Heavy Artillery.

WRITING ABOUT ART: Heavy Artillery is the latest exhibition from White Rabbit Gallery, as founder and director Judith Neilson continues to build her legacy of collecting and exhibiting works of 21st century Chinese Contemporary Art.

This exhibition is curated by David Williams and surveys  30 works of new and established Chinese artists. The art historical dichotomy between East and West continues to be explored  in this exhibition as these artists take the western import of contemporary art and create their own zeitgeist.

      Xu Zhen’s  European Thousand-armed Classical Sculpture (2013-2014)        

 Leading the exhibition is a Xu Zhen’s  European Thousand-armed Classical Sculpture (2013-2014). Reaching over three metres tall, this pure white sculpture is created with 19  individual figures, single file, on  large plinths, high above our natural eyeline, forcing viewers to look up uncomfortably to take in the magnitude of the figures in front of us. The individual sculptures  include recognisable figures of Athena, The Statue of Liberty ,Jesus along with  other greek and roman statues. The sculpture as a whole, when viewed from the front, bears a resemblance to Guanyin,a Buddhist bodhisattva  religious figure representing compassion. This combination of recognised western religious and cultural figures displayed within an established Eastern religious iconic formation, raises considerations of the relationships between the East and the West and questions of counterculture balance/absorption and peace/conflict.

                                He Xiangyu’s Tank Project (2011-2013)

The question of conflict is also explored through He Xiangyu’s work Tank Project (2011-2013), a life size copy of a Soviet T34 tank, the same tank used by the Chinese military in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The work takes up a large space in the centre of an empty room, where  immediately on entering the area, we are struck by the strong smell of luxury Italian leather. The tank has been constructed and hand stitched using this leather,  raising considerations of the thousands of designer handbag copies that flood Chinese tourist markets. The tank is without structure, deflated, in the same way you would expect if it had been flattened by a large force.

There are many particularly striking sculptural works in the exhibition, including Library (2008) by Polit-Sheer-Form Office, consisting of 25 bookshelves containing 8,000 books. The books reference Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’  and raise questions of uniformity and collectivism, and show parallels to  Wilfredo Peito’s White Library, (2004) ,an utterly blank  room of more than 5,000 identical ,blank books.

Chou Chu-Wang, Four Bliss Stones (2014)

It is not just sculpture that features, Liu Chengrui’s performance video Guazi Moves Earth (2008) is hypnotic, as are Chou Chu-Wang’s oil on canvas The Hours (2015) and Four Bliss Stones (2014), meditative dot paintings on river stones. Shinji Ohmaki’s work Flotage-Tectonics (2013-2015) uses traditional silk screen techniques with a contemporary turn, creating elevation maps that could be mistaken for  thumb prints.

There is much to savour in this exhibition, and much more to contemplate. Heavy Artillery is  exciting, engaging and confronting in equal measure.

Handing Your Words Over

Recently, I handed over one of my plays for development to a producer and a group of professional actors. I say handed-over, because it as done with some reluctance and internal struggle before I could do so.

On the one hand, as with every scriptwriter, I really wanted to hear the play come to life. I wanted to hear the characters, to test the pacing and the dialogue and see what audience engaged with, and what didn’t work. I needed to know if the play worked as well outside my head as inside it.

On the other hand, I was full of fear. Fear that the work was terrible, that everyone who worked on it knew it too, but was too polite to tell me. Fear that the audience would feel sorry for me and avoid all eye contact, knowing I was just the crappest writer ever.

Keep in mind, I’m in a country that is not my own, with actors accents and intonations that are totally different from the ones I’d heard in my head as I wrote the play. I worried the words were going to get lost in the subtleties of interpretation, colloquialisms and regional accents. It is also a story I’ve carried in my head and worked on for years. I’m so used to having the main character around, he feels like a friend. I almost couldn’t bear to hear him change, at the hands of an actor who didn’t know him as well as I did. Weird, huh?

Overwhelmingly, I felt like I was putting my heart on a plate, and handing it to a group of people who I didn’t know, to let them gently dissect it between them.

The development process culminated in a live read to a public audience, to get as broad a view as possible on the work. That’s when all the limiting thoughts rolled in, the imposter syndrome, the self-doubt.

I didn’t sleep much the night before the reading. Small grabs of rest were filled with different disaster dreams. The first was that I’d given the producer the wrong version of the script. In the second dream, the actors refused to perform the play because of its poor quality. In the third I watched audience members walk out mid-show.

Friends who were attending the reading, received last-minute texts I’d carefully constructed, advising that I was totally ok if they couldn’t make it to the show, it wasn’t going to be a big deal at all, hardly worth leaving the house for, in fact. I turned the stress on myself and told my husband three hours beforehand that I didn’t think I could attend the performance.

Luckily, in his brilliantly nonchalant way, he just said, “Oh no you don’t. You’re not sabotaging yourself on my watch. We’re going.”

Two Fold. Photo by Fiona Georgiou Hunt

When the time finally arrived to start the show, I took my seat in the far back corner and curled myself into the foetal position, muttering quietly to myself that I really needed to grow a thicker skin.

As it turns out, it was much more educational and far less scary than I’d expected. Actually, it was completely exhilarating hearing brilliant actors bring the words to life, far better than I’d written them. I can’t express enough the value that great actors bring to scripts, it constantly blows my mind.

For the script itself, it was clear some lines worked better than I’d imagined, but one line I thought was pretty funny just wasn’t. A couple of character interactions needed some reworking and a few issues needed resolving.

I can fix the problems, and hearing it live was like putting a magnifying glass to each page, showing up the things to tweak, and the opportunities to dig a little deeper. It’s such a valuable process, even if we go through such angst to get there. The audience feedback was better than I expected, encouraging and helpful. There seemed to be an authentic interest in the story, which gave my confidence a boost.

I know that scriptwriting is a collaborative exercise, and writers need to know when to let their scripts go, but I still can’t help but direct my plays as I see them being performed. This is a control freak character flaw I know, but at least I keep those thoughts to myself.

Hopefully one day I’ll learn to hand over scripts with ease. Maybe I need to meditate away the control freak. I definitely need to stress out less.

But then again, maybe it’s all just part of the writing roller-coaster.

Cover image Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

A Reflection on Developing a Writer’s Aesthetic

  • Artifice/realism, detachment/immersion – I’m definitely interested in audience engagement. Making audiences feel is critical for writers. I also want the audience to be critical, to think, to question, to be uncomfortable. I think theatre should call for active participation by the audience, otherwise, they may as well be sitting in front of the television.

  • Risk/control – My preference is dependant on the type of work being created. In a fringe theatre environment, or theatre as social practise, audience participation and using random stimuli makes sense. In more conventional theatre, a certain about of improvisation and development during the rehearsal process also makes sense, but this is more about contextualising the work to the time the place and the context it is being performed.

  • Linear/non-linear – I tend to prefer non-chronological narratives but I tend to write more chronological circular narrative, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s a more accepted convention. I need to think more about this and try to break the habit.

  • Near-far/scale –In film scripts I tend to use a wide view and use urban settings. In plays, I tend to create urban or domestic scenes, much more close up than films and much more internally focused.

  • Soothe/disrupt – I think I fit in a cynical, provocateur storyteller category, or at least I aspire to be.

  • Collusion/manipulation – Technology is really important. The digital disruption that seems to have occurred in most areas of our lives still hasn’t deeply affected theatre. This is inherently risky, with audiences of the future being digital natives, there are questions to be answered on how to harness technology to both engage these audiences, and to keep theatre craft current. The challenge is, I’m not sure it’s possible in film at least, to use technology in a way that keeps the work current but doesn’t badly date it over time.

  • Physical/intellectual – how important is accessibility to you? Accessibility should be a standard consideration when creating and producing work. In truth, I don’t think I consider it as much as I should in the writing process. Something to work on.

  • Rough/glossy? Familiar/exotic? Heightened/realism? Comedy/tragedy?Black comedy seems to be my default approach, with characters that are a bit gritty, with lots to say, and loads of feisty women!

  • Individual/community – I love the idea of art as social practice, and am inspired by its use in history; the happenings of the ’60s, and the all the political theatre prior, from Brecht to the ancient Greeks. In previous years, I would have firmly put my interest in this space, but over time I’ve moved more towards the hero’s journey, with social/political themes, but in a more mainstage theatre style.

Header image photo courtesy of Hannah Jacobson on Unsplash

Scene Setting Without A Word

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about stripping back dialogue in my scripts. I am constantly locked in battle with my arch-nemesis, exposition, but it’s a battle I will win, one day, or so I keep telling myself.

I’ve been reading lots of scripts and watching lots of theatre and film that create powerful scenes and character dynamics using minimalist dialogue. Then, I came across All That Jazz, released when I was too young to notice, but just recently discovered, and stumbled upon an opening scene that needed no words at all to create a world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvnHDf50Y5g
All That Jazz -opening scene ‘On Broadway” by George Benson

Directed by Bob Fosse, the film is a thinly veiled autobiography, peppered with dreamy scenes and show-stopping numbers, where Fosse creates art reflecting life, reflecting art, reflecting life.

While there is debate on the artistic success vs self-indulgence of this film, there can be no doubt that this opening scene must be one of film histories best. Through these first 4 1/2 minutes, we are taken deep inside the world of Broadway. We see characters, we see conflict, hope, love, loss and potential, overlayed with a soundtrack that both neatly juxtaposes the music of Broadway musicals, and reinforces the New York vibe of the late ’70s. Brilliantly cut, this scene reminds me that we can create a whole world with no words at all.

Thoughts on Poetics of Space

I’ve just discovered Bachelard’s work, Poetics of Space.

I feel like I’m really, really late to a party.

Bachelard’s idea is that real-world spaces evoke spatial archetypes and that we all experience primal emotional responses to different types of spaces & archetypes.

Doors, it seems, are a particularly big deal, and reading an extract of Bachelard’s work made me think about the way I’ve used doors in my writing, particularly my plays, completely subconsciously.

Reflecting over specific pieces of writing doors in my work, in addition to the expected exits and entrances, I have used doors to signify hesitation, relief, composition, a revelation of truth, and a threshold of change from one life stage to another.

Other concepts on doors offered by Bachelard include temptation, desire, security, welcome, respect. He talks about oblique angles of doors and the psychologies that they offer, the concealment, the half-truth and that a gentle push could unveil a destiny.

The idea of the door as a threshold is really interesting, the space between two different lives, two different worlds, two different selves.

It makes me think about the old trope of carrying a bride over the door threshold, as a symbol of one life stage to the next, and also the often-used analogy of opportunity where one door closes and another opens. The book also makes me think about Alain de Botton’s thoughts on the hotel rooms, as another domestic space, which Botton describes as another world- a neutral space to think, like a monastery.

Fascinating stuff. I’ll look at domestic settings differently from now on.

Bachelard, G. (1994 [1958]) The Poetics of Space, (trans. M. Jolas), Boston, Beacon Press,

Featured image courtesy of  Dil on Unsplash

Rising Dreams: Art to Write To

WRITING TRIGGERS. I tend to use music to trigger my writing, but increasingly I’m using art. After studying art history, I’m looking back over my art writing and finding artists and artworks that trigger my fiction writing imagination.

One such artist is Odilon Redon, and his work The Incense Burner.

Odilon Redon 1840- 1916

One of the best things about travelling is stumbling over incredible works of art that you have never seen and artists you’ve never heard, in places you would least expect.

Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in summer 2014, was one such moment, within the exhibition For Your Eyes Only, an incredible selection of the personal art collection of the Dreyfus- Best family, from Basel.

One of the pieces displayed there  was a small charcoal by Odilon Redon, The Incense Burner, 1885-1890

OdilonRedon The Incense Burner
The Incense Burner 1885-1890

Redon was a French-born symbolist, with a knack for charcoal and lithography. With interests in Hinduism and Buddhism, these religions influenced his works deeply and focused his work on the esoteric and mystical.

Odilon_Redon Self Portrait Musee DÓrsay
Odilon Redon, Self Portrait, 1880, Musee DOrsay

Redon’s work examines the interior self and the psyche with rich metaphysical themes. The Incense Burner brings these themes to the fore and shows why he became known as the ‘Prince of Dreams’ among his Impressionist peers.

Within the piece we see a winged head floating beside some kind of sorcery bowl. Redon’s original title for this piece was  Mauvvais Espirit,  indicating some sort of incantation.

The darkness of the charcoal against the brown paper establishes an ominous tone for the viewer. This sense is further formed by the winged head and his furrowed brow, slightly sinister upward glance and flat nostril nose. The face is sombre, yet the expression is not maleficent, this scene is eerie but not scary.

There is no doubt Redon creates a compelling dream-like state, almost a fever dream with smokey tendrils suggesting the winged head conjured the surrounding mists. But maybe he is just a passing observer. There are four smaller ‘puffs’ surrounding him, that could be interpreted as other creatures soon to appear from the mists, two of which have small dots that could be the beginning of eyes,  however, Redon doesn’t allow us to render this vision as just a dream. By placing a solid dish on a solid surface the real-world attributes are right there in front of us and force us to accept that it has a place in this world. We have to address the unease that follows this realisation.

Redon is sometimes criticised for repetitive motifs, yet this particular winged creature does not reappear in other works, although there is Gnome- 1879, which has a similar winged head, but is a much more benevolent creature, albeit still glancing upwards on the same kind of trajectory of our winged creature.

gnome-1879.
Gnome, 1879

Some suggest this spirit figure of the Incense Burner is the god of sleep, Hypnos, who is a good-natured spirit. We can see in some of his other more well-known pieces, where Redon focus on a face in space, like this piece Christ- 1887,

Redon christ.jpg!Blog
Christ, 1887

or these bodyless figurers  The Egg -1885 (left) and Head of Matyr-1877 (right)

Odilon Redon - Head of Martyr placed on a cut, 1877 Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Head of Martyr -1877-Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Odilon Redon - The egg, 1885, National Museum, Belgrade
The Egg- 1885 -National Museum, Belgrade

The use of the charcoal on brown and grey paper, the tight lines of large eyes and close up faces create an uneasiness in the viewer, but the mildness of the overall expressions lends itself to a sense of intrigue rather than fear.

For me, these pieces symbolise the imagination, and seeing them makes me want to write about magical figures and mystical experiences. The dark hues take my imagination to an eerie place, and I’m intrigued at where the thoughts may lead.

The incense burner is such a tangible object in a real-world, but in whose house does it sit? Who would own and an item that looks so otherworldly? Was it found in an antique shop and absent-mindedly placed on a table, only to come to life in the dead of life with the spirit creature emerging from within?

Or is it an ancient piece, handed down with its secrets, over generations?

Who is the sprite itself? Where does it come from, how does it manifest in this real world, and who are those emerging eyes in the background?

Does this scene promise only kindness, and mystical imaginings, or are the two projections from the sprites head suggestive of a more formidable encounter? There are no definite answers here, but there are plenty of stories to be created from the possibilities.

Writers who inspire us

THOUGHTS ON WRITING. I’ve was recently asked which writers have inspired my work. More specifically, to write a critical reflection on works of one or more writers who have informed or influenced me. Two names sprang to mind instantly, job done.

Later, I was driving to a meeting, listening to a radio conversation on current theatre, films and books. Of course, another name popped into my mind, then another, then another. I’ve narrowed it down to eight -today.

Michel Houellebecq – Ever controversial this brilliant satirist makes me feel strangely alive with his brutal, dark humour and courageous themes.

J.B. Priestley- I saw An Inspector Calls on stage in London as a youngster and it ignited my political leanings and made me want to be a playwright. I’ve seen this play a few times since and although it’s never quite had the impact of that first time, it is still a touchstone for my ideological themes.

Linda Aronson-A Brit who moved to Australia, she shares a multi hemisphere lens. I saw Dinkum Assorted, a play about Australia’s social history, in my last year of high school and I knew from that moment I wanted to work in theatre.

David Williamson-Having spent a few years working in the Sydney Opera House, Williamson’s work was the constant of the annual artistic programme. His work taught me about mainstage productions, situational drama, how to draw on current politics, social history and satire and create deeply flawed characters.

Caryl Churchill- The writer I’ve always wanted to be. Her surrealist narratives and postmodern style make her plays courageous and exciting. Top Girls first act is just genius. Layered characters, historical references, feminist themes. So much still to learn from Churchill’s work.

William Shakespeare- The first time I heard music in language was studying Romeo and Juliet when I was 13. Studying Othello and Hamlet in later years only added to my obsession with his incredible works.

Sofia Coppola- I still think Lost in Translation is one of the best film scripts ever. Her character-driven narrative brings all of those quiet questions to the fore when she submerges her characters in an isolated world.

James Graham- Just brilliant political writing. I wrote a little Brexit based stage play that I was rather pleased with, but Graham just smashed my pride to a million tiny pieces with his screenplay of Brexit: An Uncivil War.

August Strindberg- Miss Julie is an extraordinary work. This naturalist piece, a brutal unveiling of the inner world, of intimacies and class structures.

An Unguarded Moment

THOUGHTS ON WRITING. Sometimes it a lyric, a tune, a phrase, the sound of rain on a roof, or often, silence itself that ignites the brain to start to write. It’s hard to know exactly what that trigger is, or when it will strike.

For me, it’s invariably sound related, and it’s often a song lyric, enough to spark a thought or a feeling or an idea.

Alternatively, the other trigger is the complete absence of sound, the absolute stillness of being seems to open a secret door for some character or other, holding a pen, to emerge who starts to write their story.

These triggers seem to float like invisible orbs, appearing from nowhere, unable to be hunted down and caught.

All we have is to wait and let them fall upon us.

Image Courtesy of
Марьян Блан | @marjanblan