Still Lives

Concert Chamber, Town Hall, Auckland Live, Auckland

30/03/2024 - 30/03/2024

Production Details

Luke George and Daniel Kok

Production Company F.O.L.A

A scrum suspended in time, unraveling the personal stories of female rugby players.

In Still Lives: Auckland, artists Luke George (Naarm/Melbourne) and Daniel Kok (Singapore/Berlin) work with eight female-identifying rugby players, using ropes to tie their bodies together, re-creating one half of an interlocking scrum. The public is invited to assemble for this durational artwork in the Concert Chamber of Tāmaki Makaurau’s iconic Town Hall and witness the process of creating this tableau where players are transformed into living sculptures.

Still Lives is a site-specific performance installation series, in which artists ‘capture’ with ropes a significant moment or movement in relation to its cultural context. Binding bodies in their place allows new conversations to emerge and unveil hidden narratives regarding local history, social bonds and personal attachments.

Connections between art and sport, tensions experienced by the players in the game they love, and the culture of teamwork and cohesion in rugby becomes an object of reflection. Urgent issues, such as sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia within sporting culture are also revealed through the knotty negotiation between bodies.

The audience is encouraged to arrive and exit anytime and to move around the space during the performance.

Paea Longopoa, Vita Dryden, Shania Todd, Petra Ong, Samaria Kaipo, Alice Soper, Rochell Martin, Nina Si

Dance , Performance Art , Performance installation ,

60 mins

A Provoking Bind of Art and Sport

Review by Claire O'Neil 03rd Apr 2024

At 5.30 pm at the Town Hall’s Concert Chamber in Tāmaki Makaurau, a compelling, conceptual and corporal performance installation intersecting Shibari (Ancient Japanese knot tying), living sculpture and women’s rugby is created before our eyes. 

And why knot… 

Setting the scene. Eight female identifying rugby players from different backdrops, experiences and impressive successes in the field, dressed in their own rugby training gear are carefully lashed into a ropey bodice of sorts, with intricate and refined knotting and binding so beautiful that it could be on a runway. In the corner is a series of long ropes hanging from the hall ceiling with a pulley system, that will attach to the back of each player allowing them to lean into the space before them, all angled towards one corner of the room, suspended by the knotted harness.   

For two hours this scene unfolds (or rather tightens) in a large taped-off zone with multidisciplinary artist Luke George and artistic director/fine arts academic Daniel Kok guiding and tying the players with a sense of calm, care and assuredness. Collaborating since 2014, George and Kok have been working across multiple platforms and communities throughout Australia, Asia, Europe and North America. Their works explore alternative ways to perceive and displace bodies and materiality through visual, sensual and provocative performance art. Pushing boundaries through installation, their first work together Bunny unearthed cultural and political taboos by tying each other and audience members up. The processes are not sexually focused but rather a queering or as Kok would say ‘messing things up a little’ between relationships, materials and situations. The Still Lives series plays with culturally embedded and significant references, hence the women’s rugby theme here. In Venice, it was a gondola and its gondolier. 

The effective publicity information and scrum image foretold what was to happen, yet as I watch I am drawn into a net of anticipation, like piecing a jigsaw together, but with ethos of a live sport stirring in the hall as a performance goal is being created before our eyes. The subject matter is appealing to a diverse audience through live art. Are there sports enthusiasts in the hall? I can’t tell. 

However, there is a large cross section of people and ages with a good representation from arts and queer communities who perhaps like me are grateful for performances to broaden spectatorship in Aotearoa. 

As the players await their bondage harness, they pass rugby balls to each other, chat, stretch and relax. A sound score of a rugby game and crowds cheering is filtering in and out allowing spectators to relax and move around as if they were at a game. The performance sound score summoning a deeply embedded characteristic of our culture  an atmosphere that even my children feel comfortable in, regardless of their whispered questions ‘ What are they doing Mum? Why Mum?’. 

I move away (as any good Mum should do), and find a good spot on the side-lines to support the team somehow becoming more familiar with the wāhine in the line-up. The intrigue is held there. I wonder about how they feel, what comes up for them during this process and how different is this to being watched in a rugby game? I remember my initial reaction struggled with the image of women bound up. 

Four large video monitors, accessible on the raised stage in the hall,  feed us more information. They show short looped films: ‘players portraits’. Against a dark backdrop, the formidable collection of players – Rochelle Martin, Alice Soper, Paea Longopoa, Vita Dryden, Nina Siō, Samaria Kaipo, Petra Ong and ‘Georgie’ Paula George –  recount their personal stories, passions for rugby, politics and challenges in a male-dominated sport, being queer or trans within it, or being pioneers of women’s rugby when it was disbelieved it could be professional. Close-up shots of George or Kok tying the ropes, zoom us into their adept skill in this ancient art form. Each film finishes with a unique and beautifully bound living sculpture suspended in mid-game-action (and sometimes in mid-air). These images are powerful. The ropes representing women’s power and determination amongst adversity, but also a symbol of care, support and community around each figure. It feels critical to have these intimate and individual insights and stories. It brings a deeper connection to each; the discipline and commitment to the task, the attention to the body forms of rugby, and the trust in their directors.  

In challenging societal preconceptions and aesthetics, this work is a healthy stimulus for our current landscape of performances. I was fortunate enough to attend two workshops revealing the art duo’s approaches to artistic production and building trans-local community and artist resilience through  ‘Dramaturgy of Production’ and Tie Massage – a blend of Shibari knot-tying and Thai massage techniques.  Both workshops were eye-openers and nourishing for different reasons but also enabled an insight into the duo’s work in a room full of diverse people from queer artists, sex workers, Shibari practitioners, and dance/theatre arts communities (among others). I got tied up and tied others up, sharing perspectives and experiences along the way and analysing our current ‘strapped’ conditions for artists and ways to ‘design, track and make meaning from the process of art making’[1]. They both expressed that the ropes are communicators between people and their work goes beyond eroticism, gender and sexual representation. Much was learnt in those workshops. How do we acknowledge and work with different desires and interests? How do we generate spaces of generosity where you give to others and look after yourself?

Every player now has a bodice of rope and is attached to the larger pulley system. The women connect in pairs to the main pulley so if one moves forward, the other is pulled back. They play out slo-mo rugby moves, hanging off the rope in gravity-defying ability. Here a beautiful choreographic action occurs the forward player lies down on their side, post-tackle, protecting the ball whilst their duo partner moves forward, sliding their teammate towards them like a film animation trick. My choreographic imagination wants the paired duet to continue but this is not the goal. 

Each player keeps their eyes on the destination area, the effort starts to show on the performers’ faces as if reliving gameplay. George and Kok are in supporting roles now – crouching, surveying and asking quietly how the players are going. It is clear there is no pressure from them to do anything they don’t want to but it is clear the team is committed, united and  pushing towards the task at hand.

When the players finally accumulate into the scrum, the production elements do a welcoming shift. The main hall lights dip as rugby game sounds fade and are replaced with a full and deeply toned electronic sound that increases in volume, reverberating throughout the space. The audience focuses in. Nobody is chatting now. Daniel lifts a quietly unnoticed black square to reveal a portable LED light: a spotlight on the players who finally, carefully, lift into a half scrum (crouch, bind, engage!) with full body weight on the suspending ropes. Now the team is working hard. Ropes are digging deeply into the bodies as they hold tightly together in this image. Applause erupts and continues for a good amount of time. The living sculpture has reached its goal. The strain starts to show on the hooker’s position, Alice Soper, who is leaning out at an incredible angle. The directors make the call for the scrum to disengage. More rapturous applause, and although George and Kok are humbly the creators of this work,  the cheers are firstly for the eight female figures of rugby, who have dedicated themselves to this event out of their schedules and roles in sports leadership, rugby communities and life.

It is not the end of the work, there is a lot of unlashing to do, but it’s game over for this reviewer as my kids have their limits. I want to stay, to see the untying process. Celebrate the artful collaboration it is: a somatic, consensual and inclusive processes. Just what this country needs. And timely following a recent politically charged Haka in the news.  But no sin bins here. Just embodied artistry and socio-cultural emancipation through art that shows us we can be in charge of our situations and value diversity, ethics of care, queer and artistic practices as well as uplift this iconic sport as a union of fair, non-binary, non-patriarchal and equitable play (and pay) by challenging ‘sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia within sporting culture’[2].

Thank you, Nisha Madhan and Julia Croft of F.O.L.A (Festival of Live Art) and an impressive list of supporters (Creative New Zealand, National Arts Council (Singapore), NZ Rugby, Satellites, Auckland Live, TAPAC and Auckland Arts festival) for enabling us to meet the work of Daniel Kok and Luke George. For this spectator, it was refreshing and potentially revolutionary for the combined worlds of Art and Sport. 

A quote on rugby from ‘Georgie’( Paula George) from her player portrait,

Rugby equals freedom, in many senses of the word. Freedom as a female, to express yourself in a way you’re not allowed to in any other part of society” 

This freedom can also be found in Live Art performance… so let’s continue supporting it.

[1] Daniel Kok in Dramaturgy of Production workshop. 12 march 2024.

[2] event description.


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