Walking into the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) on the morning of 17 August 2022 was revelatory. I had been wondering how Shelley Lasica and MUMA would, or even could, represent more than forty years of the artist’s practice. Given all of Lasica’s work, in one way or another, considers how any thing can and does interact with any other thing in (nonlinear) time—how do you make sense of such a porous, embodied practice over a ten day period? The things of Lasica’s practice include the body in all its movements, a slither of plastic, a cardboard ‘wall’, costumes (how they are, or not, inhabited and what they can do), words and their interpretations, a cursor standing in for the hesitation of thought, sound and its effects (including the breath), spaces and their shapes, whether inside or outside.
Here Lasica’s work was framed within the adaptable spaces of MUMA, a medium sized art museum within a university. In the past, iterations of her work have occurred in a multitude of spaces: gymnasiums, public baths, domestic environments, theatres, social history museums and gardens. This malleability of framing occurs through all aspects of her practice whether in the clothing and disrobing of bodies (and in this instance the inclusion of a nautical net where vacant costumes hung like skins), the manipulation of discreet objects, and further, how any thing can move, anywhere, at any time, and converse with others.
The few tightly framed objects in WHEN I AM NOT THERE included two brief videos—Callum Morton’s Twister (1999) and Lasica’s Being John (2008)—presented on small screens. These screens and their images provided a counterpoint to the performers’ activities taking place throughout MUMA’s exhibition spaces, and acted as a momentary anchor to the continuum of Lasica’s practice.
If other objects initially appeared fixed, such as Tony Clark’s series of fifteen small panel paintings Scenery (1990), this was immediately belied by their fluorescence and the slippery nature of the imagery—trees which could have been at home on Wedgewood Jasperware as much as a Chinoiserie cabinet—both recognisable and evasive. Further, Kathy Temin’s synthetic fur costumes produced for Character X (1996) when decoupled from the nautical net became a beguiling series of conjoined containers for the performers. Every thing drawn into WHEN I AM NOT THERE escapes an initial reading as it communes with every other thing in the given space.
Because of this resonant aspect, the distillation of decades of Lasica’s practice, whether solo or with others, becomes, intriguingly, austere and compelling. The unpacking of each thing allows its dimensionality to flourish. Objects lock into each other or fly apart, and these actions lend a richness to being there. As Lasica has noted:
Objects are so complex: the presumption of use and utility, the tension between their intrinsic nature and their function in relation to humanness. Let alone their gift for symbolism and the endless, mutable ways we individually and collectively apprehend them. …I have been thinking about how time functions in relation to objects as a kind of way of thinking about choreographic potential rather than solution. I guess one of my big interests in imagining through other media (writing, cinema, visual art forms, exhibitions) is to pull things around as much as possible by working with their similarities and differences and their respective logics. I never really know if I am working in the same way or differently from how I worked another time—probably a bit of both—but what keeps me going on is often something that irritates me, something that makes me try to work out how to make choreography function in a particular set of circumstances, with restrictions and potentialities. A huge part of this is the performers that I engage with to develop the work.1
That first revelation occurred to me because of the severe beauty of the practice in conjunction with the fluidity of the actions by the performers. The audience that morning was small so objects whether human or otherwise assumed a magnetic physicality and allowed for heightened focus. That evening and on the final day, the flood of people— sitting, standing, and moving—entered into the performance zones very differently.
How to perform the performance and who is performing, with whom?2
These questions are relevant regardless of the scale of interactions. I am watching people (whether observers or performers) and objects perform a language that I can partially comprehend. I can recognise certain actions, expressions and interactions. I can hear movements, and the drops of sound from François Tétaz’s compositions. I am tantalised by what I have not experienced and considered before. In a sense this is familiar territory yet rarely encountered.
While meaning may seem cloaked it is ritually undone by the performers and their actions, and re-dressed throughout the days of the event. This repetition unmasks meaning as a perpetual construction full of variables and questions. This is not to say logic has no place—cause and effect are inevitable when dealing with matter whether human or not, and the meanings that flow are open and generative.
Then, given WHEN I AM NOT THERE took place continuously for the ten days that MUMA was open between 16 and 27 August, what happens when I am not there to see the interactions?
WHEN I AM NOT THERE insists on a consideration of not being there. Taking the title apart is instructive because, like everything else to do with this project nothing is what it seems:
WHEN—any time though generally we use ‘when’ to pinpoint something in time
I—conventionally taken to mean self and the constitution of subjectivity—but—who is I? who or what is the self?
I only exists in relation to the other—without the other who is the I—with many others who is the I?
Then there is the dynamic relationship between subject and object—conventionally seen as binaries.
Convention is for social and political order, for standardisation and, ultimately, immobilisation.
I is supposed to have ownership of subjectivity, actually I is always in flux, mobile, malleable. As is the other, or the object of, or in relation to, the I.
Sometimes I am a subject and sometimes I am an object—always among and interacting with the many. Those that we can sense and those that we can imagine—all of which we can think about from various perspectives and positions.
AM NOT—action though not, here, a simple reversal of am, to be—see the aforementioned I—I AM NOT—not I—this is a conundrum. If I am not I, then who am I? when am I? where am I? how am I?
THERE—commonly taken to mean place, over there, not here—but—NOT THERE either!—so where?—the dynamics of movement.
In thinking about these matters of legibility and comprehension, I came to the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray and her examination of language as we are still taught it.
Truth is necessary for those who are so distanced from their body that they have forgotten it. But their ‘truth’ makes us immobile, like statues, if we can’t divest ourselves of it. If we don’t annul its power by trying to say here, now, right away, how we are moved.
You are moving. You never stay still. You never stay. You never ‘are’. How can I say to you, who are always other? How can I speak to you, who remain in flux, never congealing or solidifying. What will make that current flow into words? It is multiple, devoid of ‘causes’, ‘meanings’, simple qualities ...3
These are indeed conundrums—puzzles in meaning with no clear answers that allow us to move out into the open space of other feelings and thoughts, and therefore different actions. We do have to go there. We do have to consider both somatically and semiotically—how, for example, ‘to shape the shape’, ‘to perform the performance’ whether in the context of Lasica’s work, or in the broader social and political context in which we are also participants.
Recently I have been reading Georgia Sagri who is professor of performance at the Athens School of Fine Arts. She emphasises performance as a medium, and as enabling interdisciplinary practices.4 While Sagri is determinedly, overtly political, the politics in WHEN I AM NOT THERE may appear muted. I see them, however, as deeply embedded through the collaborative approach to image, object, spaces, language and action, and the perpetual transgression of the old, exhausted binaries. The languages of bodies, minds and objects working together in spaces are here, moment by moment, in flux, a mobile state of transformation which we have been fortunate to participate in, and therefore be actively changed by.