Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015: A Short Reflection

2015-11-19 15.05.59On Thursday 19th November I attended an open rehearsal at Carriageworks in Sydney, showcasing Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015. As part of Kaldor Public Art Projects 31, participants were invited to watch some of the rehearsal process and reflect on their experiences. This is my reflection…

Temporary Title 2015: Human and Animal.

In his philosophical work, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) Giorgio Agamben describes an image from a 13th Century Hebrew Bible: ‘In the centre are the seven heavens, the moon, the sun, and the stars, and in the corners, standing out from the blue background, are the four eschatological animals: the cock, the eagle, the ox, and the lion’ (Agamben 2004, 1). He continues, ‘The last page (136r) is divided into halves. The upper half represents the three primeval animals: the bird Ziz (in the form of a winged griffin), the ox Behemoth, and the great fish Leviathan, immersed in the sea and coiled upon itself’ (Agamben 2004, 1). The image is taken from a miniature titled, ‘The Feast of the Righteous’; it shows a group of not- quite- human or not- quite-animal figures standing at a long table laden with food. Agamben seems to suggest that the feast of the righteous performatively realises the beginning of the end of human history, perhaps the uncoiling of the fleshy temporality suggested in the primeval body of the fishy Leviathan. Of course the Leviathan image remerges in Hobbes as the symbol of an incorporated humanity, or rather an entity that absorbs the bodies of the many and constitutes them into one, massive, political body.

The ‘conclusion of human history’ is depicted as a grand banquet where half human half animal figures feast on the meat of the Leviathan and Behemoth. By consuming these symbolic meats, the figures are liberated from structures of human embodiment, space and time. Here, Agamben returns to a motif of the in-human/non-human; an expression of ‘life’ outside the bounds of human history, speech and law. It is a motif I projected onto the dramaturgy of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s latest collaboration in Sydney, Temporary Title 2015.

…beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads…Why are representatives of concluded humanity depicted with animal heads? (Agamben 2004, 2)

Temporary Title: The Emergence of the “human” through acts of speech .

In the middle of the room was a mound of bodies. It was difficult to discern one limb from another. The mound of bodies resembled a tangle of snakes or spit fires coiled together. Limbs writhed and torsos strained. The image was also a beginning of life image, molecular or cell-like. There was a sense of the internal structure of the body, the lining of a stomach or foetal collection of cells multiplying and gathering. The mound slowly split in two separate parts, a cell dividing at the beginning of ‘life’.

A body then breaks away from the amorphous and sightless mound; a moment of individuation as a person emerges from the fleshy coil. They crawl, their posture is cat -like and they sit with a thump next to two public participants behind me. The individuated body speaks, she asks, ‘May I ask you a question?’ The women are a bit surprised, they answer ‘Yes’. ‘How do you feel about ageing?’ My attention oscillates, moving in and out of this conversation and toward the dispersing bodies in the centre. The conversation behind me has the sense of being both curated, performed, yet is also natural or pedestrian, an accounting of quotidian concerns. Another woman to the left of me is asked the same question, ‘how do you feel about ageing?’ she answers that she’d recently had a baby and that her body had changed. ‘I used to be a performer too but I stopped performing after I had a baby. My body has changed…’ I continue to watch the other naked bodies. The nudity is important it seems, as it suggests some originary state. They are naked and we are clothed; this stops feeling like an imbalance of power and begins to open up another sensation, another vista or horizon. The summer light pouring in through the windows and high concrete walls with the soft, dampening, acoustics of carpet gives an impression of nudity as endless horizon. I feel my awareness stretching beyond the immediate scene.

The bodies are animal like and prowl around the space. More of the performers break away from the sightless group (sightless because their eyes were barely open in the opening choreographic sequence). The other performers asked questions too, different ones. A cacophony of questions and general speech reaches critical mass. The noise and conversation overwhelms the initial choreography. Le Roy later describes this movement as the oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity.

Arriving at speech determines the human, we are told. What is it to speak? It determines the condition through which we might appear as human to the other, but why and might this change? Where speech is censured, buried, disappeared or not recognised, there is a devaluing of the human. Speech is a political event just as it determines our place in the amorphous and yet intimately calculable mass called society. Speech is like a form of ‘drag’; it clothes and disguises the body as “human”. At least, this is how I read the choreography…

I was deep in conversation with a performer, Michael, when I noticed the choreography had changed again. The bodies were dropping to the ground more frequently, like lions after a strenuous kill. They panted and dropped. Some of the animals began to decompose, their legs and arms folding in like a machine running down, perhaps signalling the end of the body and the end of time. My thoughts inevitably turn to the philosophical and political treatises of the 20th century. Here I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the human condition, with its spaces of appearance and fetish for the world forming activities of speech and action. My thoughts turn to Foucault’s appraisal of Greek tragedy and acts of speech, such as parrhésia; parrhésia is a compromised kind of speech – risky, liable and not necessarily “free speech” – but nonetheless affective and charged. Temporary Title offers an opportunity for a close reading of choreography and dramaturgy, which I feel speaks to the philosophical appraisal of what it is to emerge as “human” and why this emergence is understood to coincide with a speaking subjectivity.

I return to the exhibition today…

A version of this reflection also appears on the Kaldor Public Art Projects blog.

Sandra D’Urso

Marking time with Marina Abramović in Sydney, Australia (2015).

Marinaface facilitators marinapromo

In July 2015 I participated in three-days of training in the Abramović Method, which was led by Marina’s artistic collaborator Lynsey Peisinger. The Abramović Method is comprised of a series of meditation-like exercises intended for the curriculum at the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). The three day training resulted in a 2 week durational performance and artist residency called Marina Abramović: In Residence (2015) situated on the wharf not far from scenic and iconic Circular Quay in Sydney. Over the course of the three days we were asked to slow-walk for lengthy and sustained periods, covering just a few metres of ground each time. We were asked to separate and count mounds of rice and lentils. Other exercises included sitting still and staring at a block of colour on the wall or alternatively sitting opposite another person and gazing into their eyes without moving or blinking.  We were asked to limit our talking and to restrict our eating during the day. The three day training in the Abramović Method was to equip us with the skills to undertake two weeks of facilitation for the In Residence project on the wharf. This project has already travelled to London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Sydney and there are plans for it to travel to China and Iceland.

The Sydney iteration of Marina Abramović: In Residence was hosted by John Kaldor – long-time philanthropist of the arts – and follows on from the internationally acclaimed 13 Rooms (2013), which also featured a delegated performance work conceived by Abramović. In Residence was comprised of two projects; one was a residency where 12 artists were asked to live on site at the pier developing their ideas whilst engaging in the Abramović Method. The artists lived and slept in cubes or cells, as Marina referred to them, lightly furnished with a bed and lamp. The second part of In Residence was the participatory event in which 52 facilitators – of which I was one –  would help silently move and encourage the public to engage in the activities that define the Method; the slow-walk, energy-platforms; mutual gazing, colour gazing and sleeping in beds. Over the course of the 2 weeks the 52 facilitators had silently held the hands of around 40,000 members of the public; walked with them, gazed into their eyes, tucked them into beds and stood with them hand-in hand on ‘energy platforms’.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards


In hindsight, the labour intensive nature of the work seems central to the aesthetic operation of the project and raises some interesting questions about the relation of art to labour and categories of human action; Is this work or is it art, is it art-work or work as art? Can it be all of these? Some other questions include: What are the aesthetic and institutional apparatuses that drive such a project? What might emerge from a study that tracks the influence of the Abramović Method on performance aesthetics in a trans-national context, whilst also being particularly attuned to the Australian and Asia-pacific context?

The reception of In Residence was largely positive with participants reporting that they felt ‘transformed’, ‘elated’ or ‘lost for words’. In conversation, one young man said to me that he’d forgotten what it was like to be tucked into bed and how incredibly moving it was. Another expressed that they attended In Residence on the strength of Lady Gaga’s endorsement of Marina.  They were curious about the exhibition and weren’t expecting the level of care and intimacy experienced in performing these simple exercises with the facilitators. Others were astounded that they’d spent so much time in the exhibition, reporting they intended to stay for an hour but had become so immersed that they stayed for 3 or 4 hours.

The participants were expected to leave behind any electronic devices that could show the time including watches and mobile phones. The disorientation produced by not knowing the time was a common thread in the reporting of experiences by the public. Other experiences were slightly more traumatic. One person was reminded of the day her mother was first institutionalised in an asylum because of the strangeness of people slow walking and lying motionless in beds. A Brazilian woman was confronted when she saw the rows of people willingly separating rice and lentils. This had the unwitting effect of transporting her to childhood memories of an unkind family cook who would force her and her brother to sort lentils as punishment.  Others admitted that they felt haunted by the spectres of forced labour camps. These stories, memories and affecting recollections would emerge and circulate during the two weeks of the exhibition as people documented their thoughts and shared their feelings with the facilitators.

Perhaps the most intimate of all the exercises included carefully tucking strangers into bed. There were around 50 camper beds arranged in rows creating a paradoxical scene of somnambulist industry as facilitator’s stewarded people in and out of the covers. I asked myself, who would come to an art event and sleep?  Many did and so did I in the end. Some of the strangers mouthed a quiet or teary ‘thank-you’ as I tucked the covers around the contours of arms and legs, others laughed hysterically finding it infantilizing and others still cried uncontrollably as the intimacy of the act was too much to bear.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

Over the course of the two weeks around 40,000 people moved through the exhibition, repeating the same actions, marking time across the draughty and uneven floor of the wharf. Some were deeply moved by the exercises, or otherwise disturbed and responded by crying, shaking, slapping their legs or worse still, fainting. Some resisted by wilfully straying from what they felt was coercion to behave in a certain way or enacted creative flourishes and interpretations of the exercises. Some participants resisted the space by running, gesturing wildly, handing out pamphlets warning the perils of conformity, or otherwise making “irreverent” gestures; often intending to break the ambient temporality of the wharf, or alternatively disturbing the mood unintentionally by other means.

As well as the human players it also seemed that the draughty walls of the old wharf performed with timely streams of sunlight, gusts of wind and olfactory assaults by ushering in smells of ocean bound sewerage. Most of the public dutifully performed the tasks and some were overcome with desperation, hoping to get a glimpse of Marina. They betrayed their intentions through distracted side-ways glances and furtive movements toward the ‘presence of the artist’. Repeatedly performing the tasks over two-weeks began to have a strange effect on my sense of time and body in space, creating a proprioceptive warp that was both disturbing and seductive.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Edwards

I would intermittently think to myself, ‘what am I doing here? What is the meaning and economy of this very strange labour, at once intimate, compelling, and yet splintering and divisive? Who is this stranger and how odd to stare so attentively into their face, their eyes, without ill consequence. A sense of the uncanny crept in, a kind of unnerving double play on my part of being In Residence – suggestive of the ‘oikos’ as the Greeks called it, or the economy of ‘keeping house’ – but also away from home. I live in Melbourne with my three school aged children and travelled to Sydney to be a facilitator in this project. So much of my work at home is gendered domestic labour and what a strange predicament that I should be paid to be repeating these tasks as an act of art; repeating the same making of beds, same caressing of faces and holding of hands ordinarily reserved for the private spaces and people of home. I felt moments of rapture In Residence and the transformative potential of being there. I felt lost, moved and at times bodiless. I also felt the claustrophobic pall of re-performing the banal and libidinal labours of ‘oikos’ or the home; the miring and discipline of the body required in the act of being Resident for nobody in particular and everybody specifically.

As I slow walked or gazed away the hours and days beside the bodies of strangers and fellow facilitator’s I began to succumb to an idea that the bodies moving slowly around me formed a kind of Leviathan– a finely balanced assemblage of muscles, delicate gestures and quiet intentions. Managing the fragile yet well- hedged ecology of this massive art work proved increasingly difficult as exhaustion set-in and as the numbers of participants grew towards the end of the exhibition. Yet In Residence was by many accounts successful and the after-image of the wharf and its temporary ‘oikos’ of strangers doing strange things remains as a kind of inspiration.

Sandra D’Urso