If a dancer performs live in an art gallery, do they become an artwork?
When sound fills a gallery compelling you to close your eyes, what will you see?
You’ll find out in Masters of Modern Sound, an experimental after-hours music, dance, sound design and visual art event hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
As musician-composers Caterina Barbieri, Del Lumanta, Lawrence English, William Basinski and Chris Abrahams (The Necks) play, dance artists Ghenoa Gela, Harrison Elliott and James Vu Anh Pham will perform original choreography and interventions created with Force Majeure’s Danielle Micich.
Their movements will be a direct response to the art on the walls, to the sound in the room and to the watching audience.
It’s possible a dancer may speak to an audience member, perform a solo just for them, or brush past in a close-up encounter.
To prepare, Micich and her dancers were given a guided tour of the gallery’s summer blockbuster Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage.
“We were told the history and the social context and how art moved from Impressionism to the Fauves to Cubism and Abstraction,” says Elliott. “The artists weren’t trying to represent something perfectly, they were expressing their feelings.”
“It was next level,” says Gela. “I usually find art hanging on the wall really boring. But when all the brushwork was explained in great detail it became so entertaining for me. And then I realised I don’t see colour like other people. I did one of those colour blindness tests and I found out I’m not normal! Now I’m looking at the paintings and wondering how other people see them.”
Pham says his main takeaway was to slow down. “We live in an age where we glance at an image and swipe past it thinking that’s enough,” he says. “But there is always a deeper context around why we are looking. As dancers, we started having conversations about what we were inspired by and how we could interpret that into our own bodies – which are contemporary – to give these historical paintings a new voice.”
When the visitors enter the gallery, Micich explains, they will see the three performers moving inside 4m bubbles in the main foyer. “It will be mesmerising,” she says.
Sydney-based improvisor Chris Abrahams will then open the evening with a solo piano performance in the glass function room at the end of the gallery foyer. “We will be selecting audience members to come into that room to sit very close to him and listen closely,” says Micich. “Everyone else will be able to hear him through the speakers. It’s about helping the audience experience these artists in new ways.”
Force Majeure will perform two pieces inside the exhibition from The Hermitage, focusing on the Kandinksy room and Kasimir Malevich’s revolutionary painting Black Square.
Pham and Elliott will perform a duet in the Kandinsky room. Gela performs a solo in front of Black Square.
“The images will become three dimensional,” Micich says, “It’s not a dance. It’s an interpretation of the art work. The dance artists are responding to a line or a brushstroke or a cluster of colours.”
Gela has developed a personal connection to the Malevich painting. “When I saw Black Square I instantly felt ‘that’s for me’,” she says.
“I’m a black woman standing next to a black painting. How do I interpret that? What if I just stand there? Am I an ally or a supporter? Or am I in it? Am I the black square? And it has a white border. It’s me as a blackfella living in a white country. I have so many connections … I saw me.”
Gela’s solo is playing with the idea of transformation, says Micich.
“Do we become art when we are performing? The movement is a translation of the energy we feel while experiencing the painting.”
The sensual overload
“I’m pretty excited about being given permission to dance in an art gallery space,” says Gela. “When I did the video after hours, it was so much fun. It was so silent! And it was dark and no one was in there. It was really exciting. I can’t wait to go in there and play.”
“I feel like my senses are really coming alive,” says Micich. “I am listening more. Listening in a gallery isn’t what you normally expect. It’s making me listen more and see more.”
“The audience will be so close to us,” says Elliott. “They will see all the detail of someone’s hand just missing someone’s arm.”
“And I love finding ways to bring the audience into the live performance without them actually performing,” says Gela. “You can feel what it’s like to be right next to one of the performers. It’s thrilling.”
The ambient music
The music and sonic components of Masters of Modern Sound are focused on the rise of ambient music right now, says event producer Jonathan Wilson.
“These musicians are the new frontier of music and we wanted to build an immersive experience that audiences could dip in and out of over a number of hours. Life is so fast-paced and in-your-face that we are finding people are looking for something longer to dig into.”
The musicians include Emmy-nominated producer and David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley, who has created an immense soundscape responding to key artworks in Masters of modern art from the Hermitage and the gallery’s brutalist architecture.
Berlin-based Italian composer Caterina Barbieri makes her Australian debut in the wake of recent performances at prestigious festivals including Berlin Atonal and Unsound (Krakow) and the release of her critically-acclaimed album Born Again in Voltage.
Local acts include a solo performance by Western Sydney artist and musician Del Lumanta and collaborative trio Corin Ileto, Becky Sui Zhen and Casey Hartnettore.
The event culminates in a live performance by Brisbane-based composer, artist and curator Lawrence English and Los Angeles based avant-garde composer William Basinski. English and Basinski released their first collaborative album Selva Oscura in October 2018.
Visitors will be encouraged to check the program on their phones to choose which artists they want to see and hear over the course of the night. “You can plot and build a path to see a specific art work or to hear a particular artist on the night,” says Wilson. “We’re hoping if you’re into ambient music you might see some art you like. Or the dance crowd might hear something in the music. And the art crowd might discover dance for the first time. Hopefully, everyone will feel enlightened and buzzed.”
Masters of Modern Sound is at the Art Gallery of NSW over three nights, from January 10-12, part of Sydney Festival.