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In The Empty Space (1968) Peter Brook asked: “When a performance is over, what remains?”
He went on to answer that in a successful piece of theatre the event remains burnt into the memory of its audience: “The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell – a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are highly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.” Brook suggests that the locus of meaning is transferred from the ephemeral site of the performance to the aftermath of the event in the mind and in so doing leaves a trace.
It is precisely this trace material of the aftermath of performance that the exhibition EcoCentrix: Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts (tagged Performance and provocations in our times) explores across its five-floor breeze block rooms at The Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf. Every single item on display has its origins in performance. What is displayed are the physical traces of this performance in photographs, texts, recordings, images, sounds and crafted artefacts, alongside live performances and workshops which have been run throughout the two weeks. The exhibition encompasses 40 contemporary works from indigenous artists around the globe and has grown from an interdisciplinary research project examining indigenous performance in Australia, the Americas, South Africa, the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand. The plurality of performance is shown to be one that spans diverse continents, cultures, languages and traditions. Performance might take the shape of a provocation, intervention, a dance or a procession.
The exhibition makes visible the often invisible indigenous communities in London, both past and present. This is immediately seen on the ground floor as three-time world champion hoop dancer, British Columbia’s Alex Wells, is incongruously seen in photos in full traditional dress next to commuters in London’s financial hub of Canary Wharf. It was interesting to hear from Helen Gilbert, the show’s curator and Professor of Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, that this staged intervention led to another spontaneous intervention in the form of security guards who promptly escorted him from the site. There is another series of photographed interventions from Tahltan artist Peter Morin’s Cultural Graffiti in London taken in June 2013. One particularly notable image features Morin lying on the floor next to Buckingham Palace and singing at its gates as part of his assertion of cultural resilience to colonial monuments through this “cultural graffiti”, with two bemused tourists looking on in the background. These indicate the unexpected and often playful performance traces presented to us throughout the five levels.
Though very much an early stage prototype, the 3D Theatre (Performance Diorama Prototype) on Level 1, designed by Primal Orb (Jamie Griffiths and Rob Scharein), is an interesting attempt to experiment with alternative mediums of archiving and presenting performances to audiences. Incorporating 3D video projection architectures and video documentation of live performance, the aim is to capture and represent more of the essence of a performance than video allows. Throughout the exhibition there’s also the possibility for visitors themselves to intervene through the “word map” which can be accessed via exhibition iPads and an iPhone app. Another interesting interactive piece is Interactive Protest Performance on Level 3 which examines the digital traces of protest performances and our involvement as global audiences, by layering six open-access videos of indigenous protests in the Americas and Australia. Depending on the distance the visitor is from the projection will also determine which layer of footage they step into. A strong point of this exhibition was this experiential variety in exploring different performance aftermaths.
In Level 2 the striking elongated Mimi figures tower hauntingly above visitors with orange costumes hanging off their willow frames and dance eerily on stilts via screening of Mimi (1996). As told by the Aboriginal elders the Mimis are said to bridge the human and spirit world, and their appearance is certainly otherworldly. The Australian company responsible for these figures, Marrugeku – now in its nineteenth year – specialises in bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities by workshopping and incorporating locals in large-scale outdoor performances in remote parts of Australia. The performances draw inspiration from Aboriginal storytellers and incorporate dance, acrobatics and aerial choreography to create culture through culture mapping.
Other stand out pieces include, on Level 2, the enormous bamboo and paper kite structures from the “Festival de Barriletes Gigantes” which are flown on the Days of the Dead in November in a small Guatemalan town to allow ancestors to revisit the world. The brightly coloured kites are remarkable for their size and craftsmanship. In the adjacent room there is a surprising merging of film storyboards on gourds (similar to pumpkins). Quechua gourd carver and filmmaker Irma Poma Canchumani has intricately carved storyboards for scenes and plots of films in miniscule detail onto the gourds. She then uses these as the “scripts” for the films which she then produces, presenting an unexpected coming together of seemingly incompatible crafts (filmmaking and carving). This in turn presents a unique artistic practice which incorporates sustainability through craft that engages – and is compatible – with a contemporary context.
There is much to be seen at this exhibition and much to be enjoyed. It is an exhibition that embraces its visitors and, from what I observed, resulted in people often spending much longer than they intended wandering between these different rooms, continents and performance styles. This exhibition challenges the usual tendency to exclusively discuss indigenous arts in relation to anthropology. Instead the approach is to explore these works as performance arts with a context of artistic practice. What the visitor is left with is a trace of these performances and a silhouette in the mind.
The EcoCentrix exhibition stems from a five year research project entitled “Indigeneity in the Contemporary World: A Transnational and Interdisciplinary Study of Performance, Politics and Belonging” led by Professor Helen Gilbert. You can see more about the project here. Masi Maidens, a performance bringing to life one of the exhibition’s installations, will be taking place at The Bargehouse on Friday at 5.30pm.