Posted on: July 14th, 2015


[Spoken while dancing] Although I don’t clearly understand what I’m doing, nor perhaps do you fully grasp what you’re seeing, yet it still comes to life like this, unexpectedly. I want to keep dancing in such a way that deeply touches you for some inexplicable reason. (Kazuo Ohno)

A diagram of thoughts in space moves along these vectors: the idea of physical presence moving towards a sense of transcending physicality; the experience of being in a space translated into a reflection upon what that experience feels like. Choreographer and dance film-maker Sue Healey’s environmental screen-and-performance installation On view layers sensation on to time. In her video portraits of dancers, they exist as ephemeral beings, captured and re-played; fluid and atomised in the projected digital image.

The language of the screen-based digital portrait (or video portrait) is evolving. Like any portrait, the genre should succeed when it communicates a compelling sense of person-hood, or identity, or individual being. Other kinds of filmic forms can tell us about someone too: documentary might construct a ‘real’ world around a character to reveal how it moves within this space; narrative can evoke metaphors for personal events to ‘paint a picture’ of someone. Performance-art documentation can allude to the experience of actions and energies, a distillation of expression-through-the-body.

A video portrait can be hermetic, contained and quiet. A few floors up in an undistinguished-looking building in New York City, just below mid-town, is a big open work space. On the wall is a large high-definition flat-screen with an image of a magnificent snowy owl crouched on a silver branch against a geometric background of blue-on-blue spots. The owl’s black and amber eyes look out at me. After a period of quiet it calls out – a high-pitched cry. This video portrait by US theatre artist Robert Wilson presents a surreal interaction, like a dream in extreme clarity. In another of Wilson’s video portraits the bony hand of Japanese dancer and choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi turns and opens like a flower seeking the sun, the wind-instrument score by David Byrne equally plaintive and optimistic.

Here is movement through space, familiar but made different through a shift in perception. In 2011 London-born US-based artist James Nares drove through New York City in a van enclosing a high-speed high-definition camera, recording the everyday motion of the city he moved within. Finished with a layered and looping twelve-string guitar score by Thurston Moore, Street creates a world where all actions are languid and fluid, pedestrians and cyclists moving as softly as a pigeon taking slow-motion flight.

Here’s a strange kind of intimacy because David Beckham might be so well-known. He’s sleeping, slowly moving his bare torso, his arms gently wrapped around his chest. He’s sleeping on white linen, his bare skin close. This is British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video portrait of British footballer David Beckham, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Here he is, sleeping after a Madrid training session, just over a decade ago now. Happily exhausted, is he dreaming of football?

A couple of years later, another filmic portrait of an iconic footballer makes a connection to the inner world of the mind. Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and Algerian-born French artist Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane – A 21st Century Portrait is a ninety-one-minute visual composition. The temporal and spatial dynamic is powerful, constructed with footage from seventeen cameras following French footballer Zinedine Zidane during a 2005 Real Madrid vs Villareal football match (coincidentally Zidane is playing alongside David Beckham for Real Madrid). Here’s a capturing of the body’s movement over time, within the arena of football. Zidane’s movements are dramatized by the grandeur of film within a set of vectors, within the rules defined by the game. The video portrait is a depiction of an athlete and of the working of Zidane’s mind. Energised arcs of physical possibility and interactions with externalised physics are generated by the neurological mapping of Zidane’s athleticised body and his intuitive perception of the arena, the ball, and the other players. This energy is reflected by multiple camera angles, close-ups and wide-angle shots – an interplay of interior and exterior. The soundtrack by Scottish band Mogwai hums and vibrates like electricity – the brain’s quantum wet chemical firing, the rippling stadium crowd comprising thousands of bodies and minds.

Beckham sleeping, Zidane running – both naturally-actualised states of physical expression performed without self-consciousness. In a video portrait of Cate Blanchett her choreographed movements are symbolic. Australian artist David Rosetzky collaborated with choreographer Lucy Guerin and composer J David Franzke to create the video portrait commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. The opening close-up depicts the actor’s hands moving delicately and carefully through a sequence of gestures that could be abstract forms of communication. As a reflection on the craft of acting, the portrait ponders Blanchett’s relationship to the roles she plays. Her voice floats across the sequence of scenes in the video. ‘Very early on,’ Blanchett softly states, ‘I realised that exactly what I thought I was communicating, would be, or could be received by someone in a completely different way and you can’t control it, you have to give that over. Interpretation you have to give over.’

Sue Healey’s filmic portraits of dancers seek to communicate aspects of self-hood expressed through the body, choreographed as a distillation of inner-being. Here is a form of expression that is unencumbered, modelled by energy that is changeable, reflective of modulations in mood and feeling. Healey has her dancers interact with their projected images. More than dancing in the mirror, her performers create a constantly evolving sense of being that is multi-dimensional. They unfold time.

The soul is the prime mover in dance. Are we conscious of our feet when walking? No, how could you figure out your steps and walk at the same time? Don’t we walk by placing one leg in front of the other? We’d never be able to walk were we to think of which leg to put down first. When a mother beckons her child to come to her, it runs toward her, instinctively. Like life itself, we can never stay still. (Kazuo Ohno)

Dr Christopher Chapman is Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Quotes by Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010) from Workshop Words / Keiko no Kotoba, Film Art Sha Tokyo 1997, translated by John Barrett in Kazuo Ohno’s world: from without & within, Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 2004.