Dance

The survey of Shelley Lasica’s choreography at the Monash University Museum of Art represents a radical departure from convention. By Anador Walsh.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE

Performers in Shelley Lasica’s WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022).
Performers in Shelley Lasica’s WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022).
Credit: Jacqui Shelton

“When are we going to see a major institution stage a Shelley Lasica survey?” is a question I’ve asked since I moved to Naarm (Melbourne) in 2017 and encountered Lasica’s work. It’s a question that is specific to this choreographer, but it’s also tied up in a broader concern that I – and many others in the visual arts – share around how dance is presented in a gallery.

Exhibitions of performance generally lean heavily on image-based documentation or re-enactment, or relegate performance to the realm of public program. These kinds of curatorial decisions treat performance differently from other artistic mediums and, by extension, critically marginalise it.

Given this context, I was very moved by Shelley Lasica’s WHEN I AM NOT THERE at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) last month. It felt significant to see the 40-year oeuvre of arguably the most influential Australian choreographer to work at the intersection of dance and the visual arts finally recognised in this way. As I made my way through the exhibition, I found myself getting a bit teary.

Precarious Movements: Choreography and the Museum is a joint venture between the University of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, Tate UK, Art Gallery of New South Wales, MUMA and Shelley Lasica. The aim of this artist- and practice-centred research project is to discover how best to commission, curate, conserve, present and interpret choreography in a gallery context and to improve critical understandings of dance and the institution. WHEN I AM NOT THERE, which wouldn’t have been possible without the Australian Research Council’s investment, is the first public outcome of this research.

Precarious Movements troubles the relationship between choreographic practice and arts institutions. In a recent session of the project’s reading group, Lasica observed that “the emotional response is not always the most accurate response” to a work of performance. Bearing this in mind, I tried to keep my tears at bay and to focus instead on what I was encountering in MUMA’s galleries.

Though technically a survey of Lasica’s work to date, the structure of WHEN I AM NOT THERE is a radical departure from the conventions of exhibiting a choreographic oeuvre in a gallery. WHEN I AM NOT THERE is a performance-exhibition. While the gallery is open, there is never a moment when the performance is not happening. The works that occupy the space are inseparable from the action taking place, rather than being separate from or stand-ins for Lasica’s work.

There is no image-based documentation of past works in this exhibition. Instead, MUMA’s galleries have been opened up to their fullest configuration to accommodate select works from Lasica’s archive, newly commissioned works and a major new choreographic work, also titled WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022).

A floor decal that references the 2010 circulation diagram for MUMA drawn by Kerstin Thompson Architects curls its way throughout the exhibition. A soundscape by long-time Lasica collaborator François Tétaz rings out from six strategically placed speakers. Sports flooring that alludes to the scenography from Lasica’s Here BEHAVIOUR Part 4 (1995) sits alongside Magis’s Trioli children’s chairs and Tony Clark’s Scenery (1990), which was produced for Lasica’s BELIEVE (1990-91). From a large nautical net commissioned for WHEN I AM NOT THERE hang select costumes from various Lasica works from the past 40 years, including Kathy Temin’s untitled (costume), CHARACTER X (1996).

This exhibition was produced collaboratively over two years through extensive conversations between Lasica, MUMA’s senior curator Hannah Mathews, creative producer Zoe Theodore and interdisciplinary consultants Lisa Radford and Colby Vexler. The ensemble performance WHEN I AM NOT THERE was generated in collaboration with performers Shelley Lasica, LJ Connolly-Hiatt, Luke Fryer, Timothy Harvey, Rebecca Jensen, Megan Payne, Oliver Savariego and Lana Šprajcer, through various strategies for working both in and outside the studio.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE engages directly with Lasica’s archive, but in a way that is generative rather than static. In Lasica’s words, “choreography is the dominant structure, through which everything else in the exhibition functions”. The archival works within the space are part of the performance.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE (2022) is in progress from the moment MUMA opens to the minute it closes. Lasica and her colleagues will be dancing for the duration of this exhibition whether or not anybody is there. Four performers open the work and between 1pm and 2pm all eight dance together as an ensemble. Finally the original four depart, leaving the other four to close the day.

The costumes and choreography recall key moments from Lasica’s oeuvre. Megan Payne’s makeup, for example, references Lasica’s If I Don’t Understand You (2019), phrases of movement are derived from Behaviour Part 7 (2018) and some of the costuming is recognisable as being from The Design Plot (2017).

I spent four hours with the exhibition, moving from room to room. I alternated between following the action and sitting statically in one space. I read a single-channel video of Jacqui Shelton’s text The distribution of The Plot (2020), revised 2022, for a while. I’m trying to keep myself firmly grounded in the analytical, but a moment with Rebecca Jensen, in which she held prolonged eye contact with me as she danced 1.5 metres away, overwhelmed me. I smiled at her, but had to look away.

There is no prescribed way of engaging with WHEN I AM NOT THERE. The gallery offers no didactic information, save for an introduction at the entrance and a deeply considered room sheet that identifies and roughly situates the works within the space. Instead, attendees are invited to arrive when they like and roam around as they please. Just as the performers have the agency to decide which triggers they respond to in the work, so too is the audience empowered to make decisions. They decide how long they stay, where they orientate or reorientate themselves and how they are with the performers, themselves and other attendees.

WHEN I AM NOT THERE continues Lasica’s well-established interest in the possibilities of dance, where it is presented and how the audience experiences it. This performance-exhibition elaborates the complex web of relationships that constitute and influence Lasica’s practice and represents a turning point in how we curate and exhibit performance. After four decades of Lasica dancing in the gallery, that feels like something to get a little emotional about.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Stage presence".

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