Culture

Theatre

The strange magic of ‘Rhetorical Chorus’

By Fiona McGregor
Agatha Gothe-Snape’s performance work interrogates and celebrates one of the great conceptual artists

You don’t need to know the work of Lawrence Weiner, who inspired Rhetorical Chorus, in order to appreciate this epic piece of experimental theatre by Agatha Gothe-Snape (at Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art in Sydney, presented by Performance Space).

Brian Fuata, as the Prologue, kicked off proceedings. Stuttering and staggering through the seating, looming over the audience, maniacally wringing meaning from every word, he made his way down to the stage. Fuata’s prologue, drawn from Weiner’s texts, was also driven by Fuata’s own gestural language, already one of the most sophisticated in contemporary Australian performance.

Fuata’s charisma is so powerful that when he finished I missed him, yet what unfolded became compelling. On a bare white expanse backed by a screen, performers costumed mostly in white with occasional rectangles of blue and orange began to move. The colours in their costumes echoed abstract paintings visible in the background of a video of Weiner’s hands, playing for most of the performance. Weiner’s gesticulations are the nucleus of the work. Blown up to the size of the performers’ bodies, his hands moved like conductors, instructive and restrictive.

The Left Hand and Right Hand, played by Brooke Stamp and Lizzie Thomson, led the movement. The work sagged in the middle, the lighting so subtle and the movement of the vocalists so minimal it took a while to perceive they were singing.

Megan Alice Clune’s composition uses only five notes, determined by the distance between her fingers, the score a combination of structured and aleatoric, including random noises picked up during the recording of improvisational exercises. More than bringing the process into the final product, these elements gave the sound a shifting, grainy quality, the droning layers accumulating to a rich haze that parted to release Joan La Barbara from her corner. She completed the circle begun by Fuata with a poised and resonant delivery of text fragments. Text artists are often bad writers (We cannot understand what we cannot understand), but La Barbara was so powerful it didn’t matter. The symmetry of her and Fuata was a live counterpoint to Weiner and Gothe-Snape. Elder American icon versus younger Australian artist, with a gender swap.

It is hard to write about work like this, such is its complexity, abstraction and strangeness. On the screen, a PowerPoint display cascaded vertical lines of text. Combined with the slowly moving ensemble, at times it was like watching a giant kinetic abstract painting, or an avant-garde opera. Gothe-Snape’s aim – like most of her work – of deconstructing the Western art canon while celebrating it sometimes veered into abstruseness. Reactions were extreme. (“Excruciating.” “Three or four drag queens, and it would’ve been fine!”) Although I can’t claim to have fully understood it, the rigour and refinement were outstanding. Gothe-Snape, daughter of well-regarded abstract artist Michael Snape, was literally born to this. She knows her art like the back of her proverbial hand. She was already engaged in collating footage of the hand gestures of Weiner, one of USA’s grand elders of conceptual art, when, in an eerie coincidence, she ran into him at Los Angeles International Airport in 2009. A similar strange magic infects this work.

Rhetorical Chorus has had other iterations, debuting at New York’s Performa in 2015. It’s a great example of how funding big risky works, both publicly and privately, pays off.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Agatha Gothe-Snape, Rhetorical Chorus. Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art presented by Performance Space. © the artist and Performance Space. Photograph by Document Photography

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