A Performance in Openness (In Three Parts) by Dudley Benson: A fifteen minute performance in response to Rita Angus: Life & Vision Sunday 1st November, 3 pm Art Lounge Corner Lorne & Khartoum Free admission, limited seating

Dudley Benson’s A Performance in Openness took place on Sunday 1st November at Art Lounge. The venue has been annexed by the New Art Gallery. It was previously the Paramount (1999 Metro Restaurant of the Year under Paul Jobin) and the room remains much the same: the bar’s still there, but empty, and the pendant lights. The curtains are new.

A postcard produced in an edition of 100 describes the performance as having three parts with an overall duration of 15 minutes and as being “in response to Rita Angus: Life & Vision,” the comprehensive exhibition of Rita Angus’s work, which was finishing its stay at the New Gallery on the same day as Dudley’s performance. There was no programme but the performance was introduced by a lank salt-and-peppery guy with an ID card around his neck, presumably a representative of the Art Gallery, in the form of an apology for the late start.

A crowd had in fact amassed under the escalator by the time the doors opened and there was a great sale-time-like press forward to get a seat. The majority of the audience were older, women of a certain age, eschewing the blue rinse in favour of wearing their hair grey-to-white, their partners, and a number of intense-looking middle-aged men – art aficionados, or Dudley fans? A number of young fogeys with children and older parents with younger children, that category, were also scattered throughout the bar/room. I shouldn’t leave out the men who were dragged along, as they become important later.

Due to the advanced age of most of the audience you might have expected less of a cut and thrust approach to gaining access to what had been advertised as “limited seating.” No. It was like bargain tables at Smith and Caughey. The space had been set with a small rostrum with a mic, a double-keyboard harpsichord to stage-right, speakers on stands, basic lighting and three banks of seats in three or four rows, left, right, centre. The aged and infirm jostled the able-bodied aside and managed to claim what ought to have been theirs by right; the rest stood around, some leaning on a handy bar that someone had thought to leave in the room. It was a strange atmosphere and evoked the idea that the audience were actually the performance, which performance was already complete once we had assumed our positions, got our territories, and now stood or sat with general insouciance, swaying almost imperceptibly.

The Art Gallery guy introduced a woman who swayed perceptibly. I missed her name in the inaudible babble of self-complacent seat-occupiers. She was, allegedly, a friend of Rita’s and Dudley’s, for whom space had earlier been made in the reserved seating, centre front, displacing a younger woman, who had to stand and remain standing throughout. (The latter was however visited by a Katherine Mansfield look-alike in a sort of conciliatory gesture, before said look-alike returned to her front-row seat beside the friend of Rita Angus.) The friend to artists, herself also apparently an artist, although she resembled a patroness, produced from who knows where a handful of pages written on in blue felt pen. She spoke to this effect:

I am not going to introduce the music of Dudley Benson, because the music of Dudley Benson requires no introduction. I tend to think it speaks… What were we talking about before? [shuffle the papers] It would be presumptuous of me to presume to speak about or describe Dudley’s music. As it would any artist’s response. … But I will say this: Dudley’s music… Dudley I believe would like us to be… Dudley would like us to listen as an audience, to become a single, formal unity; I believe Dudley wants us to listen to his music… We his audience should constitute one single formal, Dudley wants us to. To become a single formal entity, to take on a unified and formal identity, when listening to his music, so when we listen to the outer beauty of his music we can penetrate to its hard inner core.

This sounded promising. But, once more, produced the impression that we had somehow been duped and that the performance in openness would be a parade of look-alikes, of arty clichés. That it was in fact finished before it began. Foreclosed.

At last Dudley took the podium. He wore a short hooded cloak in what looked like dark grey loden cloth, with leather buckled clasps. He wore black leather gloves, which made his fingers appear short and pointy. He wore woollen trousers and black leather shoes. (The postcard informs us that the cloak is by Matt Nash, hair by Rowan Duley for Stephen Marr.) His accompanist, the harpsichordist, wore an undistinguished dress in a shade of turquoise. Dudley took the mic from its stand and breathed in a sustained low groan into it. It was a diaphragmatic vocalised breath, the kind actors do off-stage to centre themselves… before coming on-stage and performing.

– Wilhem Reich, curiously subtitled “gesturing in jacket”

The groans rose in pitch. They had something Reichian about them. The sound also suggested the bull-roarers, the taonga puoro, like those Richard Nunns demonstrated during Dudley’s 2008 tour for The Awakening. Dudley began bowed over at the low extremity of his vocal range, groan… breath, rise, breath… And as the notes rose so did he, until he stood upright and could make eye-contact with his audience. The notes extended and varied ululatory, drawing the vocal line out, trilling, adding grace notes and ornaments.

– jade purerehua (bull-roarer) by Wayne Costar

The section closed with the harpsichordist striking a single note and repeating it rhythmically, Dudley high above. What was it about? Luckily I’d seen Russell Brand’s video, who is just as much the dandified style queen as Dudley, Doing Life Live, the night before and knew that when birds sing prettily in the trees they are really giving voice to the most brutal expression of territoriality. They are saying: Fuck off! So this first part of three might be called an evocation of place, an expression of territoriality. In this it further resembled the self-regard of those seat claimers, their unspoken song.

We were, you could say, grounded in the actorly grounding of the breathing exercise and included in its secretly brutal bull-roaring outbreathing groan. Which you could say the audience’s attitude of reverence played directly into: Fuck off! This is my fucking art! Or seat!

Here we all were isolated and included by Dudley. In short, located. It’s worth here forcing a correspondence with Rita Angus: sense of place.

– Rita Angus, Fog, Hawkes Bay, 1966-68

The second part was a conventional song. The lyrics described a window; it could’ve been a painting. An invitation was extended to enter the idyll outside the window. Nature, it was suggested, could heal. But the nature in the song was also the art of the song and by extension the art of painting. The window was its frame.

The singer had some doubts. There was some obscure personal conflict, articulated in political terms, with a terrible rhyme on “govern-mental-ly.” The promise that the singer could be healed came as an “I will he-al you!” A conventional salvation delivered in the protestant tradition to the isolated individual. The isolated individual formed by the first part of this Performance in Openness and, recall the show-warmer, as a “formal identity,” was being saved. Well, we all were, here, included, cordoned by roaring waves and bird song, by our unified identity as the audience, and Dudley, the accompanist, the performance, open to each other, in this bad room. It was a salvation, then, delivered by effort, as the friend of Rita had insisted, by our efforts to become a unified formal identity. Which is to say nothing of the style, which was Dudley’s personal fey form of originality, the emphasis resting on originality, authenticity. Which is how Dudley gets away with it.

– title of what appears to be a Japanese porn mag, not show actual size, which is not this one

Where another artist would long before have fallen victim to his own sincerity, Dudley is above it, directing it. However this is not say that it is not marred by preciosity; it is to say that it is enhanced by excessive preciosity: what we may call the dandiacal.

– it & a discussion of it may be found here

The song ended. I didn’t like it particularly. But what I didn’t like in it I could go upstairs to the gallery and see in the exhibition of Rita Angus’s painting: a sharp-lined, almost twee pop-ness; like an unwitting advertising campaign for a generalised landscape. Unwitting is key, since Angus’s originality is, well, found in the origins of her painting, in her development as a painter, which is all dreadfully sincere… and somewhat precious. Perhaps you could say, religiously precious. It smells of baking, biscuit crumb, which is the same smell, interestingly, as fragments of skin cooking on a heated towel rail. And on that you could be very religious.

The third part began with a blast of sound from the speakers, a burst of Ligeti-like micropolyphony. That got our attention. Dudley, having put the mic back on the stand, pronounced a vow into it: I commit myself to … Then he removed his black leather gloves, which made his fingers look short and pointy anyway. There was another burst of Ligeti-like vocal micropolyphony, or close canon. Dudley leaned into the mic and made another vow: I commit myself to … He then removed a his cloak, undoing the leather buckled clasps with measured movement. Again, a burst of Ligeti soundalike musical aggression. Or, better, Ligeti-inflected musical punctuation. A kind of arrow for St. Sebastian, who has the same smell as…

– Yukio Mishima, photographed, presumably, by Eikoh Hosoe, c. 1963

I commit myself to… And another item of clothing came off. It was approaching the time when young women turn to the men they’ve dragged along to check on them. What if…? They seem to say, with their conciliatory looks, apologetic for having dragged them in, perhaps. What if… Dudley takes his whole kit off? And: What if… it’s titillating… ? For me… or for him…? It was approaching the time when we would wonder about our attitudes to nudity on stage. But first we had to get through rather a lot of fine-looking kit, including some fancy brilliant white waffle-weave undy-shorts. And committals or commissions in equal number.

So as an aside: Crane Brothers, Murray Crane: Sunday, 15 March 2009 22:53, writes:

Dudley Benson is one of our most exciting musicians; it is so refreshing to listen to something so original.

We’re proud of our association with Dudley and the wardrobe we have helped create for him (at his direction of course). (here)

Dudley got down to his undershirt, just his undershirt, again white, supplicant white, V-neck if I recall correctly. Young women were now fixed on their partners, so as to seem not to be looking at Dudley’s penis, which protruded slightly from below the hem of his undershirt. An older woman tittered. But altogether there was the same sense of high seriousness that had prevailed throughout. Why? Why didn’t someone completely crack?

– Rita Angus, before

Possibly because of that thing, not that one, this: the religiosity of avowal. This is exactly what irks me in Rita Angus when it is (or she is) made the focus of work about her and exhibitions – as this one – of her work. The precious oaths she swore. To an art god.

– Rita Angus, after, happier, photographed, presumably, by Marti Friedlander

Pacifism. Chastity – or that no man come between her and her work; would Dudley want to commit himself to that one? An avowal of artistic creation … in all its beautiful forms. And an avowal of the land. The Land, capital ‘L.’

– J.C. Hoyte (1835-1913), The Pink and White Terraces

He got his undershirt off. There was a final blast of pseudo-Ligeti into his bare flesh. The flesh was real. Very pale. A lithe and largely hairless body. What once might have been called an epicene type, before the sexless or presexual became our society’s taboo. From the formally unified identity of the audience Dudley was handed what looked like a simulacrum of a grey army blanket to cover his nakedness. Woollen. Scratchy.

The guy who handed him the blanket was probably very nervous about timing. How much nudity was too much? Or is nudity an intensive quantity? Either it’s all on or it’s all off? The guy had a name-tag around his neck like the lank salt-and-peppery (non)introducing guy. Both wearing ID tags.

– hospital blanket sold for $15, 29 October 2009, details here, such as those that may have been made available at Sunnyside Mental Hospital, built 1863, designed by Benjamin Mountfort (link) a room of which was pictured on the cover of The Awakening by Dudley Benson, available here

In an art army, or hospital, where there are still scratchy woollen blankets to be had… Some even win art prizes. And where nudity still raises this question: Is it a cliché? Then, if it still raises it, it must be.

Then again, who other than Dudley Benson could have done this? As I’ve tried to articulate, this goes to his extraordinary and irreducible personal form of originality, his dandyism, yes, but also his art and his modernism.