Alison Croggon on the anguished eroticism of Daddy, Joel Bray’s latest work on the cultural theft of colonialism
Watching Joel Bray’s Daddy – if watching is the correct word for the intimate, under-the-skin experience Bray creates – it occurred to me that he is an artist, ne plus ultra, of trauma. I’m not sure that I’ve seen anybody explore trauma and dislocation with quite the same mixture of delicacy and brutal honesty.
Of course, trauma is one of the driving forces of art, particularly in our corner of catastrophic modernity. I’m not Indigenous, or queer, or male; but there’s a deep familiarity in the wounds that Bray opens with such gentleness for those fortunate enough to encounter his work. However we are scorched by the fires of colonial capitalist violence – and we all are, whether we know it or not – it’s impossible not to recognise the vectors of violence he inscribes, how they move through our psyches, shaping and breaking us.
Bray’s work, not entirely incongruously, makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet whose extraordinary talent flared and died out before he was 21, revolutionising poetry along the way. Rimbaud is much harsher than Bray, much more aggressive; after flirting with the Paris Commune and scandalising literary society with his affair with Paul Verlaine, he became an exemplary colonist. Before his death from cancer at 37, he was an arms dealer in Africa, and sent reports of his expeditions to the National Society of Geography in France.
Bray speaks from the other end of colonialism’s whip; but a similar anguished eroticism chimes in the art of both. Rimbaud’s poetry was driven by primordial fractures of perception: a particular wound was his relationship with his mother. In Poet Aged Seven, he describes how “all day he sweated with obedience; highly intelligent, yet with dark traits, a few tics, seemed to suggest for sure bitter hypocrisies in him…” He speaks of his mother’s “blue eye – that lies!” as a shock, a moment of violent psychic separation that leads to his musing:
He would dream of the lovemaking meadow where luminous swells, healthy smells and golden pubescences move about calmly and take their flight!
Which is somehow teasingly similar to the image that greets us as we enter the shockingly pink space – a room in the bowels of North Melbourne Town Hall – where Daddy takes place. The very air, filled with smoke, is pink: the floor is covered with curls of cloud from a smoke machine panting into the space. Bray, dressed only in tight, shiny, pink speedos, is reclining on a fluffy pink ottoman, like an angel in a cheap knock-off of a Renaissance painting. Everything is sweet: the ottoman not only looks like fairy floss, parts of it – as audience members discover when they’re invited to eat it – are made of it.
The audience is invited to walk about the space. There is no seating, except for a row of chairs for the tired (which I admit I took advantage of at various points during the show). I watch Bray turning slowly, taking one classical pose, then another, and there’s something so achieved, so complete, about this image, that part of me wonders where he can go next.
The primordial fracture that Bray explores is his relationship with his father, who abandoned his family when he was a young boy, taking with him Bray’s relationship to Wiradjuri culture. And carefully, gently, with a mixture of irresistible humour and breathtaking, desolating honesty, he brings his audience with him into this central trauma of his life. It’s a trauma that opens infinitely, because it’s at once deeply personal and part of much larger colonial histories. But the truth is that history is always personal.
Like Rimbaud, Bray plays with various aspects of kitsch. He asks audience members to pick up some wings fixed to sticks, gets another to pose with him on one of those pink ottomans, and together they recreate Raphael’s “Sistine Angels”, the two cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna that are the lifeblood of a million cute greeting cards.
He gets two audience members to hold up a reproduction of a 19th century European landscape painting of Australia, another artefact of kitsch, as two more powder him with icing sugar. So much icing sugar that it gets in his eyes: he blinks frenetically, tears carving their course through the white mask. When he stands up, he is an Indigenous man painted white, a figure of grief.
There is, he tells us, an enormous abyss in the centre of his life: an absence that he’s attempted to fill with every man he encounters. He asks another audience member to wash off the icing sugar, others to sweep up the mess (I’m full of admiration for how he engages us, there is never any sense of transgression, we are all safe here) and dresses himself in a Tom of Finland sailor suit. He walks through the space, collapsing as he goes, dragging himself up, collapsing again. And now we are in a night club, witnessing his dance of desire: at once self-mocking, achingly lonely, intimate and erotic.
Because he is white-skinned, Bray tell us, because his father wasn’t there to teach him, he has had to learn the dances and the language himself. We watch him flicking through a dating app. We watch him learning Wiradjuri on YouTube. We witness the anguish of what has been stolen from him, the pain of the dislocation of a man whose patrimony has been erased by the violence of European invasion, and which he must recreate through these rags of memory.
And sugar. So much sugar. The final dessert, as Bray calls it, is his body, smeared in butter and chocolate sauce, encrusted with hundreds and thousands, marshmallows and raspberry lollies. As I leave the space, it feels as if the stench of sugar – the colonial commodity par excellence, the trade of slavery, the basis of so many European fortunes – will never leave my nostrils. Bray is taking this deathly, addictive poison and transforming it into ritual, into a transcendent moment.
And yet – for all its painfulness, this isn’t a sad show. There’s a profound resilience expressed in Daddy: it’s in the humour, the honesty, the trust that Bray extends to us as he shares his life. This art is a lot more generous than Rimbaud’s. Perhaps Bray has deeper psychic resources, despite everything that has been taken away from him. In the centre of the awkward, beautiful ritual of Bray’s dance, something alive is stubbornly beating. Something like hope.
Daddy, created and performed by Joel Bray. Set and costumes by James Lew, composition and sound design by Naretha Williams, lighting and AV design by Katie Sfetkidis, collaborating director Stephen Nicolazzo, collaborating performer Niharika Senapati, dramaturgy SJ Norman, produced by Josh Wright. Arts House North Melbourne as part of Yirramboi. Closed.