Penny Webb Clouds mostly hot air second time around, The Age, October 24, 2007
Clouds mostly hot air second time around
Penny Webb, Reviewer
The Age, October 24, 2007
Kristy Edmunds’ intricate third festival program draws on the creative legacy of John Cage. Given the genius of Slave Pianos (visual artists Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson; composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape), we might have enjoyed a Cagean moment at the NGV on Monday night. But, like a balloon with a puncture, The Cloud Party wound down almost as soon as it started. Certainly, the lyrical promise of hundreds of large, slowly circulating, floating silver balloons, glimpsed as you approached the Great Hall, was never fulfilled - but chance is a fine thing.
Billed as a happening, The Cloud Party took its name from Andy Warhol’s helium-filled silver “pillows” (Silver Clouds as they were called when exhibited). Festival visitor and long-time Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham liked them so much when he saw them at Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1966 that he incorporated them into the choreography of RainForest. David Tudor’s soundtrack for the work was the highly charged but minimal sounds heard as you entered the space, part of Slave Pianos’ concept for The Execution Protocol. (The name Slave Pianos comes from the Cagean device of a prepared piano.) At the centre of this event was a computer-controlled piano - a slave to a controlling mechanism, for sure - that executed about 25 transcriptions derived from sound works by visual artists as diverse as Rolf Harris and Joseph Beuys working with Nam June Paik; Jean Dubuffet and Tony Clarke.
Silver pillows/Slave Pianos - what odds would an SP bookie give you on the chances of this lovely conjunction of S’s and P’s? Although chance was more valued in early modern art and music than it is today, Cunningham still uses it as part of his working method. Did anything happen by chance on Monday night? Not that I could see.
Slave Pianos attempted an antithesis: a darkly disturbing Warhol motif, that of the electric chair at Sing Sing, was evoked as a contrast to the reflected light and floating movement of the pillows. A huge, chunky timber “chair” supported not only the piano, but a video monitor and two batteries each discharging 15,000 volts of energy intermittently. Unfortunately, this pristine structure lacked visual menace. The video monitor showed the title of the work being transcribed interspersed with the word “silence”, a detail of Warhol’s image that critic Robert Hughes found so chilling.
Poignantly, another chair and another mechanical movement had earlier taken centre stage. Cunningham, confined to a wheelchair, had briefly recounted for plainly adoring listeners his use of the pillows - “We never called them clouds,” he said. (A freestanding screen set designed by Robert Rauschenberg for Minutiae in 1954 and Jasper Johns’ modules for Walkaround Time in 1968 are on show in an upstairs gallery until Sunday.)
Perhaps happenings are always apocryphal. In years to come, I might boast that I was in the Great Hall when silver pillows filled the air and one nudged my leg like a cat at meal times, and that I gazed at the Leonard French ceiling and felt we were all in a giant snow dome with whirling particles reflecting the light. But right now I feel like part of a public that wanted to be participants. “Go, Slaves!”