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measuring up & mining the moment

philipa rothfield: luke george, the walpole sisters

Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, NowNowNow Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, NowNowNow
photo Jeff Busby

The sublime teeters between the dizzying heights of abstraction and the ground of the earth, between nature and art, mathematics and the ineffable. According to Kant, the mathematically sublime is beyond calculation, beyond quantifiable measurement. And yet, Grace Walpole entices her audience with the sublime qualities of π, a household ratio that would appear to be eminently measurable. Or is it?

We know that the circumference of a circle is the square of its radius times π. No matter what size the circle, this formula holds. Walpole rolls an everyday circle, a dinner plate, along her leg, extolling the sheer reliability of its numerical calculation. Surely nothing could be more concrete? Yet a precise articulation of π requires a mathematics of infinite numbers, belongs to the irrational number system and smacks of transcendence: π goes on forever.

Walpole plays between these two mathematical spheres, between the concrete body as that earliest of measures and the filigree of pure maths, between the sensible and the Platonic worlds. She spins a plate, she swings a rope, twists a string. Interspersed between these bodily musings, Walpole offers her audience a discourse on the mathematics of each gesture. She stands in front of us in order to lecture, exhibiting a mixture of delight and awe in face of the mathematically sublime.

But the body is not merely a means of measurement. Throughout Mathematical Models of the Sublime Walpole repeatedly turns to the work of entomologist Justin O Schmidt, who personally rated and described a bevy of horribly painful insect stings. Walpole locates this weird attempt to quantify pain within her own clinical experience as a doctor. While Schmidt can numerically contrast “caustic and burning” (paper wasp) with “bold and unrelenting” (red harvester ant), it’s not so easy to find a common measure of pain that holds between bodies. One patient’s agony could be another’s discomfort.

All in all, Mathematical Models of the Sublime is a kind of researched whimsy, a conversation held between two sisters (Grace and Helen), an investigation turned into art. The body plays a role in this meditation, not merely as an aesthetic medium but because the thinking embedded in the work addresses matters corporeal: How do mathematics invoke the body? Can we quantify pain in the body? Could we unravel three dimensional string theory? There is something very nice about two sisters together making art. In another epoch they may have written a series of letters to each other, staged experiments in their own home or addressed an audience of amateur scientists. There is a sense of conversations had in this work, of the drawing room as well as the drawing board, of common pursuit being opened out for a wider audience. While the work engages the cutting edge of mathematical thought, it also suggests the 19th century salon. Grace Walpole’s manner of address is quaintly direct, slightly mannered. My own feeling is that the text and its delivery could have been more textured, more aestheticized in line with the rest of the performance. Mathematical Models of the Sublime was nevertheless gently infectious, a mindful and gracious exploration of things great and small.

Luke George’s NowNowNow was different, action-based rather than discursive. Its aim was to stage an event where all three performers sustained an ‘in the moment’ focus for the entirety of the performance. According to Buddhist monk, Chögyam Trungpa: “Speaking generally what happens is that, once we have actually opened, ‘flashed’, in the second moment we realize that we are open and the idea of evaluation suddenly appears. ‘Wow, fantastic, I have to catch that, I have to capture and keep it…’ so we try to hold onto the experience and the problems start there…” (Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism).

The difficulty of staying in the moment is that there are so many of the damn things. One moment slips into another. However achieved—and there are several ways to skin a cat—remaining ‘in’ any given activity is easier said than done. For a start, nothing stays the same. There’s a lot to keep up with in this world of becoming-performance. Plus, the body-in-movement is streets ahead of the mind-that-keeps-track. My foot finds the floor. The moment of their meeting is achieved in the passage towards another step. Three performers jump, then jump again. It would seem that repetition takes over. But then again, isn’t each jump a particular jump, a unique meeting between foot and floor, launch and landing? Maybe jumping is the iconic kinaesthetic moment: in motion, negotiating multiple forces, the pull of gravity, the body’s memory, the body in this moment.

And what of the audience? Is the audience inside or outside this experience? The white, felt flooring laid for NowNowNow made the space a kind of pure interiority. Audience members took off their shoes and were folded into this springy space. Unfortunately, this feeling was not supported by the rows of seating, oriented down towards the spectacle.

Sometimes NowNowNow bristled with presence, a moment held aloft for all to see, sometimes it was almost autistic in preoccupation, head down, doggedly following some score. So the question arises: what kind of moment are we talking about? Playing X-Box is a completely captivating experience but lacking in interest for non-players, whereas a shared moment between all three performers, in that second before it evaporates, well that’s exciting, because we can all identify and participate in that moment.

While Mathematical Models of the Sublime invited gentle contemplation, NowNowNow took off, a bird flying into plate glass time and again. Somewhat episodic, its attempt at the humanly impossible was an attempt to scale the sublime. Would it be “absolutely great” to be in the moment, moment after moment? Or would we be like Sisyphus having pushed the boulder uphill, taking in the view just before it bloody well rolls down again? Sometimes, just sometimes, a performance is infectious. To be in the moment is to die a little death, to let go of the evaluator. For the moment, that’s all there is. Isn’t it awesome?

Mathematical Models of the Sublime, concept, development Grace and Helen Walpole, animateur, performer Grace Walpole, writer, designer Helen Walpole, composer David Corbet; Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 14-18; NowNowNow, choreographer Luke George, performers: Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, design Bluebottle, dramaturg Martyn Coutts; Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 29-Aug 1

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 30

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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