Sunday, 2 February 2014

How NANA celebrates - An account by Nell Robertson

The rain was incessant the afternoon of the first opening. The gallerists were busy baking, icing, hanging, stuffing, and decorating. Somehow the food and props for live performances were transported to the gallery without getting too drenched, and at six o’clock people made their way by bike, bus, train or borrowed car into town. Jacquie and Madeleine looked at the sky and said to each other: ‘Great. No one’s gonna come,’ but we did.

When I arrived Madeleine was laying out dips, gherkins and other types of food our nans would have served at glamorous afternoon teas, back in the day. There were chewy lollies and liquorice in pink polka dot patty-cake cases that matched the straws. Madeleine handed me a champagne flute and stuck in a straw before popping the first bottle. We cheersed to people braving the rain. It was still pretty quiet – the crowds would arrive fashionably late.

Most people say ‘Pardon, sorry what?’ when I tell them my housemates have a gallery called NANA. I’m told the name could read as a play on MONA, the big art gallery in Hobart, or DADA, the quirky, anarchistic art people made to protest against the Second World War. It’s conceptual, as well. Nanas look out for the younger generation, not in a motherly ‘Why don’t you get a proper career?’ kind of way, but in a way that says Nana really believes your pipe dream can become reality, as she sneaks you another lamington.

Madeleine wore a shiny pink and silver brocade dress and heels; Jacquie was in a baggy jumper and long skirt and her blacky chunky sandals. They balanced beside each other on a chair to hang the sign that says NANA, giggled and rehung it for a photo, before stepping down to mingle.
The space became more crowded. A group of young guys appeared in braces and fake glasses, dressed as hipsterish grandpas, on their way to a buck’s party. Well-dressed diners wandered in on their way to the East End. At one point I glanced through the big sliding glass doors and saw a line of angels slowly hovering down the mall.
‘Am I hallucinating?’ I asked a friend.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I can see them.’
The angels moved as if they were floating. They had fairy-lights around their wings. They entered the gallery, wandered past the bar, gently placed their hands on the heads of the children in the crowd, looked at the mountain of pink and green cupcakes, resisted the temptation to stop for a snack, and hovered away.

We were ushered outside to watch performances in the two windows. These windows used to have mannequins in sophisticated David Jones outfits, so it was all the more strange to see two women in sheer body sacks doing buto, a form of Japanese contemporary dance that I find more than a little disturbing. The dancers moved jerkily, pressing their faces into the front of the sacks and their hands into the corners, almost synchronised but not quite. If they were telling some kind of story it would have been of a caterpillar trapped in a cocoon, a butterfly reincarnated into a human by mistake. A young kid walking past did a double take, and one of the performers winked and waved. A window cleaner came to do his job and they mimicked him until he’d finished his task.
That window was bare. The one beside it seemed to compensate for its minimalism: it was crammed with stuffed toys of all shapes and colours, in varying degrees of dismemberment. There was a vest and a skirt and some overall-suspenders made from the heads of fluffy animals and teddy bears. A performer appeared in a black onesy that covered her head to foot. It had a slit in the throat, and as the performer started dancing, she began pushing toys through the slit. It was like watching a birth, only instead of a baby, it was Elmo and Little Ted and one of the bananas in pyjamas being pushed out.  
We were kicked out of the gallery all too soon, but we stood under umbrellas finishing the last of the champagne. Nana never lets us go home early. We headed up to the top end of town for dinner, and ended with a wild dance session at the Terrace Bar.

There’s been another opening since then. I was working later that night so NANA didn’t leave me as hungover as the first event. I managed to catch an hour of the live performance: Jacquie’s friend Prince had dressed up in drag and brought a trolley of painting supplies on the train up from Sydney. Prince was wearing a chequered shirt, baggy pants, suspenders, big shoes and a realistic eyeliner beard. She frowned as she slapped the paint on the canvas, sucked on a cigarette, gulped wine, and infrequently scratched her groin. The performance was called ‘Paint Like a Man (Apparently)’, and as I watched I thought about how people often think my name is Neil instead of Nell. I’ve since been trying to write like a man, and it seems to be working. I mean, I don’t wear a moustache each time I pick up a pen, but when I try and summon the mindset of Bukowski or some equally successful writer who went from insecurity to cockiness, my feminine timidity seems to dissipate a little.
I saw a kid watching in envy as Prince covered the canvas from top to bottom. The kid seemed to think it unfair that he couldn’t contribute with some finger painting. Prince had been so nervous she’d practically been sculling her wine, but this little guy would have had no inhibitions about getting up there and painting in front of an audience. I guess the moral of the night was paint like a man, perform like a child.

The next opening is a show called Paris. It’s a series of artworks by a friend who has translated her experiences of ten months in the city of love onto blank canvas. I think there’s going to be lots of carousels.
            There won’t be any live performances this time, but it’s worth checking out the new artworks in the windows.
Naomi Mikhaiel’s Paris series premiers in Newcastle on the 8th of February, a Saturday afternoon. NANA’s promised not to spike the punch this time. You should come.


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