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Still photographs of performance art are intriguing, as they function as historical mementos of durational experiences and also beguile viewers as artworks in their own right. ‘Afterglow’ presents photographs that document the wide spectrum of Australian performance art over the past forty years.
Post-event photographic representation is the primary experience of performance for many viewers, after all, only so many people can be witnesses to a live performance. This exhibition provides contemporary viewers, who are removed from the emotional immediacy of these past events, with space for detached contemplation, an encounter that can be just as privileged as experiencing the ephemerality of the original event. ‘Afterglow’ represents an important and innovative re-visioning of the history of Australian performance art and photography, drawing on the extensive collection of photographs in the Monash Gallery of Art’s collection.
It is significant that Jill Orr’s narrative sequence Lunch with the birds (1979) leads the viewer into the exhibition space. The prominence of Orr’s work in ‘Afterglow’ is pertinent; she is an important Australian performance artist, whose contribution to the field is too often underplayed. These images set the tone for the exhibition, as Orr’s investigation of the role of humans in society, both as individuals and in relation to the environment, is also a key recurring theme in much performance art. Lunch is a narrative sequence shot by Elizabeth Campbell that captures Orr, clad in her mother’s wedding dress and surrounded by an offering of fresh fish, pure grain and whole bread, on Melbourne’s St Kilda beach. Orr waits on the shoreline to be joined by scavenging seagulls, presenting a more suitable ornithological feast than the usual greasy chips, fish batter and junk thrown to these birds. Orr’s work reflects the symbiotic and oftentimes strained relationship between humans, animals and the environment. Campbell’s photographs capture the fleeting, fugitive moments of this event for the birds.
The theme of human intervention upon and interaction with the environment permeates ‘Afterglow’. Bert Flugelman’s gelatin prints titled Earthworks (1975) resonate with the large-scale land art of that period made popular by the works of Robert Smithson. With the Canberra cityscape visible in the distance, these beautiful images detail soft light raking across the earth, illuminating tetrahedral sculptures that are being buried beneath the soil. Across the twelve prints, the sculptures slowly disappear under the surface of the soil, in an arcane yet sensitive action.
Contrastingly, Ben Morieson’s chromogenic print Burnout 2001 – Torana Spiral captures a more playful environmental action: a drawing event performed at Melbourne’s Docklands precinct before a live audience. The engaging atmosphere of the performance is not lost in the still image Burnout—the aerial photograph is dynamic, and the dark lines created by the pink Torana’s burnt tyre tracks across the asphalt car park are as evocative of Willem de Kooning’s as they are of the sights and sounds of testosterone-driven car racing.
The term ‘afterglow’ is often associated with a state of heightened psychological clarity. Cerebral lucidity is often found through an examination of our intertwined relationship with our environment and with our own bodies. ‘Afterglow’ features key works by some of the most iconic proponents of body art in Australia, in particular Mike Parr and Stelarc. Still photographs taken of Parr’s performances are often focused and cropped tightly to draw the viewer right to the core action of the event. Those from the 1975 action Integration 3 (Leg spiral), which was performed as part of Parr’s Rules and Displacement Activities II series, are no exception. These studio photographs are striking images that capture the action and evoke the sensation of being there, experiencing the hot acrid stench of burning flesh as the cordite spiral on the artist’s lower leg ignites.
Hayden Fowler elicits similar emotions in the viewer through his chromogenic prints Call of the Wild. Call of the Wild depicts the artist having his back tattooed with a depiction of a pair of extinct Huia birds over a week during the 2007 Auckland Festival. The work expresses remorse about species extinction. The inky outlines of the vanished Huias that are being etched into the skin are smudged with the artist’s blood in a meditation on the impermanence of life.
Documentation of durational performances can be as real, shocking or moving as documentary film stills or news media images. The iconic image of Stelarc suspended over the ocean in Seaside Suspension: event for wind and waves, Miura, 1981, is certainly evocative. It is presented in the exhibition in a display of the artist’s work across the last thirty years, including a collection of postcards documenting performance events and more recent digital interventions. The most striking images of this type are those of Stelarc in motion which, like the images of Tim Johnson’s Light Performances (1971–02), allow viewers an experience of being there, with the added benefit of time to contemplate the image. ‘Afterglow’ allows for concentrated viewing of these still images and reflection on artists’ cathartic and exploratory actions.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Juan Davila’s enormous Pietà, a photograph that problematises, like so many of Davila’s works, a traditional and sacred subject in the Western art canon. In Pietà it is possible to read Davila as both protagonists—the Virgin and the lifeless body of Christ that she cradles. The figures emerge theatrically from the inky blackness of the print, and the dramatic effect of the work is enhanced by a soft lighting treatment that preserves its dark depths and picks up the gold leaf on the Christ figure’s belly, giving off a Byzantine glint. Pietà is one of the Monash Gallery of Art’s treasures. It is rich with iconography, slashed with heavy paint, colour and collage, covered in Davila’s own symbolism and painting language, pitted with cigarette butts and other signs of intervention. This huge photograph has been ‘performed’ upon, and reflects in its scale, drama and isolation of a fleeting moment, the essence of ‘Afterglow’.
This show provides an exploration, a re-visioning of the documentation of the performance experience. The featured photographs examine the tension between the real time performance work and the still image capturing a moment of the event. ‘Afterglow’ renegotiates the viewing relationship between the artist/object and viewer and reflects the persistent problem of the privileging of the performance or the image. There is undoubtedly a different sensation, a new aesthetic experience explored in this exhibition where the selected images allow viewers time to reflect on the power of the still image, in the lingering effects of the afterglow of performance.