Circuit Artist Film and Video Aoetearoa New Zealand
Let’s Get Physical: looking at the work of Rebecca Ann Hobbs
by Megan Dunn
The dance. To dance. We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, cause your friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, well they’re no friends of mine. (1) Matisse’s five pink dancers in their looping merry go round. Nicole Kidman hanging around the corner of a rooftop apartment in an overblown Chanel ad: ‘I’m a dancer,’ she says. ‘I love to dance.’
It’s not often I feel stuck on a review, fretful that I will fail to capture the magic, but Mangere Mall is a video worth watching, not reading about. And yes, it’s a video built around dance. Not just any dance either. Uh-uh.
Mangere Mall is a celebration of waacking, a style of street dance that originates from Black and Latino gay nightclubs of 1970’s Los Angeles. The dance references I’ve made above are decidedly white, and Mangere Mall is a place not commonly associated with whiteness. Nor is it here, in the video art of Rebecca Ann Hobbs.
Framed by the arched canopies of the Mangere Town Centre, its columns painted with motifs of palm trees, the VOGUE dance crew strut, pout and pose to the syncopated rhythms of the soundtrack. The camera jumps and cuts, like an arm out of waack. For those not in the know: ‘…a basic ‘waack’ is a movement of the arm, but waacking developed to consist of arm movements, footwork (which can take inspiration from jazz, house, tap etc.) and elements of drama, all of which are largely unique to the individual dancer.’ (2)
Hobbs own statement about Mangere Mall opens with the facts: ‘Five cameras, six dancers and lots of movement.’ This sentence doesn’t describe – or overshadow – the sheer exuberance of her video, which is a significant formal achievement and a fascinating, user-friendly artwork, ripe with humanity. I first saw the work at St Paul Street Gallery, as part of In Spite of Ourselves: Approaching Documentary, but I’d heard about it before hand. People were talking about Mangere Mall because it’s so technically tight.
In Spite of Ourselves has recently opened at the Dowse and Mark Amery lists the video as a favorite. ‘Beautifully framed and paced, the work feels both spontaneous and structured.’ (3) He’s right. The spontaneity of the dancers facial expressions, their body movements and tics, are accentuated by the multiple viewpoints, the deft camera cuts. The mall becomes their arena, the stage for what is utimately ‘the dance of life,’ although not as Matisse and Munch knew it.
Instead we’re looking in on a Polynesian world and the sexuality on display is well, a little bit gay. This actually seems apt, because Mangere Mall is a joyful video that comes across as triumphant rather than critical. It intrigued me that Hobbs, an Australian artist well known for her appreciation of all things dance hall, is actually white. I don’t want to over labor this point, but learning about the colonial gaze was a key part of my education and cultural ownership and sensitivity remain high on the agenda in the art world.
During my preparation for this review, I asked Hobbs a series of questions over email. I did this out of a growing sense of paranoia that I might offend someone if I didn’t get the ‘facts right.’ I’m not highly comfortable talking about work that addresses different cultures and ethnicities; the politics can feel so fraught. I’m still that oh-so-white girl that used to live in Koutu, a very Maori populated suburb of Rotorua.
Hobbs is obviously highly aware of the polemics at stake too. ‘I live and work (at Mangere Institute of Technology)in South Auckland, as this is my lived experience it seems appropriate to address the politics of this place. Of particular interest is how sites carry meaning and oftentimes clearly present major issues of concern. Mangere Mall is an acute representation of this: it was built by the 1970’s New Zealand government as part of a state housing program, strategically located near an industrial centre. The vernacular canopy structures of the mall are visual signifiers of the community that has come to call Mangere home.’
However what’s so significant about Hobbs practice and the achievement of her recent video work in particular is that it doesn’t feel like ‘a comment.’ The art is richer than that, deeper. It’s working on a variety of levels, as multilayered as the video of Mangere Mall itself, which combines Hobbs vision, the artistry of the VOGUE dance crew, the work of a choreographer, and a soundtrack by Sweat City Heat Wave.
The soundtrack entitled, Tropicalinare, is worth considering in its own right. The beats are unusual, I found myself continually returning to the image of a child’s music box; that wound up mechanical sound has such a peculiar tinny pitch. The distinctiveness of the soundtrack is part of what distinguishes Mangere Mall from standard MTV fodder. The influences of the track are said to be electro, aqua crunk, ghettotech and hip hop. Aqua crunk!
This brings me on to the matter of onomatopoeia. Hobbs natural affinity for movement and sound translates into many of her titles: Ah-round; Suck, Roar; and Failing, Falling, Flying. An early series of her photographs depicts people frozen in motion, a man falling backwards towards an awaiting lilo; a woman vomiting onto a lawn at night. Hobbs Pecha Kucha talk about the various styles of dance hall shows her enthusiasm for these innovative black dances and dancers; from the early Cakewalk, a mocking interpretation by slaves of their white plantation owners, to the Crunk, Easy Skunk and Dutty Whine.
Hobbs work is just as boldly physical, expressed through the body moving. From the booty shaking on offer in Otara at Night to the liquid rhythms of the dancer who whines, bops and rolls the length of a South Auckland Bridge. In Mangere Mall the physicality of the VOGUE crew is matched by the alternating camera angles and cuts, framed at all times by the vista of the mall itself. The soundtrack builds to a crescendo, a climax of dropped beats and synchronized movements. The dancers smiles, their drama, their grace, the flick of a wrist, the sashay of black hair over shoulder; this video is never anything less than a pleasure to watch.
‘It is safe to dance.’
‘It is safe to dance.’ (4)
(1) Safety Dance lyrics, Men Without Hats
(2) Wikipedia definition of waacking
(3) Stuff.co.nz, online review, Giving new voice to the concealed, Mark Amery, 26.9.12
(4) Safety Dance lyrics, Men in Hats