Monday, 26 May 2014

Postcard from Perth 24

Shakespeare and the Pleasures and Perils of Pastoral

As You Like It (Black Swan State Theatre Company)

I’m writing this from a cosy cabin retreat just outside Walpole, about six hours’ drive south-west of Perth. I’ve escaped here with my darling wife for a few days R&R after the end of a rewarding but exhausting season of my show Wish at the Studio Underground. Nestled in the heart of the giant forests, we’re surrounded by towering karri, marri, jarrah and tingle trees, with the dramatic windswept beachscapes of the Great Southern (and a few handy wineries) not far away. It’s the perfect place to contemplate what Shakespeare was up to with As You Like It, his extended essay on the pleasures and perils of pastoral – a genre that fascinated the Elizabethans at least since Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (and to which Shakespeare strategically returned in Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale)In essence, it’s a form of narrative that revisits (at least in the imagination) a life in harmony with nature. We’re still entranced by the genre. Sea Change, anyone? Standing at the edge of Circular Pool on the Frankland River, with the water roaring over the rocks below me, the words of Duke Senior echo in my head: ‘Books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.’

Why do Shakespeare at all today? It’s worth asking the question occasionally – and attempting an answer beyond unthinking knee-jerk responses like: ‘because because he’s the greatest writer/playwright in the English language.’ If nothing else, it might help to focus the minds of companies and directors whenever they choose to program one of his plays. After all the negative experiences most people had when they were force-fed Shakespeare at school, why should they be expected to turn up in droves now and spend two or three hours in the theatre struggling to enjoy themselves?

Five answers come to mind, in no particular order: great stories, great characters, great themes, great language and great theatre. The first three are matters of content, and can be transposed to the screen (Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran being two of the greatest examples) or some other medium (Verdi’s Otello, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) without requiring Shakespeare’s words or stagecraft as their form of expression. For this very reason, however, it’s the last two (the words and the stagecraft) that clinch things, for better or worse, when it comes to seeing and doing Shakespeare in the theatre. Indeed, the poetry of ‘the Bard’ as a vehicle for thought and feeling is justly celebrated, especially in the famous speeches; but his use of dialogue (iambic or prose) as a vehicle for action is no less ground-breaking and remains unparalleled today – even if both (poetry and dialogue) are often the greatest stumbling-blocks for a modern audience.

This leads me to the most underrated of Shakespeare’s gifts: his dramaturgy – using the word not its limited contemporary professional sense but with the expanded force it had when Lessing coined it (drawing on the original Greek meaning of ‘the art of theatrical composition’). In this regard, Shakespeare’s sense of form is often disparaged as messy or crude in comparison, for example, with the terse structures of Greek or French Classical tragedy, or even the comedies of Moliere. This is like saying that Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Dickens had less sense of form than Flaubert or Jane Austen. Like the great Russian novelists, Shakespeare in his own medium embraced the world in all its variegated glory, misery and absurdity, and in all its ever-changing moods. That’s what still makes him ‘our contemporary’, to quote the title of Jan Kott's book of political-existential essays on the histories and tragedies.

Perhaps it’s a little harder at first glance to see the contemporaneity of the comedies. That’s because they refer so heavily and so knowingly to the stage-conditions and conventions of the time. The ‘comedies of gender’ in particular (As You Like It, Twelfth Night and in a different vein The Taming of The Shrew) are intricately bound up with the fact that their female characters were written to be played by boys in drag (as one could also say of that great ‘tragedy of gender’, Macbeth). In the case of As You Like It, the device and theme of masquerade is intricately woven into a broader thematic chain of art, artifice and artificiality as these relate to love, nature, politics, culture and society. ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning,’ as the urbane clown Touchstone says to the naïve shepherdess and object of his desire Audrey – a crude piece of sophistry that is also the deeply serious motto of the play. The game of identity (personal, sexual and gender) that gets played out at the beating heart of this play – above all in the crucial scenes between Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando – is thus no less subversive, profound and moving (as well as comical) than in that other great pantomime of the passions, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan Tutte.

The key to its success in my view is that the pantomime must be played straight. The knowingness of the form must in no way be acknowledged by the actors – with the sole exception of Jacques, whose ‘melancholy’ consists precisely in his ironic consciousness that artifice permeates (and in his eyes corrupts) everything, including the forest, the court, the ‘foul body of the infected world’ and the famously seven-aged ‘acts’ of man. In drag or out of it, all the other performances (including Touchstone) must be utterly truthful and sincere. This absolute requirement of integrity also extends to all other aspects of the staging and interpretation (including set, props, costumes and music), none of which must ‘comment’ on the action, ironically or otherwise, but simply and wholly be part of it – from Amiens’ songs, to the choreography of the wrestling match, to the use of wigs and disguises, and even the representation of the forest itself. This last, it should go without saying, is not a ‘literal’ forest (for example ‘Arden’ or ‘the Ardennes’, depending on which camp of literalists you follow) but a ‘littoral’ one, in the sense that it lies on the border or threshold between reality and dreams, waking and sleeping, life and death – or (in short) in the make-believe world of the theatre, where people (in this case, actors and characters equally) dress up and pretend, in order to abandon their official, social, familiar selves, and discover new and perhaps more true ones, hitherto unknown even to them.

These dimensions of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – its theatrical and social sophistication, its psychological and spiritual truth – are largely absent from Roger Hodgman’s new production of As You Like It for Black Swan State Theatre Company. On the contrary, we’re given a literal forest (better nothing but bare boards, surely, unless something genuinely imaginative offers itself to counterpoint rather than illustrating the words); pantomime ‘contemporary’ staging (including smartphones, ipods, beat-boxes and other ‘devices’); hackneyed 'Australian' costumes and accents; and performances that continually inform us that ‘we know better’ than the play itself. The question immediately asserts itself, then: why bother to stage it? To affirm its status as a cultural-historical relic? To demonstrate our own superiority? Or indeed, the irrelevance of Shakespeare – and perhaps theatre as a whole? Fundamentally, faith in the play and the form itself seem lacking – and alongside it, faith in the audience, and even the actors.

The latter do a sterling job – or rather, make the best of a bad one. Steve Turner’s Jacques stands out from the crowd like a good deed in a naughty world, ironically the only performance that doesn’t comment on itself – but the dramatic function of the character in the delicate structure of the play is completely missed in this deeply cynical production. Geoff Kelso does yeoman service in the double-role of the two Dukes; Luke Hewitt is likewise solid and delivers his punch-lines reliably as Touchstone; Caitlin Beresford-Ord is an appropriately guileless and earthy Audrey; Greg McNeil makes a wry, grounded Corin in the weary guise of Aussie stockman; Nick Maclaine and Cecelia Peters bring ample energy and zest to their roles as the young deluded bogan swains Silvius and Phoebe; Igor Sas makes a touchingly sad clown of Old Adam; and James Sweeny, Jovana Miletic and Grace Smilbert bring all the considerable charm and verve they have to the central roles of Orlando, Rosalind and her cousin Celia (for me the most effective performance of the night). However for me the key scenes of courting ran aground despite all their best efforts: the comedy and pathos felt strained in this parody of a game that turns (or should turn) into a reality, in which a young man pretends to woo a boy playing a girl playing a boy (and falls deeply in love with him/her/him). The ensuing embarrassment – which should amount to a vertiginous loss of self – was ‘acted’ (i.e. demonstrated) but not felt or experienced: they (and we) ‘got off’ (in both senses) far too lightly.

The audience, of course, laughed on cue and loved every minute of it. I felt depressed; in fact, I felt like Jacques. Perhaps this says as much about me as it does about the audience or the production; perhaps I, too, am made ‘for other than for dancing measures’. Or perhaps it’s time to give Shakespeare, theatre, actors and audiences alike the benefit of the doubt – and just do it, without apology, within sign-posting, and without cultural cringing. My bet is that we’d love it, laugh all the harder, and perhaps learn something too – about the play, the art form, and (most importantly) ourselves.

As You Like It runs until 1 June in the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Postcard from Perth 23

Adapt or Die

Julian Meyrick’s recent Platform Paper The Retreat of Our National Drama includes an extended attack on theatrical adaptations. An edited extract appeared last Saturday in The Weekend Australian Review section under the heading ‘Our History Repeating’. The article was announced by a front-page banner: ‘History Repeating – Theatre’s Divisive Adaptation Debate Rages On’. 

In fact Julian’s paper had already made online news earlier last week, reported on Arts Hub (‘Australian Product Missing from Our Theatres’ and ‘Why We Need A National Theatre in Canberra’) and in Daily Review (‘The Dramas of Australian Drama: How Much Is Enough?’). The sound of drums and fifes was unmistakable – reflected in terms like ‘retreat’, ‘our national drama’, ‘our history’, ‘divisive debates’, ‘Australian product’ and even ‘a national theatre’. 

To be fair, not all of this is attributable to Julian himself, so I decided to read his entire paper before formulating a response. The first thing that hit me was the opening Henry Miller quote: ‘Genius is that which will not adapt.’

Ok, so the gloves were off after all.

For the record, I regard Julian as a friend and colleague, a fine director/dramaturg and a thoughtful and conscientious historian and commentator who has made a singular contribution to contemporary theatre in Australia over the last twenty years. However, I feel he’s barking up the wrong tree when he singles out adaptation as the source or even the symptom of all our theatrical ills.

Under the general term ‘adaptation’ Julian includes adaptations of non-theatrical material (which he calls ‘medium-to-medium adaptations’); adaptations of existing plays (perhaps the most contentious current practice, if the furore over Simon Stone’s recent work is anything to go by); changes of historical setting (‘period-to-period adaptations’); and translations (‘language-to-language adaptations’). From my point of view, only the first two really invite the term ‘adaptation’ because they result in a new play; a change of historical setting is largely a matter of stage design, costumes, props and the odd textual emendation, while a translation is – just that.

I therefore found the first chapter of his paper (‘The Adaptive Mentality’) on the history of adaptation in the context of post-colonial Australia intriguing, if somewhat selective. In particular, the ‘adaptations’ by J.C. Williamson he cites were essentially remounts of international productions with local cultural references and supporting actors inserted, rather than what I would call original adaptations of existing texts, theatrical or otherwise.

More profoundly, however, I disagree with the fundamental ‘split’ he identifies between (on the one hand) ‘the adaptive mentality’, an emphasis on ‘directing skill’ and the effects of the cultural cringe, and (on the other hand) the nurturing of ‘playwriting talent’ in the service of ‘new plays’ and the development of ‘Australian drama’ (including film, TV and digital media as well as theatre).

Underlying this construct are historically determined notions of originality, authorship and a literary or text-based ‘drama’ (as opposed to a presumably more visual or stage-based ‘theatre’); methodological presuppositions about how drama or theatre actually get made (or should get made); political and ideological assumptions about what words like ‘national’ or ‘Australian’ might mean; and a philosophical aesthetics that defines a work of art as something that speaks, in order then to prioritize its ‘content’ or ‘substance’ (what the work ‘has to say’) over its ‘expression’ or ‘form’ (‘how it says it’).

It’s worth quoting Julian at some length to get the measure of his ontological and indeed moral commitment to the dominant role of language in drama. ‘For all the much-vaunted advances in mixed-media performance there is nothing like saying it. Words retain their dominant hold over our fund of knowledge and experience. Indeed, the core of the adaptation issue is a dispute about which words on our stages we should be hearing.’ The claim to verbal priority (in every sense) could not be clearer. And later: ‘Language says things, committing those who open their mouths to its specific propositions…We know things in drama with clarity and force because they are expressed in words…This makes drama a serious public art form, a shaper of manners and morals, a way a society talks to itself in the night, and beyond the night.’

Leaving aside the peculiarly self-enclosed circularity of the last image ('the way a society talks to itself'), one might question the narrowly prescriptive role here assigned not only to drama in society ('a shaper of manners and morals'), but also to speech and language in performance ('language says things, committing those who open their mouths to its specific propositions'). At the risk of stating the obvious: there’s a difference between what actors (or characters) say onstage, what a play might (or might not) ‘say’ to its audience, and what (if anything) either has to do with ‘knowledge’ or ‘morals’. Words spoken onstage can’t simply be reduced to their epistemic, moral or ideological content In short: they’re lines in a play. As in all art, language in theatre is always placed in quotation marks, framed or indeed ‘staged’ – i.e. performed and presented for contemplation rather than direct communication. This is after all what makes dramatic irony possible.

Perhaps it’s worth noting here that the Greek word drama comes from the verb dran meaning ‘to do or act’; while theatron is derived from theasthai, meaning ‘to behold’. Doing and seeing, then, are at least as fundamental as speaking when it comes to the origins of Western drama.  The German word for ‘play’, Schauspiel (literally ‘show-play’ or ‘game of showing’), reflects this complex ontology, which has important implications for the role of the script in performance, as well as for the alleged priority of dramatic text over theatrical interpretation. At the very least it suggests that there is no simple hierarchy or causal relationship between them.

This also applies to the relationship between a so-called ‘original’ text (theatrical or otherwise) and its adaptation. In brief: no text (dramatic or otherwise) can be said to be purely original; every text (and certainly every production) is always an adaptation of something that pre-exists it (text or pre-text, as the case may be). The Greeks adapted their myths to the medium of the stage; Shakespeare adapted his plays from previous works or chronicles written by others; Moliere adapted his from the stereotypical plots, characters and routines of the Italian commedia. The ‘adaptive mentality’ is nothing new, or uniquely Australian.

To be sure, in the nineteenth century – with the advent of Romanticism, the rise of the bourgeois individual, the cult of the artist as genius, and the fusion of their work and life into a single, indissoluble substance – the image of the playwright was infused with interrelated notions of originality, authorship and property, becoming fons et origo of ‘the play’ – the latter now conceived first and foremost as a work of ‘literature’ (a conception reinforced by the rise of textual scholarship and literary history during the same era). Is it not however safe to say that this ‘age of the author’ is now at an end – or at least to suggest that the author-function is now one that is shared by all those involved in the making and ongoing life of a work, from its initial and possibly unconscious inspiration through the various stages of its realization to its unknowable and perhaps even infinite future? A play is not a Platonic idea in the mind of some authorial God, but exists only as realized in space and time, according to the Aristotelian principle of instantiation. And where would this be more clearly in evidence than in the intrinsically collaborative and interpretative world of the stage?


The first great theatrical adaptation I saw was Peter Brook’s Mahabharata; while certainly the work of a great director, it was also the work of a great company of actors (not to mention writer Jean-Claude Carrière and a masterful creative team). Around the same time I saw Théatre de Complicité’s spectacular adaptation of John Berger’s story The Three Lives of Lucie Chabrol. Similarly epic in scope if more conventional in theatrical language were the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby and Shared Experience’s War and Peace. More recent companies from overseas whose adaptations toured to Australia and had a profound impact on me include Elevator Repair Service (Gatz, The Sun Also Rises) and Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Opening Night, The Roman Tragedies).

Put simply, some of these works redefined the boundaries of what I thought was possible in theatre. I’m not saying that ‘new plays’ can’t do this too: in the history of modern drama, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett stand out as playwrights who revolutionized the art of the stage. But in the context of contemporary performance, there’s something about the adaptation of non-theatrical material that stretches and breaks with traditional theatrical forms. In this sense, at least, adaptation is not about returning to the past but about finding a future.

My own early efforts at adaptation were more modest, at least to begin with. With my fellow collaborators in Whistling in the Theatre, we launched ourselves in the mid-1980s in Melbourne with a version of the H.G. Wells short story The Country of the Blind; later productions included The Secret Garden, Frankenstein, The Woman in the Attic (based on Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea) and (more ambitiously) The 1001 Nights. As dramaturg-in-residence at Theatreworks in the early 90s, I co-wrote and performed in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and co-devised a chamber version (or ‘perversion’ as we called it) of Verdi’s Rigoletto (partially inspired by Peter Brook’s adaptation of Carmen).

After I moved to Perth in 2000 and co-founded Last Seen Imagining with Sophia Hall, together we adapted Will Self’s novella Cock and Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader at The Blue Room. And since forming my current company Night Train, I’ve written and performed adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ and ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’, Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and (most recently) Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish. As a jobbing writer for other companies, I’ve also written adaptations of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (Spare Parts Puppet Theatre), Andersen’s The Red Shoes (Matt Lutton’s Thin Ice) and Robert Drewe’s Grace (Deckchair Theatre), among others. So it’s fair to say that for me adaptation has become something of a stock-in-trade.

In the second section of Julian’s paper (ambitiously titled ‘How Drama Works’) the discussion becomes more nuanced as Julian discusses the principles of dramaturgy in general and acknowledges that ‘talking in this way narrows the distance between new play scripts and classic adaptations’. However the gap soon widens again: ‘At every point along the development curve, adapted play scripts offer easier choices than new ones…having their essential nature fixed beforehand…straightens the path of their development…new scripts mount a challenge to the parameters of the art form…adaptations do this rarely…where classic adaptations dominate, capacity for risk diminishes…

One wonders what examples Julian has in mind here. Surely not the work of Peter Brook or Théatre de Complicité – or, moving closer to home, the classical adaptations of Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright, Daniel Schlusser or Simon Stone (especially Thyestes and The Wild Duck). All these works and artists in my view ‘mount a challenge to the parameters of the art form’ – and indeed to the notion of their source materials having any ‘essential nature fixed beforehand’. In any case, they could hardly be described as risk-averse. Moreover, their originality asserts itself regardless of whether they are adaptations of existing theatrical or non-theatrical texts.

Perhaps from a marketing perspective there’s less risk in adapting a ‘known’ text or author than an unknown one – though this is debatable even in the case of Shakespeare or Ibsen (both names that can easily frighten audiences away), let alone Seneca or Ovid. In any case, the same considerations apply to the marketing of any ‘known’ quantity, including directors and actors – whose names have always been at least as important as playwrights in terms of attracting audiences. This is less an argument against adaptation than against marketing per se, which by its very nature always trades the ‘known’ against the unknown.

In my own case, I go and see work on the basis of the artists or company involved, either because I know their work or because someone has recommended it. Whether it’s an adaptation or not is largely irrelevant to me as an audience member. In fact the ‘content’ as such is largely irrelevant – or at least, ‘knowing’ about it in advance. For me the ‘content’ of a work is the meaning or force of what happens onstage (and in my mind) rather than something that pre-exists my experience of it in performance.

In the same vein, the mode of production of a work – whether it’s text-based, director-led, ensemble-driven, devised or collaborative – is also largely irrelevant to me as an audience-member (though as an artist of course I have my own preferred way of working). Here again I see Julian’s dichotomy between a drama based on ‘playwriting talent’ and a theatre based on ‘directorial skill’ as false and reductive. Of course these are two different forms of talent and skill among others in the theatre-making process. But in my view, there’s no hierarchy of values.


The third section of Julian’s paper (‘Adapting Ourselves to Death: My Story’) deals with his own experience as a dramaturg, director and advocate for the development of plays and playwrights. Here I’m in broad agreement about the importance of writers and the failure by companies and funding bodies to adequately support them or their work (although a similar story could be told about actors and other artists in general, including directors – notwithstanding the individual success, marketing and celebrity of certain ‘name’ artists, which owes as much to the cult of youth, personality, fortune and circumstance as it does to indubitable talent).

As Julian also acknowledges, this general failure to support and develop artists, plays and productions occurs in a broader cultural context. ‘In a society drowning in information, Australian theatre reinvents itself in a register of reassurance…its repertoire known and predictable…an exhausted art form for an exhausted age, glorifying in flourish, strut, tribute, spectacle, spin, self-reference, imitation; a theatre forgetting about the world even as that world forgets about theatre’. For me this grim picture portrays the state of culture and politics around the world in an age dominated by global capital and permeated by information technology. In theatre it applies to form just as much as content, and attempting to prioritize or police the latter by insisting on ‘Australian plays’ or ‘Australian stories’ is ultimately as reactionary as any other form of identity politics. To resist the homogenizing effects of the culture industry, we need to encourage diversity and experimentation rather than battening down the hatches or drawing lines in the sand.


The final chapter of Julian’s paper (‘A New Cultural Conversation’) advocates for a ‘national theatre’ – specifically a National Theatre of Australia, based in Canberra. Interestingly this finds a parallel in recent calls for a National Indigenous Theatre, and for me raises many of the same problems.  Leaving aside the details of how such an organization would operate, where it might be most effectively located, or what precisely would be its mission, I simply want to question the use of terms like ‘national’ or ‘Australian’.

Personally I prefer to talk about ‘local’ rather than ‘national’ artists or work, and leave questions of nationality to customs officers and border controls. For me the term ‘local’ refers to the idea of place – where artists live and work, or where work gets made – whereas ‘national’ has connotations about the body-politic (a ‘nation’ being more of a binding idea than a geographical location) and historically always implies definitions and delimitations about content.

The use of the term ‘Australian’ in this context makes me particularly uneasy – as it does when used by politicians in order to divide or discriminate between who or what qualifies as ‘Australian’. Again, I’m comfortable with the idea of ‘Australia’ as the name of a place where people who live, work or make work can call themselves or that work ‘Australian’, if they so choose. I’m less comfortable with the content of that work or the identity of those people being defined as ‘Australian’ or ‘foreign’ (an unfortunate and polarizing term Julian uses occasionally his paper) on the basis of genealogy or heritage. At the risk of sounding trite: we all come from somewhere, and bring our stories with us. Theatre is a place where we can share those stories – and hopefully share our common humanity in the process.

To return to the example of Shakespeare: his plays are surely no less ‘English’ because they are mostly adaptations, or are mostly set in exotic locations. What gives them local and universal significance –both ‘currency’ and ‘cachet’ to use another of Julian’s distinctions – is their attunement to a specific time and place (cosmopolitan London in the Elizabethan age) in terms of language, characterization and theatrical form. We can’t artificially recreate those qualities or conditions today, and nor should we try. What we can do is to continue making work that is true to ourselves and our world.

To blame adaptations for the shortcomings in our theatre is to bury our heads in the sand, to become fixated on parochial notions of content and identity, to invite irrelevance and even risk extinction. On the contrary: if it is to survive as an art form, theatre must continue to adapt, or die.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Postcard from Perth 22

AGWA: Impact/Guy Grey-Smith

It’s no secret that the Art Gallery of WA is going through some serious soul-searching after the humiliating cancellation late last year of the remaining three exhibitions in a series of six scheduled in partnership with the New York Museum of Modern Art due to a disappointing shortfall in attendance numbers. Picasso to Warhol in 2012 and Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond in 2013 were both small but perfectly proportioned, intelligently themed and thoughtfully laid out selections from MoMA’s unparalleled collection of modernist and contemporary work (I didn’t see the intervening show Picturing New York); but AGWA self-evidently overreached itself when it came to anticipated revenue, freight and insurance costs. It was a valiant attempt to put Perth on the map in terms of exclusive international exhibitions; and according to gallery figures the series attracted over 230,000 people, 60% of whom were new visitors or hadn’t been to the gallery for the last three years, and 20% of whom were from interstate or overseas; but in a city the size of Perth, and given the associated costs, in the long run even these figures simply weren’t sustainable. The cancellation of the next instalment in the series, Stranger than Fiction: Art of Our Time, also left an embarrassing hole in terms of AGWA’s presence as part of the Perth Festival, with its most spectacular recent acquisition, William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, being installed across the square at PICA.

Partly to make up for this gap is the current exhibition of recently acquired contemporary international and Australian works mostly using video and collectively entitled Impact. Perhaps inevitably the show lacks overall coherence and I found it hugely variable in quality. Nevertheless it’s an interesting cross-section of current practice, and several works stood out for me.

The first room in fact offers two simple but monumental and moving meditations on traumatic events in recent contemporary history: Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s illuminated sculpture of French and Arabic books perched on a table-top and casting the shadow of pre-9/11 Manhattan in silhouette against the wall; and Turkish artist Hale Tenger’s large-scale wall-projection of illegal video footage shot just after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated and featuring the façade of a hotel in Beirut outside which the event took place. A haunting five-minute still-shot of row upon row of identical balcony windows – their variously closed curtains flapping gently in the breeze – is suddenly and jarringly interrupted by a few seconds of shaky black-and-white footage of the same façade at night, broken by mysterious flashes of noise and light. The use of the gallery walls as projection surfaces for both works underscored for me the paradoxical vulnerability of the respective buildings and their occupants.

Around the corner in the next room is another large-scale projection-work: New Zealand/Australian artist Daniel Crooks’ video installation Pan No.9: Doppelganger. The slow-motion image of a young boxer wheels and jabs in a warehouse gym; meanwhile his ectoplasmic doubles emerge and split off from him and each other, shadow-boxing side-by-side, breaking up into fragments and blobs and eventually merging again. It’s a virtuosic piece of digital trickery, and reminded me of Bacon’s disfigured visions of (mostly masculine) flesh becoming meat – or in this case, corporeality shedding and shredding its own virtual skin.

On a wall nearby, Perth artist Rebecca Bauman’s Automated Colour Field features 100 split-panel, battery-powered flip-clocks changing colour randomly in a mesmerizing display of mechanical unpredictability. It’s an abstract kinetic work, but a strangely compelling one, though I found it as devoid of affect as an elaborate desk-ornament, despite the reference to Goethe’s colour-theory and the psychology of the emotions.

Around the corner are two Australian works that loosely belong to the genre of narrative painting, directly referencing myth or history but in a more ironic mode than the works by Fahtmi or Tenger previously described. Queensland artist Danie Mellor’s Paradise Garden: Different Country, Same Story uses pastel, pencil, wash, glitter and inlaid Svarovski crystals on Saunders Waterford watercolour paper in an elaborate gold frame. The contents place an idealised indigenous couple and cute native animals in a delicately drawn blue-and-white landscape that resembles a Willow pattern on eighteenth-century English Spode china. The effect is deliberately anomalous, disconcertingly twee and insidiously subversive.

On the next wall Poles Apart by NSW digital artist ‘R e a’ is a silent slow-motion sepia-coloured video sequence featuring an Aboriginal woman in a long black Victorian dress fleeing through a burnt-out forest. This condensed and enigmatic scene is disturbingly reminiscent of numerous nineteenth-century Gothic narratives and replete with indeterminate menace, though specifically colonial Australian themes of racial violence and genocide are irresistibly invoked. At the climax of the sequence the figure is violently sprayed from off-camera with red, white and blue gouts of paint, an obvious reference to the imperial colours of Britain, Australia and the US. Personally I found the emotionalism and didacticism of this gesture reduced the power and meaning of the work in the very act of flagging it so clearly.

More low-key, abstract and superbly executed video works from Canada and the US lurk nearby. Calgary/LA artist Owen Kydd’s durational still-lives feature mostly monochromatic objects or scraps of material carefully placed against neutral backgrounds and then digitally filmed and looped so that their apparent fixity is occasionally disturbed by random movements, changing light or gusts of wind. The eye is tricked into thinking they’re still-photographs or perhaps even cubist collages, until we suddenly realise we’re watching a moving image.

Projected along the length of one wall in a narrow alcove, Toronto artist Michael Snow’s Solar Breath: Caryatids is a more demanding work: a 60-minute fixed-shot of a window in the artist’s cabin in Newfoundland with translucent curtains unpredictably billowing in the breeze – a mysterious performance which according to the artist takes place at the same hour before sunset every day. Like Baumann’s colour-clocks, the phenomenon is strangely compelling: the more so because of its lack of mechanical artifice or indeed consciousness (other than the intentionality of observing or recording it). It also unconsciously echoes the floating blinds in the windows of Tenger’s deathly hotel in Beirut. Here though the effect is less ominous than numinous – a sense not of impending catastrophe but of pure immanence.

The stand-out work of the whole exhibition for me however is Danish artist Jesper Just’s Sirens of Chrome. I’ve been a fan of Just’s remarkable short films for some years. They’re beautifully shot and lit, feature lush atmospheric music and sound, and are highly theatrical in terms of mise en scène and performances. Content is elliptical and dialogue-free; although characters sometimes sing, the words are less important than the act of singing itself. In many ways they resemble contemporary dance or dance-theatre more than conventional narrative theatre or cinema. In fact they might almost be described as music videos, except that they don’t illustrate the soundtrack, or enact pop cultural stereotypes, but rather manipulate the tropes of the genre in order to dwell on questions of gender, sexuality, race or politics that are encoded within it. They’re also unremittingly melancholy, in a manner that recalls the work of other great Scandinavian filmmakers from Dreyer or Bergman to von Trier (or current TV Scandi-noir like The Bridge).

In the first half of Sirens of Chrome, four African-American women drive slowly through the deserted post-apocalyptic streets of downtown Detroit in a black Chevy with a purple door. In the second half, they pull up inside a vast ruined former theatre that’s apparently been converted into a carpark, where fifth woman appears, hurls herself onto the roof of the car and rolls slowly back and forth across it; the amplified sound of the roof buckling under the weight of her body, as heard from inside the car by the other women, is somehow both horrifying and erotic. The phrase ‘sirens of chrome’ refers of course to the female models – conventionally white – who drape themselves across cars for the male gaze in auto shows.

There’s much else to contemplate and enjoy – or not, depending on your taste – in Impact; but for me Sirens of Chrome eclipsed everything else on display in terms of sheer craft and as a meditation on race, gender, politics and desire in a post-industrial wasteland.


Across the floor from Impact is a contrasting exhibition that looks back squarely into the past and is emphatically local in its focus on a single painter: Guy Grey-Smith: Art as Life. This is a monumental and moving retrospective that makes a strong case for re-evaluating the artist as a major Australian modernist whose reputation has been diminished primarily by his Western Australian location and subject-matter (almost exclusively landscapes, albeit of a singular and highly stylized kind) – and perhaps more generally by his outsider status as one who consistently lived, worked and exhibited outside the mainstream. Indeed Grey-Smith based himself for much of his life in the hills outside Perth, maintaining a largely self-sufficient existence (he and his wife grew much of their own food and sold their own pottery for a living) and hiring gallery spaces whenever the need arose to show his work.

In fact, while the exhibition traces a clear arc from the post-Cézanne and post-Fauvist landscapes (and occasional portraits) of the 40s and early 50s to the increasingly harsh and abstract works (using more and more thickly applied monochromatic chunks and blocks of paint, mostly on hardboard instead of canvas) from the late 50s through to the late 70s, there’s a relentless consistency of vision in what are essentially inner, psychological and emotional landscapes – or ‘inscapes’, to borrow a term from Gerard Manly Hopkins – rather than literal representations of Rottnest, Helena Valley or Mount Magnet. In this regard – and despite the evident legacy of Cézanne and the Fauvists – Grey-Smith has more in common with the traumatized subjectivity of German Expressionist painters like Otto Kirchner, Franz Marc or others from the Blaue Reiter school or Die Brücke than the more objective optical experiments of French post-Impressionism. Perhaps this has something to do with the impact of the Second World War on the painter’s psyche (he was shot down as a pilot and interned); perhaps it also reflects something about the impact of Australian landscape and culture (or lack of it) on that generation of Australian artists (Tucker and Nolan being the most obvious near-contemporary examples). Above all, there’s an overwhelming sense of solitude and even alienation that emanates from the artist in his confrontations with deserted valleys, forests, hills and bays, or even the odd still-life, city-scape, human face or faceless figure. Indeed the looming rocks and mountain ranges in the later paintings take on the aspect of animate beings, while animals and people throughout his work remain strangely thing-like.

As such, Grey-Smith’s life and work are stark testimony to the challenges that faced – and still face ­– the European-Australian artist after the Second World War: belatedly grappling with questions about representation, identity and purpose in an increasingly cosmopolitan, placeless, desacralized and despoiled world.


Impact is on at AGWA until 2 June; Guy Grey-Smith until 14 July; both exhibitions are free.