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‘We live our lives in the middle of things. Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity.'
– Sherry Turkle, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007)
Sometimes thoughts become things. In the moments or passages by which they intersect with our lives, objects and materials may be infused with stories and endowed with lasting meaning. Those things become extensions of ourselves, and we treat them differently, hold them with respect, protect them through rituals of care. When stories become objects, they may enter the realm of the sacred.
Sometimes, too, things become thoughts, not by choice but by inheritance. Things of significance to others, for example, enter our lives and our minds and carry in them the mystery of their original meaning as well as the ways in which we’ve received them. We live amongst things and some of them take on aspects of our memories and identities at both the personal and the political level. This week at PIAF 2017, we’ve been reminded of the perpetual feedback between thought and thing, subject and object, and the role of storytelling in binding them together to make up the emotional terrain of our lives.
Museum of Water
Down at Cottesloe Beach, UK artist Amy Sharrocks holds a bottle of water to the light. It’s faintly pink and has a gritty dark sediment at the bottom. ‘This one comes from Steve, who recalls with great joy a night swimming at Port Macquarie in 2013. When he dived in …’ – she tips the bottle suddenly and the sediment falls in a glittering blue rain to the bottom –‘Phosphorescence! The water was thick with it, and every movement he made set off these pulses of light. He couldn’t catch the phosphorescence in a jar, but he wanted to hold the idea of it, and share that transcendent experience with others’. I remember those nights too on the east coast of my childhood, and it was just like this; the living water flaring in the blackness as we swept our hands through. In its transformation, the sea became a breath-taking matrix for memory, a kind of ‘magic’, as Steve has written on the label.
And here’s another one – the first bottle delivered to the mobile collection trailer currently doing the rounds of Perth and the South West for Amy’s Museum of Water project was donated by Fraser James, a firefighter based at Claremont Fire Station. ‘This is my water from the fire truck where I work. 18 Feb 2017’. ‘My’ water. It’s precious to Fraser, though its value could never be stated in financial terms. Water possesses this sacred value intrinsically because it’s fundamental to life, because we cannot ever be without it, or cease for more than a day or so to have it running through our bodies, and its meanings through our minds. Water imbued with story and bottled is a potent and powerful substance. Amy Sharrocks knows this, and so do the directors of the WA Museum, which will take the Museum of Water into their permanent collection in the coming years.
Here’s something from a previous iteration of the Museum of Water in Rotterdam, set in a meat-safe display cabinet designed by Zoe Atkinson. It’s a small spirit level, ‘one of the most essential tools in the world’, according to its donor. The spirit level is a measure of the horizontal or vertical ‘truth’ of a surface. It’s used by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson as a metaphor for social and economic equality in their book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009).
If I’d held a spirit level to Argentinian director Lola Arias’ The Year I Was Born, the bubble of air in the yellow liquid would have settled steadily on the centre line. This is a work created horizontally and in truth, as a committed and telling gesture of equality. It’s as true to people and materials in its process as it is in its outcome. And yet, ironically, The Year I Was Born is about the slipperiness of truth, the impossibility of keeping that bubble in place on the constantly changing surface of the past. The Year I Was Born brings together ten Chilean performers invited by Arias to take part in the creation of the work. All are the children of men and women who lived or died under Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. Some of their parents fought with the resistance militias, some with the junta. All were damaged by the violence of the times, and their children carry the legacy of their action or inaction. Arias asked the participants to collect materials and objects from their parents’ pasts, and the work was constructed from these simple analogue resources – photographs, passports, items of clothing, legal documents, love letters – the archives of lives transformed by ideology and civil conflict.
The Year I Was Born
The Year I Was Born is a generous, honest and moving work of testimony. Its integrity and its unexpected playfulness are in part the outcome of the collaborative process, which was based in equality and humility, and in part the result of embracing the technologies and materials of the time. It’s authentic not because it tells the truth (Arias makes clear that truth is relative and idiomatic), but because it is true to its materials, which include the living archive of the performers’ own bodies. When Alexandra Benado lies on the floor while recounting the moment of her activist mother’s execution by Pinochet’s special forces, she does so not as an emotive illustration, but as an archival act. Her body becomes an object, the destruction of which is witnessed – its story cannot be hidden or falsified by propaganda any more.
Some of the documents in The Year I Was Born came from the archives of Chile’s Museum of Memory in Santiago. The gesture of re-collection is itself a ritual which restores memory and gives meaning to objects. To identify and select those things to which we’ve ascribed emotional value or which resonate with the stories of other lives is a deeply human act. It acknowledges that our lives are contingent, that we’re enmeshed in what philosopher Jane Bennett calls ‘assemblages’ of human and non-human matter. That our objects may well outlast us and so become remnant versions or relics of our selves and our thoughts. Objects are tangible containers, not only for present emotion but also for forms of absence, of loved ones whose bodies touched or used them, or whose uniqueness they recorded, and of the past itself, which has no form but in things.
Complicite’s immersive journey narrative The Encounter seems at first to run counter to this emphasis on objects as sites of meaning. It uses sophisticated binaural technology to produce what director Simon McBurney calls a walk across our brains. Its narrative layers and conceptual loops (The Encounter is in essence the story of a story of a story) are expressed and illustrated in the repetitions, voice overlay and alteration, field recordings and foley sound effects, which we reassemble in our imaginations via the headsets we wear throughout the show. The encounter of the title is as much with ourselves and the ‘strange loop’ of our consciousness as it is between National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre and the elusive Mayoruna people of the Peruvian Amazon.
But the sonic experience made in our minds is in essence a singular and immediate act of object-based storytelling by actor Richard Katz, using voice, hands and everyday items such as water bottles, boxes of tangled video tape and his own body. At its heart The Encounter is just that: a meeting and exchange between strangers, cultures and their material forms, and between artist and audience, intimately connected by microphones and headsets and connected to one another by proximity and mutual attention to the figure on stage moving between objects, which he both uses and infuses with expressive potential. Life is breathed into them as Katz breathes into our ears.
A O Lang Pho
In Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007), Sherry Turkle proposes that objects can be provocations to thought or companions to our emotional lives. An object may be considered an extension of the self, or a symbol of someone or something absent. Vietnamese circus performance A O Lang Pho, directed by Tuan Le, brings together 15 acrobats and five musicians along with the simplest of materials – baskets and bamboo – to tell the story of a small fishing village transformed into a bustling town by economic forces and human dynamism. Almost wordless, the piece progresses through a series of poetic images and restlessly transforming patterns by which the same resources become variously fishing boats, frogs, geese, monuments, trucks, bridges, scaffolds and building materials. Change happens kaleidoscopically, as human intention, through labour and ritual, produces metamorphosis in the uses and meanings of things. In the end, the great baskets are torn and broken, like the traditions that produced them, but they are still in use, still holding memory, poetry and story. A O Lang Pho is an astonishing and beautiful testament to human energy and resourcefulness, to the human appetite for transformation and material manipulation. Set at night, a rattan moon hangs over all; the skilled and exuberant action charged with phosphorescence and wonder.
Objects are vibrant forms of matter, participants in our emotional and social lives far beyond their utility. They are sites of memory and desire, mourning and manipulation, of intimacy and social connection. They are warnings, promises and guides to action. To recollect is to gather those things together, either literally or mentally, that have located or continue to locate us in time and space, and to release the evocative thoughts and voices they contain.
A O Lang Pho
Theatre and dance dramaturg, teacher, writer, and PIAF’s unofficial philosopher-in-residence, Ruth Little has spent much of her life curating, developing and writing about art and live performance across the world. Join Ruth in her role as Festival Navigator as she explores our program in all its multi-faceted glory.