Feature

When asked to define ‘theatricality’ for an online anthology of performance-art keywords, Mark Russell, who was artistic director of PS 122 performance space in New York for 21 years, wrote, “Often theatricality is a dirty word. It underscores the lie of theatre, the artifice at its core, which is one reason why it is banned, censored, or disdained. The theatre is lying. Those lies unearth truth, however, that we could not see otherwise.”

In The Theatre is Lying at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), co-curators Max Delany and Annika Kristensen have commissioned five new projects which play with perception and illusion, and make the most of the tropes of theatricality and cinema, to tell their own truths.

The exhibition is the first of three Macfarlane Commissions, a series of shows which will be staged at ACCA over the course of the next five years, and each iteration will showcase five specially commissioned works by both local and international artists.

The Theatre is Lying features projects by Australian artists Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, Consuelo Cavaniglia, Daniel Jenatsch, and Matthew Griffin, as well as by Sol Calero, a Venezuelan artist now based in Germany, all of which are linked by the tension between fact and fiction, reality and perception.

“Don Macfarlane was an amateur realist painter and was very interested in the arts. And initially the Macfarlane Fund [established in 2017 in his honour] was interested in realism,” Delany, who is also artistic director and CEO of ACCA, explains. “We were also very interested in that idea and we had been thinking for quite some time about questions of truth and fiction, which of course are very current social and political topics: news and fake news, and the question of illusion and sleight of hand. So while it’s not so much an exhibition which explores the question of realism, it does engage with questions of the real and the virtual, truth and fiction, and historical reconstruction.”

Although The Theatre is Lying is staged across the whole of ACCA, allowing each artist a lot of individual room to move, Delany points out that it was conceived of as an ensemble piece that would be a work in itself. “So there is very much a sense of dialogue and a bleeding from one project to another,” he says.

Known primarily as a sound artist, Melbourne- based Daniel Jenatsch has made a two-channel video based on a real event in 1983, at the Sheraton Hotel, in which the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) staged a spy training event that went horribly wrong. Sydney-based artist Matthew Griffin, who first made a splash on Instagram, probes the boundaries of mainstream and social media in four new video montage/collage works that include images of his own root canal surgery (shot with a hidden camera), and doctored footage of amateur contortionists. Also working with video and living in Sydney, collaborative duo Nat Randall and Anna Breckon follow up their 24-hour endurance performance piece, The Second Woman, with another durational work, this time a 90-minute, single-take film of a road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill with dialogue lifted from hundreds of movies.

Berlin-based artist Sol Calero, who is known for work that tackles complex representations of Latin identity, undertook a residency in Melbourne to develop a new immersive installation. And Consuelo Cavaniglia, who lives in Sydney, puts her signature spin on the tropes of film noir and modernism in an installation which plays with dramatic lighting and reflective surfaces.

Despite the diverse nature of these projects, Delany says they come together synergistically, to create something more than the sum of their parts. “I think holistically they become a gesamtkunstwerk or a wider single project of different perspectives.”

In the current political climate it is difficult not to associate a phrase like The Theatre is Lying with some- one like US President Donald Trump who is known for his ‘post-truth’ strategy of appealing to divisive emotions and his obsession with ‘fake news.’ But Delany insists that the exhibition is not a knee-jerk reaction to our immersion in such ‘interesting times.’ While The Theatre is Lying is set against that backdrop “it’s not explicit in engaging with those terms,” he says. “This exhibition is not specifically didactic, nor is it a socio-political investigation into those contexts. It’s much more of a poetic or discursive response through works which are a lot more ambiguous or nuanced.” The theatre may be lying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also telling the truth.

The Theatre is Lying
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)
15 December 2018—24 March

This article was originally published in the January/February 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Tracey Clement