In Adelaide recently for a variety of reasons including taking He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate out for dinner (and what a dinner it ended up being) but also to experience the Fringe Festival, which we did with much unearthly delight, I found myself in North Adelaide one night in a room above a café watching a young man film himself. No, I hadn’t strayed and ended up in a strip joint, though this was before He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate flew over to join me.
You see, I’d run into a friend at an arts function – Malcolm, a performance artist, and I first met on a residency last year. Anxiously, he invited me to attend his Fringe show. I’d seen his work before, in fact I’d been quite moved by it: it was both shambolic and finely honed, which sounds oxymoronic, I know, but is accurate.
So I accepted the invitation and headed over the Torrens. The café was posh: well-dressed patrons comfortably sipped expensive wine or imported beer and ate $30 pizzas. But upstairs five other people and I watched the young man film himself; for an hour he did nothing else but dance, the footage projected on vertical blinds for our viewing pleasure, on an adjacent wall YouTube video clips of other people filming themselves dancing. Apparently it was about how the internet has blurred the line between public and private, which is undoubtedly true.
After a ten-minute break during which I hurriedly drank a glass of Riesling, we returned upstairs and watched Malcolm, now alone, begin his piece (his opening-act colleague had inexplicably scuttled away in a taxi). But Malcolm was so nervous he couldn’t get a glass of red wine to his lips. Nevertheless, he repeatedly asked us to love him; he stripped down to his boxer shorts and conversed with an empty chair; he eventually managed to get some red wine into his mouth and then let it dribble down his neck and chest so it looked like he was bleeding from the inside; he smashed a red wine bottle and put the shards between his toes and paraded around the room; he tried to explain the show by drawing a graph on the wall; he sang a Nick Cave song; he finished by inviting us to get naked, which we declined.
In the taxi back to the relative safety of Hindley Street, I couldn’t help wondering what makes someone travel halfway across the country to perform in front of six people. The thrill of the risk-taking? The rush of communication? The satisfaction of pursuing a career most would consider useless at best?
I bunkered down in my hotel room. Needing company I clicked on the large flat-screen TV and watched beautiful young men and women go through their meretricious moves on So You Think You Can Dance. And then some Peter Carey lines popped into my head, from his story The Death of a Famous Mime: ‘Asked to describe death he busied himself taking Polaroid photographs of his questioners. Asked to describe marriage he handed out small cheap mirrors with MADE IN TUNISIA written on the back. His popularity declined.’
My friend Malcolm may or may not end up being popular, but his bravery has been etched onto my mind.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, March 27 2010.)