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The chalkboard cladding the walls of The Tote, a cavernous Mecca to Rock in Melbourne’s inner city suburb of Collingwood, advertised a one-night-only extravaganza of art, music and performance, Starf*ckers, arterarti and rockpigs. Sydney all-girl group The Kingpins headlined with support from local acts Gossip Pop (brother-sister duo Sue and Phil Dodd) and Red Knight Night (Christian Thompson and Chris O’Halloran). The evening promised Melbourne art punters a rare opportunity to get down and dirty with one of Australia’s fastest rising art stars, The Kingpins, in their second ever Melbourne performance. The gig was presented as a live performance, an adjunct to the group’s exhibition Rhapsody Happens at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces and was the first reprise of their popular set at Adelaide Artists’ Week earlier in the year.
The Kingpins—Técha Noble, Emma Price, Katie Price and Angelica Mesiti—emerged in 2000 from the Sydney artist collective Imperial Slacks, along with other notable alumni Shaun Gladwell and Monika Tichacek. Since then the group has gained an impressive reputation in Australia and overseas. This year alone they have exhibited at the Liverpool Biennial, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius (Lithuania) and Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw. Prior to this they have also shown at the Taipei Biennial and Gwangju Biennale (both 2003), PS1 in New York and numerous other venues locally and internationally. Rhapsody Happens at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces is the group’s first major solo exhibition in Melbourne and their performance at the Tote provided an opportunity for local audiences to see the performers in action outside the gallery and off the screen.
The Kingpins use video, installation and performance to parody and critique popular culture and its attendant sexual and cultural stereotypes. The group’s witty, defiant and adamantly in-your-face attitude has an appeal that reaches beyond the parameters of their local peer group, grabbing the attention of audiences across the globe. The Kingpins take the tools of drag—parody, appropriation and deconstruction—and make them their own. They dress up and perform in all their works, taking on various personas: boy band, rock god, biker chick, Hip Hop legend, lone rider. Their uncanny skill for mimicry combined with an astute insight into contemporary youth culture has provided a framework for a body of video works and occasional live performance-based works that playfully intervene within, while contributing to the significant lineage of women’s art collectives and feminist performance.
Until recently most of The Kingpins’ work has been presented within the format of the three-minute pop video. Short, accessible and easily recognisable, this format has provided a useful structure within which to hang various, more complex ideas and has enabled the group to make a series of original and acerbic political statements across a range of topical issues—from the effects of globalised corporate culture on local communities, to the dominance of prevalent sexual stereotypes within popular culture.
Welcome to the Jingle, 2003, for instance, features four track-suited somnambulant youths jogging into Starbucks in mindless pursuit of an elusive capitalist elixir, at the demand of big big-haired glam rock gods. The grip of the multinational corporation on everyday life is bought into sharp relief by the call to arms of the throw away jingle. In Versus, 2002, the group remade the seminal ’80s video clip Walk This Way that brought together two opposing music genres, the soft-rock Aerosmith and Hip Hop legends Run DMC. To this testosterone fuelled pop moment The Kingpins added the notorious Australian drag artist Leigh Bowery.
Back at the Tote, anticipation in the back room for The Kingpins live performance was palpable as Red Knight Night (in a refreshing and hilarious performance) and Gossip Pop prepared the audience for their onslaught. At about 9.30pm (a respectable time for a Sunday evening) The Kingpins launched themselves onto the Tote’s cramped stage, jogging into the glare of the coloured lights. Dressed in faux ’70s glitter rock regalia, the group wowed their audience in their far too brief performance. Lip synching and performing a tightly choreographed routine of thrusts and pelvic grinds to a soundtrack of classic Queen, Kate Bush and ABBA, The Kingpins took their audience through their celebrated and unique style of drag, leaving the enthusiastic crowd in the sticky carpet pit below eager for more.
The exhibition component of The Kingpins Melbourne foray, Rhapsody Happens, was exhibited at Artspace, Sydney in 2005 and at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts earlier this year. Presented in Gertrude’s back gallery Rhapsody Happens was a large-scale video installation that combined the group’s trademark brand of performance and drag mashing. A large carnivalesque face propped above the archway marked the entry into the darkened gallery. A triptych of video screens—two assembled from timber, the other fashioned onto the back wall of the gallery—were positioned in an arc, while a highway of lights leading to the pivotal central screen created an immersive panorama of glitter, spangle and over saturated glamour.
Projected onto the outer screens two slightly grotesque, hirsute bikers, lip-synching the sound track, face the audience, their wheels lifted in salute to the partially clad gyrating figures on the central screen. The bikers’ flaming wheels, hybrid and inverted faces and syncopated movements take the figure of the road warrior—one of popular culture’s most enduring personas—to its logical extreme. In the hands of The Kingpins the artifice and pretension of this masculine anti-hero is overblown, camped up and hilarious. The characters on screen and the soundtrack, both performed by the group, present a bricolage of competing and splintered genres, subcultures and styles. The audience’s interaction with the work is heavily reliant on its ability to recognise and decipher this murky soup of cultural markers. The fact that The Kingpins obviously appeal to audiences in diverse contexts is testament not only to the far-reaching influences of globalised popular culture but also the skill of execution with which they perform and present their work.
Rhapsody Happens moves away from the pop video format into a looser and more expansive arrangement of sound and image. The images on the three screens move in and out of the key song, Lady of the night (you drive me crazy), that is interspersed with generic riffs and a kind of Sci fi-esque loop. The work has a cyclical feel to it that leaves behind the formal structure of the pop video. While in some ways this new format packs less of a punch than previous works, it represents an interesting move into new territories and a capacity to move beyond a successful formula.