Wednesday 30 July 2008

material imagination

"Direct images of matter. Vision names them, but the hand knows them. A dynamic joy touches them, kneads them, makes them lighter. One dreams these images of matter substantially, intimately, rejecting forms—perishable forms—and vain images, the becoming of surfaces. They have weight, they are a heart” (Gaston Bachelard)

In a cavernous iron warehouse at the back of the old Brunswick brickworks, behind the vertiginous chimneys of the kilns and the blackened skeletons of derelict machinery, an island of moist white sand floats in a sea of powdery grey brickdust and rubble. Prefiguring its future performance space in the city, the rehearsal space for To Run—Sand has been installed in the bowels of an abandoned industrial workplace—a site still palpably ghosted by its former function, and by those that worked and sweated and dreamed there. The only sounds now are the muffled wingbeats and cucurucus of pigeons far overhead. Until the digging starts.

Every session begins with digging. The island of sand, both setting and generative source for this dance-theatre performance, is on the move again. The impact of footfalls and bodies disperses the sand, it flows outwards, a slo-mo crystalline liquid. We rebuild two mounds, one as conical as a Hokusai Fuji, the other slightly flattened, volcanic. Our digging is punctuated with jokes about (im)possible careers with Vicroads. The remaining sand is raked, and the rehearsal begins.

Heraclitus suggested that one could never bathe in the same river twice; similarly, every time the performers return to the sand its reality shifts, literally and metaphorically. It possesses the pulsional mutability and discontinuity Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity”. At moments it suggests a pocket of coastal dune or beach, a lovers’ retreat, a children’s playground, or an island of enchantment and imprisonment, like Prospero’s; at others, it becomes battlefield, labour camp, post-industrial wasteland, mountain range, moonscape—or desert, that core postmodern metaphor for the nomadic and the dis/appearing. And it is the fluidity of the sand’s topographic referentiality that allows the performers (and those watching them) a remarkable associational freedom in narratives enacted and images inhabited.

Material is generated primarily through games, tasks, structured improvisations and free play; once Alison has set up an activity, she rarely intervenes. Images cluster around primordial transformations of status in the flux of inter-relations: playing, working, running, fighting, falling, burying, birthing. The three performers are developing quite different relationships with the sand, each one contradictory and polyvalent. And it is the materiality of these relationships that generates narratives, images and ‘characters’. Today Evelyn’s actions suggest elegant entrapment, a kind of perky buoyancy against all the odds, like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Adrian is both ever playful and consumed by reverie, encumbered by the gravity of possibility; with the smile of Sisyphus, he moulds his desires and memories in the sand. Yumi is explosive, she leaps and digs with an energy that irradiates far beyond the outer edge of the sand—but her contact with it is consistently light, she touches and brushes with quiet patience and focus.

In many ways, the group’s recognition of the sand’s active role as trigger and co-performer celebrates Bachelard’s “material imagination”, which, “going beyond the attractions of the imagination of forms, thinks matter, dreams in it, lives in it, or, in other words, materialises the imaginary”. In Bachelard’s phenomenological poetics of the elements, matter (“the unconscious of form”, the “mother-substance” of dreams) reverberates to become “the mirror of our energy”, producing images “incapable of repose”.

In rehearsal the sand becomes a register of the actions and emotions that it has elicited from the performers; it mirrors their energy. Intimate, substantial afterimages of what was are retained within what is, although these trace impressions of the contours and gravities of presences-now-absent are always temporary, fleeting. Like memories, like identities, the marks in the sand are continuously overwritten or partially erased. But in the materiality of the instant, for those that work and sweat and dream there, they have weight, they are a heart.

To Run—Sand, by Alison Halit, was performed by Adrian Nunes, Evelyn Switajewski and Yumi Umiumare at the Economiser Building, Spencer Street Power Station, Melbourne, April-May 1997. Article originally published in RealTime issue #18, April-May 1997, p. 33. Photo: Brad Hick (Evelyn Switajewski in rehearsal)

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