The voice is black - like the shadow that engulfs the room. I follow it down a red satin corridor and find myself in front of its owner. Perched upon a make-shift stage is a brightly lit showgirl crowned in black feathers. Elaborately bound from ankle to elbow, black knots cross her naked body forming diamonds in her skin. I’m not sure whether the ropes that tie her to the iron beams above are constricting her or actually holding her weary body up. She takes breath and begins the song again. By this point, she has been singing Surabaya Johnny, an iconic love song from Weimer Germany’s cabaret scene, repeatedly for 4 hours. Sarah-Jane sings in German but it’s clear her words are for a mysterious man, whose name is repeatedly drawn out in whispers and bellows...a man who takes her away, steals her heart, and abandons her. This mournful tale is sung again and again. As a displaced child who still loves the man who has left, and as a back-stage showgirl with an audience of one, Sarah-Jane will not stop singing. I study her glamorous face, and can’t take my eyes away from hers, which are bandaged shut. The longer I stare, the more I wonder if its not the pain she is trying to shut out, but rather the pain she is trying to keep close. If forgetting is a survival tactic, its opposite is willful remembrance. Sarah-Jane continues to sing, and I wonder when the blood circulation will cut, when her throat will swell and choke, and whether her body shall be willed into remembering...Here it is heavy vessel, loaded and empty with histories, narratives and the desires of empires; of its sailors and soldiers returning to estranged homes, of its comfort women across the seas, and of its children born to neither...Sarah-Jane reminds us of the black knots that elaborately bind us together, no matter how hard we try to forget.
Joon Lyn Goh, This is Tomorrow
Songs of Rapture and Torture is a quartet of performances is comprised of three durational works and one performance for video. Each piece is structured around a re-interpretation of an iconic love song. In this work Norman persues the greater potential of this form as a vehicle for performing desire, grief, longing; any of the fractions which make up the sum of “love”. The formula that applies to popular song of the last century dictates brevity. The torch song, for all it’s expanse of feeling, is seldom greater than three minutes in length. What happens to this mode of performance when it is stretched out over a duration of several hours? What hidden depths are uncovered in endless repetition and variation? and what happens when the mode of spectatorship shifts from the large, cohesive “body” of an audience of many, to the singular body of a one-to-one participant? A series of elegaic dedications, the series re-considers the popular love song as a mutable vessel of cultural and corporeal meaning. By re-performing a series of time-worn ballads, often under conditions of physical duress or endurance, the artist seeks to stretch the capacity of this most enduring of human art-forms to accomodate a queered embodiment of love's archetypes.
#1 (Surabaya Johnny)
Audience enter one at a time to find the performer bound, with her eyes sealed, wearing a the sumptuous headdress of a showgirl. Outwardly, she is unresponsive to the coming and going of the single participants, who remain alone with her in the space for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes.
She remains committed to the task, which is to sing the Brecht/Weil classic, in its original language, over and over again until her voice breaks. The work increases in duration each time it is performed, the longest to date being 8 hours.
#2 (Don’t Leave Me This Way)
A performance for video, in which the melancholy undertones of disco are evoked in the service of a subtle narrative of family, sexuality and loss. Four monitors face each other in a grid, with the audience in the centre. On the first monitor plays a static etxterior shot of a house in suburban Sydney; two others alternatively scroll text over a black background- one, the disjointed lyrics to the song, the other, a similarly disjointed narrative in which the artist recalls to memory the contents of a home video which was shot of her as a small child, and subsequently lost. The final monitor plays Norman's recreation of that original video- in which, naked from the waist down and wearing only a white singlet, she sings the iconic ballad, repeatedly, and deliberately off-key, directly to camera.
#3 (Walk on By)
In a shopfront on a public street, the performer becomes a singing mannequin. She sings for up to five hours straight, repeating a range of gestures based on moves of Motown back-up singers. Her gradual physical and vocal disintegration becomes an uneasy spectacle for passers by. A pane of glass stands in as a metaphor for the acute isolation of grief.
#4 (Never Tear Us Apart)
An undocumentable performance that takes place in complete darkness. Audience are invited to travel to a hotel room, at a designated hour between 9pm and 3am, under the strict request that they are to come and leave alone. Upon arrival they are invited to enter the room where they find the artist awaiting them. A unique encounter which considers the depth of the most fleeting of intimacies.
These works have variously been presented by Performance Space, Sydney; Fierce Festival, Birmingham; and Serial Space, Sydney.
Image: Heidrun Lohr