Although Nicola Gunn’s solo performance Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster might at first glance seem to be very much a conceptual-philosophical work in terms of content, I would like to suggest it is as much about a kind of rhythmic layering or multiplication of temporal registers as anything else. To put it more simply, Gunn’s work is like a Kali-esque version of rubbing your stomach whilst patting your head, a piece whose complex psychophysical engagement flows from the way the viewer follows the various parallel physical, vocal and performative enunciations within the work.
The piece is disarmingly simple: Gunn enters, begins to move in a series of short, often contorted and generally relatively “pedestrian” or inelegant simple movements whilst exploring in great depth the moral conundrum of what should one do if one comes across a man throwing stones at a duck (I wonder if the ethical complications of Chekhov’s The Wild Duck, also showing in Perth at the moment, might have inspired this train of thought).
Although the dilemma seems simple—surely throwing rocks at such a beast is wrong, how to respond without, say, terrorising the children with the man, or being culturally insensitive (is duck torture normative in his previous homeland, and who are we to say with all our bombs and police we are better?), turns out to become mind-bogglingly complex. Each new complication is layered into the mix until the ability to maintain different ethical and conceptual paradigms within one’s mind at the same time seems impossible.
The movement is likewise stochastically inconsistent, a set of little flourishes, long extensions, angry shakes, and other positions whose emergence within the body rarely coincides with the thoughts being spoken or the vocal inflection. The effect then is of a mental rhythm playing onto and against a highly unpredictable conflation of physical rhythms.
Gunn is a charming performer, moving into near stand-up mode, often self-deprecating, and typically very self-aware. She speaks directly to the audience, breaks off to clamber amongst bemused spectators, and generally cultivates a skilful balance of deliberate “non-performance” (I’m just like you) with the dense dramaturgy she invokes. Bertolt Brecht—king of “de-familiarisation”, or reminding audiences they are in a room watching a play or a thought experiment—would be proud.
The movement, choreographed by one of my favourite Melbourne artists, Jo Lloyd, through task-based challenges and other methods to which Gunn has idiosyncratically responded, largely maintains its own ineffable internal logic and imperious quality, like some kind of comic version of fate and predestination moving across and through the body.
There are nevertheless clear moments of dramatic expression, such as Gunn flopping backwards and forwards from a standing position in fury as she insists that despite all these issues, surely throwing rocks at a duck remains a “c— of a thing to do!” These rapid fire elisions between movement-for-movement’s sake and psychological outpourings are subtle and rich, like a series of smirks or winks to the audience which disappear as soon as you catch them.
Gunn closes with a suitable bizarre image, largely unprecedented within the work, where she exits and comes back on wearing a fantasia of a hat made of grass and flowers, trailing a long open gown which would not be out of place in a 1920s cabaret (Sophie Tauber anyone) or for that matter 1970s prog rock, kneels before the massive silver ghetto blaster which has served as a mobile onstage speaker for most of the performance, and sings in the electronically distorted voice of the duck, back to the audience, as she rocks backwards and forwards. Even some of Bjork’s actions are not quite as outlandish as this—although other audience members told me they felt the manner speech and electronica was closer to Laurie Anderson. In either case, these are two pretty bang on artists to allude to.
The score by Kelly Ryall is also a delight, its stripped back electro/techno sound evoking everything from 1980s electric boogaloo, to the Germanic minimalism of Kraftwerk et al, and especially the rather later lo-fi and at times childlike ambience of Boards of Canada.
Unlike the PIAF headlining show of Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour (stay tuned to “RealTime Arts” online for my upcoming review), whilst Gunn and Lloyd certainly draw on a rich vein of performance artists and postmodern / pedestrian dance precedents, their work is inescapably their own and unique.
The extreme complexity of the larger, slightly out-of-kilter layering of multiple elements produces such a maddeningly rich weft and weave that even though the piece proceeds according to a clear logic of exploration and complication, it is never predictable. Where Kentridge largely reshuffles the heritage of art history to produce a rather familiar if pleasurable homage, Gunn, Lloyd and Ryall make from these and other ideas a Rorschach blot of rich potentials.
By Jonathan W. Marshall
West Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University / freelance critic
Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster is running at PICA for a limited season 13 – 19 February as part of FRINGE WORLD 2016. Find out more and get tickets here
Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti