Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

The Fabric of a City

by Giselle Stanborough

15 Jul 2011

Within & Without, Blacktown Arts Centre, Sydney, 23 June - 2 July 2011.

It is no easy task to evoke the essence of place for an audience who is physically removed from it. In Within & Without, a portrait of the city of Manila, Paschal Daantos Berry, Deborah Pollard and their collaborators, Valerie Berry and Anino Shadowplay Collective, evoke aspects of the city that Google Maps cannot: the smell of wood and incense, the quiet scraping of ‘walis tambos’, and the complex combination of sweet and salty flavours in ‘adobo’. To borrow a phrase from the ever-erudite Joseph Rykwert, it is the sensual ‘fabric of the city’[1] that forms the conceptual basis of the entire production.

What aspects of Manila that Berry, Pollard and their collaborators cannot replicate with verisimilitude they treat with pronounced theatricality. The work occurs within an installation/set made from miniature cardboard replicas of the city’s architectural icons. Clearly crafted by hand, these models combine a makeshift chaos with an attention to detail that lends an air of poetic fragility. Similarly, the use of shadow puppetry has a stylized tactility and ‘real time’ aspect that complements the episodic structure of the performance, while also being the most sophisticated way in which the performance unifies its ‘contemporary’ form with the conventions of an underlying ‘folk art’.

Throughout the performance the audience is divided into smaller groups that are lead on a pseudo ‘tour’ of a small part of ‘mini-Manila’. These moments were for me the most affecting, having both a sense of authenticity and intimacy. My particular tour was based around the derelict Monument to Boy Scouts. Originally erected as a memorial to 24 boy scouts who died in a plain crash en-route to a World Jamboree, the dilapidated memorial is now encircled by trendy cafes, retailers and other hallmarks of bourgeois consumption. The story lacks the internecine conflict of the War years, and the ostentatious tyranny that typified the Marcos era, but was delivered by such an earnest raconteur that I found it a very moving example of Manila’s apparent habit of subsuming the tragedies of history into an environment of aspirational urban chic.

It is an emphasis on sensual engagement with space that distinguishes Within & Without as an immersive experience, and takes the project beyond an exercise in mapping to one that is able to fully illustrate the tenacious connections between culture and place. The smells, tastes, sounds and stories of Manila are not merely an accoutrement of place; it is the articulation of the inhabitants and the means by which the artists express the tension of a city caught between the tumults of its history and its grandiose aspirations.

Within & Without was a collaboration between Performance Space and Blacktown Arts Centre.

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[1] Joseph Rykwert, The Seduction of Place: The History and Future of The City. New York: Vintage, 2002.