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Obi Chiejina blogs about Sue Austin's 'Creating the Spectacle' / 7 September 2012

Submerged, I Stand Proud, underwater wheelchair image of Sue Austin

Submerged, I Stand Proud. Image by Sue Austin

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Is it a fish? Is it an aquatic bird? Is it Stingray?  No it is choreographer/artist Sue Austin and a self- propelled wheelchair flowing between the two opposing worlds of nature and machine in the video installation ‘Creating the Spectacle!’.

Austin, multimedia practitioner, performance/installation artist and Artistic Director of Freewheeling trained as a disabled sea diver with the Camel Dive Club, Sharm El Sheik, Egypt in 2005.  Austin returned to the panoramic underwater theatre of the Red Sea to film the content of this aptly titled short film currently showing at the Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited Festival.

My initial response to seeing Austin drifting and swimming effortlessly amongst the coral and fish was to ask - what dramatic part is she playing?  Superficially Austin is sitting in a bog standard utilitarian wheel-chair and appears to be an unwelcome intruder in this blue deep-sea idyll. But look closer and you will see acrylic fins attached to the foot-rests, propellers fitted to the seat and torches fastened to the arm-rests.  The continuous sweeping movement of her arms might resemble human appendages, the wings of a bird, the gills of a fish, or the arms of a submarine.  

Now we must ask ourselves is Austin mimicking the swaying motion of the fish, adopting the contraction/expansion movements of the coral, or personifying the shimmer of the sea?   The self-propelling wheelchair is no longer an unwelcome guest but a member of this natural marine world.  Or was the inherent beauty of Austin and the wheelchair obscured by the dullness of the spectator’s imagination?  The questions and possibilities are endless.

What I loved about this short but engaging film is the way in which the production team gently encourages the onlooker to take a ‘ripple’ approach to seeing and understanding.  The audience member can look, look again, think and then reflect.  But above all the viewer is encouraged to look at this performance from two interrelated perspectives - namely artistic and cultural. 

From an artistic perspective Austin positions herself as a contemporary artist by combining performance, movement, video installation with the aquatic disciplines of diving and swimming.  Adopting such a flexible position gives Austin the freedom to explore the water metaphor to ask questions related to culture and self-identity.   Returning to the changing nature of the self-propelling wheelchair why do humans continue to use self-limiting cultural labels?

But if all this intellectual drama leaves you feeling exhausted then this versatile exhibit can simply be enjoyed as a sensory spectacle.  The intense colours - the vivid blue of the sea, the neon orange of the fish - are stunning.  And the rhythm (i.e. shoal of fish moving to the left and then to the right, and Austin’s arm gliding upwards and downwards) provided a soothing relief to the noise and bustle of the Royal Festival Hall. 

Like the fluidity of the Red Sea Austin creates a multi-layered dramatic performance as well as compelling the passive onlooker to become to an avid spectator.