Susan Shineberg Meet the wonderful weird guys in their orange jumpsuits , The Age, October 20, 2007
Meet the wonderful weird guys in their orange jumpsuits
The Age, October 20, 2007
At the glitzy opening night of Berlin’s Art Forum trade fair, the Slave Pianos are in their element. The zany Australian art/music collective has teamed up for some intriguing performance-theatre mayhem with a group of American and European Fluxus-inspired conceptual artists. One of their number is, bizarrely, the ex-president of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, busily plunking away on a harpsichord and playing speed chess.
The Slaves scamper around in bright-orange boiler suits, getting tangled in ropes, holding placards in Lithuanian and ushering on the backing groups — a string quartet and small choir, whose members cheerfully munch on carrots between their respective performances of music by Monteverdi.
While anything is possible with this Melbourne-based group, the Berlin show seems at first a very different proposition to its collaboration with The Cloud Party homage to Andy Warhol at the National Gallery Of Victoria. Being touted by the Melbourne International Arts Festival as a “once in a life-time happening”, it’s a recreation of Warhol’s novel event in 1966 at a New York gallery, where the artist launched large numbers of silver helium-filled pillows, or “clouds” into the air; choreographer Merce Cunningham (also here for the Melbourne Festival) would incorporate them into his piece Rain Forest two years later. Yet the Slave Pianos are in many ways an ideal complement to Warhol’s clouds and the implied artistic exhilaration and anarchy of the ’60s.
“We wanted to turn up the heat on both those sides of Warhol,” says composer Neil Kelly. “You know, that really playful side — which is the silver clouds — but also that very curious dark side. Actually for us it was less about the image used in Warhol’s Electric Chair paintings and more about the idea of executing these mechanically played works.”
The great pity is there are only 200 available tickets to the Cloud Party performance, with a $250 price tag — that apparently only covers the cost of catering. Festival director Kristy Edmunds acknowledges this with obvious regret (was this decision forced on her?), pointing out that the rest of the festival is rather more inclusive.
“Actually we wanted to have Campbell’s soup and hot dogs,” says Kelly mischievously.
But guests get to take home a genuine Warhol “silver cloud”, and there’s also a rumour that Warhol’s contemporary, Merce Cunningham, and some of his dancers may take part in the Slave Pianos’ performance.
The Slave Pianos — comprising composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, and visual artists Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson — come together at irregular intervals to present seriously playful art/music happenings, with an assortment of other groups. These have included the Astra Choir, Chamber Made Opera, and the Krasnyi (Red) Quartet, a Russian string quartet who play exclusively Soviet music; for the latter, the Slaves fashioned special sickle-shaped bows.
Computer-operated pianos also feature prominently in their performances, and this is certainly the case in The Cloud Party installation Electric Chair. A suspended grand piano will play a series of compositions, transcriptions of musical works by visual artists, using 88 solenoid-driven fingers. The pieces will be symbolically and systematically “executed” in the large electric chair underneath, the Slaves’ orange suits providing a clear reference to the uniforms worn at prisons such as Sing Sing and Guantanamo Bay.
“We’ve got about 20 pieces for this performance,” says Kelly, “and they range upwards from about one minute or so. Oh, there’s also a piece by George Brecht, one of the Fluxus artists, that goes for about 20 seconds.”
Kelly and fellow composer Rohan Drape are considerably more reserved than their live-wire colleague, installation artist Danius Kesminas. Melbourne-born Kesminas (also a singer in an Indonesian punk band) is of Lithuanian descent, which helps explain the Slaves’ significant associations with that country. This includes a fondness for the ideas of eccentric Lithuanian conceptual artist George Maciunas, founder of the ‘60s Fluxus (“fluid”) movement — a loose network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines. While Fluxus concepts are just one source among many of the Slaves’ offbeat artistic inspirations, the affinity is obvious, and the Australians have clearly got a kick out of working with the ’60s veterans in Berlin — and vice versa. One of them, New York artist Larry Miller, gave an entertaining but shrewd assessment of the Melbourne group in a running commentary fuelled by drinks afterwards.
“Well, there’s these wonderful weird guys in orange jumpsuits who somehow seem to have mystically absorbed some Fluxus history from various sources, and they sort of mash it up into their own ideas,” Miller says. “Then with their great, winning personalities they talk us into becoming kind of human, off the shelf ready-mades to be in their mash-up. I sense a kind of irreverent reverence about these guys, you know? I mean, three guys in orange suits,” he finishes, spreading his hands. “How can you say no?”
The Cloud Party, at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall on Monday at 8.30pm. Book on 1300 136 166. The Age is a sponsor of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Susan Shineberg is a Melbourne writer.