Review: plenty serious TALK TALK by Vicki Van Hout at Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, 2019.
plenty serious TALK TALK opens with comedy. In an office setting Vicki Van Hout, Cloé Fournier and Glen Thomas exaggerate, quarrel and complain about the cumbersome procedure of Acknowledgment of Country and express their frustrations over political correctness sensitivity. The irreverent humour enables the outrageous dialogues, but we know not to take the bad acting that seriously. It’s uncomfortable, and I can feel people squirm in their seats like me, because we know it speaks to a humiliating and damaging sentiment. But many laugh in a self-ridiculing way in the face of awkward situations. I think about the upbeat, comedic Benny Hill theme music that welcomed us into our seats at the start of the show and wonder if the laugher comforts them - knowing they are watching a comedy.
‘I am always summing up an audience from the moment I make contact as a performer… I am making work that strives to communicate to my audience demographic.’
I doubt Van Hout was surprised that the audience demographic was predominantly White (one). Probably well-educated, already actively engaged with Australia’s arts and somewhat versed in conversations around cultural issues. Perhaps the demographic is a safe assumption to make for a performance in the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art. I wonder if Van Hout concludes this about us, the audience, as the show continues in an intimate way at close proximity (two). The comedy remains, but it is plenty serious.
The cronut, a croissant-doughnut pastry invented by New York’s Dominique Ansel Bakery in 2013 marked the beginning of a popular, urban, hybrid trend in food and dessert (three). Entering the foodie world also came the cruffin (croissant + muffin) and the townie (tart + brownie), followed by more extreme iterations like the sushirrito (sushi + burrito) and ramen burger. Always promoted as food-we-didn’t-know-we-needed, these fusions appear appetising but are often perplexing. Van Hout’s extensive, humorous monologue reveals her bewilderment in discovering these foods making obscene sexual gestures and describing these fusions as one-night-stands when ‘after a night out… Boom! A cronut is born!’ She describes how disorienting these inventions can be—like how does one even tackle a ramen burger? It’s way too thick to pick up with chopsticks, but is it appropriate to cut the noodle-burger bun with a knife and fork? How is the ramen burger handled and consumed? How does it change our perception of noodles in the world?
Food fusions appropriate distinct elements and force identities together. As ingredients merge to create something different, the cultural and associated traditions with the foods also get taken apart and reconsidered. But how much creative license does one have in pushing these fusion boundaries and claiming them as new? When does something of another become yours? To take, use, sell and even perform? What does authenticity look like?
One: As a Woman of Colour, race is always the first thing I notice when I walk into a room.
Two: ‘Kind of like an oversized living room’ is the atmosphere Van Hout describes for her recent work produced for smaller venues. We were specifically asked to fill up the rows from the very front. The small crowd only filled a couple of rows, allowing us to engage with Van Hout at eye-level.
Three: In a 2017 interview with Ansel, the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain lovingly described the cronut and many of the bakery’s subsequent fusion creations as ‘not only mind-blowingly delicious, but they also tell stories that pull your heartstrings, make you laugh, and always surprise.’ How does food uniquely delight us in activating taste buds, unlocking memories and creating new experiences? Here I am reminded of two scenes in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007): the joyous, animation scene of combining tastes, and a scene of moving, nostalgic flashback triggered by a dish (from 0:22). What does the food that we eat tell us about ourselves?
Four: Krishna, Vijay (2002). Auction theory. San Diego: Academic Press.
Five: The term ‘melting pot’ is a monocultural metaphor coined by Israel Zangwill for his play of the same name first staged in 1908 about an immigrant family to the US. The term is often used to proudly describe US’s migrant history.
Negotiating cultural elements and histories is a tension key to Van Hout’s performance practice. In an eccentric auction scene she introduces the idea of commodifying culture by auctioning off dance moves like the pirouette, heel click and Indigenous dance sequences. Suited and acting as the auctioneer, Van Hout enthusiastically performs each lot and hastily encourages higher bids from the audience’s timid raise of a hand. The lot gradually grows more complicated and expensive as they get bigger with multiple dance moves being sold together as one. It is a great deal, and it would be a shame to let a bargain pass (four). Each move is comically overstated in the extensive multi-unit lots, as Van Hout races across the room trying to perform every move accurately and right. on. time. This forced dance combination reveals the absurdity in attempting to prove its worthiness as something uniquely new, monetizable and ultimately acceptable.
The scene parallels Van Hout’s personal and professional dance journey. A graduate from NAISDA Dance College for Indigenous Australians and the modernist Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, she has received training influenced by diverse dance traditions and histories. While Van Hout states that it was New York’s ‘punk ethos of giving it a go,’ challenging authority and the ‘stickin' it to the man’ attitudes that really influenced her artistic perspective, it’s hard not to imagine how Van Hout’s transition from the melting pot (five) city of New York back to Australia’s multicultural context could have had no influence on her own multifaceted identity as an Indigenous Australian artist.
What does it mean for Van Hout’s creative practice to incorporate the different styles of schooling and personal heritage into something uniquely her own? In an audio clip of a phone conversation, Van Hout poignantly reflects upon when these styles can meet and become fully hers; belonging to her body, and a part of her personal artistic language as a contemporary Indigenous performer.
The issue however, becomes more complex given the historical baggage of colonial Australian history. With this comes the responsibility of representation and the creation of a cultural framework that one works within to empower themselves. Van Hout expresses frustrating challenges when these frameworks dangerously lead to a perpetuation of cultural tropes.
Van Hout presents herself deeply tormented throughout two intense acts as she struggles with the obligation placed on Indigenous bodies to act and perform in a certain appropriate and recognisable manner. She repeatedly hits herself, slams her body onto the floor, twists and drags her heavy footsteps in knotting circles (six). One scene resembles a violent arrest with deafening sirens and blinding, flashing red lights alongside Van Hout’s screams begging it ‘to stop.’ It’s chilling, we squirm in our seats again. This time we sink further into them as we are forced to watch violence unfold. I become tense with discomfort at our helplessness and complicity.
The haunting scenes and anguish expressed all over Van Hout’s body portrayed the very policing and pressure on her expressions of identity that also come from within her own community. In her performance, Van Hout describes Indigenous Elders who insist on traditional modes of performing that are known to be popular and acceptable. Frustrated, she re-enacts a conversation with an Elder who scoffs when she proudly defies: ‘I don’t do that shit! I’m contemporary’(seven). The tensions in navigating contemporary Indigenous identities inform Van Hout’s practice as she explores and battles with a fusion of styles and influences. There is an attempt to look beyond her Indigenous framework in a way that doesn’t neglect her cultural heritage, but also in a way that doesn’t limit her within those cultural tropes. It is a difficult balance to strike as she responds to her contemporary experience in a field rich with diverse histories. But what does the ‘contemporary’ (eight) that Van Hout so loudly declares mean? What does that look like and does it take away or conveniently mask her Indigeneity? Is there a contemporary language of the body that moves beyond race and cultural identity?
plenty serious TALK TALK concludes with a sombre conversation between Van Hout and a friend about the literal value and price of cultural identity. The conversation ends with Van Hout auctioning again, but this time just for her Indigeneity, listing all the ‘perks’ that come with having some Indigenous heritage. The only ‘catch’ is that it’s forever, you can’t consign it and resell it, but ‘you and your children do receive all the government benefits like free dental!’ (nine) The friend awkwardly laughs, hesitates, and dismisses the idea. And as she ultimately declines, she reveals her understanding of what being Indigenous Australian means. (ten, eleven)
Annette An-Jen Liu is an emerging curator and researcher from Taiwan. She completed her undergraduate studies with first class honours at the Australian National University and is currently finishing a master’s in art curating from the University of Sydney. She works as a research assistant for the White Rabbit Collection.
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