Review: Sightings

Gabrielle Nankivell’s collaborative and immersive project weaves an uncanny, endearing and unforgettable portrait of a place made more real by the unreal.

Nov 25, 2022, updated Nov 28, 2022
Photo: Tony Kearney

Photo: Tony Kearney

There’s a gentle sound of wind blowing inside the Waterside Workers Hall, where a dozen or so cabinets of curiosities have been set out across the floorboards. There are strange photographic portraits downlit in ornate frames overlooking an analogue telephone; a tape recorder with a choice of cassettes labelled with Dymo tape; various bits of detritus on racks, arranged ritualistically on the floor or set out in wooden trays; a typewriter, presumably used to type some of the ancient-looking labels accompanying the curios; rolled maps and plans; wires strung up overhead, all presided over by a strange, slightly ominous and cosy den of fur at one end. A large screen filled with a still image of human hair bookends the other.

The audience seems uncertain at first: some sit on chairs waiting for the performance to begin, but the strange array of eclectic objects begs curiosity and soon everyone is up on their feet, exploring, whispering, giggling, listening to Dymo-labelled cassettes with headphones on, peering at tiny photographs in wooden trays, responding to the labelled request to ‘donate’ their hair by snipping some off some of their own with the scissors thoughtfully set beside a row of slender snippets of hair tied with bright string.

The analogue phone occasionally rings, and whoever is standing in front of it hesitantly picks up the receiver with a look of childlike wonder, and listens. There’s much to see: analogue fragments, cracked, barnacle-encrusted finds, photographs, maps, fur, hair and string. Nooks and crannies reveal hidden surprises, typewritten fragments of stories, a tiny screen at the back of the furry den where a strange creature seems to stir. The arrangement has something of the dusty, sleepy old museum about it, but then Yerta Bulti, the Kaurna name for Port Adelaide, means Place of the Sleeping.

Performers and co-creators Harrison Elliott and Jack Ziesing take up dark ropes and weave, struggle, haul themselves up onto chairs where the audience now sits, muscles and tattoos rippling as they pull with black-gloved hands like the stevedores that once found a home here in this hall. Now on their knees, the dancers move down each side of the hall in a frenzy, scrabbling, rearranging bits of broken detritus on the floor while in the centre, Nankivell moves in slow time, lifting an hourglass, sand slipping time away. Then Elliott and Ziesing help the audience to bond together in a gentle ritual of string and fire, a small community within a community, some of us clumsy, a little rough around the edges but all very real.

The large screen flickers to life with fragments of cine film, each introduced with a still-shot label categorising each segment. Some are sinister, the mysterious Creature covered in hair and fur, spinning or flitting like a shadow past darkened doorways, others quirky and humorous. The snippets carry echoes, connections with the objects and curios and display.  One segment is set entirely inside the vast, echoing grain silos at Harts Mill, every sound and scratch and beat a found sound made by the performers raking and pounding against the old, rust-coloured metal. Each clip ends abruptly, like broken film recovered from some ancient site.

This is a live performance unlike any other, amalgamating movement, sound, words, objects and physical movement. The impossibility of its neat categorisation is a perfect reflection of the complexity of portraying one true essence of place. It’s a collaged outcome of a residency that began in Port Pirie and came to Yerta Bulti, where Nankivell, together with her team Elliott and Ziesing, sound designer Luke Smiles and designer Jonathon Oxlade explored its abandoned places with locals, drew on the strange and sometimes funny stories shared by the local community and furnished them with findings unearthed from its middens.

Presiding over it all is The Creature – sometimes sinister, sometimes playful, a mysterious spirit, ever-present. Sightings is as real and extraordinary a portrayal of place and community as you might ever see. Don’t miss it.

Sightings is presented at Vitalstatistix at the Waterside Workers Hall, 11 Nile Street, Yerta Bulti–Port Adelaide, until Saturday, November 26.

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