Shelley Lasica's When I Am Not There Asks: How Do You Create A Gallery Exhibition On 40 Years Of Dance?

Author: Jonathan W. Marshall

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Wall text outside the main gallery of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) identifies Shelley Lasica's When I'm Not There as a“survey” exhibition, but this is somewhat misleading – at least from an audience perspective.

In 1992, cutting edge Australian contemporary choreographer Lasica became Australia's first dance artist represented by a commercial gallery. She has since choreographed and performed more than 80 works both in galleries and in more conventional theatres.

When I'm Not There was developed as a test case in a research project which asked what it would mean to reference and exhibit more than 40 years of dance practice in a gallery.

Dancers perform daily throughout the duration of When I Am Not There in the spacious white void of PICA, moving alongside more than a dozen curious, colourful objects drawn from Lasica's archive.

Dance among design

Netting hung with costumes drops from the roof – though the clothing can only be seen properly if removed and worn by the performers, which happens rarely (three times during my five hours of viewing).

There are panels of abstracted green trees painted on a blue background (by Tony Clark), a confusion of clear plastic tape recalling spaghetti (Anne-Marie May), a rolled out crash matt (uncredited), monochromatic plastic seats (Eero Aarnio), a wall of typed narrative sketches (Robyn MacKenzie), and so on, none of which have a clear relationship to the dance on offer.

The exhibition asks more questions than are answered. Dan McCabe/PICA

A close reading of the room sheet reveals each of these items have appeared in one of Lasica's productions over the last 40 years. But no further details are offered.

It is all curious and provocative, asking more questions than are answered, even for dance aficionados with knowledge of Lasica. Because these remnants are only rarely activated in the space, they ultimately reside in different dimension to the live performance.

A generative archive

Lasica stated in the artist talk she did not want to mount a retrospective. Photographs and documentation have already been proffered to the public, including an an earlier exhibition at West Space gallery, in the catalogue , and on Lasica's website.

Moments and gestures from previous productions do swim into view. Dan McCabe/PICA

Lasica states she used her archive in a“generative” fashion, producing a new, layered work. Lasica is adamant that, when working with dancers, she uses what emerges out of their particular responses to her tasks, scenarios and prompts.

As the dancers here do not, on the whole, have an extended history with Lasica, few gestures from earlier works are directly replicated, and where they do, they are widely dispersed across the days.

But moments and gestures from previous productions do swim into view – I thought I recognised some in one section led by Lasica in a beautifully lumpy, striped bodysuit.

Striking a new tone

Having seen a number of Lasica's Behaviour and Situation works of the 1990s and 2000s, I was struck by the difference in tone.

Writing in 1998, RealTime critic Zsuzsanna Soboslay said Lasica and her peers sketched“odd combination[s] of extension and stasis [...] squarish shapes, edgings, lifts and slides, steppings and rollings patterned into well-structured configurations” in which the dancers“exhibit a consistent and strange angularity”.

These qualities emerge sporadically in When I Am Not There, particularly odd“steppings and rollings”.

The show is dominated by a playful, deceptively ad-hoc-quality. Dan McCabe/PICA

At times, however, we seem closer to American dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton's concept of Contact Improvisation , with dancers leaning against each other awkwardly, sometimes ending in messy piles.

Much of what I witnessed was dominated by a playful, deceptively ad-hoc-quality, producing a soft focus.

Consequently the fractured, almost Cubistic or Futurist geometry which I recall from Lasica's earlier work seemed almost absent. Where Cubist influences were evident, it was less in the divided body of the dancer, and more in the divided viewpoints of audience members, each wandering the space on their own terms.

Also subsumed within the extended duration of the work is the exacting attention to corporeal minutiae which Lasica's dancers previously tended to show, particularly Jo Lloyd and Deanne Butterworth.

In these previous works, Lloyd and Butterworth acknowledged each other's proximity while maintaining an intense inward focus. Whatever guided these disciplined performances was deliberately withheld from the audiences, or as RealTime critic Philipa Rothfield said in 2010, Lasica“has left a lot unsaid and, in doing so, given space to the observer to meet the action”.

Art in the white cube

In his famous critique of the 20th century“white cube” art gallery, art critic Brian O'Doherty argued the stark openness of contemporary exhibition spaces often worked to render art almost sacred, floating ethereally above the mundanity of history, context, or the outside world.

This also created a space open to gestures which might rewrite or undermine art's status as an elevated commentator on the world.

There is a lightness of touch from Lasica and her dancers. Dan McCabe/PICA

When I Am Not There is certainly alienating for many audiences in its refusal to disclose what lies behind it, but even these audiences might be brought onboard through the lightness of touch which Lasica and her dancers bring.

The performance is best enjoyed if one ignores the archival pretensions of the“survey” exhibition, and savours When I Am Not There as a series of interesting and often fun interactions in an odd space which, above all, work to retain their own mysterious distance from the audience.

Shelley Lasica's When I Am Not There is at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts until June 23.

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