The message of Luke George and Daniel Kok’s performance Hundreds + Thousands is lost in its assault on the audience. By Chantal Nguyen.

Hundreds + Thousands

Daniel Kok in Hundreds + Thousands.
Daniel Kok in Hundreds + Thousands.
Credit: Ken Cheong

Like many city-dwellers, I appreciate a good house plant. So when I saw the blurb for Hundreds + Thousands – “we invite you to bring along your favourite plant” – I knew I had to go. Hundreds + Thousands is the brainchild of talented choreographer, installation artist and ropemaker Luke George, and Singapore-born, Europe-educated Daniel Kok, a movement artist with impressive international experience.

They have collaborated since 2014. Hundreds + Thousands emerged in 2018 as a creation shaped and reshaped by Covid-19 as well as interactions with scientists and others working in ecology. In this incarnation, it forms part of the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art at Carriageworks, Sydney, now in its eighth year. The work’s title refers to overabundance and infinity, with Kok and George emphasising perception and empathy between humans and plant life. A movement and installation piece, it is not only about plants but also – according to Kok and George’s artistic statement – for and with plants.

Appropriately then, the first thing I see on entering the theatre is pot plants dotted throughout the seating, as if waiting for the show to begin. “Those fronds bothering you?” my guest murmurs as we take our seats next to a particularly resplendent fern. The rest of the audience arrives in dribs and drabs, some lovingly carrying little pot plants that they nestle on their laps, others pausing to admire the different species spread throughout the space. Centrestage is a tall, handsome plant with a smooth, silvery trunk and broad green leaves. It looks like a prince among trees, enthroned in its terracotta pot, branches lifting majestically under the warm stage lights.

The performance begins smoothly enough. An ambient soundscape fills the theatre and Kok – looking monastic with his shaven head, gauzy robe and contemplative focus – starts moving plants meditatively across the space. His stage presence is impressive, showcasing an intense concentration and masterfully controlled movement. In one particular spinal roll, you could almost see each vertebra lifting with meticulous purpose. One of the signs of a talented dancer is the ability to make simple movements deeply compelling, and Kok demonstrates this amply.

He is soon joined on stage by George and the vocalist Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, who sits with her back against the central pot plant and caresses a seedling as if it were a cup of tea. Chang’s vocalising at this point is a series of childlike babbles, and I was reminded of the artistic statement where Kok and George question what language is required for people to listen to plants and commune with them. Chang answers this with a series of clear, sing-song calls, evoking a slightly humanoid, untouched innocence.

A light clattering, and George emerges upstage clasping a large and beautiful sculpture made of dozens of water bottles cleverly laced together in long, brittle coils. This is a reference to Robert Macfarlane’s environmental book Underland, quoted in the artistic statement, where he writes: “Among the relics of the Anthropocene … will be the fallout of our atomic age … and the faint outlines of some of the billions of plastic bottles we produce each year.”

More of George’s water bottle sculptures appear on stage, the plastic taking on a luminous soap-bubble quality under the stage lights. They look like translucent shells that had once belonged to fantastical giant creatures, washed up on a vast prehistoric seashore. Or was it a futuristic seashore? I couldn’t decide.

It’s all deeply soothing: the slowness of the movement, the greenery of the plants and the hum of ambient sound, broken only by the tinkling of water bottles. Smoke machines let out a gentle fog, and the plants appear as if rising from a morning mist.

The meditation is rudely interrupted by the sound of blaring construction work. Chang’s voice rises to a high-pitched scream. The smoke machines point directly at the audience and torrents of smoke begin billowing out. Then the light tubes begin to throw up flashes of Kok leaping over plants and rearranging them with frantic urgency. This, I gathered, signified environmental destruction. I – and perhaps many others in the audience – understood within about 30 seconds, but the assault on the senses didn’t stop. It went on until the stimulus became completely overwhelming. Two audience members, closer to the front and less hemmed in by plants, walked out.

I got the point. Kok and George wanted us to feel assaulted and traumatised, because that is the level of destruction that unchecked human activity wreaks on the environment. But it raises the question of when shocking one’s audience crosses the line from being confronting to actually physically hurting them. There are different artistic methods that can be used to provoke thought, evoke emotions and even horrify without disrespecting an audience’s physical integrity or sensory limits.

At this point, with the sound of pneumatic drilling and Chang’s wailing pounding my ears, I forgot the plants, forgot the environment. I began thinking of World War I trenches and wondered when the assault would end. The overload hammered on for what felt like at least 10 or 15 minutes, with the unrelenting smoke becoming suffocating and the combination of high-decibel noise and stabbing lights unbearable. A few minutes of this might have communicated the message well, but its length made this piece one of the most physically torturous performances I’ve ever encountered. It was a pity, because in my view an audience member should never become so alienated by a sensory assault to the point where everything else – including the artistic message – is lost.

After what seemed an eternity, it stopped. George returned to the stage with bits of colourful plastic, which he draped over the plants like playful oversized blossoms. Kok, in his calm voice, invited audience members to enter the space carrying a plant. One by one people came down the stairs and lay down among the greenery. Kok and George provided gentle directions, positioning a plant against one person’s knee, inviting another to curl around a pot and gently resting a fern on another man’s abdomen.

Screens were brought out and propped against the plants, and then a digital projection of a cosmic lavender sky lit the backdrop. Suddenly, miraculously, the stage had become an installation artwork. The remaining audience members were invited to walk among the spaces, with the screens providing information about plant life, environmental destruction and various other environmental art pieces. I then heard one of the performers whisper to the man with the fern on his stomach, “You’re free to go now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "Pain threshold".

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