Last Saturday night (September 20) I visited Rumpus Room, a garage ARI in Maribyrnong, Melbourne. It’s run by artist Ashlee Laing who opens his garage once a month to artists wanting to experiment, to test, to play or as the name on the door suggests “have a romp.”
It was already dark by the time I got to Rumpus Room. The garage door was open – so I walked straight in. Facing me was a black and white silent film playing on a sheet, artfully draped across some ropes. It showed a group of Greek women in traditional dress working outside their houses — spinning wool, talking, smiling, busy, looking happy. It was a scene from another time, another world. The filmic image played as if a moving photograph – it was like a moving instant in time. Later, Helen Pallikaros, whose work this was, explained that it was a scene taken from a documentary film from the late 19th century of an unknown Greek village. It was a compelling image. I wanted to know more about these people. Who are they? Where are they? What happened to them? There’s something about black and white film, in this age of saturated digital imagery, that draws you in and soothes your nerves.
Other than the film, the space was bare except for a wooden chair, a small copse of candles with some delicate lace patterns sifted onto the floor nearby, and a metronome.
I walked through to the backyard where a group of people were sitting around an open fire. It was warm and friendly and the talk was animated.
At 7pm the call went out that the performance was about to begin. We all filed into the garage/artspace. Helen entered, her face and body covered in white body makeup, giving the impression of a deathly white presence, possibly a ghost or a lost soul – or a figure from a butoh performance. The candles flickered and the only sound was the concise, insistent ticking of the metronome – the sound of time passing.
Helen’s movements were precise and solemn. She began by placing herself in front of the film, sitting on the lonely chair. The figures of the women in the film played across her body; sometimes the face of one of the women flickered across her own, creating a link between these separate and separated worlds. Pallikaros, sitting alone in the space, seemed to highlight the companionableness of the filmic women. And vice versa, the alone-ness of Pallikaros, in contrast, became palpable. Pallikaros wore a hand mirror, hanging from her neck. She spoke words in Greek that I didn’t understand, but yet could feel some affinity with. There was a sense of pain and unfinished business. At times the mirror was held up to the audience – as if suggesting we may be looking at our own likeness, our own reflection, our own sense of loss.
The mirror is an evocative object – especially within the Western art tradition, itself springing from the Ancient Greek idea of mimesis, or likeness. In art/Art the power of representation as illusion reigned supreme until broken by Modernity, where art was at last allowed to break free and roam freely — (probably around the time this film was taken!). With the end of mimesis the mirror was shattered, the idea of the ‘real’ became problematic. I was intrigued by all of these rich allusions that Pallikaros had brought together when the seriousness of the mood suddenly changed. Pallikaros’s pained voice rose suddenly and unexpectedly. The chair was thrown down, and now you could feel anger.
Leaving one’s country, and in particular one’s culture, especially under duress or a feeling of necessity, is always complicated and painful. And the recent refugee crisis bears witness to this in our contemporary moment. Pallikaros’s performance reminds us of the less well-known after-affect of those great journeys — if and when the migrant or refugee arrives at their destination safely — that is, the plight of the children who grow up in a culture foreign to their parents, to their forebears. Their heritage becomes complicated and rife with a sense of absence, strange longings, and painful no-man’s land feelings of abandonment. Feeling uncomfortable and inauthentic in both cultures – forever not quite belonging. There always seems to be a gap – you could call it the generation gap, with a twist. You will never grow up to be like your parents. The chain has been broken.
The performance ended. The atmosphere in the space was intense. People felt moved, and yet glad to have witnessed this singular performance.
Afterwards, we all gathered again around the fire, surrounded by the darkness of night. Lots to talk about, lots to share. The barbecue was lit. The food appeared, the wine flowed. Rumpus Room is one of those spaces where anything can happen. It’s wild, creative and unpredictable and always a great pleasure and privilege to be there.