Lines in the Desert

Autralian Center for Contemporary Art

Peter King and his company, Going Through Stages, have developed a reputation during the last year or so for staging conceptually complex and challenging performance pieces. Recent productions include Axes Edge, 1990, which took on the relation between architecture and performance, and The Butterfly Effect, 1990, (staged at the Melbourne city baths), which attempted to wrap speech and gesture around the scientific theories of randomness.

The “lines in the desert” that name this production are notated in a double-edge x on the floor of the gallery space; under the supervision of codesigner Peter Corrigan, they are marked with tape onto the bodies of the seven performers before each show; and they are spoken and exchanged and gestured throughout an intense, often incantatory, performance that lasts some 80 minutes. The desert itself is present as both locus and a metaphor. Desert-places that pass us by include tracts of outback Australia (Lake Eyre, Kuddimudra, Cooper’s Creek), the deserts of Sumeria and Saddam Hussein, and a painting by Kasimir Malevich, referred to here as the tropic desert.

It is to the credit of King’s semi-improvisational scoring that as Lines in the Desert went through its stages, as it accumulated around a sequence of found texts including Freud’s case history of Schreber, the 12th-century Sufic text The Conference of Birds, and Roger Callois’ essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”—the pulses and rhythms of the piece feedback to the audience what I can only describe as an atonal hymn to articulation. For before anything else, this was a drama preoccupied with the imaging, the vocalizing, the sheer bodying forth of the self. At its core it seemed to address the primal scene of performance, yet never held the theater hostage to the tired tricks of Modernist self-reference.

The powerful interactive sense of the seven performers that sustained the ambitious program of allusive gesture, dialogue, and speech, produced a dense network of self-manifestations and collective presence: the prelinguistic self; the self of the mother tongue encountering different languages and the languages of difference; the transsexual, the paranoid, the scopophilic, and the everyday. This is heady stuff for sure, and when it works, you are lost in a tumultuous vertigo of psychic displacements, you are punctured by the holey space of deliriums and psychoses, machined by the smooth spaces of mimicry and legend. Yet King’s theater is, in the end, a theater of abstraction and interiority. He uses speech, movement, and environment to perform the social experience of psychological effects. So it follows that his risks are the risks of all abstractions—the risks of (self) alienation, of codeless chaos, and of the loss of specific social reality. It is simultaneously the production’s greatest strength and its potential weakness that it carries these losses to the very brink of dissolution.What pulls the piece back from the abyss on this occasion, what ensures that its daring and ambition convince, are the uncanny coherence of its staccato choreography; the fluid circulation of the bannerlike costumes (designed by Ian Friend) that are continuously transformed into shrouds, tentlike dwellings, straitjackets, slings, and shields; and the frank humor, street dialogue, and sensual abandon that appear like bodily cases to refresh the lost souls of the desert.

John C. Welchman