Australian Dance Reviews

The Art Gallery of New South Wales and Shelley Lasica: ‘WHEN I AM NOT THERE’

Shelley Lasica's 'WHEN I AM NOT THERE'. Photo by Jacqui Shelton.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
24 May 2023.

Last month, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney presented WHEN I AM NOT THERE by Shelley Lasica – a work created over three years, deriving from ideas and experiments from Lasica’s archives over the past four decades. This piece explores notions and discussions around choreography in the gallery space and what it means ‘to perform’ and ‘to exhibit’. Throughout her career, she has organised and participated in numerous residencies, exchanges and mentorship programs in Australia and overseas and has influenced generations of dancers, and currently teaches choreography to visual arts students as well as to dance students.

Co-commissioned by the Art Gallery of NSW, in Sydney, and Monash University Museum of Art, in Melbourne, WHEN I AM NOT THERE ran for 14 days from 22 May to 4 June, and was a unique experience for visitors and spectators alike. It featured eight performers, including Lasica herself, and was presented during opening hours over two weeks, offering a new encounter for visitors each day. Lasica developed the work with a team of 10 other artists, including dancers LJ Connolly-Hiatt, Luke Fryer, Timothy Harvey, Rebecca Jensen, Megan Payne, Lana Šprajcer and Oliver Savariego, as well as writer Lisa Radford, architect Colby Vexler and composer François Tétaz, alongside creative producer Zoe Theodore and commissioning curator Hannah Mathews.

Having returned to the gallery on various days, it was a thought-provoking experience to encounter the piece from different perspectives and certainly felt like an exhibition, with intermittent performative elements. Changing proximities in relation to the artists was certainly one of reflection, and felt like a potential distraction for the artists – although they remained unfazed. Generally speaking, as an audience member or spectator, we are accustomed to being positioned in a seated theatre or in a crowd, with the dancer artists in one centralised space on a stage or performance circle. However, WHEN I AM NOT THERE invited spectators to move around, and somewhat invade their space. Conversely, one dancer in particular kept encroaching into my personal space and attempted to engage with peculiar eye contact. I wasn’t sure if I was then meant to be part of the piece. Whilst it felt slightly unsettling, it was ironic the same dancer engaged that way on two different days.  

Lasica herself was intriguing to watch. Whilst not overtly performing, her presence was captivating as she moved in and around evolving props located in different areas. These props included a large Pilates mat, tangled plastic, evolving and dynamic costumes, objects, text and concepts projected on a screen, and other subject matters printed on paper tacked to the wall. 

The choreography was non-linear and interacted with the objects in an exploratory manner. This signature approach stems from over four decades of experimental work and interactions with other mediums. Lasica has a unique ability to intertwine her inquisitive observations from visual arts and architecture, and the notion of how space is created and how one moves in space – along with understanding of movement, colour and texture. Other reflections were evident with large sculptures of fabric, perhaps inspired by her examinations of fashion, and other interjected themes such as literature, film and theatre. 

Throughout the Q&A after the performance exhibition, it was interesting to learn about her background growing up in the 1980s, being trained in non-conventional dance methods and collaborations with filmmakers, architects and designers who have inspired her inquiry and disciplinary-pushing choreography over time. Having previously performed in outdoor public spaces, theatres and galleries and the like, Lasica’s choreographic works have been shown nationally and internationally, and in 2021, she was the recipient of an Australia Council Dance Fellowship. 

It was an engaging and unique experience, and leaves the viewer open to contemplating the objective of the work. With the expansion of the Art Gallery, through the Sydney Modern Project, it has created a new opportunity to invite and support live ephemeral works, including dance and performance. The Art Gallery of NSW Director Michael Brand notes, “The Art Gallery is committed to presenting performance-based works as part of its core program.’’ 

WHEN I AM NOT THERE is part of Precarious Movements: Choreography and the Museum, a research project hosted by the University of New South Wales and involving partner organisations: the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, Tate UK and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. The performance-exhibition provides this project with critical and situated research focused on the curation and practice of choreography in the museum environment. 

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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