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ritual as a tool for engagement

clare dyson


unpublished article. Please contact Clare for reproduction



Ritual as performance and ritual in performance are strong tools for audience engagement. Although uncommon in the performing arts, the visual arts, including performance-art, has a cannon of ‘ritual works’ that look to re-integrate the sacred back into society. Examples of these works are prolific but include Hermann Nitsch's works Orgies, Mysteries, Theatre projects that were repeated regularly throughout the 1970s, involving ritual, blood and live animal sacrifice and were described as “an aesthetic way of praying'."1 Other more contemporary and less obvious examples can be found in the visual arts when elements of the body, interaction and time are utilised as in some of Bill Viola’s The Passions series where daily rituals were filmed in real time and re-positioned as art. Or as is the case with Chinese artist Zhang Huan in his To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond executed in 1997 when he “asked a group of itinerant workers to stand silently inside a fishpond on the outskirts of Beijing in order to raise the pond’s water level”2 as both performance, ritual and visual art simultaneously.

It is the function of bringing society back into performance, however, that ritual works operate on a subtle and often profound level as a tool for audience engagement. My father introduced my brother and I to the power of ritual, community and shared experiences from a young age. Unlike most men of his generation he has spent his life nurturing and constructing large scale rituals as only an atheist can. Every week we would have parties, informal gatherings, card nights and an open house where people met, talked and lived. His central tool in his own unconscious experiment, was food. “If you feed them they will be happy” has always been his mantra. On some level this has ingratiated its way into my choice to choreograph and into the form of choreography I make. Collaborating with my brother (a lighting designer), we have often drawn on our father's tools of connection and, to be honest, engagement. During the early 1990s I worked primarily with site but in the mid to late 1990s, many of my works involved ritual and the communal rituals of food. Whether that was after or before the show or actually during the work. Some examples included: a sausage sizzle as in Spices (1999), inviting the audience to make pasta, watch performance and then eat the pasta as in the Light (1995) series at the Crab Room, childhood food available on entrance to the work about memories Traces (1994) and a full scale breakfast during the Council for Reconciliation commission Mootjee (2001) for the Prime Minister at Parliament House.

This crossing of boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar facilitated a freedom for audiences and sparked the interest of a group of Brisbane artists working in the 1990s as an engagement technique. Rachael Jennings, a visual and performing artist and long time-collaborator on the abovementioned workes, created a work called Tea in 1995 where four untrained performers met the audience at dawn and talked about the cakes they had brought, anecdotes about their history and then invited the audience to share them with cups of tea. Russel Anderson in the same show, made a series of kinetic machines to make the tea for the audience, integrating once again daily rituals that were familiar, with the unfamiliarity of the kinetic form.

During this time in Brisbane, another artist Kim Evans worked with women from the CWA and made a series of live sculptures or performances (titles were fluid then) which involved morning teas based around interviews with the women. The objects that were included where placemats made of lino, relevant newspaper articles and filled with stories from the women. The culmination of the work was the morning tea. The ritual was the work and clearly referenced seminal works from the 1970s including The Dinner Party by Julie Chicago.3

These works are simple examples of how daily rituals, and in particular the ritual of food, once integrated into a performance work, can ease an audience into a liminal space, not of unfamiliarity, but of familiarity and connection.

The abovementioned tools, facilitate a state of liminality in the audience where the known and the traditional are suspended offering spaces for new experiences, of both the process of art and the process of living, to take place.

1. Goldberg, 1988, p.163

2. Hoffman, 2005, p.98

3. Reilly, [n.d.],