The New Zealand Presence in Tasmania

Performance Art at Anzart-in-Hobart


For the thirty-one New Zealanders who arrived in Tasmania in mid-May, this event was a chance to show their work in a new context and to generate and participate in dialogue with Australian artists, as well as among themselves. it was obviously imperative to consolidate the benefits of the trans-Tasman links gained two years earlier from the first Anzart, held in Christchurch.

On that occasion approximately forty artists were invited to personally perform or exhibit - not counting those involved with affiliated events. This second 'Australian New Zealand Artist Encounter' increased the number to over seventy: so hopes were high for an event of some substance.

Instead of 'the more the merrier' however, the event tended to be unwieldy and unfocused, with too much money spent on getting extra artists there, and not enough used in providing adequate equipment and harmonious working conditions for the influx of visitors.

Di Ffrench preparing
her installation for Asters

The lack of a strong curatorial presence controlling quality and thematic content tended to destroy any sense of continuity, particularly in the old Post Office Mail Exchange building in Murray Street. Here, where most of the installations were located and performances held, the incongruous mixture of white-walled 'gallery' spaces and 'given' Post Office areas made the venue look like a half-hearted attempt at an agricultural fair, except that instead of cow cockies being present it was filled with artists and their groups, lobbying for support from visiting funding administrators.

While the activity in the Mail Exchange building was conductive to active dialogue between the two communities, problems with lack of heating and competition for room tended to interfere - as did the presence of the two affiliated events, the Festival of Sound Poetry and the Open Sandwich Conference for Alternative Art Spaces. Undoubtedly worthy in themselves, they were for this occasion inappropriate, as there was little New Zealand involvement with either, especially the Open Sandwich Conference. Arranged by Adelaide's Experimental Art Foundation, it was concerned with organizing an arts lobby and creating funding strategies for the future.

In these events the New Zealand presence seemed unnecessary and almost intrusive. Further complications were caused by the Hobart organizers inviting mainly artists' collectives or groups to exhibit while they attended Open Sandwich. Because the New Zealanders selected were individuals working in isolation up and down the country, the Australian emphasis on groups tended psychologically to impede rather than to encourage approaches for participatory dialogue.

It is interesting to note that Australia, unlike New Zealand, has a long history of collectives - the inevitable result of its large population and the high turnover of visitors bringing in outside ideas. The proliferation of art colleges turning out graduates, the unemployment situation, and greater economic extremes naturally results in more individuals who need to share resources and ideologies.

Despite this clash of interests the New Zealanders managed to produce performance works that were stimulating, diverse and professionally prepared.

Di Ffrench was the first of eleven New Zealanders to contribute to the program of performance art. Asters used many of the same techniques as her Fontanel work in the first Anzart, but in a less claustrophobic space. Dressed in mechanic's overalls, Ffrench started her work by hanging a bow on the wall and spraying a large black clay egg full of ashes, with acrid smelling white paint.

Alternating between modern and primitive male roIes, she repeatedly referred to tribal hunting cultures in her images, such as roasting a skin-bound club over a burning torch thrust into a huge mound of earth, and then dripping black paint, like blood, from it, when it was suspended on the wall.

Asters was conspicuous though in its use of strikingly tender images conveyed via slides and video, particularly those of animal hides positioned over the naked body of a man and cascades of silvery pink aster petals falling over him. The ritualised actions, complex with their intertwined cross-references to weapons, penetration, birth and death, tended to be marred by her awkward body movement and lack of activity when the video or projector was working.

doing Fish & Lobster

The latter criticism of lack of movement can also be directed at Colleen Ansley's Steps. This work seemed to focus on the nature of memory, and on how we strive not only to learn, but also to forget, when it is a burden. The pivotal images were her feet. They were en cased to mid-calf in plaster three days before she left Christchurch for Hobart, on crutches. Video was shown of her movement through customs and of the application of the plaster and its initial stages of removal, before she set about freeing her feet and unravelling the bandages. During the video, she had a cassette machine softly playing the sound of somebody learning their piano scales, and was wearing spectacles with photographs of loved ones stuck over the lens. The glasses were bound to a cast, the cast smashed with a hammer, and assorted polaroids of dictionary definitions of 'step' taken from the bandages. The work finished when, after walking to the paper documentation on the far wall and ' scattering crushed plaster through a sieve (a possible reference to a mental grid of cognitive processes), she nailed the glasses through the lens to the floor.

This intriguing work about the dissipation and purgation of memory suffered through its excessive documentation, which distracted from instead of clarifying her actions. As with Ffrench's work, at times it lacked any sense of urgency to maintain momentum through its final stages.

Two works that used music to achieve this momentum were Mary Louise Browne's Working Conditions and a collaborative New Zealand-Australian work, Grafting.

The subtitle of Mary Louise Browne's piece - 'the tyranny of work; the dignity of labour' - expressed the ambiguity embodied in the nature of her performance: particularly the large wall drawings and the meaning behind their manufacture.

Using an orange marker pen to outline her silhouette on the wall, Browne worked her way from the far corners towards the centre. She regularly altered the music from a rhythm generator strapped to her chest, after every two outlines, and carefully positioned the images so that they appeared to hold hands.

Conspicuous was a ticking alarm clock on the floor, and a black apron in the left-hand corner. When the first set of seven linked silhouettes was completed, she tied on the apron and repeated the process, adding its outline. Thus she wittily put a sign of sexual identification on what were previously neuter outlines.

Rape Victim
from untitled installation

These drawings seemed to be provocatively saying 'take me as an artist first, and as a woman second.' The use of the generator and the clock maintained a compelling, tension sympathetic with her actions: but their effectiveness was severely thwarted by the alarm going off prematurely at a reduced volume, five minutes before the quarter hour allocated was up. Naturally this altered the clarity of the intentions behind the work and the nature of the restrictions placed upon the execution of the drawings.

The problems of understanding the motivations behind an art-work were also raised by Andrew Drummond and Steven Turpie's performance, done in collaboration with Jon Rose. While Rose sawed furiously on his amplified violin from a third floor window, lit-up high in the night sky, Drummond and Turpie set about the ritual healing of five trees, taken from an avenue in the centre of Salamanca Place.

Using ropes to move from tree to tree, Turpie and Drummond proceeded from opposite ends towards the middle, carrying some found pruned branches and clippings, and binding them on to the trees' 'wounds' with tape and string. Illuminated by the street lights and torches strapped to their legs, this spontaneously-conceived work created some of the most moving images seen in Anzart - futile gestures that seemed animistic in origin.

What initiated the work apparently was the belief that the drastic over-pruning would cause the trees to die: in actual fact it appears that the trees were planted on reclaimed land., that the roots were reaching salt water; and that the pruning was done in an effort to bring the roots closer to the surface. This mistaking of an act of preservation for that of bureaucratic incompetence raises serious questions as to the content of the work, and the precepts behind the activity.

Vivian Lynn making
her work Lamella

The last two New Zealand works to be discussed here were distinctive through their use of repetition and relatively prolonged time spans.

Peter Roche's and Linda Buis's performance began with some slides of their recent work, plus a written statement on communication and how it involves assumptions about experience. This attempt to establish a context in Tasmania for their own work unfortunately tended to distract from what was to come: just as Colleen Ansley's documentation of her 'residue' paperwork interfered with the meaning of her actions.

Dressed in white, blindfolded and kneeling opposite each other in a large room in the Hobart Museum, they repeatedly hunched over and touched their foreheads together, usually so their blindfolds formed a continuous line. Linda tended to keep her hands on her knees. Peter, because of his greater height, had to put his on the floor and bend lower, accentuating his back and shoulders and looking more aggressive. For an hour they hunched together with touching foreheads, occasionally straightening up to relieve their bent necks, before pathetically groping with their heads to come back together again.

The intimacy of their action, as they blindly rubbed and nuzzled with their foreheads, like deer, to encourage each other on, tended to force an unexpected voyeuristic role on the audience. Although these actions, with their emphasis on mutual dependency, were very similar to the work of Marina and Ulay Abramovic, the contemplative qualities of theirs and Dadson's work helped draw out the abilities of the spectators to observe subtle nuances in shadow, posture and expression over an extended period.

This ability to get the audience to perceive small changes in their immediate environment, and to pay attention to a continuous process of repetition, was found in Phil Dadson's music for four performers, carried out on Elizabeth Street Wharf one bleakly wintery evening. Working with Dadson, Charlotte Wrightson, Richard von Sturmer and Rodney Barry created a very gentle and ethereal work, haunting in the impact of its location and the time at which it was used.

Each of the performers was positioned at the corner of an imaginary square on the jetty, each with a collection of PVC tubes, metal pipes and thin logs of varied lengths. The delicate sounds created as each implement was thrown in the air and hit with a piece of cloth-covered wood, before being caught again, combined with splashes of fish rising, the creak of mooring and distant radios from across the water.

After selecting an 'instrument', they would begin hitting it at their own speed, gradually adjusting to its weight and their own arm length until all the musicians fell into a common rhythm. This would cause the sound to form in clusters, and resonate with different sequences of notes, depending on the materials used. Each performer had their own characteristic arm movements and postures, as distinct as the materials, which responded differently from when they were hit to when they were caught again. The brittle chime-like ringing of the metal pipes, the hollow thud of the PVC tubing and the sharper timbre of the wood, which caused a squeaky jarring when hit, were all combined together as a mixture, or as one type at a time. Lit by one lamp at the end of the jetty, the musicians played for over three hours, each going for a long walk around the jetty each time they dropped an instrument. Thus the density of the sound varied, and at one point work stopped entirely, while all four participants separately were walking the circuit.

Besides this memorable work, Dadson's other contribution was two midnight transmissions from the local FM radio. Affably singing in a folksy doggerel what could almost be mistaken for a radio jingle, Dadson sent out an S.O.S. to Tasmanian listeners with the same name as his, to phone in and help make up his family tree. In attempting to trace his genealogy from his grandfather Charles back, this 'Kiwi on the trail' mixed in an infectious musical ditty with the folk show format, to dub in phone conversations with Auntie Dot and other newly discovered kith and kin.

Dance, dance
by Adrian Hall and
Tony Coleing

Of the Australian performances, the highlight was Dance, dance by Adrian Hall and Tony Coleing. Although ruined by a disastrously mixed soundtrack of wartime sound effects, seig heil chants and discussion of NATO strategy, this scathing but enigmatic work was sustained by a stunning visual appeal and by unintended questions concerning its own making.

Held in the Salamanca Ballroom, seven gorgeously attired couples of the local Ballroom dancing club foxtrotted and tangoed to fairground carousel music, as well as partially miming when the music faded and the sound effects took over. Pausing beside a large wall mirror they would wait until the music started again. While stressing the absurdity of this fairytale fantasy in context to the violence of the 'real' world, the dancing partners looked so uncomfortable and humiliated performing under the scrutiny of an art audience that most people wondered why they had allowed themselves to be exploited in such a manner in the first place.

As the first Anzart set such a high standard of performance art through a wide range of seasoned professionals participating, this second event was disappointing - especially when considering the Australian work. Much of it was by inexperienced and recent graduates from art colleges, and tended to be brash and shoddily prepared. it is to be hoped that the third Anzart, to be held in Auckland in 1985, will have greater liaison between the two countries: so that a curatorial policy is carefully worked out in advance and is evident in the resulting program.