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Monday 14 March 2016
The chimpanzee lay on its back under an opaque sheet of plastic. Its arms were raised, as though trying to push the suffocating covering away. I couldn't see its face; only the ghostly outline of fingers and stiff black limbs.
I was with Festival director Wendy Martin behind the scenes at the WA Museum, in the humidity-controlled storerooms in Welshpool where the museum’s vast collection is being gathered while its new Perth residence is built. Executive Director of Collections and Research Diana Jones, herself an aquatic zoologist, curated a seamless tour for us – we wandered between shelves stacked to the ceiling with marine creatures and reptiles in over 2.5 million glass jars of yellowing ethanol, along walls of hand-labelled archive boxes full of fragments of rock. At every door a smiling scientist steered us enthusiastically into another realm of matter, leading us through human time to life’s long span, and into the blacknesses of geological and galactic time, all the while pressing precious, silent objects into our hands.
From heavy slabs of Kimberley zebra stone formed by rhythmic precipitation of iron, to a roil of black-banded snakes in a jar, from the brown and mustard harlequin panels and broad arrow stamp of a threadbare convict jacket to drawers of spotted owls and turquoise-winged kingfishers lying stiff and parallel, this place is an ark of the little-known, the lovely and the lost. Wendy put a fingertip to a tiny chip of grey stone in a plastic box: 'I'm touching Mars.'
That chimp, we’d like to think, once swung hooting between dark trees. But no, it had never been wild. It was an actor – an extra in the original Jonny Weissmuller Tarzan film, apparently, and a heavy smoker. At home among humans, famous but not free, it was carefully preserved using arsenic after death, and now finds itself in limbo, somewhere between fish and fowl, draped in plastic on a wooden shelf. I learned about the arsenic after patting the snout of a balding black bear, and spent the rest of the afternoon neurotically wiping my hand on my jeans.
Here is the taxonomy of wonder: this rounded red lump of meteorite is 4.6 billion years old; this pitted grey stromatolite was once covered with slimy Cyanobacteria which produced the world's first oxygen through photosynthesis over 3 billion years ago. The story of everything is suspended here – in preserving fluids, on pads of cotton wool, in boxes and in the utopian glass cases of Victorian dioramas – held back from disintegrating and returning to dust. A tonne of which, according to Annie Dillard, rains down on earth in the form of micrometeorite particles every hour. We’re bathed, she says, in dust and spiders’ legs and rubber particles, and must sweep and sweep to keep our paths clear and our heads above the detritus of the universe. But the objects in the Museum’s beautiful collection maintain their form in temperature-controlled stillness, and through constant human effort and attention keep time and entropy at bay. Under observation, under plastic, their mute histories are held in cells and crystal structures, in handwritten labels on feet and wings, in glass eyes and the copperplate handwriting of archivists now turned to dust themselves.
Museums used to collect objects, lots of them, but as WA Museum director Alec Coles points out, now they gather narratives. And objects themselves, human bodies among them, are not ‘things’ but places where events happen. Those bodies of matter, those bodies that matter, live again, are renewed and reformed in the telling, in the restoration of context and connection with one another, with us.
Last week I saw people under plastic too – the naked dancers in Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues’ Pindorama. And that piece too expanded time like a balloon, seeming to encompass Brazil’s colonial history and the dispossession of indigenous people everywhere ('Pindorama' was the Tupí name for Brazil at the time of Portuguese colonisation), while at the same time, perhaps, suggesting vulnerability, interdependence, persistence and community in the overcrowded, mythologised and violently policed favela da Maré in Rio, where Rodrigues has based her dance company since 2003. Unlike the objects in the museum, the dancers moved: stranded in a sea of plastic, they rolled and recoiled, were flung by pulses of air and energy propelled along the sheet by dancers at either end. At times they were thrown back by a storm of plastic, a streaming white torrent, and the audience sitting and standing around them squinted against wind and spray as the wet sheet cracked and billowed. At other times they were under the plastic, pressed against one another, seeking refuge from the constant movement. Their bodies, unlike the objects in the museum, were entwined, grasping, pleading, living. But I couldn't see their faces either, only the opaque outline of raised arms and reaching fingers. And we stood looking down on them, in confusion and compassion, our own bare feet wet like theirs but our bodies clothed and apart, the power in our position relative to theirs, in our freedom of movement and expression.
Pindorama is a work of rage, ritual and tenderness which I can’t now separate from the visit to the Museum collection, and from the vibrancy of ‘things’ and their unspoken stories. Rodrigues makes no distinction between her dance and the heterogeneous society in which she lives and works. There are many ways of knowing the vibrant matter which is us and surrounds us: indigenous ways, scientific ways, from above, below, within. But it’s only through the act of holding, sharing and narration – the restoration of context and connection – that freedom of movement and meaning, in our lives and in our relationship with our material and imaginative
worlds – becomes possible.
Photo: Sammi Landweer