7.30pm, Friday 5 April 2019
Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse
A glossy pink wig hides the face of a person otherwise head to toe in white. Attentive and pensive, the figure moves and organises pieces of leggo laid haphazardly on a table clad in white cloth. Against the dark of the theatre, all this whiteness is stark. With lights on the audience, almost straight away, the slender figure pulls an inflatable pink flamingo up around his waist. It triggers a small invisible bundle of laughs from a well-lit audience.
With this quirky lightness of being, the audience embarks on a guided tour through the space that Performer-Choreographer Joshua Pether occupies, and the space that occupies him. The work produced by Cameron Lansdown-Smith exhibits a sequence of moving tableaux which unravel freely before spectators’ eyes. The clarity and flow of the sequence of events is evidence of superb dramaturgy by Shona Erskine and Humphrey Bower.
Pether’s self-devised performance is a segmented shedding of layers. Quite literally, from the beginning to the end, he is casting askew pieces of clothing, costumes, electricity cords, parts of himself until he stands naked. At one moment where he is under the table, his silhouette appears to swallow his go-pro. As we look on, worried for his welfare as the cord trails after it, his ingestion of a dangerous object gestures towards the risks of childhood play or a child’s impressionable qualities – a sponge for the big bad world outside.
Following the brightly lit invitation into the piece, the work plunges into blackness. This dimness allows first for screened imagery of fantastical cosmic action characters from 90s’ kids’ TV and film by Videographer Neil Berrick. With striking contrasts between the lure of the white screen and the ominous dark of the stage, the symbolism of these colour zones should not be lost on spectators watching in Australia, where a First Nations man is performing before them on stage. Where he wrestles with a white sheet pulled off the table, the words ‘white washing’ spring to mind, at once nonsensical (there is no reference to laundry in this particular scene!) but nonetheless resonating powerfully as the scene (and white cloth!) unfolds and Pether emerges from beneath. Pether is acutely aware that he constitutes the object of our colonising gaze – Australian art audiences are overwhelmingly White after all.
From a live feed filming close-up the leggo people and places, his surveillance turns to himself. Slowly, Pether glides to and fro towards the back of the stage filming his bare chest, softly lit. As we observe Pether’s body and screened body parts, a tension builds between indifferent distance of the back of his physical body and the clinical intimacy of his close-up virtual doppelganger. The anxiety of this self-censorship seeps through earlier, sonically by Musician Daniel Jenatsch when deep base beats repeatedly ricochet through the floor and our feet rising to the tips of our heads, like a sinister Mexican-wave-like heartbeat – the rhythm of life in slow motion viscerally experienced in our guts, and the final destination of the vibration, our ears: The sound is majestically uncanny.
For me, light, surveillance, and loss seem to materialise as the work’s thematics. When Pether extends two arms, one after the other to the left, pulling himself sideways from the rear centre off stage, his shape resembles Henri Matisse’s La Danse, a Fauvist painting of dancing naked ‘primitive’ women. He thus embodies the colonialist aesthetic, which is the final image of the work. Does donning such an aesthetic function as a survival mechanism for Pether as a Blackfella artist, a means to complement and fit with the contemporary performance art scape? Where Pether’s gaze is coloured camply queer by flickering eyelids as he emerges into the light, when he removes his white hood covering his smooth hairless head to reveal light brown skin, when we hear the words ‘What seems to be the problem? When did it start?’, Pether offers us markers of a habitus that he continues to negotiate in his experience of the world, where the world has shaped him and and him, the world.
The highlight arrives, unexpectedly, in a shoulder dance which is at once, reactive and generative. On the table, crouched in a squat, it is as if the body can only lose and be exposed to so much. Pether’s physique has been stretched to its limits. This work indeed demands bodily effort. His shoulders quiver, thump but gently, blades and bones isolated from the rest of his body as though speaking for itself. Gently, his shoulders pinpoint a moment of resilience, assertiveness. His shoulders take up a space of contradiction, of graceful poise yet hard-hitting precision, of gentle care yet determined self-respect, of surprising masculinity, of unstable integrity.
The most striking feature of this work, however, is what remains absent, or at least opaque. While subtle hints, such as the questions a doctor or counsellor might pose, indicate the presence of ‘past psychological and physical traumas’, as the program notes specify, there exists only resistance to disclosure on Pether’s part. At no point in the piece does Pether utter a single word. Rather, his body speaks for him and speaks merely in absurd acts. One might interpret this absurdity – of a lived being-in-the-world that negates reason – as itself disclosure in a social context wherein health is governed by a medical discourse that privileges rationality. The uncertain dance of Pether’s shoulders, though, seems to suggest otherwise. His shoulders appear to explore and assert a much more nuanced state, one of anti-disclosure. Instead, as Pether himself has previously written, his performance represents ‘therefore a conversation between two bodies: one that has gained acceptance within the community and the other that is waiting to be discovered’.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Pether Projects.