The Substation, Melbourne, Victoria, December 8, 2014
In the yawning space of the machine hall, we assembled. A small group of mourners cloaked in suitable attire, our number countable upon my fingers, no need for the toes. We came in pairs to “Recovery,” to a space formally the domain of pigeons and vandals, to witness “a delicate duel with time.”1 I brought with me my curiosity and an expectation to become unmoored.
Though instructed to before entering the space, we formed something of an instinctual, loose knot around the performers, Nat Cursio and Shannon Bott. We formed, it quickly transpired, not a band of ghoulish spectators, but a family. Having read through the programme notes before my arrival, I knew that the work was born from grief, and based on earlier works involving Nat Cursio I felt certain of one thing: that I would be surprised. And in the former electricity Sub-station with its Neo Classical proportions of grandeur, I was to feel both dwarfed by the cavernous space our number barely filled and part of something bigger, greater. I had not expected this connectedness to others to form so easily, if at all, and it is testament to the stripped back, real and still (possibly always) raw work. On a quiet Monday evening, Cursio and Bott offered forth a work, absent of sentimentality and decorativeness, about how loss affects every cell of the body, and what could be more disarming and delicate than that? On a run-of-the-mill weekday, we were being entrusted with something intensely personal and particular; this was my surprise.
Through the impossibly high windows, the light outside burned gold before it sunk, making near-silhouettes in the half-light of Cursio and Bott in supportive embrace—I’ll be your legs, if you’ll be mine. A work staged at the close of day, at the gloaming, to me this piece was about transformative states. This was a work that made you keenly aware of space, and it is almost impossible for me to imagine it staged anywhere else (though of course it could be). Aware of your space in relation to your neighbor and your space in relation to the performers, and ultimately, your space as part of the living, breathing, ‘still-here’ tribe. Replicating the changing states hollowed out by grief, anguish, and loss, my perception of space remained in flux throughout the performance. You could tell me I began in the foyer, moved to the vast former machine hall, proceeded to a small room where I sat beneath the stairs in an alcove before being gently ushered back to where I began, the same but different, but it was more than that. It rested on the skin before seeping in (perhaps for you it burrowed), and I feel very fortunate to have experienced this ceremonial dance of what was and what is. Time altered. Space altered. Perception altered. A balance held between the inward and outward gaze, the then and the now, moving from a place of mourning to one of celebration before ultimately pushing us out into the hum of the electric night. “Recovery,” to me, remains above all a balance few could pull off.
It was both confronting in its manic movements and comforting in the tenderness Cursio and Bott showed their select audience as they guided us through the experience. Physical endurance was pitted against moments of stillness and reflection. One moment the floor was rhythmically, furiously pounded with their feet that were a crater to have formed in the concrete it would have made complete sense; a suitable impression left. A mark in the earth to say: my grief looks thus: how could you leave me, come back. The intensity of this sequence amplified by the intimate stillness that followed. Wielding Kafka’s axe to the frozen lake within, Cursio and Bott took their ferocity out on the wall as if to test or make rubble of the building’s foundations, before contrasting this with a crumpled moment of fragility, and I am reminded of a passage in an essay by Hélène Cixous: “At dawn, barely awake but not yet having passed to an upright position, still on all fours and on the run, still clothed in sleep, but already convoked, I put on the brakes, I slide very slowly towards day. Between the day and the night there is a long vivacious but fragile region where one can sleep while being awake, where even standing on two legs one is still a phantom, where the doors do not yet exist in us between the two kingdoms, where what will be past survives, lingers….”2
The line between states of disconnectedness and connectedness, the personal and the universal, the dark and the light, the revelatory and the mundane task of doing the dishes was explored through assured orchestrated movement that never settled in one place too long. Just when you thought you could no longer bear the desperate, bruising smash of a body thrown up against a grill, it stopped; just when you got a handle on things, they changed; just when your eyes adjusted to the darkness, the bright lights came on and made a deer-in-the-headlights of us all in the sunken pit beneath the stairs; just when the knot in my throat became too large to noiselessly negotiate, a smile in the eyes was given by Cursio. For though this was a challenging work, handled with such delicacy, it was ultimately a considered remembrance and recognition of what is left. This kindness spoken in a forewarning to bring a warmer layer for the second part of the performance that takes place in a cooler environment. This piece called for your participation, without rendering you an awkward warm prop. There was tenderness to how we were placed on what was formally a stage, a domain we passed through at the beginning.
The objective to shock was absent, and the work felt braver for it. “Recovery” was and is stoic. A sense of disconnection was conveyed viewing the work through a grill that wonderfully abstracted the figure, in turn simulating to me how grief feels. Sometimes muffled, a trace, always constant, a wall or a divide between then and now, time with and without you, between the normal ways of operating and being lost to sorrow. It replicated the barrier loss builds, and bereavement’s disorientation. At times, during the performance, I felt as though I was watching a friend grieve and I wanted to help, and at other times I felt I was that person aching and I projected this onto Cursio and Bott. “Recovery” gave us the optimists’ refuge, denial, and movements suggestive of a guttural howl as it ripped through the body. It gave new, stunned light to David Bowie’s “Changes” as mania and anguish took their hold. Coping mechanisms of ‘putting on a brave face’ and loosing the self to a wall of convulsive sound, letting something other than sadness course through the body, Cursio and Bott made tools of their bodies and showed us the twilight unstable aftermath. Emotions were given irrational convulsive movements that spoke of a choked-up, ‘mad’ with grief, divided self.
Reflected in the work’s steely resolve, several (form changing) years in the making, Cursio and Bott have found a way to give movement to the loneliness of being left behind, the wrong feel of a body no longer warm by your side. Absence may hover over this piece, but it is coupled with the ever-present hum of life. At the end, we are guided up to where we began, but we are altered. We are at a wake. There is a toast. There is the living. And things go on. We fall into conversation in hushed tones; chitchat about one’s pets, the recent state election, and the red curtains hanging in the space. The light stuff alongside the raw; this is balance. This is what keeps things ticking along and makes things bearable. There are pets to feed, dishes to do, Christmas presents to purchase. Reasons to live.
Nat Cursio and Shannon Bott, Artists’ statement “About the work,” Nat Cursio website, 2014.