I love it when performance artists build a workout into their art performance. Not only do I get to admire them for putting their ideas in front of an audience, but I also get to admire their physical strength and stamina, and their ability to vocally project even while huffing and puffing. And I also really like that they’ve found a clever way to kill two birds with one stone during a time when workout routines usually fall by the wayside (during production).
Okay, so Nicola Gunn‘s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster isn’t really a ‘workout’; I’ve probably oversimplified things in my opening paragraph, which could be construed as misleading. Sorry. But it’s true, Jo Lloyd (choreographer) puts Gunn through her paces, and every muscle in her nimble body gets used in some way throughout the hour or so she’s on stage. But that’s not the whole of it. While she’s stretching, jumping, bending, twisting, jerking, flailing and stepping, she’s presenting a moral dilemma to the audience.
She asks us to picture a scenario in which a woman, while in Belgium, witnesses a man throwing stones at a sitting duck in a canal, while his children help gather stones. She explores every facet of the dilemma which this scenario presents, and attempts to find all the grey areas that lurk around this complex philosophical proposition. She works in humorous anecdotes, allusions, and commentary about Schopenhauer, Marina Abramovic, and David Suchet to name a few. She’s clearly a fan of critical thinking and the art world, but somehow, watching her name-drop while doing a round of cardio keeps her well away from the realm of the pretentious.
It is in fact this weird juxtaposition of her physical domination in the performance space and the intellectual content of her monologue set to a lo-fi synth soundtrack by Kelly Ryall that makes it all so compelling. I suspect that if this were simply text without movement, it would be a very dry stand-up routine, and if this were simply movement without text, it would be too random to decipher. The movement, music and text don’t always meet in the middle, but when they do, it’s often hilarious and sometimes as subtle as a ripple across the water.
Gunn gets right into the audience as well, exploiting the inevitable discomforting thrill that comes when a performer invades the audience space. But perhaps the most challenging part of her work comes during final movement. She presents the sitting duck abuse dilemma from the perspective of the sitting duck; she eventually turns her back on the audience, sits and sings/recites her final thoughts through a distorted mic. Lasers fire up, smoke is pumped in, the music rises, and we watch as a rave without any participants takes place for several minutes.
I’m still puzzled by this ending, and I suspect I will be puzzling over it for a while. Why turn your back on your audience instead of trying to clench them in the grip of your gaze right up until the lights fade? Why deny yourself and the audience that you’ve just climbed through, gotten intimate with, the satisfaction of mutual closure?
In the end, I feel as though the only clue we’re given comes in the form of a question Gunn asks during the performance: what would Marina Abramovic do?
No. That doesn’t help either. I don’t think it’s a matter to be solved by any theatre reviewer. It’s a moral dilemma that we each have to participate in and then work out for ourselves.
Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster runs until 19 Feb at PICA. For more information and tickets, visit the PICA website here.