Thursday, December 7, 2017

Shiny at Left of Main

Kelly McInnes' Shiny, on at Left of Main through this Saturday, is a bold and timely work. Given the ongoing fallout of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry that continues to dominate the news, it feels prescient that McInnes should be tackling in this piece the related (although admittedly not new) issue of representational violence perpetuated by the impossible standards of white feminine beauty circulated within glossy women's magazines--and consumed and internalized by readers of all genders. That pages from said magazines are themselves incorporated into the work and very materially structure the movement of bodies within it only helps to make physically manifest the problem of fit between flat images and live bodies that McInnes and her collaborators are trying to draw our attention to.

To this end, we enter the performance space to a striking tableau. McInness sits at a sewing machine stage left, decoupéd and laminated magazine pages covering her private parts, and with what looks like a film strip of more cut out pages hanging above her. Sitting on a stool centre stage is a clothed Maxine Chadburn; her back is to us and she is combing her long shiny mane of hair. In front of her is a lumpy quilt of even more stitched together magazine pages. Occasionally it seems to rise and fall, suggesting a body underneath. Stage right of Chadburn is something even more striking: what looks like a series of body parts, again made out of magazine pages, hanging from a makeshift clothesline. Further to the right there is also the hollowed out frame of a full-length mirror and some kind of body suit on the floor; it is also made out of magazine pages, the finished prototype of what we might assume to be the assembled parts hanging from the clothesline.

Sound cues--almost all of them related to stereotypically female domestic activities--are important in Shiny. Thus, following an opening address to the audience from McInness (to which I will return), when McInnes begins to sew this is the signal for Chadburn to turn around, a winning smile plastered to her face. She starts to disrobe, and then to draw the items on the clothesline towards her. One by one she slips them onto or wraps them around different parts of her body: a shoulder epaulet here; a shin guard there; one half of a breast plate; and then the other. All the while as Chadburn is donning her armour (a fitting image used by McInnes to describe this sequence during the post-performance talkback), her smile never wavers. But, as disturbingly, her movements become stiffer and more constrained: legs and feet have to be shifted and manipulated externally, as if Chadburn has become a mannequin. The effacement of Chadburn's real body is completed when she puts on the last item from the clothesline: a head mask with no visible holes from which to breathe or see, but with several pairs of photographed and airbrushed eyes and lips and noses nevertheless staring eerily back at us. (There is also the fact that this second skin into which Chadburn binds herself, combined with the sound and image of McInnes sewing throughout, put me in mind of the Buffalo Bill character from Silence of the Lambs, who wishes to stitch together a new skin for himself from the flayed corpses of his female victim.)

This sequence ends with Chadburn pulling the quilt on the floor before her towards her lap, attempting to attach it like a skirt with a needle and thread. But there is indeed someone under there, and she is not keen to give up her cover--or, perhaps more properly, to be exposed to our scrutinizing and sexualizing gaze. This is the third performer in the piece, Rianne Svelnis, who does end up losing the fight for the blanket to Chadburn. In exchange, Svelnis takes Chadburn's magazine helmet and places it on her own head, her subsequent blinded movements accompanied by the sound of McInnes using scissors to cut up another magazine. Eventually McInnes turns those scissors on Svelnis, cutting off the cubist montage of newsprint she had been wearing and dressing her in the French maid's outfit we are meant to understand she had been sewing all this time. This image is complete when McInness places a vacuum cleaner beside Svelnis.

The final section of Shiny involves all three performers attempting to reject, only to reincorporate (quite literally in one case), the proscribed images of white femininity to which they have become shackled. McInnes tries to feed the magazine pages hanging above her sewing machine into a paper shredder, but the laminate makes it jam, and so she decides to eat what little detritus she has made instead. Chadburn throws off her amazing technicolour magazine coat in a robust bit of floor thrashing, but ends up trying to tape herself into the abandoned body shell off to the right. Svelnis tries to suck everything up with her vacuum cleaner, including McInnes and Chadburn. The final image is of all three women sitting topless underneath the magazine quilt staring out at us with fake smiles that gradually grow more and more nervous and questioning.

Shiny has been workshopped over the past two years, and that clearly shows within the thoughtfulness and integrity of its dramaturgy. That extends beyond questions of design and mise-en-scene to the careful way McInnes has thought about the vulnerability of her co-performers (both of whom were eloquent in the talkback in elaborating on the physical and emotional demands of the process). My only real critique of the piece has to do with that opening address from McInnes. It comes in the form of an acknowledgement of her own (and her performers') privilege, that as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman she cannot presume to be speaking for or representing in this work the experiences of all women. I get that, but framing the show with this statement has the effect of overdetermining our interpretation of it, something that was confirmed for me by the fact that PuSh Festival Director of Programming Joyce Rosario asked a question about it in the talkback, and then talkback facilitator Ziyian Kwan invited McInnes to repeat it at the end of this post-show conversation. For me, opening with this statement suggests something of a lack of trust in the audience to do the work to arrive on their own at the same conclusion--or perhaps nervousness on the part of the creator that the work won't lead them to this conclusion. At the same time, it betrays the much harder work that the statement is standing in for: including non-white, or trans, or differently abled bodies into the piece itself.