Art

In The Theatre Is Lying, curated by Max Delany and Annika Kristensen for ACCA, artists interrogate the meaning of theatre and performance. By Lisa Radford.

The Theatre Is Lying

Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s Rear view, from The Theatre Is Lying.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

What constitutes the theatre? Is it the performance itself or the building within which the performance is housed? Or is it the relation between audience – should there be one – and performer? Referring back to the Greek, theatron, the implication of a spectator is integral – where theasthai is to behold and thea is a view, theates means spectator and the suffix -tron denotes space. The theatre is a space for spectators. We might refer to it as a “place of action” – a stage or space designated as being other than the real world. Fictitious, but not necessarily false.

Co-curated by Max Delany and Annika Kristensen, The Theatre Is Lying is the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s inaugural Macfarlane Commission. Replacing the always relevant New series – begun by previous ACCA director Juliana Engberg – the Macfarlane Commissions will select five mid-career artists each year for six years and fund work to be exhibited within the gallery’s program.

The first encounter of The Theatre Is Lying is with a screen, transparent and flat, supported by a metal frame, castors and handles. A screen to be moved; a screen for seeing through, not around. The artist, Consuelo Cavaniglia, makes work that forces us to encounter architectural space, embedding us in its network, its system. Hers is a theatre of five dimensions.

A green spotlight lands on me. I look up and see four others. They’re paused, as if mid-dance; I stare at them and watch as their diameter grows. Counting seems not to help here – the laminated glass and two-way mirrors, which Cavaniglia has made her performers, confuse the reality of the space. The four lights could be eight, the number of screens seven or nine. Reflection and projection, past and future. The image in the reflection seems clearer than what we assume is real. Titled present distant, the distance between stage, screen and audience in the work collapses into a space that is simultaneously one and many dimensions.

ACCA is once again a halle für kunst. Well, that is since Hannah Presley returned us to a space of critical and generous thought in her excellent exhibition A Lightness of Spirit Is the Measure of Happiness, the inaugural commission of the Yalingwa program. Our arenas of art and sport are theatres of real. As with our obsession with football, Australian politics is sometimes better examined and played out here.

The Theatre Is Lying comes in the midst of a return to performance in recent contemporary art practice. In Australia, this return is found in the works of artists such as Lane Cormick, in Agatha Gothe-Snape’s many collaborations with the likes of artist Brian Fuata and dancer Deanne Butterworth, in Lara Thoms’ recent work with the cross-artform company Aphids, as well as in event-based programs, such as those curated by Kalinda Vary at TCB artinc. and more recently the series TO DO / TO MAKE curated by Shelley Lasica and Zoe Theodore. West Space gallery began in 2018 with a focus on performance, marked by the moving and hilarious work Rhythm and Blues by Edward Thomasson.

Bus Projects’ recent series Departed Acts saw Makiko Yamamoto revisit her work via Dada-esque verbal absurdity while Lou Hubbard whipped eggs in a psychosexual soliloquy. Nik Pantazopoulos’s poignant performance in the series was actioned in absence – his recorded voice reading to us letters written to gallerist Andrea Rosen and a lost letter to Félix González-Torres, translating the important relational, personal and political experiences we have with art both near and far. The strength in theatre – and art – is its ability to materialise that which we mediate. In Pantazopoulos’s case, his vacancy was that very manifestation.

At ACCA, enjoying the scale of the gallery spaces again, their height and breadth used for five artists not 50, Cavaniglia’s slow-dancing lights lead me to Daniel Jenatsch’s double-screen projection with six-speaker surround sound and four grey pew-like benches. The images of the montage that comprise The Sheraton Hotel Incident emerge, as if eroding. Employing still photography, animation and three-dimensional drone-rendered images – imagine a film shot with Google Earth technology – Jenatsch’s choice of medium manifests the liquidity of memory. It also renders former Australian spy Alexandra Smith’s recollection of this strange tale in Melbourne’s history – a bungled, violent training exercise run by undercover members of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service at Melbourne’s Sheraton Hotel in 1983 – somewhere between hardboiled fiction and a James Bond film. The work has a pulpy, underwater feel. Particles of dust float around the 360-degree pans of frozen captured stills of secret agents – or are they offenders? – wearing ski or animal masks. Death moves around an axis.

The smoke and mirrors favoured by intelligence agencies is also a tool used in cinema, news feeds and online dating. Cameras shoot things – so do guns. In Jenatsch’s work, as one projection types out a narrative with redacted text, other images dissolve into blackness when a target is lost. The subtitle when the image is lost is “(SIGH)”, and excerpts from secret documents and newspaper clippings roll across the screen. The experience should be served with whisky. Cavaniglia’s spotlights still dance, unperturbed by this crypto-ficto-narrative. I realise the audio too, a double-bass soundtrack, is dissolving. The encounter with the real body that theatre offers us is missing. Here the theatre is a historical account, a dress rehearsal for secret police.

Cinematic scale and theatrical form find an equivocation in Nat Randall’s collaboration with Anna Breckon, Rear view. This 90-minute durational performance work riffs on the history of cinema and the road movie. Randall and co-star Linda Chen are captured, frozen in a convertible that appears to be in perpetual transit. The backdrop green screen is an excerpt from a section of road I’m sure I have travelled on when en route to Woomera with friends. Or maybe it’s an excerpt from Mad Max? A XXXX Gold tinnie sits on the dash; “2019” reads the rego sticker. In between classic moments of car passenger silence, the characters exchange dialogue cited from films with women in cars. “Where are you from?” “I don’t want to talk about it.” “What’s your real story?” “I’m not good for much really.” “My mother’s dead.”

Silence is rendered important and time is only of the car and them. The image isn’t dissolving but the dialogue definitely is, in cinematic stasis. In Randall’s 24-hour durational work performed at Dark Mofo and Melbourne’s Next Wave, The Second Woman, I was mesmerised by the performance and repetition, the live feed, the middle-of-the-night liaison. In Rear view something has been killed. The melancholy of the road seems to render feminine desire mute, or ironically, emasculated. Perhaps this is the point. Like artist Rodney Graham, Randall finds something in the power of the loop. With no beginning or end, the generosity allows the audience to decide where they lie, subverting the narrative, a liminal location.

Exit stage left and enter Matthew Griffin. Headphones on, double flat-screen effect. “Nobody has a wok anymore,” a white guy rants. I am stuck in a Fox News live feed. There is no distinction between the two or three hosts and their ranting YouTuber-slash-troll. Caught in the trap. A rotating title names the man as Iron Chef or Meme Analyst, undermining my urge to label him a white right-winger, exposing the reality of the theatre of the absurd. The “hosts” have been occupied, rendered mute, they stare into TV non-space. The second TV provides us a pixelated zoom of their dead listening eyes. Hashtag givememydataback. The ad blocker doesn’t work, and the portrait grid of the news feed cuts to collaged video of Mark Zuckerberg banging the drums, beating to his own sound. One assumes the arms hitting the skins are that of the artist. These are excerpts from the Cambridge Analytica senate hearing accompanied by #usandalgorithem puns and labels such as “straight shooter sceptic”. Griffin renders the deep web shallow. Its crassness is rendered red, white and blue and with spinning “Breaking News” text. Everything is revealed, nothing is said. Who owns the stock image? Shit, that’s right, we’re the stock. A Fox News vacuum with revolving stars – 50, probably.

This two-channel work is called The outernet. Griffin reveals there are no edges. In light of the bandying of catchphrases such as “fake news”, the formula is akin to Samuel Beckett’s limits of language – the script is a series of instructions, to which we all seem to fall into line. Professionalisation of the amateur comes to mind just as Zuckerberg performs a convoluted yoga pose. Behind me is a projection: a black-and-white face-swap narrative, rear-projected into a Samsung flat-screen box. A simple visual pun. The strategy removes us from a fictional-fantasy space and places us squarely in the gallery – a network of labour and labels.

Another Matthew Griffin work, Gums, shows a secret camera recording the artist’s root canal surgery, the work materially embedded in the bowels of the gallery – self-deprecating, in a manner that declares itself as the gallery’s decay. Shallowest part is a monologue read by his wife, Cath – a video collage that hides as much as it reveals. The performative green screen is held with clamps. Videos ripped from Instagram rotate around Cath’s head, with text declaring their legal status: “Stolen”. Sliding into 100 DMs, the artist is looking for willing participants to lend their body modifying abilities. One person replies. The artist reveals his method in a declaration for “transparency”, but the fact is revealed manufactured, much like bodybuilders on Synthol.

I walk out relieved. For whatever reason, the pleasant painterly patterns of Sol Calero’s work – almost Memphis design – are calming. They’re neither slick nor confronting, but perhaps like the sets of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, the colourful facades hide a more complex narrative. These patterns speak of place, diaspora and class – an omnipresent backdrop. But Calero’s installation is a door, a relief from life, albeit short-lived because the news cycle is 24 hours. Behind the curtain, there is a wall. What constitutes the theatre? In presence and absence, the manifestation is us.

Arts Diary

THEATRE Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Princess Theatre , Melbourne, until December 1

CULTURE Bush Mechanics

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, February 24

CINEMA Christian Marclay: The Clock

ACMI, Mebourne, until March 10

VISUAL ART Winds of Poetic Mountain: Dreams ad Voices from Tunghai University

QPAC, Brisbane, until February 23

CULTURE The Now Now 2019

107 Projects, Sydney, until January 27

MULTIMEDIA The Ropes: Amrita Hepi X Adrian Piper

Cement Fondu, Sydney, until February 24

CULTURE Festival of King Island

Venues throughout King Island, Tasmania, February 1-2

Last chance

VISUAL ART John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until January 28

CULTURE Evolution: Torres Strait Islander Masks

Melbourne Museum, until January 28

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Sets, lies and videotape". Subscribe here.

Lisa Radford
is an artist who writes and teaches. She currently lectures in painting at the VCA, University of Melbourne.