Pleasure and ordeal are sometimes separated by a fine line. Think bungee jumping, fairground rides, or one-on-one performance – often these experiences balance us on an edge; a place of intense ‘feeling’ that challenges the way we see ourselves. Hold is an experience, an encounter – a Gesamtkunstwerk and bouncy castle rolled into one. Artist David Cross spoke with Urszula Dawkins about his fascination with exploring the limits of participatory art, and his drive to lead audiences into enticing and challenging spaces…
David Cross has always been interested in immersive environments, he says, “drawing audiences into what appear to be playful inflatable recreational structures, only to insert unforeseen and potentially disturbing components or performative scenarios”. In creating Hold, Cross says, the aim was to explore the notion of ‘trust’, in particular.
“Part of this relates to my interest in creating the circumstances in which an audience member might be disarmed, unguarded, and above all challenged to reflect on their limits and thresholds. Having [previously] made a number of works that a multitude of people could engage with at the same time, I was also interested in creating a very large installation that required a one-on-one engagement.”
Hold, presented by Arts House in association with this year’s Melbourne Festival, requires each participant to enter a large blue inflatable structure and then to figure out how to proceed; experiencing the intimacy of the work alone and unmediated.
“Maybe it is a carry-over from my interest in performance art – and in particular, live work that viscerally and conceptually challenges our understanding of self. I have a sense that we naturally create a protective boundary and distance from objects and people that ensures a certain equilibrium and safety – but the trade-off from this is a propensity not to engage; not to reflect in a profound way on our fears, phobias, pleasures etcetera…”
“There is always a trade-off between the simple childish pleasure and joy of inflatable structures (bouncy castles), and something more risky and uncertain. The work tries to penetrate that protective barrier, but in unexpected ways.”
The word ‘trade-off’ comes up frequently with Cross, pointing repeatedly to that point of uncomfortable (or pleasurable) balance. Physically creating the structure depended on a trade-off too: Cross worked closely with a designer to create what he calls “such a large inflatable work that had to do very particular things, with only air providing the armature”.
“All of my works begin with a potential scenario, a challenge or an ordeal that I plot for the audience, that I then try and wrap an architectural structure or apparatus around… There was a lot of back-and-forth between me and the designer: I am trying to describe the experience and what has to happen in the work, and he is trying to ensure the structure can do everything I need, including a sufficient level of safety.”
There’s always a risk that the structure won’t work once it’s built, says Cross. It’s a measure of New Zealand manufacturer Canvasland, he adds, that Hold functions as intended.
In an earlier catalogue essay for Hold, Cross devoted considerable space to the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’. It’s a concept with complex and sometimes fraught associations – from Wagner’s opera to Disneyland. What interests Cross is the way multi-sensory spaces can operate to engage, activate and confuse all of the senses at once – “in interesting ways”.
“There is the whole history of totalitarian spectacle that also exists in [the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk]”, Cross qualifies, “so I would not unconditionally valorise it. But I guess I am compelled by a scenario that is completely immersive and removes us temporarily from conventional spaces and experiences.”
Hold seems to bring together a form that invites child-like freedom – the inflatable play-structure – and the kind of wariness or fear that we learn as we grow up, always calculating risk and consequence.
“Certainly I am interested in risk and how our propensity for risk shifts as we get older. I am also fascinated at the malleable boundary between pleasure and fear, and how we come to define and respond to each.”
Ultimately, Cross says, he hopes Hold allows participants “to experience an unguarded moment – and maybe, just maybe, learn something about themselves.”
Arts House, Meat Market
Fri 19 – Sun 28 Oct 2012
(03) 9322 3713