This review was first published on Daily Review on 18 January 2018
My mother used to tell me a story about women who would come into the emergency departments where she worked as a nurse. Complaining of agonising stomach pains, staff would have to break the news they were in labour and would soon be giving birth. The story always made me think about the extraordinary lengths women go to in order to avoid looking at the blindingly obvious thing that was happening to their lives, to their bodies.
There’s a key moment in the first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (directed by Imara Savage for the Sydney Theatre Company) that reminded me of my mother’s story. Marlene (Helen Thomson), all ’80s shoulder pads and electric blue suit, is throwing a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at a London recruitment company. The famous women from history and art she has invited to join the toast include a ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man to become Pope. As the Frascati bottles empty, Pope Joan (Heather Mitchell) describes the pains that kept coming closer together as she rode a horse during a religious procession. When a baby slides out onto the road, Pope Joan and child are stoned to death.
The other characters listen but, in between ordering steak or Waldorf salad, they are busy bringing up their own dark tales. There is Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson) a concubine to the Japanese Emperor, Isabelle Bird (Kate Box) a Victorian traveller, and a Chaucer character Griselda (Paula Arundell) a peasant girl who became a nobleman’s wife. Then there’s Gret (Contessa Treffone), a figure from a Bruegel’s painting who led an army of women through hell to fight the devils who’d hurt them (does that ring any bells?).
Each woman is celebrated and strong in her own way, but as they describe the horrors they endured, they each justify the men and ideologies they lived under as ‘just the way things were’. Lady Nijo gushes about the fine silks she wore and says that it was fine that the Emperor had sex with her when she was 14 because he “owned her” (and that’s also why she had to give up her first child). Griselda’s husband sends her children away too, but she insists he is a good man. And fearless Isabelle internalises her own patriarchal world, insisting on her husband’s superior qualities.
It’s easier for these women not to look too deeply at the world that betrayed them. “I didn’t want to pay attention, it was easier to do nothing”, Pope Joan tells no one in particular. It’s a gripping scene of revelations, non-sequiturs and characters speaking over each other, in turn oblivious to each other and appalled at the compromises and justifications their dinner companions made. Apart from Gret, that is. She spends most of the time back to the audience, squireling food away, barely talking until the end of the scene when tells a tells a story of taking revenge on the “bastards” who murdered her son.
Thomson is terrific here as Marlene, the alpha female boss holding the party together, in turn boosting the others and impatient with their compliance. “We’ve all come a long way”, she insists. But Marlene has given up a child too, as we learn in the next scenes. She’s also blindly swallowed her own share of questionable values on her way to the top, as we discover when the play shifts to her office and she can barely contain her contempt for Jeanine (Paula Arundell again) who wants to have a job and marriage and children.
All the actors from the first act’s dream sequence return to play contemporary characters that variously contrast with or parallel their earlier character. Adventurous Isabelle returns as housewife Mrs Kidd, who comes to Marlene’s office to tell her she should give up her promotion for the sake of her husband who deserves it more. The silent waitress from the first act (Claire Lovering) returns as ambitious lying job seeker Shona. Lady Nijo returns as a career woman (but she’s also a mistress again). Pope Joan becomes Louise, another job seeker who’s given her life to a male-dominated workplace and feels “she passes for a man”. Subaltern Gret returns as Angie, the daughter Marlene relinquished to her sister and who is in remedial class at school.
In putting these women of such different times, places, abilities and ideologies alongside each other, Churchill questions any notion of a universal sisterhood or essential womanhood. And in having the same actor playing multiple characters with such different fortunes, each character shaped by her own time and place, she mocks Marlene’s celebration of the individual’s ability to rise above their circumstances to become a top girl. And what is sisterhood anyway, when Marlene’s success relies on her own working class sister to raise her odd child?
Like the Pope’s pregnancy, the women lie to each other and to themselves to make some sense of a world that doesn’t work for them. Marlene’s version of a top girl is really just Thatcherism and neoliberalism in feminism’s name. Or worse. Her sister Joyce tells her “I suppose you would have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Got a lot done, Hitlerina”.
But the unacknowledged and repressed has a tendency to return and, like Pope Joan’s baby, Angie appears unexpectedly at Marlene’s ordered office, in eerie circumstances that suggest all is not quite right with Angie (and what has she done with Joyce?). All the performances are strong, but Treffone is particularly terrific, playing Angie so guilelessly transparent it’s almost painful to watch. A stand out too is Box as Joyce, the put-upon sister whose skin has worn both thick and thin.
The smart thing about this production is that we don’t see Marlene as simply evil or unredeemable, as the Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil coming at the end of act one seems to suggest (the song also seems to be a comment on the women’s misplaced identification with the men who exploited them). Marlene has that will to power that, whether wielded by women or men, can hold us all in complicity. Angie is drawn to her aunt/mother Marlene because she’s so “special”.
Churchill wrote the play in 1982, a time when the gains of second wave feminism were settling in, but it was also during the first years of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership. I was still in high school when my mother took me to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s version in 1984. I was listening to a young Madonna and performing in an all-girl school production of The Crucible. Many critics have rightly cited Churchill’s socialist politics, and particularly Top Girls, as a trenchant critique of Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” individualism, but as a young girl, seeing all these strong figures on stage – including a young rising star called Pamela Rabe as Pope Joan – the politics mostly washed over me. I remember understanding it as celebration of female power that was gathering strength and peak in the 90s. Now though, the play reads to me like a searing radical feminist critique of the misogyny that is expressed in a fear of women, their sexuality and the children they give birth to and that can’t be incorporated into structures of power.
In this year’s STC version, I see different things. I listened particularly to Lady Nijo, a thirteenth concubine who becomes pregnant to her boss – an emperor who leads a country – describing how she was banished to the countryside. And I wondered whether her story is really different from an office affair that currently threatens to derail the deputy Prime Minister and seeing another pregnant woman fleeing to the country. And when a woman leads an avenging female army through hell to pay back the bastards who’ve done them over, I can’t help but think of #MeToo. The ‘8os office scenes, and excellent costumes that expertly evoke the 90s and Princess Diana and the film 9 to 5, but Top Girls is brim full of contemporary resonance.
The play which starts with a dream sequence ends with a nightmare, as Angie wakes from her sleep and a single world: “Frightening”. Any hope of change, as ever, seems to lie with the Angies, the Grets: those who have no stake in the system, and therefore nothing left to lose.
This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018
If the Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair appeals (reviewed here), so will Emmet Kirwan’s spoken word – passionate and rapid fire monologues about teen pregnancy, loneliness, alienation and the need for socialist revolution. If the voice of the Beats can still be heard in his delivery, Kirwan also looks back to the Irish poets and then back across the Atlantic again to African-American rap. But Kirwan is just the opening salvo and the intermittent conscience of this Irish variety show RIOT, playing at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. This is the circus, and the circus is sexy these days, as one character remarks. And so Ronan Brady – a former Irish football star whose post-injury rehabilitation exercises led him to acrobatics, and then to the circus where he added a striptease to the routine.
They are joined by night’s mistress of the ring, Panti Bliss, who arrives on stage as if she is here to personally MC the after party to the marriage equality triumph. Fielding a call from Lyle Shelton, she swats him away (‘two tops don’t make a bottom’). Her monologues and audience interactions are ribald, and balanced by her heartfelt tale of a young boy who wanted to grow up to be Farrah Fuckin’ Fawcett. Her ‘love each other and be kind in this huge spinning world’ message serves as a softer coda after Kirwan’s sharper politics.
Throughout, performers keep reminding us of Emma Goldman’s warning that a revolution without dancing is not worth joining. The Lords of Strut, Famous Seamus and SeanTastic, pull us along on a tour through ’80s pop culture. Famous Seamus (Cian Kinsella) holds SeanTastic (Cormac Mohally) aloft as Morten Harket’s falsetto pours from the speakers: ‘I’lllll beeee gone…’. The crowd has fallen in love with a-ha’s Take on Me all over again.
The acts keep coming, including the Irish dancing duo Deirdre Griffin and Philip Connaughton. Their heads are submerged in giant pink balls like an amniotic sack – this is a queer show, so they can represent whatever you want – boobs, balls or giant pimples that burst and become raggedy skirts in the act’s finale, if that appeals. The church is taken on – there’s a chaotic scene involving cling warp, Jesus and a very blasphemous Australian-summer scene of whipping by pool noodles. A four-person choir, meanwhile, sounds like it has descended from some sort of queer heaven and holds the disparate show together.
It’s an exhilarating 90 minutes, full of light and moments of dark illuminated by iPhone torches and hard hitting politics. But it builds to a coherent message: that in a world full of hating we must keep loving, and an almost Germaine Greer-esque command that in the face of a world that keeps fucking us over, we must never stop joyfully fucking. Even in the dark, there’s pockets full of glitter. You’ll walk out feeling like your heart has been taken out and replaced by mirrored disco ball pulsating to Annie Lennox’s voice soothing your troubled soul: ‘Sweet dreams are made of this.’
This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018
Writer Norman Mailer was no Milo Yiannopoulos. But his attack on the women’s movement in a 1971 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which became the book The Prisoner of Sex) led Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem to no-platform themselves from a panel Mailer hosted on ‘Women’s Liberation’ at New York’s Town Hall the same year. Mailer settled for slugging it out with Germaine Greer, then on a triumphant world tour publicising The Female Eunuch, Jill Johnston, a writer and dance reviewer for The Village Voice, Diana Trilling, introduced by Mailer as ‘our foremost lady critic’, and Jacqueline Ceballos, New York president of the National Organisation for Women.
The event (minus Ceballos and a couple of hours) is recreated at this year’s Sydney Festival, and this production, by New York’s Wooster Group, reminds us that this was a time when the productive powers of sex, rather than the destructive powers of sex, were being furiously debated.
Mailer is played by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, as if the writer’s enormous presence couldn’t be conveyed by one actor. ‘He’ introduces Greer by Life Magazine’s descriptor – ‘the saucy feminist even men like’. But Maura Tierney’s version of Greer is less the glowing Amazon from down under whose book had just been an international sensation, and more the simmering sexuality of the precise Cambridge scholar on the lecture circuit.
The Female Eunuch had argued that women’s liberation had to begin with sexual liberation, with orgasms and ecstasy: ‘the cunt must come into its own’, she wrote. Mailer, in contrast, wanted to put sex back in its patriarchal box, arguing we needed to celebrate the base male desire to fill the female with semen, whose primary role is to mate and reproduce. Unsurprisingly, the event was as bawdy as it was brutal: at one point Mailer offers to “take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table and we can all spit and laugh”. Trilling, dressed like a candidate for president of the country women’s association and played with great verisimilitude by male actor Greg Mehrten, takes on Greer’s codification of the right kind of orgasm: “I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of.”
But this production, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, really belongs to Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston, whose incantatory speeches call up the rhythms of the Beats and Greenwich Village and extol the transformative power of lesbian love: “We’re getting to the bottom of women lib, we’re going down on women’s lib, until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution”. It’s too much for Mailer, who scolds her for running over time in one of the play’s many funny moments: “I wanna talk to you about lesbianism god dammit, we’ll take a vote”.
The actors on stage are doubled by their real-life counterparts in a screen above – the footage is from a 1979 documentary of the event, Town Bloody Hall. The performers’ ventriloquism of their 1971 twins is both mesmerising and unsettling. At one point actors turn the panel they are seated at and the screen so the figures from 1971 and on the stage in 2018 merge. Along with stretches of dialogue that sound like they could have been uttered this morning, it underscores the ties between then and now. 1971’s Greer appears to predict today’s #metoo: “Is it possible that the way of the masculine artist in our society is strewn with the husks of people worn out and dried out by his ego?”
We’re reminded of Greer’s gift for the crushing one-liner: “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you,” she tells one male interlocutor. But the play is also a reminder of the intellectual verve of the era, a time when Freud and social theory about the origins of the nuclear family are effortlessly debated in public forums on feminism. Today the same panel would include a celebrity actor from the latest subscription TV miniseries, while even the rare feminist intellectual who ventures out into the public sphere is more likely to talk about her own experiences of, say, female friendship than Freud or Firestone. The politics and poetic polemic of the 1970s have been usurped by a more personal tone, one that leads us to be easily injured and afraid of tough debate now. It’s a joy then to see two very different thinkers like Greer and Johnston high five each other at the end of their speeches.
Three and a half stars
Extract: ‘As I listened to Elaine Welteroth, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, speak to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in June this year, it occurred to me that today’s popular feminism would be unrecognisable to many of the Miss America protesters half a century ago.
For Welteroth, an African-American former beauty editor at Teen Vogue, women’s magazines and beauty products are feminism now. “Beauty and style are just really great platforms to open up important conversations,” she said.’
This Daily Review essay on Duchamp’s urinal, contemporary art & buying artworks from friends was inspired by a new show of works by the talented artist Paloma White.
I was sitting on a toilet when I looked up and saw it. There, hanging on the wall, was a Picasso. Just a black and white drawing, but an original Picasso. The couple whose inner-city apartment I was in owned the gallery downstairs. Their home was filled with art. But a Picasso? In the toilet? While I was having a piss, I couldn’t help wondering: were they taking the piss?
One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp (or someone close to him, this story has more than one version) purchased a urinal and anonymously submitted it to a New York art show. Although the avant-garde group behind the April 1917 exhibition was supposed to accept submissions from anyone who paid the $5 entry fee, the show’s board rejected the work and Fountain was left behind a gallery screen unexhibited. But the ideas Duchamp suggested with his work – art is whatever the artist says it is, an artist does not need to ‘make’ an artwork, a toilet can have a place in an art gallery – changed the art world forever.
Were the Redfern gallery owners making a witty comment on Duchamp’s century old move? If a urinal could be exhibited in an art gallery (copies of Fountain are now in major galleries around the world) then surely the exhibition could come to the toilet? I was impressed by the cool nonchalance they applied to hanging art. And I envied the wealth that allowed them to own such art.
I covet beautiful artworks. In the Norman Lindsay Gallery in the Blue Mountains I’ve loitered over original prints for sale, repeatedly turning back to a beguiling nude, ownership fever gripping me. Recently in Central Australia my head kept turning to an artwork of emu footprints, in the same way you can find yourself turning repeatedly towards someone in a crowded room, a knot in your stomach building – something about the way their features are arranged (the lines and shapes on the canvas) feels right. “You know you are in trouble when you keep looking,” an artist tells me.
I’d like to say I don’t buy because, as the late John Berger argued, when a price is attached to art, its commodification is also a process of alienation from the physical thing that is the artwork. Art dealers have “faces like silk purses” he said, adding: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps.”
So I’d like to say my failure to buy beautiful works of art has something to do with the rejection of ownership, but the less flattering reason is that I simply don’t have the money. Instead, I buy beautiful but modestly priced artworks from friends. When my friend Paloma held an exhibition of paintings in Melbourne last year I sat at my desk in Sydney scrolling through paintings she had posted online. Studies of flowers and still lifes, reminiscent, everyone said, of Margaret Preston. They were also like painterly translations of my artist friend. We met when we were 20 or so. She arrived at the flat I was living in, flowers in her hair like a Carlton Carmen, carrying a cake she’d made that morning, like a cloud floating ahead of her arrival that she was holding onto with a string. Carmen and Mary Poppins.
I spent an hour or so gazing at her latest creations. Enlarging the petals. Looking at the refracted light passing through the glass and water of the vases. I settled on one. A personal purchase resisting commodification, I told myself. But my modest friend’s talent far exceeds her fame: I tweeted a picture of the painting. She deserves more recognition, and the brutal fact is that more recognition leads to more sales, more funds to make more work.
I’ve always been fascinated with artists and their craft. There was a moment when I was 15 when I thought I might become an artist. I had a basic technical ability; I could make things look like the things in the world they represented. But I never had a feel for it. Others do. The ability to take the way things look in the world and mix themselves into it.
I once interviewed the painter Nicholas Harding. Paints and brushes and canvasses filled every surface of his studio. It was as if he was conjoined to the artworks, rather than creating them with any kind of distance between the artist and the work. The physicality was intoxicating. Something to do with the artist who has a hand on the object. It’s why we like cards handmade by the giver. And thank you notes in someone’s handwriting.
One of my first housemates was an art school student who would come home with canvases where he re-imagined the Russian icon form. They were heavy with golds, reds, and a bronze colour that seemed to have dripped from his rusty-hued hair onto the canvas. A few years later he’d moved on to other styles and held a show. I stood besotted in front of a large six-foot black canvas of two ghostly white nude outlines embracing, a mother and a child.
The equivalent of two Austudy cheques later, the work was mine. The painting followed me through countless house moves: too large for most loungerooms it’s mostly leaned against my bedroom wall. Recently my mother contacted me to say she’d met my old housemate but he was no longer painting – he had moved on to other mediums – and she wanted me to send her a picture of the painting so he could show his own wife and child.
‘Untitled’, Ben Sibley, 1991
Still lifes of flowers and nudes. I know this is a conservative view of art, a long way from the abstractions and theoretical turn that much contemporary art has taken since Duchamp. I’m not dismissing the value of that work, but I am saying that the cleavage in art, between work based in ideas and work that you can hang on walls, now seems almost irrevocably permanent.
In 1967 Berger wrote that “soon a dealer will mount an exhibition of shit and collectors will buy it”. He was already prophesising Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (pictured below), a shit-making machine commissioned by David Walsh in 2010 and installed deep in the bowels of the billionaire’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. (And Berger was also forgetting, it seems, the 90 cans of ‘Artist’s Shit’ produced by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni in 1961). In audience surveys visitors say Delvoye’s crapping machine is their most disliked exhibit at MONA. It’s also the one they spend the most time with. When I visited with my children they looked up at it wide-eyed for a long moment, before driven from the room by the stench. Towards a wall covered entirely with moulded vulvas in the adjacent gallery.
We’re wedged between the compulsion to stare and a feeling that the gimmick has gone too far. That someone’s taking the piss. In the background is a feeling that we’re being conned when the most subversive, the most cutting-edge art is owned by billionaire collectors who can dig deep into sandstone river banks to create the capacious spaces that house them.
We can find ourselves almost giving up on contemporary art, as I was tempted to do when I stood in front of a blank canvas at a Sydney Biennale at the end of the last century. The captions on the works in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s show that year were either irritatingly droll or annoyingly obscure. One caption, accompanying a blank canvas, tested my credulity more than any other: “This artist stops where other artist begins,” it read. I felt like I was being had.
Artists have always quoted and referenced and critiqued each other in their artwork. But now the gap between works of art and works of criticism and theory can be indistinguishable. Artists now speak of “investigations”, “experiments” and “interventions”, borrowing from the language of science and research. It’s the language of the higher education system where art training now mostly takes place, the language of theory, of publications, of grant proposals.
I understand the imperative, but as someone who has made a living composing words, I bristle at prose that is often nonsensical, full of hyperbole or just impenetrable. Most of the time I still want art, no matter how conceptual or theoretical – to have some art, some craft, to it. An idea – as a rule – doesn’t arouse our senses, our passions, our imaginations: an idea could just as well be left to a book.
This isn’t a traditional essay of art criticism. It’s not a manifesto. If anything it’s simply a statement of my own personal taste and preference rather than any attempt to define what is “good” or “bad” art. Apart from anything else, it’s impossible to say that any one thing unites contemporary art – except perhaps that it is whatever is made by artists now. But I am suggesting that it is difficult to know now what’s a gimmick, what’s crap, and what’s gold. Perhaps it just comes down to what you like.
Wandering around a park in Bondi at The Sculpture by the Sea I see a portaloo in the middle of dozens of carefully conceived and executed sculptures and installations. Then I hear voices, trapped and trying desperately to reach someone on their mobile phone who will help them get out. What first looks like a much-needed amenity in a site crushed with crowds but desperately lacking loos was actually another artwork. It’s funny and strangely compelling. Maybe the voice really belongs to someone trapped in the toilet? I forgive the work for not being beautiful. For not being something you can take home. In a place where the surfaces work hard to impress, where human waste is reduced to faecal counts of the water in the beaches below, here is the least impressive surface you can imagine, but also an interesting Duchampian idea that makes me laugh and think.
Contemporary art has cleaved into two – art you can take home and put on walls, look at in private, and art you go and see publicly – sometimes it’s just an idea you go to see. In the former, it’s still the object itself that matters. I’ve often wondered how artists must feel giving up this object. Unlike other artforms – music, writing, or ideas-based artworks – it’s the thing that is important. Wanting to own it, though, that’s easy. For me, there’s appreciation of beauty and technique, but it also has something to do with a desire for a narrative.
I look now at my old housemate’s picture of mother and child, and I can finally see what must have first drawn me to the painting: when I bought it, my immediate family had recently separated in four directions. I’d purchased, without realising it, a representation of the thing I no longer had. When I look at my friend’s picture of flowers, I’m reminded of another time, half a lifetime ago: Paloma and her two brothers and a circle of friends that still comes together now and then and moves through subtly changing iterations.
After buying Paloma’s flowers I dreamed about taking a road trip down the Hume alone to collect it. I started composing music tracks for the trip. I’d return to Sydney on a sunny day, my cargo carefully placed in the back. Nothing happens how you picture it. On the way to Melbourne I had two children in the car with me, and I had one of those shameful moments of parenting when I lost control. I yelled, I blamed my kids when we got lost. I ran out of petrol half way. My country cousin, calm and competent, bundled her own kids in the car and rescued us.
On the day we left to come home it didn’t stop raining. I drove to my mother’s workplace to collect bags of bubble wrap. A couple of suburbs away I picked up the painting, waiting patiently for us on the porch of a friend’s bungalow. I dashed out of the car and bundled it in wrap. Back in Sydney the painting lay in its plastic bubble armour, until the gloomy mood that had descended on me and gathered momentum as I made my way down the Hume finally lifted. I could look at the bright and cheerful vase of flowers with a feeling that wasn’t totally at odds with what I was seeing. I hung it on my loungeroom wall.
Main image: Coburg Lake, oil on canvas, Paloma White, 2017. Mono/Chroma, New works by Paloma White and Brendan Lakin, opens at Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street, Carlton on Friday September 1.