origins in ritual and a sense of the sacred. Closer to home, the work of the company is grounded in Taoist philosophy – and more literally in the company’s base on Laochaun Mountain near Tapei. Drumming and meditation are the core of their training as well as their creative and performance methodology; and while watching them I was reminded of the fact that war and conflict – in the form of martial arts – lie at the heart of moving meditation practices like Tai Chi, just as the fact of suffering lies at the heart of Buddhism (as it does in the case of Christianity and the other monotheistic religions). As such, it’s rich material for drama. Despite its search for serenity and peace, there’s nothing supine or pacifistic about The Way.
The show unfolds in a sequence of scenes – the titles are listed in the program as ‘A Downpour’, ‘Reflection of the Moon on A Thousand Rivers’, ‘Wading Through the Air’, ‘The Eclipse’, ‘The Vortex’ and ‘Beyond Time’, and are followed by short poetic descriptions that refer somewhat elliptically to events and experiences in nature, the mind and the cosmos. As such I’m reminded of a cycle of Chinese nature poems like those that inspired Mahler’s Song of the Earth – but in this case we don’t hear any of the words in the performance, which indeed doesn’t directly refer to them at all. Instead we are presented with a series of movement-tableaux, alternately peaceful and violent, accompanied by live drumming and percussion (sometimes the drumming is the movement and the image in one). Set, lighting, movement, image and sound are all spectacular; there’s even a huge backdrop on which abstract images of a moon and later falling rain are projected. The physical and musical skills of the performers are prodigious, but (apart from the set and lighting, and the visual and spatial orientation of the staging) there’s a sense that none of this is being performed for our benefit, so much as for the performers themselves – or rather, for itself, since they are to all intents and purposes its servants. As such, we are witnessing a form of meditation in action; and the task demands a corresponding degree of focused, disciplined meditation from us.
Personally I could have dispensed with the accoutrements of lighting and set, beautiful as they were, since these seemed more like concessions to the circumstances of cultural consumption, while the essence of the work seemed to me to be the bodies of the performers - and by extension their instruments, including the literal skins of the drums. Indeed, I found myself transported – if not beyond time, then beyond the stage and auditorium of His Majesty’s – to somewhere outdoors, in nature, or at least, in my mind; somewhere beyond narrative or conceptual discourse; a place of pure embodiment.
Apparently the work was developed after the company embarked on a 38-day trek from the north to the south of the island of Taiwan. Appropriately, the day after opening night, the Festival hosted a free early-morning participatory walk in King’s Park led by the director of the company Liu Ruo-Yu. Regretfully the Festival Navigator failed to attend. Other events and other forms of participation awaited him the following day.
The body – and more specifically her own brown female body – is at the centre of Australian-Tongan visual and performance artist Latai Taumoepeau’s powerful video installation Repatriate at Fremantle Arts Centre. Seven small vertical iPad screens are arranged in a row along one wall of an artificial corridor down which only a single line of viewers can be accommodated at a time; you enter at either end, and have to wait your turn to move from screen to screen, and finally leave again. In the same room, but outside the corridor, a subtle but faintly ominous soundtrack plays; it’s hard to distinguish the sounds themselves, which could be mechanical or natural. On the screens, the same looped video plays, at different points in the loop, with the timings displayed at the bottom of each screen, from 00.00 to about 38.00 minutes, at which point the video fades to black. The video shows Taumoepeau in underpants and floaties dancing – or attempting to dance – using movements and gestures that appear to be derived from various South Sea Island traditions while sitting, standing, floating and eventually submerged in a Perspex water-tank which is being gradually filled by two streams of falling water. The top and sides of the tank are outside the frame of the image, which heightens the sense of entrapment – as does the claustrophobic set that frames the installation itself, and the spectator’s experience.
The effect is that of watching a kind of perverse vaudeville act – ‘woman in water-tank’ – from which there is no escape. The subject of the work is obviously the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of low-lying poverty-stricken non-white communities like those of the Pacific Islands; but it’s the emotional and even visceral impact of the work (as well as its artful staging) that makes it hard to tear oneself away from.
At the artist talk I attend, Taumoepeau identifies herself as a dancer who crossed over into visual art in order to express herself politically – which she describes as being unavoidable for artists who are women of colour, as their bodies are already politicised. The specific impetus for this work was her attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007, where she also encountered other artists from affected island communities, and learned some of their movement traditions, which were subsequently incorporated into Repatriate. She also identifies her ancestors as ‘celestial navigators’; I can’t resist asking her what this means, and she talks about Tongan and other indigenous traditions of navigation that involve reading the stars and even feeling the tides with one’s hand.
Like Beyond Time, this is a work centred on the body – but in this case a singular, gendered, skin-coloured, politicized body, rather than the comparatively abstract, philosophical and even spiritual bodies that collectively make up U-Theatre. Interestingly Repatriate is also a video work rather than a work of live performance: in part because of the unrepeatable and even unendurable nature of what it represents; but also because as a work of visual art there’s something essentially solitary rather than communal about the experience of the viewer, even though that experience is necessarily conditioned by the presence of other viewers, especially in such a narrow viewing space. In effect Taumoepeau forces us to identify with her experience – including the essentially solitary experience of death – in a way that live performance could never accomplish.
Repatriate is situated as a kind of adjunct-work to Museum of Water, the remarkable brain-child of UK artist Amy Sharrocks currently housed at Fremantle Arts Centre, although after the Festival the collection will be preserved (insofar as that’s possible) by the new WA Museum. Having attended the opening last Wednesday evening, and then further talks and activities over the weekend, I find it’s a work that keeps on giving and expanding in my heart and mind like…well, ripples in a pond.
In fact this is its third iteration – previous versions took place in Bristol and Rotterdam – but the process of its creation and installation here in WA is unique. For the past two years a team of local artist-custodians have been travelling around Perth and the surrounding region with a trailer (designed by local theatre designer Zoe Atkinson) collecting samples of water donated by the public together with stories about those donations. The samples are still in the containers they were donated in, but a selection are displayed on a beautiful white raised wave-or-ripple-like topographic structure (also designed by Atkinson) that undulates through the main exhibition space. The viewing platform, exhibition space and entire Arts Centre have been lovingly lit by Martin Langthorne (including the use of lighting gels in some of the windows to tint the daylight streaming through), and the rooms and corridors also have a subtle immersive sound design by local musician and sound artist Rachael Dease that includes sound-samples of water, rain falling, and even field recordings she made of ice cracking in the Antarctic.
Down the corridor from the main gallery another room provides access to the stories from a catalogue of voice-recordings of the donors which can be access on iPads, and tables displaying postcards, photographs and other documents that were donated along with the samples. There’s also a permanent screening of four short films by local high school students on the theme of ‘water that is important to you’ that were commissioned and assisted by the Festival and Screen West. Adjacent to this room is another, sound-proof room (also designed by Atkinson) separated by a false wall with a window, which serves as an interview-room for further donors during the exhibition.
The ‘custodians’ (who are all incidentally women, and wear blue aprons, again designed by Atkinson) are also present to guide visitors and interview donors; and on Saturday mornings they present ‘morning yarns’ in which they share new acquisitions and stories. Beyond this, there’s a series of events, talks and other activities each weekend for the duration of the Festival.
It’s hard to know how to begin to describe the effects of this extraordinary multi-disciplinary, multi-platform work. Beyond the obvious current social, political and environmental resonances – in a week when Cape Town has just become the first city to officially run out of water because of climate change (a distinction which might previously have been expected of Perth, as the capital of Australia’s driest state) – there are all sorts of other resonances that seem to confirm the status of water as the elemental metaphorical substance par excellence of life, transience and emotion itself. Indeed I found myself deeply moved several time, listening to one of the custodians tell a story, reading one of the documents, watching one of the short films, listening to Amy Sharrocks and WA Museum CEO Alec Coles enthusiastically discussing ‘Future Museums: Ways of Sharing History’, or participating in a workshop called ‘Distilling Memory: Rosewater, the Festival Scent’ on how to make double-distilled rosewater with Iranian immigrants Mahin Nowbakht and Farangeez Ahmadi, inspired by Nowbakht’s gift to the museum, the vial of rosewater and packet of dried damask-rose petals she brought to Australia in her suitcase.
A custodian tells the story of a schoolgirl donating a jar half-filled with water containing a paper boat, and struggling with tears to tell the story of how she’s now spent half her life living in Perth separated from her family back in the UK. A photograph of a well in Turin is accompanied by a piece of paper with a typed account of how the donor’s grandmother used to meet her lover by the well before her family arranged a marriage for her and she moved to Australia. A short film by a high-school student shows images of him interacting with water in various ways – washing, cooking, drinking – while his voiceover tells the story of how he was mistrustful of tap water when he first came to Australia because in Indonesia water had to be laboriously collected and boiled. Alec Coles explains how the water travelling up the pipeline inland to Kalgoorlie built by the legendary engineer C.Y.O’Connor is now desalinated water from the Indian Ocean – and I reflect on the fact that it’s the same Indian Ocean into which O’Connor later rode his horse and shot himself, so that in a sense his molecules are now feeding the desert heart. A man distilling rosewater with me in the Arts Centre courtyard explains that he’s visiting his mother in Perth but now lives in Kyoto where he studies Japanese gardening; he plans to visit Iran, and tells me that word ‘paradise’ comes from an old Iranian word meaning ‘a walled garden’.
Beyond the images, objects, samples of water and even their containers (which are also metaphors for the fragile vessel of the body itself), Museum of Water is a collection of stories; and as with Siren Songs, driven by the power of voices. This was brought home to me most vividly on Sunday morning, when I participated in the Walyalup Water Walk along the Fremantle shoreline, led by Noongar artist and storyteller Sharyn Egan, and accompanied by singer and sound artist Mei Sarawati, musician Matt Aitken and the Koondarm Choir. Listening to the songs of First Nations peoples, and hearing stories about coastal land-features and broken songlines, I understand more clearly than ever before how country and story, body and voice are one. Sharyn tells the story of how a giant ancestor – some say a crocodile, but she thinks a specimen of megafauna, and I speculate about a giant goanna – came down from the north and did battle with the river snake Waugul who bit off his tail; how that became the natural limestone barrier that partially blocked off the mouth of the Swan River and made it suitable for fishing by Wadjuk-Noongar people; how O’Connor dynamited the barrier to make the harbour deep enough for commercial shipping; and how this led to the salination of the river and its ecosystem upstream.
As Mei, Matt and the choir sing, I notice artist Amy Sharrocks become emotionally overwhelmed, and feel myself similarly affected. ‘It’s the idea of these voices,’ she shares with me, ‘connecting us all across the world,’ and she tells me a story about her daughter back in the UK singing a Nina Simone song – ‘a white girl singing a black woman’s music, and being connected through it to women everywhere’. Later on the walk, before leading us all in a song about knowing your cultural roots, Matt Aitken says: ‘We’re all indigenous from somewhere.’
From voices back to bodies again – and the participatory dance/trance work Attractor. It’s an exercise in pre-personal, tribal group-identity that crosses the boundary between performers and audience and doesn’t use words, but employs voice in a singular and heightened way.
Created by Melbourne choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek for eight dancers from Townsville-based company DanceNorth in collaboration with live Indonesian music duo Senyawa, the work is inspired by a trip Obarzanek took to Java where he witnessed a ritual trance ceremony during which members of the community became possessed by the spirits of the dead and were then exorcised by shamans. In the last fifteen minutes of the show, volunteers from the audience who’ve been equipped before the show with earpieces delivering unrehearsed verbal tasks join the dancers onstage. Needless to say, your Festival Navigator couldn’t resist being one of them.
It’s an extraordinary concept; Guerin’s distinctive, tightly-wound choreography is gripping; Obarzanek’s interest in formal hybridity is everywhere in evidence (especially at the end); the dancers are phenomenally skilled and committed; and the musicians are transfixing – one playing an amplified hand-made string instrument, the other doing amplified vocals inspired in equal measure by heavy metal, traditional throat-singing and animalistic grunts and growls (one powerful duet involves a solo dancer contorting her body as if possessed in interaction with the vocalist). As with Beyond Time, the work unfolds as a series of scenes, which have no particular narrative or thematic content other than an evolving relationship between individuals and the group, insiders and outsiders, which eventually expands to include the audience participants.
I loved being a part of this work, and wished I could have seen it again without being a participant; a friend and colleague who came with me had exactly the opposite wish; such is the nature of desire; but we made up for it by comparing notes on our experiences afterwards. As a performer, I found myself in a fascinating borderline state of threshold-consciousness during the first part of the performance while sitting beside my friend in the audience watching the action onstage and waiting for my cue to join in. As for sharing the stage with the dancers, following the instructions and losing myself: pure joy.