Review / Surreal playground of art in ‘Nervous’

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 “SHE IS NERVOUS most of the time,”  states the gallery pamphlet of Heather B Swann, the artist responsible “Nervous,” performed twice at the National Gallery of Australia last  weekend.

Heather B. Swann’s installation Nervous, 2016, NGA
Heather B. Swann’s installation Nervous, 2016, NGA

This  non-narrative performance piece that included multiple players, instruments and sculptural pieces is, I would say it was something between performance art, a musical and an installation.

Swann is not alone in being nervous much of the time. She is also not alone in having a thing for May Gibbs, as evidenced by her ‘Banksia Men’ wearable sculptures, which were a part of this performance and are still on display in the gallery.

When I was small, and nervous, my mother bribed me to stop biting my finger nails with May Gibbs’ book “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”. Our teacher was reading it to us at school, and going much too slow for my liking. It worked, I stopped biting my nails and got the book. Of course, this didn’t cure my nervousness, just one of its symptoms.

It is in this mental world that Swann’s “Nervous”  is set. The performance took place in the gallery’s Gandel Hall, which Swann, we are told, calls the ‘mental’, referring to the landscape of the mind.

Swann’s sculptural pieces were scattered in the space and came into play during the performance. Because the piece was non-narrative, it is hard to describe what happened, but  the  space to me seemed much like a playground, with groups or individuals amusing themselves as they see fit, to no particular purpose. Playgrounds can be  quite surreal.

Some things that happened: the Banksia Men (2015) wearable sculptures trotted around the arena intoning. The soprano, Astrid Connelly, sorted through various trinkets at a table. A man rocked back and forth on a seesaw (‘Talking Heads Rocker 2014) with heads stuck on either end, in conversation. Two members of the orchestra broke off and marched around holding giant black and white eggs with faces carved into them. A giant velvet wombat-like creature (HeavyHead 2016) was wheeled in and sung to by Swann’s performance artist son, Jack.

Music consisted of a brass section and electronic organ at one end of the hall and a piano at the other, and the performers’ voices. The voice of Connelly was beautiful.

With its mix of fantastical players, objects and happenings, the performance portrayed the mental inner landscape and its idiosyncrasies well. Connections to surrealism, Dada performance art and sculptor Louise Bourgeois came to mind and have been mentioned in the gallery literature. Other things that surfaced in my mind included Studio Ghibli’s Japanese anime, in particular the movie ‘Spirited Away’ with its range of strange characters with misshapen physical forms.

In terms of the performance portraying nervousness to me I was not so sure. Swann’s Banksia Men seemed somehow more cuddly than Gibbs’. Further, some of the performers seemed so single minded and confident in their pursuit of whatever it was they were doing (however weird it may have been), that I can’t ascribe nervousness to them. Maybe that is because our distractions from anxiety – the pursuit of an art, for example – can sometimes turn into strange triumphs.

Melissa Nickols is the 2016 arts writer in residence at M16 Artspace, Griffith.


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