Tuesday, August 19, 2008

An Impossibly Long Post on Recent Things

I was just sitting in the park reading a pretty good book and there was this little kid zooming around on a wooden bike. I think the very existence of small wooden bikes is really great in an indefinable way. This bike has no pedals so it’s just raw push-power that gets this kid about but he was achieving some enviable speed. He was also wearing a jaunty little peaked cap, the sort an old Oxford man would wear while taking a stroll in the woods. His dad (or at least attendant male guardian) looked a bit like Michael Moore in a daggy baseball cap and specs so I don’t think the kid gets his fashion tips from him. Who knows, though? As I write I can still see them out the window, where the kid has left dad to carry the bike while he does some running with two other teeny little kids who’ve shown up. They’re doing quite a lot of running which is understandable at that age. I recall that when I was little random running was a very important part of daily life. Anyway, this kid seems to be living a very successful existence.

I mentioned a while back that I bought a large orchid. I think I also mentioned that I am a real failure when it comes to plants. I just can’t keep them alive. Right now the orchid is doing ok, but barely. It’s lost all its flowers but I think that might be normal. Obviously a better gardener would know or would at least find out but like I said, I’m not that gardener. The other two plants I bought at the same time are faring about as well/not well.

I was thinking today that maybe they would do better if they had names since that would show more care or affection on my part or something. But I’m equally unsure whether plants should really have names. I mean come on. Just in case, though, I’ve named the orchid Great Sage, Equal of Heaven because that sounds like a confidence-boosting name, and the two smaller palms are both named Ghost Guilt because I misread a cardboard box on the street today that initially appeared to be labelled that and thought it was an excellent name for something. I’m not naming the smaller plants separately as first planned because then one name would probably be a bit cooler – Ghost Guilt is obviously a better name than most – and I would end up playing favourites with two plants that are essentially of equal merit (life-wise).

I also think that I am secretly proud or at least overly-accepting of my failures as a green thumb. I wonder if a lot of people unconsciously define themselves by their failures. I fail to enjoy jazz and fail to enjoy football, for instance, but I don’t go out of my way to correct these failings and I’m probably pretty happy with them. My deficiency as a gardener seems to be a kind of cultivated failure.

Cultivated failures are a big part of postmodern performance. Last week the Fondue Set brought their show No Success Like Failure to Melbourne for a few days. It was a likeable show. I liked it. It teetered very close to some of the worst aspects of pomo performance but didn’t topple over. I’m thinking of that kind of show that deliberately seeks to fail and in so doing of course has to succeed. The deliberately bad art work. The one that dodges the possibility of actually failing by seeming to aim for just that.

No Success flirts with this, constantly delaying any kind of pay-off – I mean it’s by three dancer/choreographers and only ends up offering two bits of dance. And it finishes with a lecture on postmodern performance delivered by a woman crying because the show hasn’t worked out the way she’d hoped. But it’s also very funny in parts, and does contain enough content to be more than a purely negatory work. It’s over though so if you wanted to go – YOU FAIL.

Philippe Genty’s Lands End wasn’t a failure… I don’t think art works are productively thought of in terms of success and failure. To judge something that way presupposes that you can tell what was intended by the production from the production, and then criticise it for not achieving those intentions. The fallacy there is that we can never know if the apparent failure wasn’t in fact the intention, since we’re only inferring the intention from the thing itself. Lacking direct access to the Genty, I have to assume that everything that appears in Lands End is just what he intended. So it wasn’t a failure. I did, however, find it boring crap.

Take an excerpt from Genty’s contribution to the program:

To find her again

Something gnaws at him, consumes him, explodes within

Emptiness sets in. He clings to a detail.

To tame this desert which surrounds him.

A chant rises up from the depths of the desert.

What does he do here within this tiny bubble of light?

To smash the emptiness, smash the darkness which surrounds him.

Plunge into this matter he dare not touch, which flees…

Isn’t this bad teenage poetry?

Lands End served up uninspired imagery that rarely resonated with anything. People hopping around in giant toilet rolls. A big mosquito thing flapping around for way too long. People in trenchcoats carrying suitcases around for ages. It was, to paraphrase a friend’s summation of another recent big show, like a Crazy Frog ringtone for the arty crowd. Just a bunch of by-the-numbers images calculated to have people oohing and aahing because they felt they were supposed to. We’ve seen these images before countless times, and none of them push any buttons. The question I kept coming back to was: what’s at stake here? Where are the tensions this piece plays on? Where are the collisions between the world we think we know and the worlds that might be otherwise? A few faceless people batting around giant plastic bags hardly stirs my soul. Even with some pretty blue lights washing over the whole thing. And to think that seven prestigious theatre companies co-produced this. Pure spectacle is 100% fine in my book, but when even the spectacle seems a bit Aldi, I get annoyed that people are asked to pay top dollar.

On the other hand, the tiny, cheap, often amateurish production of Zhang Da Li and the Village of Big Eaters at La Mama is a curious contrast. Produced on no budget by a bunch of newcomers to the theatre, its failings are often its most enjoyable moments as they upend the whole notion of getting it right or wrong in the theatre. The young cast seem to mess around with the script at times in a completely self-indulgent way that made me laugh, and their improv gave the piece a liveliness lacking from many tightly structured, better financed plays.

It’s set in the aftermath of China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and mainly concerns five young male students farting a lot. This might not sound like much of a start, but after about ten minutes of farting and fart-based conversation, it gradually emerges that this flatulent slapstick is due to the terrible famine conditions Mao Zedong’s reforms resulted in. The Great Leap Forward saw Chairman Mao attempt to fast-track an essentially feudal nation into becoming a modern world power in the industrial age in only five years. All the nation’s efforts were to catch up with the West –and in diverting all labour and resources to building factories and the like, nobody was left to grow the food. Starvation was common, though complaining of it was tantamount to treason, and admitting hunger was a form of dangerous sedition. So these kids were forced to live on tree bark or horse feed or pig slops. Hence the farting.

The drama centres around the brash Zhang Da Li’s trial for pinching some carrots from a peasant farm. It seems like pretty minor, domestic stuff and it’s played that way, but an awareness of China’s relatively recent history puts the play in a much larger and more compelling context. Most of that is only hinted at in the script, but it’s an interesting play if you get the deeper implications.

Again, though, it’s delivered in an often hilarious fashion that sees the young actors messing around and having more fun than a professional production would allow. I can’t know for sure, but when one performer says “Toodles!” as he walks off-stage, it seemed an in-joke that would have some directors fuming. It all results in a wildly uneven construction of a world that frequently reminds the viewer that what we’re watching is both an intriguing semi-fictional plot and a bunch of kids having a good time. Is it a good play? I don’t know. But it’s a reminder that failure and success depend on your own aesthetic criteria.

Balletlab’s Axeman Lullaby was a masterpiece in conceptual terror. A bunch of dancers swinging axes tore apart a set of logs and planks and occasionally the Chunky Move studio floor, bathed in blood red light, two musicians destroying piano and violin as they played, and a champion wood-chopper demolished logs upstage the whole while. It was as visceral a performance as you could get, especially as you were watching barefooted dancers skittling over a growing carpet of sharp wood splinters.

And on the night of my attendance, one of the cast copped a flying shard of timber to the cheek and disappeared backstage to have his face stitched up. Choreographer Phillip Adams is a hard taskmaster but he is increasingly creating works unlike anything else around. Last year’s Brindabella was a truly magical harnessing of freefloating libidinal energies that through abstract movement alone managed to stir incredibly submerged feelings of connection, eroticism and creative energy. It was Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life given corporeal form. Axeman Lullaby does a similar thing for fear and anxiety – instead of connecting its audience to the energy of pure, polymorphous desire, it throws our terrifying pre-lingual understanding of death and dismemberment in our faces. To go with the musical comparison, it's more like a messed up remixed Ligeti piece. Hard to watch. Not to be missed. Although you’ve already missed it.

I loved the Imperial Ice Stars’ Cinderella on Ice for a similar reason – it was a gaggle of Russian ice dancers doing things I wouldn’t dare try doing myself. I saw it twice, once in Wellington and once in Melbourne. These people were all whirring blades slashing inches away from faces and no irony or cheesiness to any of it. They attempted impossible things.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at. I have a hugely unreasonable fascination with failure but not with the kind of thing where failure is the aim. I don’t really want to see someone trying to valorise failure in order to make us question our criteria for success. It’s just another way of being successful by redrawing the boundaries. A work which genuinely tries and fails seems much more worthwhile to me. Circus Oz is an instructive case here – go to one of their shows and you’ll see people trying ridiculous feats and failing. Then trying again and, often, failing just as badly. Then, perhaps, trying once more and doing what by now seems impossible.

Do impossible things. Do things where failure ceases to have any negative connotations since your aims are impossible anyway. If you succeed, that’s just icing on the cake. Do impossible things.

Or ride a bike through the park, legs pistoning away before you meet up with your friends and run around or maybe climb a tree and make a list of all the things that excited you when you were a kid, perhaps including directionless running or tree-climbing. These things aren’t really acceptable for adults and I never do them. Which makes them impossible things.

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