Agitated Faces, Open Window, Disordered Furniture:
This essay was written to accompany Cassandra Tytler’s exhibition Oops! at Trocadero Art Space (Footscray, Victoria, Australia), 3-19 December 2020.
Imagine a family scene: the wife is just about to grab a bronze sculpture and throw it at her daughter; the father is opening the window to call for help. At this moment a stranger enters. The process is interrupted. What appears in its place is the situation on which the stranger’s eyes now fall: agitated faces, open window, disordered furniture.
Walter Benjamin wrote this passage in 1934, as part of his lecture “The Artist as Producer”, to explain the principle of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre. In fact, there is no specific scene exactly like this in any of Brecht’s plays; Benjamin intended his description as an allegory or figure of a new kind of art.
But the scene now exists; Benjamin imagined it, described it and evoked it vividly for us. It’s a script. A script that Australian artist-performer Cassandra Tytler shoots not once but three times, in successive variations, for her work Oops! – a piece that is designed both for single screen or (as in this presentation) multiple screen versions. In either format, Tytler takes Benjamin directly at this word, not just for the scenario but also for the method that this model scene is designed to embody: “the interruption of sequences”.
Interruption is a figure of montage. Benjamin envisaged one prime moment of cutting in, interrupting a scene via the sudden appearance of a stranger. It is this moment that throws the naturalness, the dramatic flow of the scene out of kilter – freezing it, as it were, and showing it in all its disquieting weirdness. “There are eyes”, Benjamin adds wryly, “before which the more usual scenes of present-day existence do not look very different”. Meaning: the most banal situations of our everyday life are full of underlying, incipient violence, hatred, horror. Here, too, Tytler has taken the pulse of Benjamin’s account and sped it up, made it her own.
Oops! multiplies the horrors of normal life as glimpsed by “the stranger” (a person whom we never need know anything about: the fact that they interrupt is all that matters, their only function). The settings are a family dinner, a communal barbecue, a round of games among friends. The points and levels of disturbance just keep getting darker and deeper: generational conflict, maternal resentment, racial prejudice, sexual stereotyping, male-buddy humiliation, female-buddy hurtful whispers, anti-vegitarianism, slut-shaming, cruel laughter.
Three faces of a suburban, Aussie Hell; enclosed spaces where mean-mindedness can trigger violence. Are domestic curtains meant to facilitate people looking out, or stop people looking in? An aesthetic of the grotesque is just a frame away: close-up mouths grinning, chomping, laughing. The issue of taste, in all senses, starts to infiltrate everywhere: the taste of food, how it is cooked, table manners; and cultural taste, who’s deemed in-the-know and who isn’t on very specific subjects (Bradman’s cricket record is “common” knowledge, while Birth of a Nation is not). And all this efficiently, economically dramatised in just under 10 minutes.
For Tytler, montage is an immense tool: not just a single cutting-in, but also intensive cutting-up, rearranging, repeating, comparing. For starters, the three stories are unfolded together, in simultaneous juxtaposition. And Oops! keeps leaping ahead to what are (on a first viewing) the shocking gestures yet to come: a raised fist, a broken glass held out threateningly, an arm being twisted, a hand being forced toward scalding heat. The usual syntax internal to a single scene – like people casting looks at each other – starts to knit together across the three stories, underlining the profound similarities in ideologically and culturally bound (bad) behaviour. Every gesture, even the throw of a dice or a slaking of salad, the clinking of beer bottles or the sizzling of a grill, becomes a sign of aggression. The sound design (by Bonnie Knight) bursts with abrasive thuds, agitates with sheets of pulsation, spooks with ghostly echoes and shudders with low tremors.
For two decades, Cassandra Tytler has traced a unique path. Her work often takes short, highly condensed audiovisual forms. She grabs elements of generic stories – and expertly reproduces their best and most vivid effects, like the tense build-up across the whole arc of Oops! – but doesn’t get locked into one story, one world, one illusion. The three-screen set-up guarantees this splitting of any unity. There’s a comic (as well as Brechtian) aspect in the way she and her actors play with character stereotypes and dead, cliché-laden chatter.
An earlier work, I Still Call It Home, creates its aura of the uncanny via a different bag of tricks. This one edges closer to Gothic horror: hideous welts on the skin, mysterious shadows in the corner of walls, unbound screams (more great sound work here). A performance-art monologue (“Hack, hack, hack”) collides with echoes of David Lynch – but this is once again suburban Australia, not Twin Peaks, so the interplay of guilt, haunting, identity and denial takes us straight back to local, national issues of racial dispossession and slaughtered sovereignty.
It is another montage of multiple, quoted, enacted texts, proceeding by a kind of free but perfectly logical, unconscious association. “I want the truth”/“You can’t handle the truth!” is voiced by a passing parade of extras, like in an audition. The host of a beauty commercial dispenses advice about how to handle troublesome (non-white) skin. As well, there’s a strained pedagogic tableau on the “materiality of ideology” – but the young students (all two of them, both female like their teacher) seem not too comfortable with what they are hearing. In fact, everything in I Still Call it Home is about not feeling at home in one’s own body, one’s own space, one’s own place as a mother or a daughter, an expert or a client, an authority or a novice, a reciter of text or an embodiment of psychodrama.
“But it is at the end, not the beginning, of the experiment”, wrote Benjamin, “that the situation appears – a situation that, in this or that form, is always ours”. In these two works, Cassandra Tytler, the interruptive stranger, ceaselessly opens to the door to our haunted homes.
© Adrian Martin 28 November 2020