Monday, March 4, 2024
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What The Water Gave Me

Melbourne Festival is now in full swing, with a plethora of amazing shows taking over our city for the next two weeks, among the very best of international touring works are others made more locally. Dance Territories, this year continues with strength choosing to present work that sits not quite within the realms of dance, with the work by Sarah-Jane Norman, also sitting within the context of installation all while drawing audience inwardly into this political charged worked that cuts a swathe through the idea  or concept of colonization here in Australia, TAGG spoke with Norman ahead of the season…

Sarah Jane what stance did you take when exploring or unpacking colonialism?

In making the works that comprise Unsettling Suite, the body of work which includes the three pieces I am performing and exhibiting at Melbourne Festival, I set out to explore the intergenerational echo of colonial violence as it is lived through though the body. I have found it to be true of my own experience as an Aboriginal person, as well as that of many people descended from ancestry which has been directly marked by colonial violence, disposession, slavery, genocide, etc- that the trauma experienced by our ancestors and older relatives is carried quite literally in our bones- it is an ineffable, complex, but very concrete physical sensation, this weight of history. I grew up in a country town which cashed big time on peddling a lace doillie view of Australian colonial heritage, in which the brutality of the settler history was overwritten by pseudo-victorian country quaintness. This is the sort of thing which probably seems quite harmless and charming to a lot of Australians who are happy to spend a weekend taking devonshire tea at a stately homestead without giving much thought to how many Aboriginal people might have been disposessed or killed by the pastoralist who built it, not to mention the extent to which the living descendents of that clan continue to be affected. We carry the weight of this violence in the depths of our beings- diving in and attempting some understanding of how that grief is lived on a daily basis- through the body- is part of a bigger personal and political process which I aim to engage through my work, and I invite audiences to join me in that. Non-Aboriginal people seem to have a hard time engaging with the truth of Australia’s history and their complex position as the beneficiaries of violence. When the rules and mythologies of the dominant culture are weighted in your favour, it’s very easy to retreat into collective denial. This land was stolen by force from our ancestors, who never ceded their Soverignty. This history remains shamefully unacknowledged, because to admit to a theft of such a scale is to destabilise the legitimacy of Australian nationhood. This denial of history and its continuing consequences creates an enourmous subliminal tension in the Australian psyche- the overwhealming guilt, shame and instability which underpins it has generated an Invasaion Complex- why do you think Australia patrols its borders so strictly? Why we think it is acceptable to violate the rights of refugees? Because Australia is terrified of losing what it unlawfully and violently stole in the first place. When i called the series “Unsettling Suite”, this was the kind of un-settling i was calling for. Australia will remain in a state of arrested development- culturally and politically- until this history and the continued marginalisation of Indigenous people is atoned for and addressed. Saying “sorry” is a start, but it is not enough. It’s also not enough to make room for Aboriginal stories and voices only as far as they are pleasing or digestible for white audiences. There is a range of aesthetic and thematic conventions that have come to define Aboriginal art as it  is recognised by the white gaze. My work fulfils none of them. As a contemporary artist I am looking for a new language to speak of a deep and complex grief, and my work is a direct invitation for audiences to meet me in that process. I want audience to get close to that process- we are all implicated in this history, we all have to live with it and with ourselves.

What can audience expect from this work, is it at all political?

Well, my work is engaged with the politics of de-colonisation, so yes. De-colonisation means a lot of things- on the one hand, it involves very concrete political goals. It also involves work that takes place on the symbolic and discursive levels, which is where I am best equipped to contribute as an artist. Artists and intellectuals have always been an important part of social movements because it is part of our job to expose the interlocking joins of oppressive power structures as they operate at a symbolic level, and invite an audience into a deeper consideration of those dynamics and where they might stand withing them. In a Western tradition, you can make an arguement that art is always political, even (maybe especially) when it claims not to be (because there is no such thing as political neutrality). For Aboriginal people, art making has always been intrinsic to our cultural and political survival and resistance- and yes, as a people who have been and continue to be systemically oppressed and marginalised in this country, when we make art as an assertion of our existence, of our sovereignty, of our culture and agency- of course it is political.

Explain to us the strengths and weakness presented by the marriage or cross pollination of artistic forms

I am generally distractable, over-curious and strongly averse to anything that calls itself authority- so the interdisciplinarity of my practice is arguably a product of my temperament. I could never be monogamously married to a single discipline, not because i’m a flake but because the questions that i want to ask as an artist often necessitate calling on a range of technical or artistic pallettes in order to be fully realised. Much of my work is invested in exploring states political and experiential liminality as i understand them- I am a queer, indigenous artist, who is culturally Blak but physically white- passing, who is non-binary gendered but currently feminine presenting, with a complicated and contradictory class background- so my choice to work at the borderlines of disiplines is perhaps reflective of where i am coming from as a person who exists largely at the unstable interstices of identities/selves. Those are the strengths. The weaknesses? It’s a lot of work and you feel like an imposter 99 per cent of the time. It can also be hard to find your place when the the world of cultural production in general is so clearly divided along disciplinary lines, you have to code-switch between one space and the next depending on the context you find yourself in.

What has been your biggest inspiration when creating this work for Dance Territories?

All of the works that make up the Unsettling Suite were first concocted on either the 9 hour bus ride south (through Gundungurra and Yuin country) from Sydney to the south coast, or on the train north from Sydney, through Darkinjung and Gaewegal country, northwards to Newcastle. I generally seed my ideas in Australia, almost always when in the bush or travelling through country, and take them overseas to develop them and refine them- I work regularly in the UK in Europe, and have kept a base in Berlin for the last 8 years. I don’t have a studio- I have most of my best ideas in transitory space- airports and trains, and hotel rooms. Or in the bath. A lot of my work is derived from unpicking complex physical and emotional states so i suppose these liminal kinds of spaces give me clarity. I do remember that The River’s Children was one of those rare cases that arrived as a bolt from the blue- I was on a residency in rural Portugal and I took an afternoon nap, and in the space between sleeping and waking the whole piece just arrived in my mind. I had been staying near a river and washing my clothes in river water every day, and hanging them to dry outside on lines which were strung across a circular planting of eucalyptus trees.

How is the audience pulled into this work, and is their involvement a catalyst within the work?

In the case of these two works, then audience are involved very directly, in that both works make direct invitations for the audience to either offer something or consume something that is offered to them. For me, i seek to centralise the audiences body within the experience. This is a huge part of both my artistic and political praxis. I am totally disinterested in being a spectacle for the audience’s gaze- i am the facilitator and the co-agent of an experience which hopefully has many layers. I am much more interested in what an audience member feels or carries of a performance three days or six months or ten years after they have seen it that what they experience in the moment- though of course this is important too. I try to engage, however subtly, as many of the audiences five senses as i can in every work because i want as much of the flesh engaged and present as possible.

Dance Territories opens on the 14th of October, a double bill, The Rivers Children and Take This For It Is My Body will be presented alongside of the work of french artist, Nacera Belaza who will be presenting The Shout for more info click here


Michael Hunt

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