Out on a Limb ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb: unsynchronised body parts, conceived, devised and performed by by Sarah Mainwaring, in collaboration with Lloyd Jones. La Mama Theatre.

The entire emphasis of Out on a Limb, which took place over four evenings, was on the process of expression. For Sarah Mainwaring, this has a special urgency. When she was six years old, she was involved in a major car accident that left her with serious brain damage. This was followed by more than a decade of rehabilitation. Her body remains damaged by the accident: her limbs will not immediately obey her, and tasks the able-bodied manage without thinking are challenges that require all her will and ingenuity.

But, importantly, this is not a performance about conquering the limitations of the body, so much as about inhabiting and accepting it. Mainwaring's invitation to the audience to witness her struggle with her own body has an astonishing generosity and humility. That I might feel confronted by my own desire to watch such private struggles is, I think, my own business.

The performance takes place in an installation designed by Lloyd Jones and Mainwaring, which gives an impressionistic idea of the walls of a suburban house. There is a single, evocative sound, a constant harsh rustle, which I finally tracked to a plastic bag hung in front of a fan. It begins with Mainwaring peering through a window. She asks in a kind of sprachgesung, half singing, half speaking: "Who am I?" She then emerges, in a tight dress, shiny blazer and a startlingly red hat, and performs a series of tasks. The first is to pull out some wrapping paper from a basket, fold it, and tie it up with string. She makes about half a dozen little parcels, and the process takes a long time. When she has finished, the parcels are hung up on hooks on a trellis, to add to the evolving installation. She then plays with a drum, attempting to hit it and missing, puts it away, dances, poses herself in positions of entrapment and frustration.

All these simple actions take a long time, but induce a meditative patience which is particularly rewarding. Mainwaring's struggle to control her materials divests her - and therefore us - of any self-consciousness, and tying a knot in a piece of string, say, becomes absolutely mesmerising. I found myself reflecting on all sorts of things: what it means to make something, what it means to watch an action, my relationship with my own body. Mainwaring's performance includes a sense of self-parody, and that it's possible to laugh without discomfort says a lot for her evolving intimacy with the audience, an intimacy which is reinforced by Lloyd Jones' gentle coaching from the seats.

Finally, Mainwaring strips to her underpants behind the back wall, visible through a doorway, which reinforces the unsettling ambiguity of voyeurism which circles around this show. An assistant helps to take off her clothes, puts goggles over her eyes and covers her in talcum powder. Then she moves to the front stage and throws blue paint over her body. The transformation is startling, from the grotesquely powdered, goggled body to a strange, beautifully marked marine creature that writhes on paint-slicked plastic with unabashed eroticism. She stands up, with assistance as the floor is treacherously slippery, wipes the paint from her eyes, and moves to a ladder, where she sings again: "Who am I? What will I be? I hope it includes some really interesting sex."

Writing the bare outline of what happened is manifestly inadequate to the experience of being there. Out on a Limb is performance art, coming out of the late 20th century tradition in which artists have used their own bodies as art objects, framing ordinary human actions in ways which force us to see them anew; but it has its own particular challenge and abrasiveness. Perhaps I should employ some negative theology, and say what it was not. It was not "politically correct". It was not exploitative. It was not patronising. It was not artless.

"Yves Klein," said another audience member afterwards. And yes, indeed; Out on a Limb can't but echo Yves Klein's The Monotone Symphony, during which naked models daubed themselves with blue paint and, under the direction of the maestro, painted with their bodies. It also made me think of the album cover of Roxy Music's Siren, which featured Jerry Hall as an alien and beautiful mermaid. But unlike both of these things, which ward the erotic off into a distant objectivity, it put the audience in radical relationship to it, implicated in its intimacy.

Clearly it raises issues, about expectations of the body and sexuality, and about human expressiveness. And, with a peculiarly gentle insistence, it's liberating, both for the performer and those who witness her. "The artist," says the program, "is creating a form". That is all this piece is "about", and it is quite sufficient; such meanings as an audience might seek in that form are there for them to find, if they wish. For it is always possible to take nothing away. For me, Out on a Limb was a moving struggle towards freedom, a compelling expression of desire. Perhaps most signally, it had the unpornographic courage of artistic nakedness.

Picture: Sarah Mainwaring

La Mama Theatre


ibalu said...

wonderful blog!
it's nice to find a little bit of culture on the web...=)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks ibalu! Nice to think of you readng about Melbourne theatre there in Rome.

Anonymous said...

wonderful review thanks for your insight and clear exposition sarahs mother