I Am A Wee Bit Stumped
Aotea Centre at THE EDGE®, Auckland
18/02/2012 - 18/02/2012
A grand master rock-star modern choreographer and an artist’s nightmare. Falling over and over, crawling and crawling, uttering lie upon lie, making false promises, running backwards, weight lifting and even attempting to become Transformers.
Sitting both comfortably and uncomfortably between visual art and contemporary choreography, Mark Harvey collaborates with Sweden’s Johannes Blomqvist to create a performance that draws upon their shared disciplines – choreography, performance art, theatre and installation work.
“Mark Harvey: awarded most dedicated artist.” Dunedin Fringe Festival, 2006
Mark Harvey, an Auckland-based performance artist has presented his work in a range of local and international contexts from New Zealand to international festivals in Estonia, Denmark, Croatia and Finland. He lectures in Dance Studies at The University of Auckland and recently completed his PhD in performance practice at the School of Art and Design, AUT University.
Johanes Blomqvist is based in Norrbotten, Sweden. He has participated at many festivals, galleries and events in Norway, England, Spain, Portugal, UK, Germany and Brazil. He has recently started a new platform for performance art called PAiN (Performance Art in Norrbotten, Sweden), which organises events, artists residencies and workshops.
“We like socialising, jumping and wobbling around like worms.” Mark Harvey
Breaking performance boundaries
Review by Christina Houghton 19th Feb 2012
The Lower Level of the Aotea Centre provides a difficult starting point in a difficult space for performance artists Mark Harvey (Auckland New Zealand) and Johannes Blomqvist (Norrbotten Sweden). The carpeted concrete floor in the lower level of the building, bordering the car park, is usually reserved for conferences and board meetings, but has for this week been transformed into the location for the New Performance Festival. Fortunately Harvey and Blomqvist are masters of working within the context of the spaces they make work in. Through live performance, personal dialogue and staged scenarios that involve tape, furniture and audience participation, the conference space becomes the perfect location for a collective reflection of labour as a commodity, questioning the work ethic of artists and individuals in the world today.
Entering the space is the first surprise, as we do not know what to expect. But we see a conference room set up as you might expect for a conference. All the tables are in a large circle and the audience that has arrived before us are busy hole- punching paper. Ordered groups of three or four are personally greeted by Mark and Johannes dressed in business attire, and directed to set up their own tables and chairs as part of the circle and to join in .
Conversations strike up over the menial nature of the job we are set to do: most of the participants vigilantly “set to” with vigour, and others refuse. Darts are thrown and paper hats are made in the usual anarchy of a school classroom. As we question what it is about these social situations that promote rebellion, and the audience teeters on the edge of “what happens now,” Harvey’s apologetic voice interrupts us from his position lying under the larger frame of Blomqvist, shuffling his weight half way around the room on his stomach, while telling us a story of when he used to work at the Aotea Centre in this very room many years previously. The story is revealing of Harvey’s own history, the room and the mediocrity of many jobs in the workforce, and his reflection of the status of the worker.
It also reveals the idiocy of the position these two men find themselves in as a four limbed body, at the same time symbolising the struggles/oppression of the worker, as all the while we sit here performing our collective labour task without question.
The physical nature of the two bodies crawling in this way is familiar to those that know Mark Harvey’s previous work with the same title, in which he pulled himself along the ground with plungers. Amazingly enough, such a motion is also a component of Blomqvist’s previous work where he has also pulled himself along an ice skating rink with ice picks. Scenarios that begin to unfold – such as Harvey taping all the chairs in the room to Blomqvist’s back as he crawls across the space, also have past connections to Blomqvist’s past. His personal history connects him to Tibro, the Swedish town famous for chair factories and the use of chairs is prominent in some of his work as well, such as dragging wooden chairs on his back in a similar fashion through his home town.
I am a wee bit stumped as Harvey says in his invitation “is a name I’ve used before yet it will be different” and here we see this title proving to be more of a description of their similarities in their creative approach to performance making, where they start at a point of difficulty and find solutions through testing and experimentation, uncovering notions of idiocy.
It is also made clear that there is a metaphor in the politics of social structures and expectations laid out in the programme ‘I am a wee bit stumped over the dominant political factions and other people in our society expect us to be as workers as artists’. The physical performance and the cultural concepts are entwined and become indistinguishable from each other, representing the hard work of the artist and questioning concepts of value and worth as such.
We are encouraged to work on this problem together. As these laborious tasks are actioned, there is a huge amount of support from the audience. It’s as if we are watching an endurance sport. Even as the tape cuts cruelly across Blomqvist stomach, we watch in anticipation as the large pile of chairs topples to the side. At the same time we experience time folding in on itself as these two artist re-perform actions from another past as their two histories combine into this one event. Commonalities and differences are highlighted as both reveal how they came to be here. And we are left asking ourselves how we value physical prowess.
Blomqvist’s interest in sensory time, memory and the encounter of performance emanates throughout this piece. The paper dots, the holey paper and the pink punches are collected up, and here in this space we become part of the performance as our actions, our work ,our labour is realised as meaningful. We hear more about Blomqvist’s home town and how his whole family used to work in the 100 wooden chair factories, of which now remain only two. All the while he is at the top of a ladder sprinkling confetti dots over Harvey like the theatrical snow of Tibro. Harvey is running backwards around the pole in a non-seeing frantic mechanistic manner. Blomqvist drops the paper and piles of programs on Harvey, and finally the hard hitting pink punches that bring him to a crumpled heap. All the while there is some more dialogue about the obsessed nature of the uncle who met his wife while screwing knobs into a cabinet at the factory.
Blomqvist likes to expose the audience to special experiences (as he explained in his talk at The Old Folks Association where he is the artist in residence). He likes to treat them nicely and make them feel good. We pause for a tea break (Fika – coffee break with cake) and the tea trolley courtesy of The Edge comes out complete with tea and coffee and scones as Blomqvist explains how a real man makes his own Fika in Sweden. Here we see a further example of how this work fits in with one of the concepts behind New Performance, the term coined for the Festival as a whole, where the audience engagement is of a different nature than that of mainstream theatre or film. Tonight we are here as a community to share this time and space and be involved and it is fun, inclusive and is not at all a -being-put-on-the-spot kind of feeling which many of us will try to avoid.
We then notice Harvey against the far wall, weight lifting a full sized table while talking of the guilt he has leaving his family to pursue his career, following the work ethic he feels he needs to live up to. This personal story is touching, and as he becomes more and more out of breath, we feel the difficulty of the situation and the struggle to live up to expectations.
The use of the body as a site for live action, processing ideas through a physical form, emerges from both of the artists connection with contemporary dance training, with both in earlier years training as ballet dancers, and Blomqvist also training in classical music. However, both subsequently moved towards a more critical approach to art making that is associated with the visual arts. Their type of performance art opens up questioning and reflection on all modes of conformity in theatre, performance and the everyday.
Live Art in this context also has an element of risk, to the performer and the audience. The risk level heightens as Blomqvist tapes up the trolley, hot water thermos boilers and all, and careers around the space, narrowly missing cups of tea and bags and precariously doing a two wheeler around one corner. The space is enlivened at this point and basically it’s hilarious as one imagines such things going on in an everyday office. We become part of the ridiculousness of the actions, not to mention the participants that are holding up boxes on their heads that on a count of three they cascade in a theatrical finale. Here we are deliciously reminded of the potential theatricality of the every day.
The piece concludes within the darkened room with the repetitive falling of Blomqvist’s silhouette in a doorway played against the interrogating questions of an absent border control officer (whom he first met on arrival in New Zealand) which implies that due to being vegetarian, an artist, and having a large bag, that he must take drugs and is going to work here illegally. Blomqvist’s response is that he is coming here to make performance art, so how could that be called work? A moody, serious ending to a quirky piece, this reminds us of the underlying nature of global territories and questions who controls access and on what criteria.
Johannes Blomqvist and Mark Harvey succeed in their collaboration, entwining experimental practice and personal histories into an evening of friendly, risky, thought-provoking encounters. Concepts of who we are in the world of work and labour, and how we connect across imaginary boundaries of identity and culture, have been worked through this evening. Breaking performance boundaries from dance and theatre genres, experiencing the physical, pushing the body through elements of risk, experimenting with audience interaction, creating the unexpected in space, are all part of the live-ness of this work. The collaborative nature of this work between the artists and the participants manifests a new experience that I believe succeeds in traversing borders between audience, cultures and hemispheres, opening space to see the world (and in particular the lower level of the Aotea Centre) in a different way. We are also left wondering how our sense of worth has been activated through collective participation. Or have we just been manipulated into working for nothing? There really has been some work done here tonight and I’m glad to have been part of it.
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Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Raewyn Whyte February 20th, 2012
See also commentary by Kristian Larsen