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PAWA 23: Quinoa on ‘Penelope’s Window’ by Sam Trubridge

PAWA 23: Quinoa on ‘Penelope’s Window’ by Sam Trubridge

Written By Quinoa / Chris Kirk – 2023Written responses were curated and edited by Sasha Francis
Quinoa / Chris Kirk
Sam Trubridge
Quinoa /...
Sam Trub...

From 2 to 4 November 2023, for three hours each day, artist Sam Trubridge rowed a small dinghy around in circles in the Wellington harbour while reading Homer's Odyssey aloud as part of Performance Art Week Aotearoa (PAWA), a performance called “Penelope's Window”.  The audience accessed it from one of two locations.  On the beach behind Freyberg Pool he was visible out on the water and audible through bluetooth headphones reading the Odyssey amidst the noise of wind and his clanking oars and the connection cutting in and out.  Across town, near the main PAWA venue in Mount Street Cemetery, there were three telescopes pointing towards the harbour and three headphones with more reliable Zoom audio.  Spectators could zoom and focus the more modern telescopes until he was perfectly clear, a small lonely figure out on his boat, rowing and rowing but never leaving the telescope's round frame.

The Odyssey is generally familiar because it is studied it at school and remains vividly in the mind.  It is about hero Odysseus returning home to Ithaca from the Trojan War over ten years, having many adventures on the way, while his wife Penelope waits at home for a total of 20 years, not knowing if he's dead or alive.  It is a mythical urtext of the West, a civilisation known for its ocean-faring imperialism, that celebrates a war hero and traveller.  Considering the title of the performance, we are Penelope, Odysseus's neglected wife, watching wistfully from the shore while our man labours fruitlessly on the ocean.

 

The work was an interesting mix of conceptual and tangible elements.  The artist placed himself in a potentially hostile environment, and though he successfully stayed above the water and didn't venture too far from land, he nonetheless faced elemental exposure to the sun, wind and rain, only the latter actually interrupting the performance.  Sam told me, “I was surprised by just how synthetic the image of me through the telescopes seemed and how it appeared to be operating within some kind of colonial diorama - as if I were viewed from the past.  This is how someone described it.”  The limits of our technology give us a reduced-intensity distance to view the action from, but they also offer a commentary on human striving, its smallness and insignificance.  Something otherwise extremely dangerous becomes relatively safe.  Without boats, telescopes and radio-communication technologies we would not be able to stretch our tiny bodies into such dangerous situations.

The intention of the work, Sam says, is to “satirise the white male protagonist of 'discovery' narratives”, part of the post-colonial work of breaking down the myths that led to the colonisation of Aotearoa.  There was certainly a level of humour involved in knowing how hard he was working down there while we could access the work with casual ease.  The futility and absurdity of the action undermines our cultural tendency to make heroes of those men who put themselves in harm's way for discovery and dominion, and the text is an example of such a story.  However, we come from a colonial nation where the indigenous people have an equally impressive tradition of perilous journeys across the ocean, often to find new lands.  Although Maori didn't have the perceived moral superiority of Christianity, they did have culturally-significant stories of ocean-traversing heroes, including Maui, who fished the North Island up out of the sea.

 

The reading of the Odyssey, a 2700-year-old European text, underlines the established nature of such hero myths.  However, the Odyssey, according to the artist, “resisted some of my intentions while revealing unforeseen connections” and in subsequent performances he may instead use “James Cook’s diaries or other texts written by settlers and explorers” for more clarity.

 

The image of the man labouring in the wilderness alone is one that resonates in society in other ways, with a generation raised by single mothers maybe not so different from previous generations with fathers who worked long hours and were emotionally distant.  It reminded me of a memorably poignant quote from TV series The White Lotus: “I feel sorry for men. They think they're out there doing something really important, but they're just wandering alone.”  The distance at which the artist labours creates the appropriate window through which to observe the experience of the neglected family members.  The futility of the artist's action is certainly evident and was commented on by the audience. 

The themes of “exploration, dominion and a preoccupation with the sublime” (PAWA website), an attempt, in the artist's words, “to explore the colonial trauma contained here” were less embedded in the nature of the work as performed and as experienced by the audience and more in its conceptual nature, as discussed and written about.  Although the presence of late-19th century graves by the telescopes were a poignant connection to the past.  The artist resists the term “conceptual art” because the work “was a very embodied experience for a specific time and place”.  This was undoubtedly a very embodied experience for the performer, who may very well have experienced the sublime in his exposure to the natural environment and the physical exhaustion of his action, but the majority of the ten people I saw engage with the work over the full three hours of the work's final day looked through the telescope briefly and with little engagement, perhaps reflecting further on the full context subsequently.  Unlike other works in the festival, where the performer has a complex experience right in front of you, the entirety of the complexity of this work can be explained to a friend, and thus its impact and legacy is conceptual.  It has a complex juxtaposition of elements that are interesting to talk about but do not leave any mysterious, unnamed sensations in the body.

 

Sam Trubridge's contribution to PAWA with “Penelope's Window” is exemplified by its distinct contrast to the other performances, its expansion of what can be perceived as performance or as art.  Discussion about the festival is enhanced by the presence of something extreme but not controversial, unusual but tangible.  It is able to be understood and discussed by people who may find challenging that which is ambiguous, chaotic or emotionally intense.  The thrill of the event of the Week is enhanced by the knowledge that simultaneous to many other events there is an artist working out in the middle of the harbour, and we can verify this by simply walking to the hilltop and looking through the telescope.  It is a joke because it is pointless, a satire of the futility of heroic action, but it really happened, heroically he pulled it off, and surely it was not easy.

 

 

Quinoa / Chris Kirk is a queer writer and performer currently based in Wellington who frequently travels the world for art and community.  He writes about cinema, he writes about the pain, beauty and social implications of being alive and he wrote the book How Australia Made Me an Anarchist about traveling in Australia for two years with no money. His work can be found at www.quinoablessed.com and soundcloud.com/christ-kirk

PAWA 23: Quinoa on ‘Penelope’s Window’ by Sam Trubridge

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