Tuesday 12 February 2008

I feel the earth, move, under my feet ....

New Plymouth's unmatchable kitsch-tastic Festival of Lights finished this past weekend, so on Saturday night I took the opportunity to see Grimace the Gorilla (don't even ask) and a performance of Len Lye's Big Blade.

The sculpture was scheduled to perform (an odd phrase, I thought at the time, but what else can you say - 'go off'?) at 9.30 on the Fred Parker Lawn. The band played their final set, and then the sculpture was introduced.

It was a funny experience. It was the most public performance of public art that I've been to - there must have been 300 people watching. The audience wriggled round from facing the stage to facing the sculpture. There was an atmosphere of intense, slightly puzzled interest.

At first, nothing happened. And then the sculpture began its sloooooooooow 360 degree rotation. As the audience started to get restless and to heckle, I began getting that cold-stomached feeling that you got when you watched your 6-year-old sister forget her lines at the end-of-year recital; that feeling you get when something you strongly believe in is failing to impress, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Finally, the ball started knocking and the crowd began to get a bit engaged. During the pause that followed the first burst they applauded, and after the second burst, when the blade does its shimmying thing, they clapped again (I think some people thought by that stage the work was sound activiated). I paid more attention to the conversations I could overhear than to the sculpture, really - lots of variations on the 'that's not really art' theme, and some excitement during the most percussive session which made the ground vibrate, causing the kid behind me to condescendingly tell his brother "It's a sculpture that makes the earth shake, that's the whole point".

The disappointing thing was that Big Blade's performance was truncated compared to the smaller version at the GBAG: it didn't go through that part when the blade is bends over backwards, and then slams into the ball: the free-form, whipping and whupping bit, that bit that makes you go holy hell, there's some power leashed up there. I'm not sure if this larger version isn't engineered to do this, or if it was being run gently to preserve the mechanism. I wound up feeling like the crowd and the sculpture had been shortchanged, and had to fight back that impulse you get to bail people up and say 'no, it's actually really cool - you see, what normally happens is ....'

Top: Green waterfall, by Rich Childs, on Flickr.
Middle: Len Lye, Blade, from Art New Zealand

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