Antony Hamilton’s Universal Estate is a colourful diversion but little more, says Andrew Fuhrmann
The room in which Cody Lavery and Kyall Shanks perform Antony Hamilton’s Universal Estate smells like a newly cleaned hospital waiting room. Indeed, the design of the whole space resonates with the idea of a weird infirmary. There are pale green curtains lining the walls, the lighting is bright and diffuse, and there’s a suite of retro-futuristic devices that suggest monitoring equipment.
This is a free durational performance that runs four hours a night, five days a week. Lavery and Shanks explore the space – the program describes them as “aimlessly meandering” – shifting the furniture about and occasionally settling to stare at one of the many screens showing colourful abstract patterns.
It’s an installation, but there are danced interludes. Occasionally, on a secret cue, Shanks and Lavery begin routines involving push-ups and sit-ups and much grunting and straining. They each seem to follow their own impulses through the space, but occasionally, when they meet, they work together. Their interactions, however, are deliberately clumsy, as if they have lost the ability to parse each other’s body language.
My theory about a hospital is not supported by the program. In a somewhat garbled note, Hamilton argues that today in the 21st century we still worship electricity as if it were a divine property or mystical essence. Our screens, he says, are like shrines or totems before which we meditate on the possibility of a world beyond the physical. The suggestion seems to be that the two golems in the room are frustrated by their fleshy existences – all that straining and grunting – and turn to the screens for a vision of life where there is no more furniture.
The performances of Shanks and Lavery are a kind of sustained slapstick. They play characters who clearly aren’t at home with the whole human musculoskeletal system. They are unheimlich to themselves.
Sometimes I thought of the Mel Brooks version of Frankenstein’s monster. Sometimes I thought of Edgar the Bug. And sometimes I thought of replicants at the end of their shelf life.
There are glimpses of humanity. The two awkwardly pat each other on the head when something goes well. Is this learned behaviour? A cyborg simulation of affection? Or is it all that’s left of a way of life obliterated by screen culture?
Durational work can be fun because it gives the viewer a degree of autonomy. You can watch as much or as little as you need and many of the conventions around audience behaviour are relaxed. Here, for example, you can walk around the room and negotiate new perspectives on the work. On the other hand, there can be something a bit too easy about some duration pieces, and Universal Estate shows why. It’s one thing to throw off the dramaturgical straightjacket of beginning, middle and end; it’s quite another to let an endless spool unravel to no purpose.
On the first night I saw Universal Estate, 15 minutes was enough to make me think I’d seen and heard and smelled all it had to offer. It was somewhat unwillingly that I forced myself back a couple of days later for a longer immersion.
Once I managed to slow down and accept myself in the space, I did become more sensitive to – and appreciative of – the work’s soothing ebbs and flows as the machinery moved up and down the room. But there was no mystery. No fascination deeper than staring at a screen saver.
Nothing emerges from Universal Estate. Nothing accumulates. At least, it didn’t during the two or so hours I spent with it. The audience passes in and out as if it really were just a waiting room, a place to spend a few minutes before the next show. Like the patterns on the screens, Universal Estate is a colourful diversion – but not much more.
Universal Estate, directed and choreographed by Antony Hamilton, sound and video design by Alisdair Macindoe, lighting design by Matthew Adey, costume consultant Paula Levis, performers Cody Lavery and Kyall Shanks, CAD and object construction by Bosco Shaw, Producer Freya Waterson. Presented by Antony Hamilton Projects and Arts House as part of Dance Massive. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 24. Bookings.
Possible nudity, possible coarse language