Monumental and mythic: Philipa Rothfield on Jill Orr’s Dark Night
Dark Night, like much of Jill Orr’s work, has an epic, visual sensibility. A woman stands astride a wooden ship, perched on a hill of wooden chips. I can smell particles of humus singing in the air. The body of the ship is ribbed. It is skeletal in form, curved and beautiful. The ship stands tall, way above its audience, who flank the hill. An earthy smell of humus sings in the air.
Whatever happened in this room, it happened a long time ago. Paint peels from pitted walls, the ceiling is patchy. The roughness of the room contrasts with the artistic render of the woman, the hill and the ship, which is crystal clear. Days afterwards, the monumental imagery remains in my mind,. The tenacity of the image does not imply, however, that there is some clear meaning embedded here. We must make our own interpretation of this mythic panorama.
Orr is dressed in white. White pants, white top, white face paint and cap. A little bit Butoh, a little bit Pierrot, neither male nor female. This contrasts with Orr’s earlier, feminist performance art which was predicated upon the female body. It’s not even clear that we are in this world. Orr has a long oar which she uses to row along one side of the ship then the other. Her movement is fluid and stylised. She spins her long oar as she moves from one side of the ship to another. Where are we going? Where are we?
After some time, the oar is abandoned for a red flag. Red is the colour of blood, of revolutions, of Catholicism. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that red is emblematic, that its perception is embedded in sensory a world of interconnected redness. When we perceive one red, we feel its carnal connection with other expressions of redness.
Red is saturated with cultural meaning. A flag is a symbol of sovereign hubris. And yet the fluttering red silk of the flag is sufficiently abstracted from the real to open itself to any number of interpretations. Images of the Chinese Cultural Revolution could perhaps inform this scenario, but for the marked contrast between the clear messaging of Chinese propaganda and the poesis of Dark Night, which tends to destabilise rather than affirm a particular line of thought.
The figure potters down the hill, diminishing in size, becoming human rather than mythic. They assume an existential demeanour, reminiscent of a Beckett character concerned with no more than the detritus of life. The figure dons a stone-washed cloak painted with white lines. At its head hangs a flock of twisted twine. Bent over now, the twine hangs down – shaman becomes animal, an imaginary, magical transformation. Finally, we are left with the most pared-back of human forms, a white figure stammering through space and time.
What are we to make of this life-sized diorama? Is its movement from epic panorama to sentient mono-being significant? Reading the program notes only now, I note its reference to asylum seekers. I didn’t feel the dystopian fate of Australia’s asylum seekers in this work, more a sense of Homeric odyssey. It really doesn’t capture the awfulness of the Australian state, nor the collective nature of trans-global migration.
I remember Barry Kosky once saying of his work The Dybbuk that “there is nothing to get”. I feel the same about the Dark Night. To say there is nothing to get is not to say there is nothing to experience, enjoy or ponder. Rather, it’s to claim a space between the work and its reception, to free it of the tyranny of meaning. It’s not to say there are no cultural references, either. Rather, it is to allow these cultural sources to become something other than their origins.
Gilles Deleuze developed a concept of subtraction in radical theatre, in which political givenness is shifted towards the untimely. I feel that a degree of subtraction has occurred here – that the concrete politics of asylum seekers and the revolutionary rhetoric of cultural critique has been sampled and remixed. The result is a combination of political, cultural and mythic reference that refuses to settle on a fixed position. Each spectator is free to bring their own provenance to bear upon Dark Night, a work that combines the real with the imaginary.
Dark Night, directed and performed by Jill Orr. Sound design by Steve Bell, costume design by Alison Kelly, set design by Jill Orr, Nick Aguis, Aaron Poupard (Arm architecture), set construction by George Douralis (Gamma Doura Australia). Dancehouse, Magdalen Laundries, as part of Dance Massive. Closed.