First Beachcombers installation, Glass Cube Gallery in Frankston, Melbourne, 2006/7.

Viviane Vagh’s absorbing installation series, “Beachcombers”, is a celebration of fusion. Vagh explores the meeting points of natural elements, such as land and sea, of various art forms and of diverse cultures.

In doing so, she evokes the work of trailblazing Australian installation artists Ross Gibson and Kate Richards, celebrated for their explorations of art and communication in cross cultural contexts. The environmentally resonant aspects of Vagh’s series dialogue, also, with the intriguing installation work of Christine and Margaret Wertheim, whose current celebration of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs”, is touring the United Kingdom and the United States to exuberant critical acclaim.

Vagh’s deft combination of artistic mediums combines to hint at narrative threads that we are both invited and compelled to participate in creating.

The first of Vagh’s series, Beachcombers (Australia), was created and exhibited in Melbourne, Australia, and exhibited from mid-November 2006 to mid-January 2007. The second installation, Beachcombers en lumière and Beachcombers dansent en ville, was performed live twice in France – Beachcombers en lumière at Chartres, the cathedral town outside Paris, on 20 and 21 September 2007, as part of the city’s annual “Fête de la lumière”, and subsequently Beachcombers dansent en ville in Paris on 6 October 2007, as part of this city’s famed annual “Nuit Blanche”, a night kept “white” with the lights of live theatrical and musical events performed in public sites around the city. Vagh is currently working on the third installation in the series, Beachcombers in the heart of Athens, which will be performed live in Athens during the “Athens Video Arts Festival” held in Technopolis Athens on 15-17 May 2009.

Beachcombers (Australia), Beachcombers en lumière and Beachcombers dansent en ville are accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Vagh’s husband, musician and novelist Jonathan Levine.

The second installation, Beachcombers en lumière and Beachcombers dansent en ville, includes two live performers, a dancer Alice Azam and a musician and singer Beatrice Roy.

Beachcombers (Australia)

Front view, daytime, of the first Beachcombers installation, with daylight reflecting the trees in the street onto the glass to mingle with the installation.

The series of installations began with Vagh’s first piece, displayed in Melbourne, Australia, Beachcombers (Australia). The title fittingly evokes wandering along a coastline while combing it for hidden treasures.

The installation itself, nevertheless, elicits an experiential engagement with both the coastline and something deeper: the ocean bed. To engage with the piece will be to oscillate back and forth between a child-like pleasure in a coastline and a certain trepidation at what may lie beneath it.

The installation offers a rendition of an ocean-bed – an ocean-bed scattered, however, with the found treasures from the coastline that have been somehow returned to their source. Perhaps out of reverence and desired renewal, or perhaps out of something darker: an apocalyptic event? Or a less dramatic, but just as dire, gradual evaporation?

All of this dark and light, optimism and pessimism, is hinted at through the installation’s whirling combination of visual dimensions, and reinforced by its redolent soundtrack.

The installation is displayed in the Glass Cube Gallery in the city of Frankston, Melbourne, an approximately fifteen-feet-by-twelve-feet glass oblong which, in its fish-bowl like quality, appears to have been built to display oceanic evocations such as Vagh’s seascape. Vagh has lined the floor of the gallery with a dark matter, which suggests earth as much as sand. It works effectively to anchor the otherwise ethereal quality of the piece’s visual and aural evocations.

Over the dark ocean bed are arranged shells, colourful stones, foliage and driftwood which Vagh collected locally, on the Frankston shoreline. The compositions on first glance suggest a child-like sense of play: shells ordered into a spacious spiralling gyre, that at once evokes backyard snails and playground hop-scotch; driftwood tossed and just waiting to be climbed all over; brightly coloured stones reminiscent of grandma’s boiled lollies. The locally retrieved objects both reinforce the piece’s connection to the local Frankston setting and present the city back to itself.

Close up of a ground detail (sand, shells and pebbles) at the Glass Cube Gallery.

A creative riff on this theme includes a small square mirror placed on the ocean-bed. The play of light on the mirror renders its shiny surface liquid-like: an effective suggestion of the ocean-bed covered by sea water. It also reflects fragments of any passing-by activity from the street, including observers. The mirror hence transforms both passers-by and active viewers into mobile elements of the exhibit itself, in the form of their reflections. As such, the mirror extends Vagh’s theme of actively reflecting the city back to itself. It also subtly foreshadows the live performance components of the next installation in the series.

A delicate and captivating element of the installation is a large segment of flimsy white fabric displayed at one end of the piece. It works on a figurative level to communicate the white froth of ocean waves as they meet sand, while simultaneously exemplifying what it is: white fabric in a fictional seascape. The exemplification level introduces an eerie element to the piece, an eeriness conjured by that which the discarded white fabric could suggest: a woman once clad in its folds.

The installation’s accompanying sound track, composed by Levine, dialogues with the various physical, visual and thematic elements of the installation, in such a way that it subtly guides and enhances the spectator’s engagement with the piece.

The backbone of the composition is a perfectly rendered evocation of waves meeting the shore line. So much so, in fact, that you at first presume it is a recording of the sea. It is only after close scrutiny that you register that the artificial uniformity of the waves’ rhythmic pounding is what creates an intentionally hypnotic effect. To the waves’ pulsation is added another oceanic resonance. The distinctive echo heard when placing a large seashell to our ears. The mysterious hum we were told as kids is the sound of the ocean.

Evening view of Beachcombers (Australia): three of Vagh’s videos of the ocean and gum trees come on to light up and “animate” the installation.

Just as the visuals and music combine to draw us into a childlike experience of the ocean, high-pitched notes – suggestive of both a child’s music box and an amusement park carrousel – start up and continue in a minimalist repetitive cycle. The notes deepen the hypnotic effect and, in subtle fusion of the visual with the aural, educe a disconcerting response comparable to that elicited by the implied discarded white dress. While all these layers of evocation and suggestion are in play, the soundtrack introduces chords of a melodious, male chanting. It is as if a hymn of sorts is emanating from the ocean itself. We are no longer surrounded by the surface of the ocean, we are immersed in its depth, the installation-as-bright-seaside morphing into installation-as-dark-ocean-bed.

As dusk falls, the installation transforms for night-time viewing. A screen descends on the back wall onto which video footage of Frankston waves meeting shoreline is projected. The accompanying soundtrack continues, now in a deeper register, still featuring the “waves” as the predominant background, but now incorporating haunting chords created on the didgeridoo.

The overall effect is to induce a more sombre, mellow atmosphere while still, however, incorporating gently sparkling moments with notes generated on a percussion instrument, the triangle – an aural evocation of sunshine hitting the surface of water, as depicted in the projected footage of the Frankston shoreline, and suggested by the mirror’s surface. The multifaceted fluid fusions of Beachcombers (Australia) will continue and expand in Beachcombers en lumière and Beachcombers dansent en ville.

Beachcombers en lumière and Beachcombers dansent en ville

The second installation of the series was performed live in both Chartres, a town outside Paris, best known for its cathedral, and on the banks of the Seine, in Paris’ 13th arrondissement.

For Beachcombers dansent en ville, Vagh’s concept evolves into an outdoor performance/installation with singer Beatrice Roy, dancer Alice Azam and Vagh’s direct filming at the annual La Nuit Blanche, Paris.

Along with thematic continuities from the first installation in the series, it also retains from Beachcombers (Australia) the same footage of the Frankston shoreline, projected onto a wall, and the same evocative sound track by Levine. In addition, this piece includes a live musician on stage performing on various instruments, a live dancer, and a third intriguing live performance element performed by Vagh herself. Vagh is present on and around the circumference of the performative space, video taping the dancer and musician. The videoed image of the performers is then projected onto a second wall with a slight time delay of one second.

The images and aural evocations of the ocean retained from Beachcombers (Australia) provide a rhythmic backdrop of moving water, which will fuse with the various components of the piece, underscoring the liquid, mobile quality of the entire installation.

The theme of fusion of ocean and land and nature and culture that underwrote Beachcombers (Australia) evolve into more expansive notions of inter-cultural interaction.

The dark ocean-bed of Beachcombers here seamlessly evolves into a flooring of earth, populated with spindly and rugged plant life. Just as the ocean bed of Beachcombers (Australia) had an earth-like quality, this base of earth doubles as the ocean-bed to the footage of shoreline projected behind it. The same ground then returns, however, in an on-going cyclical rhythm, to playing the role of earth to alternative footage that is inter-cut with that of the shoreline: footage of an imposing Eucalyptus tree.

Low angle shots of a handsome gum tree incorporate an ample backdrop of bright blue sky. The dominant object of the composition is the tree, but the dominant colour is bright blue. This landscape footage is inter-cut with shots of Frankston waves meeting shoreline. As with the blue behind the gum tree, here the transparency of the water allows for the sand of the shore to shine through.

The dominant object of the composition is water, but the dominant colour is earthy sand. In the landscape footage, therefore, the dominant colour is that of the ocean (blue), whilst in the seascape the dominant colour is earthy sand.

Singer Beatrice Roy performing in Beachcombers en lumière, conceived for the annual Fête de la lumière, Chartres.

The theme of fusion is echoed and expanded in the live performance components of the installation. The footage of landscape and seascape are projected onto the wall of a building, with a large portal, in front of which the French musician, Beatrice Roy, plays her instruments (didgeridoo, conch shell, rain sticks). The inclusion of live performers is the most theatrical departure from the first installation of the series.

In Roy’s costume, Vagh plays homage to the tradition in French theatre of fore-fronting costumes within the mise en scène. The musician’s sumptuous outfit is a full-length, A-frame gown, with vast cavernous sleeves constructed of sturdy shot silk. The silk shimmers with diverse shades of blues and purples, depending on where the various sources of light strike it, dialoguing with the filmed images of sunlight shimmering over ocean water and gum leaves.

While paying homage to a French theatrical context, the costume also subtly hints at the ceremonial robes worn by Greek Orthodox priests when administering their religious rituals. The outfit imbues the musician with an imperious presence, while faintly foreshadowing the Greek element of the fourth installation of Vagh’s series, which will be created and performed in Athens 2009.

The theme of intercultural communion continues and deepens as Roy plays instruments made of natural materials – the didgeridoo made from Australian timber, shells from the ocean, handmade rain sticks containing soil and grains drums, and her own vocals, which create a shamanistic style chant. This French musician is engaging her own body with artefacts from the Antipodean land, sea and culture, to communicate with her audience and with her fellow performer, the French dancer Alice Azam.

Where Roy is dressed in a sturdy construction of a dress, Alice Azam is clad in flimsy, flowing, white material, apparently cast about her, more than constructed.

With the fluid agility (and impressive flexibility) of a professional dancer, Azam commits to a free-flowing choreography. Some of her movements suggest wave-like motions, as if she herself were a liquid component of the sea. Other movements suggest swimming gestures, as if she were diving into and traversing her fluid surroundings.

Dancer Alice Azam performing in Beachcombers en lumière.

In one segment of choreography, Azam archers her spine into a backward wave-like mobile posture, as if opening herself to the elements that are being evoked by the live music and the soundtrack. She then shifts into excited, rapturous movement before succumbing to a calmer, harmonious flow. She appears to have offered herself to the allure of the natural elements in which she is immersed. We can’t help but wonder if, in keeping with the installation’s motif of cyclical returns, chronology is being inversed here, and if her flimsy white fabric was already, or will become, the suggested cast-off fabric lining the fringe of Beachcombers (Australia).

The various evocations of the ocean in the choreography are echoed and mirrored by the accompanying visual and aural mise en scène. The projected video of the Frankston seashore continues, as does Levine’s soundtrack, and the live musical accompaniment, both of which incorporate sounds of the sea. The multi layered evocations of flowing water take on a cyclical quality in the live filming of the mise en scène which is then played back to the audience with a one second time delay.

Roy’s shamanistic chanting harmonizes with the visual and aural layers of fluid movement, while her statuesque robe and centred presence provide a counterpoint to the flow. She, together with the hypnotic quality of Levine’s soundtrack, transform what could be a vertiginous experience into a calmly meditative one.

Indeed, towards the end of the piece Azam appears to enter into a trance of sorts and peacefully descends to the floor, at which point Vagh shifts her camera from the dancer to the musician, whose projected image now takes centre stage. It is as if the human element has returned to the natural elements (the earth and ocean) from which she had emerged, leaving the spiritual presence in command; leaving, also, the audience eagerly anticipating the third installation in Vagh’s sumptuous series.

About The Author

Romy Sutherland is Adjunct Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA.

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