Runway Conversations Launch
Let me tell you story about a critical moment for a critic.
I’m at a performing arts festival in 1982, in an intimate farmhouse performance space in the village of Toga Mura in Japan to see the Overture to Act 4 of Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance. Upstage, the great American performance maker himself, the co-creator with Philip Glass of Einstein on the Beach among other works, and a leading Japanese actress, both elegantly attired in dark evening wear, stand by tables on each of which is a glass, a bottle of milk and a large knife. Downstage, their legs dangling over the edge, sit two young children, casually dressed, reading comic books.
In silence, the adult performers slowly pour milk into the glasses and then, move almost imperceptibly towards the children, their bodies slightly aquiver, eyes sometimes trancelike, rolling up. Ten minutes pass as mere metres are traversed. Bending low, they offer the inattentive children the milk, which is accepted and drunk, just as they turn their pages, at an everyday pace. The adults, still in their own slow time, return to the tables where each slips a fine black glove on the right hand, picks up a knife, and, like sleepwalkers with a deep compulsion, together advance on the children. On arriving, they expressionlessly angle the knives towards the children, pause interminably, then return to the tables, where they stand still, their backs to us. The 40-minute performance of just two actions has finished.
But the Overture hasn’t finished — it resides inside my consciousness with an enduring potency, an image that haunts me with its brutally simple juxtaposition of nurturance and imminent violence and thrills me with its alien performativity. Curiously, I recall it more like a painting than a theatrical experience, its imagery burned into the retina. Wilson terms his work the Theatre of Image.
After some initial resistance — non-plussed at the astonishingly slow pace, squatting, back aching in an over-crowded space — I give myself up to the Overture, let myself be taken by it. Submission and seduction. The artwork and I loop into an exchange in which I have to accept my ignorance of a new form and meet the Overture, in the first instance, on its own terms — the first ethical obligation of the critic. Not that by then I was thinking ethically, or even thinking at all.
When I describe a performance, when I write a review of a work, I’m fundamentally saying, this is what happened to me, this is what this artwork did to me. I’m looped in an ongoing dialogue with myself, with the work and implicitly with its maker and I draw the reader into that loop.
Meeting an artwork is a variation on a human encounter: I meet you and gauge myself in terms of how I think you gauge me and that shapes my response to you and you do the same for yourself and so on … And just how that loop evolves determines how the relationship might endure, with readjustments over time, or not. An artwork doesn’t literally converse with us, that algorithm is still in development, but as we grow attentive to textures and dynamics it prompts a dialogue with the self and implicitly this other, with what we bring to it, an exchange entailing a flux of feelings and emotions which we embrace or attempt to corral … or refuse. With its provocations, or its complacencies, the artwork asks me, fundamentally, what I think of myself.
All of this underlines how subjective reviewing is. The best one can hope for is an informed and considered subjectivity alert to the ignorance, preconceptions and prejudices that can disrupt, stagnate or ossify the loop or run it as a closed circuit. Self-knowledge is the critic’s greatest asset.
I’ve been in the loop with the Overture to Act 4 of Deafman Glance [a small part of a seven-hour work produced in Europe in the 1970s] for 35 years now. In it I sensed a powerful form of theatrical expression not determined by conventional narrative or character and in which the visual dimension, its sustained imagery, was given priority, rather than being relegated to providing ambience or background. It demanded of me profound attention to time, to intricate details of physical presence, requiring a new persistence and patience. While I was in a state of suspense and suspension, my senses sharpened, alert to the musicality of the pouring of milk, a trickle of sweat on a performer’s face, the rustling turn of comic book pages. My body opened to this art.
In a Q&A, Robert Wilson explains that the Overture was based on films made by an experimental psychiatrist recording mothers attending to crying children and bending affectionately to them. But when the film is slowed, an expression of sheer aggression is momentarily glimpsed on the parents’ faces before their hands reach the children and their smiles return. This look is not replicated in the live performance by the parent figures, the suspended gestures with the knives does the job.
I meet a weary Wilson briefly afterwards over beer. His pupils still rolling up from, he says me in his elegant Texan drawl, “I was crying. I didn’t want to cry.” There were tears amid the sweat.
In the days, weeks and years afterwards, the Overture, with its discrete child and adult time worlds and adult elegance and control barely suppressing murderous intent spoke to me of childhood and the parental gaze and recalled alarming moments as a young teacher. The slow turn of the loop.
But this week I look at my notes on the performance for the first tine since 1982. I’m shocked. I see that I’ve distilled the performance into a sparer one. There were actually four children — two comic book readers who drink the milk, and two sleepers who are the ones threatened with the knives. Note to Wilson: I prefer my version. I’d also, remarkably, forgotten that Wilson showed the 1981 video of the Overture adapted from the full stage version in which a maid stabs two children, and there’s blood, while a third, who is deaf, watches — is this the deafman’s glance? Such an odd erasure, since my notes enthuse over the video. Deafman Glance, the full work, was inspired by the experiences and drawings of the deaf-mute black boy Wilson had adopted after rescuing him from a potential police bashing.
More alarming, my notes reveal greater physical discomfort than recalled, larger reservations, alternations of detachment and immersion before provisionally embracing the work. What had happened is that Overture did its work on me slowly, and as I spoke of it, as I often did, the more it possessed me and became an idealised possession. This is not uncommon with reviewing: to see a work, have doubts, but in the act of writing about it modify, even semi-consciously transform the initial response into surprising appreciation — writing can do that; the loop keeps turning, distilling and forgetting, at our will or regardless. Now my engagement with the Overture has been reinvigorated, a closed circuit opened.
Overture was a new art experience, one which would influence my own art-making in contemporary performance and writing (I commenced reviewing in 1994), opening them out in an era from the 80s onwards of burgeoning hybrid, cross artform, multidisciplinary, multicultural and multimedia and relational practices, an era we are still living through. Reviewing these practices is still not easy, requiring knowledge and experience beyond single artforms. We set up RealTime in 1994 because these works were getting so little attention in the media and the language with which to make sense of them was inadequate. Most important we asked our writers — our translators of art into words, our interpreters, our cryptographers of the new — to be attentive to the surfaces of the artworks — often they’re all we have to go by — and to undertake to vividly evoke the works and the experience of them, and in the very telling, yield up meaning and possibly judgment.
This attentiveness is vital to sustaining good criticism in an era of impatience, hard opinions, abstract theorising and disregard for surfaces in favour of imagined depths. A critic inattentive to the interplay between themselves and an artwork leaves the reader out of the loop which is the critic’s responsibility to conjure, with a fidelity to the work, regardless of first response and the inclination to rush to judgment.
Such fidelity, however, is difficult to sustain when professional reviewing is deprived of space, time, remuneration and standing because the once mutually supportive marketplace loop between producers and publishers has been broken at the expense of artists, writers, audiences and readers. While we await or create a new publishing model, good criticism powers on in brave small publications allowing us to sustain our belief in the art of reviewing as entailing the long-term, slow, thoughtful reflection I’ve spoken of tonight, reflection that should underpin even the fastest of quick turnaround reviewing and of criticism as an enduring vocation.
All power to Runway for its continued responsive reviewing and for so civilly initiating its much-needed Conversations.
Keith Gallasch is the co-founder of and fellow Managing Editor with Virginia Baxter of RealTime, 1994-2017, the national magazine focused on innovation and experimental arts in Australia. Since the 1970s, he has been a teacher, academic, actor, director, playwright, dramaturg and writer-performer with Open City, founded 1987, which became the publisher of RealTime. In 2005, he wrote Platform Paper No. 6, Art in a Cold Climate: Rethinking the Australia Council. He has written extensively for RealTime and led over 30 review-writing workshops and festival reviewing teams across Australia and overseas, and has sat on the boards and assessment panels of several arts funding agencies. In 2018 he and Virginia are completing and celebrating the RealTime archive.
Born in 1973, Scott Duncan lives and works in Sydney. He has a history of exhibiting cartoon-realist paintings, and after 20 years of thinking about ceramics has returned to working with clay. Duncan’s practice in contemporary ceramics considers reminiscence – for childhood, Australiana and 70s exuberance – with humour. His works are sculptural (and at times absurd) but functional, and they are informed by tradition through their form and the medium of clay. He is based at Kil.n.it experimental ceramics studios in Glebe, and was a finalist in STILL – National Still Life Award 2017. His work is held in collections here and abroad.
Keith Gallasch presented Looped as part of A Big Sparkly Dinner Party, presented at Kudos Gallery, 25 January 2018. It featured 110%, D.A.N.C.E art collective, Keith Gallasch, Maddee Clark, Pedro de Almeida and Scott Duncan.