As we approach the festivals of the start of this New Year, I have been reflecting on last year’s offerings. One of the works that I wish I had have written about at the time was Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster at PICA. This work, performed by Nicola Gunn, was pared down to, as the title suggests, Gunn performing a series of exercises and dances on stage while reciting a monologue, accompanied by the repetitious beat ostensibly emanating from the ghetto blaster (though I cannot recall if it was actually from the speakers in the wall). The narrative centred on the appearance to Gunn’s character, while jogging, of a man throwing stones at a duck.
She begins, stretching and limbering up before some kind of race, and gradually becomes more and more exhausted and beaded with sweat as the performance goes on. The labour of fitness is performed in parallel to the labour of thought as she doubts her eyewitness and somehow accomplice role to the role of the man throwing stones at the duck. It is whole series of deductions and extrapolations, all of which result in almost nothing occurring. Yet this is the chain of doubts that we all encounter when witnessing something like this. It is an internal monologue we have all suffered before – the shame of not knowing what to do, or simply not doing it. Of being inactive in the face of something, however minor, however slight, that we perceive as a violence, or is actual violence.
Gunn’s performance takes her to the audience, where she moves closely to members of it with sexually suggestive movements. While she never reached the back row, the effect, of being thrown into such close proximity to a performer, suddenly intimate, was also intimidating, and quite frightening. The boundaries of not only audience and performer but also of the space of anonymous strangers is overcome and becomes heightened with the understanding of potentially voyeuristic and performative elements of this performance. I feel my memory may have beguiled me, but this segment also coincided with an analysis of the character having an affair, and yet judging the man for throwing stones at a duck.
In a final tour de force, Gunn transforms, in a simple yet ornate and elegant gown, into the feathered duck. The work suddenly changes registers, and like Adaptation, in its third and final act, it brings home a dramatic and powerful narrative. It also shares the characteristic of Adaptation’s first two thirds in which almost nothing happens. In this case, the final third transforms into a performance piece reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, Gunn’s altered voice echoing repeated refrains of ‘my body is at 32 degrees Celsius’ and ‘I am sitting here’. It is an ecstatic end to the difficulty of thinking and acting that precedes it. The duck is the magical creature here, who knows what its role is, whether it be victim or not, it is certain of what it must do. This crescendo, with its rising, flashing lights and beat concludes the performance with a fantastic strength. It also forms a vision of the appeal of the narrative of the duck – the largely undramatic activity of sitting still for a long periods while attempting to hatch chicks is given a weight is rarely possesses; a dimension often missing from narratives of ostensible passivity. It appears like a musical version of Virginia Woolf’s middle section of To The Lighthouse where the anonymous nature of her characters – their essential unimportance – is taken to its fullest in the narrative of the house itself falling apart and thistles growing through the floor while, in brackets, the characters die in war and childbirth.
The work is, as a whole, an incredible performance, and hopefully this year’s offerings can match or rival it.
By Graham Mathwin