Sites of communication: when art takes your breath away

Friday 18 March 2005, and I am sitting downstairs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales main auditorium listening to Professor Ross Gibson give a keynote address as part of a two-day art museum’s symposium ‘Sites of Communication 2’. My job this afternoon is to give a response to Ross Gibson’s address ‘Theatres for Alteration’ .

One problem: I had been assured I would be given Professor Gibson’s address two weeks in advance of the event so that I might not only read and properly comprehend his address, but have time to compose a worthy response. The two weeks terminated without receiving the address, leaving me as new to its content as everyone else sitting in the dark of the auditorium that day.

Those familiar with the extent of Ross Gibson’s highly sophisticated theoretic work, will wonder why I had the audacious temerity to agree to respond in the first place. The first point I grasped of Ross Gibson’s subject just five minutes in, was my utter desire to join the ‘Theatre for Alteration’ to become someone, anyone, other than myself — immediately.

When it was my turn to stand in front of the full auditorium of art museum specialists that included just about every state and national art museum director in Australia, I instantly recognised the damage to my practice about to transpire as I stuffed up. There and then, I suffered a full-blown panic attack before I could utter my first sentence. Unable to breathe while not wanting to let on, the paralysing fear I was about to suffocate suddenly outweighed the paralysing fear of having to speak unprepared, which now seemed comparatively manageable.

At this point I discovered two types of breathless engagement in art. The first is frightening as experienced during a panic attack that takes our breath away, only to leave uncertainty in its place (will I breathe again?). Although I was experiencing the first, it was the second type that I endeavoured to describe to illustrate the rich value of Ross Gibson’s address in my response, that day, as I relayed this story …

One lazy Sunday afternoon some years back, I was at Melbourne’s St Kilda beach beside the pier taking in the relaxing breeze that wafted along the water’s edge, when I spied a family of four walking on the paved footpath that bordered the sand. The father and mother were in front, son and daughter behind. All looked gratified and pleased with their leisurely stroll when, suddenly, someone on rollerblades zoomed up from behind, semi-circled around them, said something and skated off.

Not unlike a pebble that disturbs tranquil waters, the family huddled together in a frantic whisper of ‘what did he say’ repeated again and again and more angrily each time, before a bomb seemed to blast from within their midst. First, the father ran out with his fist furiously pelting the air while yelling, ‘you’re the psychopath’; whereupon each family member repeated the gestural repudiation. The little girl’s voice throttled with incensed protest, was last to berate the long gone offender: ‘but you’re the psychopath’. Now individually dispersed in a myriad of solitary distractions that distanced each family member from the others, the four continued along the path, a shattered ensemble of their previously united contentment.

Dumbstruck by the ‘theatre’ of extreme ‘alteration’ that transpired before me, I too wanted to know what the person on rollerblades had said to have caused such a transformative rupture. Unable to ask as a bystander, for fear of causing further distress, I waited until the family had proceeded far along the path before I entered their footsteps, so to speak, to visit the scene of the crime. In search of an answer other than one supplied by my own prejudice (i.e. the person was known to the family and their response was part of an ongoing feud), I endeavoured to take in what the scene had to offer, only. After such rowdiness, though, ‘the scene’ appeared to be nothing, just the seeming emptiness of a comparatively dumb silence.

Downcast by this lack of success, my eyes focused on the path underfoot. Then it clicked. For there, at the exact spot the disturbance had hit the family, the universal symbol for a ‘cycle path’ was clearly painted. As is custom, if someone on wheels encounters a pedestrian straying on the wrong path, their annoyance is often tucked tightly into a tersely spoken ‘cycle path’ to the trespasser: the words the stranger on rollerblades had no doubt said, only to be misheard as ‘you are psychopaths’ by the family.

The disturbance experienced by the family could be said to parallel the experience we might have when we look at a work of art, where a bolt from behind and seemingly from nowhere can suddenly overwhelm us. Being overwhelmed this way can give us cause to be incensed (but this is not art, there is nothing here, it’s just a box, this is an outrage), whereupon our previously tranquil state suddenly alters into a state of conflict. There is, however, a difference between this and the breathlessness one experiences during a panic attack; where, during a panic attack, uncertainty takes hold to leave us feeling disconnected and disillusioned without having reached any true understanding (just like the family who, to this day, no doubt think they were unjustifiably accosted by a ‘psychopath’).

For the curious thing about art is that it enables us to realise that the ‘otherness’ that overcomes us, the strangeness that seemingly defeats us, is not necessarily a stranger (as per our rollerblader), but something of ourselves stimulated by the work of art. We realise this by discovering where we are in relation to this strangeness. By looking down we might see we are on a cycle path as a celebratory cause, and not as victims, of the disturbance.

This is the strangeness of art, a strangeness that lets us meet ourselves in a place we little expect ourselves to be. It is a meeting that has the power to take our breath away. Yet, within this minor suspension — this little about-face — we are somehow given breath to be free of hindrance.

Gail Hastings