“When I think of my body,” writes philosopher and social theorist Brian Masumi, “and ask what it does to earn that name, two things stand out. It moves. It feels. In fact, it does both at the same time. It moves as it feels, and it feels itself moving.”(2) Masumi used this simple reflection to introduce his sentiments on the way the body is considered in contemporary cultural theory and philosophy and highlights the importance of the basic universal physical experiences: sensation, affect and movement.
A wide variety of contemporary Australian artists have engaged with these experiences, particularly movement and its potential for affective resonance, intentionally and unintentionally. The language of the body is not a language that we speak. It is not a language that sits easily when described by the written word. Here however, is a written consideration of the ways in which the language of movement is explored in two recent video works: Echo (2013) by Gabriella and Silvana Mangano; and David Rosetzky’s Half Brother (2013). Both works are erudite in their exploration of the body’s vocabulary, and are strong examples of the artists’ ongoing investigations into relationships with self and with other.
"The language of the body is not a language that we speak."
Echo is an improvised performance played out on a subterranean ready-made ‘stage’. It is late winter in Melbourne when the Mangano collaborative, twin sisters, began to develop this work as part of a two month residency at the Arts Centre Melbourne. They were invited to explore the service passages, plant rooms and control centres; to go behind the scenes of Melbourne’s iconic home to the glitz and glamour of opera, music, dance and theatre. Echo is the outcome of the twins’ attraction to a series of dark underground tunnels, theatrically illuminated by short, cold shafts of fluorescent light. The pared back setting is characteristic of their aesthetic, and reflects an enduring interest in the minimalism of Italian neo-realist cinema.
We watch one of the twins feel her way around this eerie unknown void. The occasionally rotating camera creates a sense of unease and disorientation. A soft pulse of suspense is provided by a soundtrack of industrial echoes, collected in the tunnels and composed for the video by James Brown. In the low lighting, the depth of the tunnel space is hard to fathom. The scale of the tunnel is given context only by its relationship to the artist’s body as she completes her slow, repetitive and purposeful actions. While resolutely performative, it is the antithesis of the theatrical spectacle above ground.
The Manganos favour unmediated experience and intuitive action in their work, emphasising the raw and untempered qualities of body language. Simplified and organic, their responses originate from an experimental approach to drawing. Working collaboratively since 2001, they have sought to explore the resonance of the drawn line through repetition, and movements that extend beyond the page. The twins are now well known for their ‘performance to camera’ approach within which they also explore their relationship to one another, often playing on a Lacanian like engagement with mirroring.
Echo however, only ever features just one of the artists. Our focus as the viewer is thus on the relationship between the single performer and the architecture of this ‘echo chamber’. While the twins worked with a cinematographer in this instance, the implication is that it is filmed by the absent twin. The positioning of one as observer and the other as observed elicits a more open ended consideration of their relationship. They used the term “silent conversation” to describe this dynamic when first explored in Endless End (2009). In Echo there are also moments when the performer is entirely absent, when the viewer joins both artists behind the lens observing this unknown and unknowable space.
Several months earlier in Melbourne, a group of young people are filmed filtering into a bare room, a space under construction. Three male dancers in casual attire peel away from the polite social banter of the group and the room falls silent. Their faces are devoid of expression, yet their bodies make strong and dynamic statements, both in response to one another and to a stack of blank white paper. The room is silent save the sounds of breath and paper; scrunching, tearing, shuffling, sticking, the paper becomes an extension of their bodies.
The ‘silent conversations’ in Rosetzky’s Half Brother ebb and flow between the dancers. They speak volumes about the body’s capacity to move, to feel and to affect in ways that the written or spoken word cannot. Rosetzky has long been fascinated by contemporary dance and first engaged with the visceral, expressive capacity of choreographed movement in his video installation Untouchable (2003). Since then he has worked collaboratively with a range of choreographers and dancers to explore the “different speeds and intensities” and “unexpected interactions” that stylised movement adds to his work.
For over a decade Rosetzky has investigated ways of unpacking human behaviour and relationships, and accordingly possesses an awareness of the benefits and limitations of the language around the self, ‘self-help’ and individualism. He cuts, collages, fabricates and democratises individual stories to speak broadly, yet pertinently, about the nature of our contemporary experiences and feelings. In developing Half Brother, Rosetzky used as his starting point the tactile and emotional process of “sorting through the stacks of my father’s [design] work after he died.” Rosetzky worked with choreographer Jo Lloyd to develop this concept and then workshop a range of movements with contemporary dancers Gideon Obarzanek, Alisdair Macindoe and Josh Mu. The resulting performance is captivating; simultaneously personal and broad reaching. The phrasing of the movement and interactions with the paper are sophisticated and powerful, yet layered with a gentle innocence. Following a climactic loud shuffling across the floor with torn paper under foot and hand, the dance sequence concludes with the dancers quietly and delicately re-forming a whole sheet of paper from the torn displaced parts.
At times the dancers echo each others’ moves. Early on in the piece, the dancers literally remove one another from the foreground with a stylised phrase of movement: one dancer pushes and lowers another to the floor while another jumps up and down in front of the audience. One after the other they rotate through the movements and placements with each dancer getting up to race back to the front, as though desperate for the attention of the audience. It is as though we are watching the physical expression of an internal dialogue, thoughts jostling for attention like petulant children.
Rosetzky explains that the title Half Brother was a way to reference this idea of the “split subject”; a sentiment explored previously with repetition and role sharing in works such as How to Feel (2011). Scholar Dominic Eichler has noted the influence on this aspect of Rosetzky’s practice of American choreographers such as Deborah Hay — associated with the experimental work of the Judson Dans Theater in New York in the early 1960s — whose work If I Sing to You (2009) was shown in Melbourne and saw the cast learn each role and play a different part each night. (40)
Half Brother is the first work in which Rosetzky has included a live audience as part of the scene. As the viewer we watch the action unfold at once part of and separate to the filmed audience. Rosetzky has spoken of the intimacy this is designed to encourage, as we are privy to both the emotive movements of the dancers, as well as the reactions of the transfixed audience.
The relationship established between the audience and the camera in these works by the Manganos and Rosetzky convey their strong understanding of empathetic response and the communicative potential of movement. Both works deftly manipulate the capacity for the body not only to ‘move’, ‘feel’ and ‘feel itself moving’, but also to move others.
Andrew, Paul. “Artist Profile: Gabriella and Silvana Mangano”.
themusic.com.au. 3 Jul. 2012.
Eichler, Dominic. “Between You and Me”. David Rosetzky: How to Feel.
Melbourne: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2011. 39-41.
Masumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
Rosetzky, David. Email interview with the author. 21 Feb. 2014.
"Half Brother was a way to reference this idea of the “split subject”..."