As I mentioned a few posts below, Prof. Jonathan Holmes was going to (and indeed did) write a catalogue essay for The Arresting Image, the exhibition where Encore currently resides at the Plimsoll Gallery. As I indicated when I wrote that post, that particular work is somewhat problematic and confusing for me in the way people respond to it.
I was grateful for J’s approach to writing about it and indeed the whole show, mounting his discussion on the messy and rather abject death of Marat and the famous Jean-Louis David painting that depicts the event.
His analysis of my own work was particularly appreciated, as my perception of the way the work itself is, in turn, perceived is frequently as a comic piece. But for me, my drunken experiment falls further on the side of tragedy than comedy, although I know only too well how many very successful works (books, poems, films etc.) tightrope-walk the rickety fence between. It felt good for the work to be discussed with the seriousness with which I view it.
The work has been selected for several exhibitions now perhaps because of the stark and pitiless insight it gives into human frailty, mental and emotional collapse, and sheer lonliness and exhaustion. Indeed there is much to remind one of the Sydney Pollack movie ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ 1969 where the dancers in a marathon dance competition dance themselves towards eventual self-destruction. The end of Encore is brutal and shambolic. [ ] Rees takes us into a self-reflection that is both dark and troubling – at the edge of what one might wish to imagine.
J gave me the gist of his words at the opening (I had not had a catalogue to read until that night), mentioning his comparison with the Pollack film of which I was aware but had never seen. I knew about the marathon element, so his words made sense in terms of my own performance, but a couple of nights ago we rented and watched the film, inspired by Js comparison and I feel myself swollen with a whole new barrage of thought about endurance, exposure, performance and audience consumption.
The plot is this: A dance marathon is held in depression-era California. There is a big cash prize offered for the last couple standing. Dancers are supervised by medical staff, take enforced brief but regular rest breaks and are fed 7 times a day during which they must keep on their feet and moving. Many contestants including a farmhand and his young pregnant wife are taking part simply to have a roof over their heads and the promise of free food for as long as they can remain in the competition. The contest continues for weeks.
Occasionally the opportunistic MC will launch into dramatic biographies or encourage dancers to break into an individual routine or song which elicits showers of pennies in appreciation from the audience. Later in the contest he ‘spices up’ the action by cladding the participants in tracksuits and introducing ‘The Derby’, an event where couples, already at the point of exhaustion, race at breakneck speed around the dancefloor for ten minutes to the promise that the slowest three couples will be eliminated.
An elderly woman in the audience of the contest professes to favourite the main protagonists, couple number 67 (Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin), and offers a hand of friendship and support, following their progress like a television soap opera. She seems unaware of the role she plays in their downfall despite her words of encouragement.
The entrants are uniformly humans at the end of their tether, clearly exploited for an audience whose main interest is in each individuals breaking point – whether physical or emotional. And as both M, while watching with me, and the MC character observed, they maintain that interest in order to find something more wretched than their own lives and in comparison feel better about themselves. Watching this harrowing film I have been made acutely aware that this may indeed be my greatest and deepest fear and that which moves me most: pleasure taken in the suffering of others.
Eventually couple 67 refuses the MCs offer to be married as a part of the show and are shown the list of expenses they have incurred throughout the competition for medical care and food that will be reclaimed if they win the prize money – leaving them with little more than nothing.
I was struck by the thought that I was watching a sister film to George Romero’s Dead trilogy (Night of the Living, Dawn of the and Day of the). The exhausted dancers shuffling around barely moving or conscious like reanimated zombie flesh in a similarly bleak and hopeless scenario, preying upon and uncovering all human weakness.
Comparisons to the Big Brother phenomenon and the various ‘Idol’ shows are obvious too, although those participants desperation to be a part of the show is usually borne of something other than a basic human need like hunger. But it seems the audience for human debasement is eternal if only to numb their own fears of inadequacy, which brings me circularly back to the fear expressed in my earlier post where I cited my worry that perhaps what I had created with Encore might be best categorised as ‘Big Brother for the cultured’. I don’t doubt it’s value as a work (how can I when so many respond so positively to it?) but I’m not convinced that my description is not the truth and am somewhat suprised with these reflections today that a work I have made and performed might trade in this, my own deep fear of the enjoyment an audience might take in my own suffering.
Endurance works of mine like Encore are heavily influenced by Deborah Pollard, a remarkable artist and performer now based in Sydney but who I was lucky enough to work with on a few projects when she was the Artistic Director for Salamanca Theatre Company here in Hobart. Debs taught me a lot about sustain and about honouring an idea or an image by just holding it, actioning it, seeing it through to it’s conclusion – whatever that may be. I don’t know if Debs has ever seen TSHDT? but I’m going to recommend it at the very earliest opportunity.
There are subtle whispers and wonderings about working together again and to date these whispers have again brought up the E(ndurance) word. Actually the E word has really been around a lot since Mike Parr was in-house at the TMAG for The Tilted Stage in the Summer.
The history of performance art is peppered with endurance works that in hindsight, superficially at least, feel a little like one-upmanship: who can physically damage themselves in the most serious/curious fashion? Who can put themselves in the most danger? Who is the biggest draw in the sideshow?
And how strange it can be when these works happen now… C’mon guys, Parr nailed his arm (his only arm!) to a wall just the other day on the Art History timeline, you think your Jackass-influenced art stunts can compete with that? Dude… read a book and see a bloody (actual, not colloquial) photo and dedicate some meditation to Mr Parr rather than a beer to Bam Margera.
Mr Parr always has a reason, a good reason for what he’s doing. The gesture, whether violently nailing the arm or sitting quietly still, his head through an angled plane, always has a significant poetry and I guess this is the lesson for me to take away from all this big, hard thinking. Do it – but make it mean something.
BTW go see the show which ends this weekend. The Roger Ballen photographs and Amanda Davies paintings are unforgettable. And now you’ve waded through this text don’t forget to appreciate the irony that the cornerstone of the show is the remarkable Tim Macmillan video Dead Horse.
EDIT 2/11/2012 – Times, they change and I start to archive. You can now view Encore online if you’re interested right here.