On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds by Sue Healey

Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 13—28 April 2018

‘The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.’ [1]

Although not speaking exclusively of portraiture, these words attributed to Aristotle resonate loudly with the artform. A multitude of social and political functions have long been served through the medium of portraiture, and those responsible for creating these artworks are charged with great responsibility. Countless elements—from posture to wardrobe, gaze to framing—are carefully crafted by the artist to capture the true essence of their subject. A life depicted in a single, static moment.

But if portraiture seeks to distil a subject’s personality, or at least a fictionalised representation of it, how does the artist portray a dancer? That is, someone whose identity is so intimately bound to movement that the conventional language of portraiture—stillness—is incongruous ab initio. Enter Sue Healey: choreographer, filmmaker and installation artist, whose current practice positions itself deep inside the paradox of moving-image portraiture.

Healey sees film, her predominant artistic medium, as an ‘antidote’ to the ephemerality and impermanence of dance. It serves not only documentative purposes but can unlock new dimensions for witnessing and perceiving the moving body. This relationship between the observer and the observed—with all its accompanying complexity and potential—has led Healey to reconsider the lens through which we consume dance. How can film prompt new conversations about the portrayal of identity? Can the language of portraiture find a vocabulary to discuss moving subjects? And how may we, as the viewer, engage with corporeal constructions of personality?

These are some of the questions thrown up by Healey’s most recent exhibition in her series of digital portraits. Specially commissioned by the Victorian College of the Arts to mark the 40th anniversary of the School of Dance, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds presents the stories of six exceptional dancers closely connected to the school. Two video installations dominate the exhibition: On View: Icons (2018) featuring former teachers of the school Dame Lucette Aldous AC, Nanette Hassall AM and Professor Shirley McKechnie AO, and On View: Artists (2018) featuring graduates from three different decades—Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock and James Batchelor. Smaller projections showing footage of these artists in performance contexts complement the main installations.

Healey’s video portraits escape easy definition, blurring distinctions between art, documentary, biography, and performance. But, overwhelmingly, they are visual narratives, telling the stories of the subjects and, perhaps indirectly, the portraitist herself. The identities of the six dancers emerge through layered excerpts of archival footage and slow-motion movement sequences, mostly shot in environments that reflect aspects of the subjects’ personalities. A scene from On View: Icons, in which former ballerina Aldous dances a port de bras in a whitewashed studio, is hauntingly beautiful. We see the thousand ports de bras that have come before this one and her deeply embodied history that can only be revisited through movement.

Elements of conventional portraiture are referenced in both of Healey’s main installations. A recurring motif is a tryptic of full-length portraits lit with chiaroscuro-like effect in which the subject, dressed in three different outfits, executes the same phrase of movement in slow motion. The triplication not only adds depth to the dancer’s identity but also confirms the undesirability of singular representation. Healey further dismantles the unicity of conventional portraiture by overlaying edited interviews and personal anecdotes from the subjects about their relationship to dance. In an oblique reference to the exhibition’s title, our attention is drawn to the invisible creativity behind the movement on view.

Through all of these devices and the medium of film, Healey probes the question of how we view a dancer. We are familiar with these individuals performing the role of a dancer, often disconnected from an identity that extends beyond the four corners of the stage or after the final blackout. And, true, these are people who have long fallen under the gaze of others. (In On View: Artists, Erskine laments that being watched was ‘imbued as a level of consciousness’ from an early age.) But these portraits are not for the subjects’ benefit. They are for us.

As the viewer, we are forced to reflect on how we observe these bodies: via a choreography that cannot be divorced from the vehicle through which it is expressed. By necessity, we must read the person who performs, not just what they perform. Through Healey’s clever framing, focus and composition—all the skills of a great portraitist—the subjects’ personalities are vividly rendered in a kind of corporeal archive. We move beyond the merely external and see, if only fleetingly, the inner significance that Aristotle spoke of.

 

[1] Gordon C Aymar, The Art of Portrait Painting, Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia, 1967, p. 119.

Nike Tiempo Legend VI FG

group1.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds, 2018. Still showing 6 featured artists Benjamin Hancock, Nanette Hassall, James Batchelor, Lucette Aldous, Shona Erskine, Shirley McKechnie.

MLG - On View Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds-121.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds, 2018. Installation view at Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne.

Christo Crocker

MLG - On View Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds-189.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds, 2018. Installation view at Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne.

Christo Crocker

MLG - On View Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds-209.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds, 2018. Installation view at Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne.

Christo Crocker

MLG - On View Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds-061.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Thinking Bodies, Dancing Minds, 2018. Installation view at Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne.

Christo Crocker

OVJamesBatchelor.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Artists, 2018, HD video, 30 mins, looped. Still showing James Batchelor.

OVShonaErskine.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Artists, 2018, HD video, 30 mins, looped. Still showing Shona Erskine.

Lucette.jpg

Sue Healey, On View: Icons, 2018, HD video, 30 mins, looped. Still showing Lucette Aldous.

 

Rhys Ryan is an emerging contemporary dance maker, performer and writer based in Melbourne. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance) from the Victorian College of the Arts and is engaged as a performer and choreographer in Melbourne’s independent dance scene. Before his career in the performing arts, Rhys practised as a corporate lawyer.

Nike Tn Air Max Plus