'Understudies', 2021, courtesy of the artist.
Melanie Jame Wolf
'I never knew what to do with my hands.'
November 26 - February 4th, 2023
We are happy to be opening the solo exhibition of Berlin-based Australian artist, Melanie Jame Wolf. This is the first time she is exhibiting in Winnipeg and in the country. As a visual artist, Wolf is an autodidact whose practice is closely informed by her work as a choreographer and background in theatre. She came to creating installations, objects, and video works for gallery contexts without any formal training. This shift from the stage into a studio practice and subsequent exhibition presentations, has been an opportunity to elaborate her artistic hand as a performer and extend criticality therein. More importantly, working within gallery contexts only heightens the gallery, often regarded as discernibly unassuming, as a stage in itself.
Over the years, her video works have pivoted into a cinematic language. Where she previously relied on herself for her video work, this new shift has meant working with more technical collaborators and a cast of performers. The transition into the widescreen space of cinema has also meant extensive pre-production planning, storyboarding, scripting, rehearsals, and post-production. This new exhibition, 'I never knew what to do with my hands', brings together for the first time two of Wolf's first filmic works both created in 2021 while in residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. As the artist has described it, the title of the show and its contents is a "lament of the unskilled performer". Both films exemplify her ongoing exploration concerning the inherent and often under-regarded labour within performance as an artistic mode as well as an everyday survival mechanism. That is to say, performance for Wolf encompasses as a way of operating various degrees of one's subjectivity in the world. The films each centre on a specific theatrical practice—stand-up comedy and the rehearsal—as a means for further critical reflection that draws on larger social and political implications.
In the upstairs gallery, visitors will be met with an installation of the film, 'Understudies', alongside a series of ad hoc sculptural fabric works that feature in the film as temporary backdrops for a stage. The film and its accompanying objects are all set against a backdrop of bright blue and pink painted walls that add to the ideas of staging and persona-building at the centre of Wolf's work. 'Understudies', is a film that focuses on the idea of rehearsals as a guiding principle for broader social critical inquiry. The artist not only considers rehearsals as repetitive practices in preparation for a role on stage but also in the theatrics of the everyday. This can include how we gradually accrete postures, organize our faces, and coalesce a desired self in anticipation of a future audience. Rehearsals are when this repeated task of accretion ferments to become intuitive. In the film, the performers all recite variations of lines from Nina Zarechnaya's monologue in Anton Chekhov's ‘The Seagull’. Through a roving 360-degree camera pan, we see the improvised 'stages' each performs against as well as the apparatus and labourers who uphold the structure behind the stage. The lines are recited in various languages by each performer, some of which are their mother tongue. In their various distinctive ways, they all continually assert and inhabit the role of or notion of, 'the actress'. In their multiplicity as performers, they broaden narrowly-defined views of who an actress can be and what they look like. Some of their lines are echoed as vinyl text on the gallery’s outdoor windows part of the installation—an extension of the stage outside the gallery walls. Beyond its central concerns, 'Understudies' as a project was also Wolf's own exploration into what a queer-feminist filmmaking practice could constitute.
In the sequestered basement level space, the two-channel film, 'Acts of Improbable Genius', will be on view for visitors. In this film, which is shot in black and white akin to old-Hollywood cinema, Wolf harkens back, embodies, and wryly critiques two comedic personas—Stand Up Ron and Pierrot the Clown—who although culturally stuck in obsolescence as stage performers, looms as ghostly presences. They typify a progenitor of the entitled white male stand-up comedian, an 'everyday man' archetype which is all too common today albeit in a different form. They like to 'tell it like it is'. They are the beer-chugging, comedy podcaster bro—at times not different from incels—who relish in dumb and dehumanizing speech for its own sake or for the cheap thrill of fleeting attention. And because they dwell within a culture that perpetuates impunity for ill-advised language that often targets the defenseless, this act of empty transgression persists. As a defense to any clap back, they would say something like, ‘can't you take a joke?’ This is not unlike a line Wolf's persona Ron asks, lip-syncing over a pre-recorded track, to an eerily empty theatre as if in an echo chamber—only speaking to hear himself speak.
Paired with 'Understudies' in this exhibition, 'Acts of...' serves as a kind of foil. Stand Up Ron is the type of figure whose verbal vulgarity would predictably target the performers in 'Understudies'. The cast of mainly femme, and non-binary performers in 'Understudies' recite lines like: "he doesn't believe in theatre". "He", being a domineering paternalistic figure, invariably out-of-touch, not unlike Ron. Despite a hovering Ron-like presence, each performer in 'Understudies' asserts and affirms themselves as an actress, in full colour, confident in the undeniable fact of their personhood.
Wolf’s work has circulated internationally including: HAU - Hebbel am Ufer; Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, nGbK, New Australian Art Biennial, Festival of Live Art Melbourne, VAEFF Film Festival NYC, Arts Santa Monica Barcelona, Schwules Museum, Sophiensaele, Münchner Kammerspiele, Arts House Melbourne; KW Institute of Contemporary Art, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kunstmuseum Basel - Gegenwart & Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
- Luther Konadu
Exhibition Response Text: Let’s do that again
Open palms caress air. Open palms cradle chins. Open palms hold fruit. Open palms bear weight. These hands rehearse their gestures – fingers to forehead, delicate archings across the brow. An accretion of actresses fainting, night after night after night. Always coming to the same folds and tensions anew. Elbow to waist, pivot step. A gesture is a statement, expression, communication, and a private message of loneliness – what dramatist Antonin Artaud calls “a signal through the flames” in his text The Theatre and its Double. Repeating the empty in hopes that one day it will be full.
Open palms stretch into tensed fingers. Fingers which expel text, conjure spells, clutch microphones, and gather folds of fabric. Fingers which wrap and smooth and wring.
Apparently Merce Cunningham approached his daily exercises, both at the ballet barre and through the chance dance, as a continual preparation for the shock of freedom. How much rehearsal will it take to be free?
Will the scaffolding of practice always be there, or will it melt away to reveal some authentic ‘real’? (my therapist says that there is no such thing as an ‘authentic real’)
Open palms mirror and cascade. If time is most assuredly understood in reflection, is presence more of an unfolding than a vigilance in attention?
Fingers balance a lighter. Fingers tuck fabric edges. Fingers pull a needle through white cloth.
Departing from Cunningham’s looping ronds de jambe and tumbling dice, mayfield brooks turns to the repetition in vibration in order to attune to the transtemporal unfoldings of any present moment. Repetition can connect us to ghosts. Repetition can work to unstick and can be an invocation of possibility. Their endurance suggests a presence, a state of being that is built upon repetitive acts.
Open palm across a face.
While repetition might appear as an attempt to capture, it may be better understood as the elision of capture. Perhaps within its mirrored folds, or in the practice of a differed same, exists a root of slippery difference, the atomizing of chaos. An attempt at the same can only impart the wildly different.
Brechtian textile backdrops present smooth fillings and emptyings of a capacious stage space. Up and down, gathered and stripped. The stage is constructed, revealed, taken apart, and re-created. A stage is a curtain on a rod, a dressing room mirror, a spotlight, a twirl, a gesture, a glance. The stage is a membrane, it is something one passes through. Looping choreographies stitch the proscenium back on itself.
Open palms endure.
- Jillian Groening
Jillian Groening is a dance artist, writer, and researcher based in Winnipeg (Treaty 1), MB.