SPILL STINGS 10: Rajni Shah

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Madeleine Hodge responds to Glorious by Rajni Shah Projects, 19-21 April 2011

Writing, like this… writing from this point here on the page, straight to the end…. This linearity doesn’t seem like it will ever be the right way to respond to the complex series of relations and processes that are enacted in Rajni Shah’s Glorious. Its weight, density and apparent structural simplicity conceal a work that absorbs multiple histories and political conversations in ways that I cannot hope to resolve in one reflection. The work continues a rich and complex conversation, and so I feel that my initial emotional responses will never be enough to carry the weight of Glorious.

The initial view is simple enough, however. The performance begins with a voice that tells us “Well here we are, and this is how it starts, with stories falling.”  A woman stands on the stage; the curtains open around her; the music begins.  She sings songs, songs about life and how to live it, and a group of six “strangers to performance” walk towards microphones on the stage and tell the audience fragmentary stories about their lives.  Then the layers unfold and a performance builds.  In three acts, songs repeat, stories repeat, a musical is performed, a participatory event, stories change, songs and the land breaking apart, lives breaking apart, chaos into light.  We learn through program notes that it is a responsive work built through letters to strangers, repetition of the musical score, local musicians interpreting the music. On stage a costume is built and at the centre of all of this the artist Rajni Shah remains fixed. She is slowly becoming a mountain as the performance undoes itself around her.

However, the performance doesn’t start with the voice. It doesn’t start in the theatre. It started – and this is one of the many elements that make me feel as though I am chasing invisible squirrels as I attempt to unpack this performance – it started with daffodils in a market place as Rajni and her team began the recruitment process for her participants. It started with the two previous works in the trilogy when Rajni began her series of works addressing land and identity. It started when the songs were written and fixed into the musical arrangements. And it started when the team worked with the “performers” to develop the texts for the performance. It starts with learning to sing, with talking to strangers, with the desire to make something that lives up to the name “Glorious”.

I realise as I am watching that I am continually formulating questions. These questions float in and around my experience, and I am not able to fix on one reading of the work. Do these participants know what they are in? Are they aware of the frame that has been set up around them? How much have they been part of constructing this work?  How much does this matter to my sense of the work? Am I preconditioned to test or question the politics of participatory work? What are my criteria for this assessment? And then, and somehow naively: is my resistance to the generosity and charm of the performance in part a response to an expectation of a fully democratic system of performance? And our inevitable failure to ever reach this ideal?

This leads me then on to another series of questions about my role as an audience member. What is expected or desired for us? How does the audience intersect with the world the artist and her participants are creating? And then what is the process of infection?  Is this infection something that has been caught willingly? Is it an infection of charm, of high ideals and Rajni’s gentle smile? And in the heart of all of this… Why a mountain? Is her fixity a trade-off against the demands she is making upon her temporary collaborators? Is this one relation that can remain still while all the others shift and change around it?

One thing I find surprising in my attempt to reconstruct the performance is how the stories of the non-performers/performers (this definition is inaccurate or overly simple, they are performing and so are performers) seem to disappear for me.  They are fading into the complexity of all the other readings and relations of the performance. They disappear into the grand structure and the epic songs. What are these stories? Why are these the stories that were chosen for us to hear?  An older man tells us about geese flying past his window everyday at the same time. He offers advice: “Things in life cross your path.  Walk away from the bad experiences and keep hold of the good ones… they do come”. He walks back and takes his place on the seats at the back of the stage.

Work such as this have been happening in arts and community contexts since the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and 70s, and from there the linage continues gracefully and messily through art works and performances of companies such as Victoria, C de la B, Lone Twin and many others.  In his 1973 essay “I am searching for a field character”, Joseph Beuys writes about art as a social organism:

This most modern art discipline will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism. Only then would the insistence on participation of the action art of FLUXUS and Happening be fulfilled; only then would democracy be fully realized. Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn into a politically productive force, coursing through each person, and shaping history.

The essay goes on to say “all this and there is much yet to be explored”; perhaps the ideals set out by Fluxus are in need of updating for our time. In a world where desire is gratified instantly and social systems are imposed in ways we have no control over, Rajni’s work explores this conversation in a way that may yet serve the demands of the 21st Century.  She creates a system of generosity that appears to sit separate from the social order that we are familiar with, and in doing so explores some of this territory between here and there. As I reach towards the work, attempting to disentangle my desires for a truly emancipated world from the real generosity that I am witnessing before me, I realise that this in not just a politics of generosity but a politics of noticing.  Of being able to receive just what is placed in front of you, being able to be there to hold the weight of these stories, this compassion, these people, and to see them in and of them selves.  To see things as they are, from where we are, right now.

Two daffodils sit in a vase on my mantle piece. I carried them home after the performance, and over the last two days they have been slowly opening into bloom, my house acting as a host. This is performance and its after effect; this is the glory of generosity; this is infection.