Deborah Kelly is a multimedia artist whose work has been exhibited around the world, from the Venice Biennale to projections onto clouds over Sydney. Although primarily a visual artist, her work Tank Man Tango has been listed in the top 10 dance videos in the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest, selected from a field of 170 works from around the world.
2009 is the first year the Global Dance Contest has been held and the winner, to be decided by popular vote, will have their work performed live as part of the Sadler's Wells Sampled showcase in January 2010. The top 10 finalists can be viewed here»
Tank Man Tango is the only Australian entry to make it to the final 10. To view & vote for Deborah Kelly's video, inspired by the famous footage of the lone protester at Tiananmen Square, click here». Voting closes Nov 13, 2009!
Your background is primarily in visual arts, utilising the internet and digital technologies as a medium for social activism. Through your work you have been a strong advocate for human rights and social inclusiveness. How did you first become interested in those issues?
As an artist I’m not at all wedded to a medium. I work with whatever seems to make the most compelling sense - so new media is a handy tool, sometimes, for the kinds of work I want to make, broadcast, share and collaborate around. But I’m just as thrilled to work with the analogue and experiential… like dancers!
As a Catholic schoolgirl I was exposed from a very young age to a paradoxical catalyst: awareness of injustice and direct experience of it.
That said, I don’t consider what I do to be advocacy, at all. I could go on for days, here, but perhaps my answers to the other questions will amplify this in a more nuanced way…
So what’s the interest/connection with dance? Do you have a background in live performance?
Living in this city, I have come to love some of Sydney’s beautiful independent dancers. Their commitment to embodiment, to endurance, has inspired me – maybe changed me. I am very glad to be influenced by them.
On 4 June this year, the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, your work Tank Man Tango was performed in around twenty cities and towns around the world. Can you tell us a bit about Tank Man Tango - what were your aims in creating the work?
Firstly, to define it in the negative: it wasn't for China, and it wasn't especially for media.
It was a memorial: it was for those who would remember; to give it shape, duration, experience and ritual. It's a memorial for the protests, and for the murdered protestors, rather than for that one person, the symbolic tank man. The work paid homage to fighting tyranny: and god knows, all our governments are bad. It hoped to bring life to history - our lives, and our history. Dancing this memorial was a way to be, to act, in a city or a town, to make a public sphere, to be an agent in it. It sought to diminish the distances between people in space and time, to connect us, those who struggle, and to build culture around us. To give us strength! Which is to say, to construct even the most fragile metaphorical infrastructure around: love of the collective, anti-amnesia, linked autonomies. The will to resist, to remember, and to make art.
Why did you choose dance as the medium?
I didn’t really - dance chose itself!
I was looking closely at the footage of the guy who defied the tanks after the massacre, after a young woman from Shanghai had angrily told me that ‘everyone in China’ knew the massacre was a fiction devised by the US to make China look bad. She insisted that all the evidence had been concocted with photoshop - so I was looking to see if it could have been faked. The more I looked, the more the man seemed to be locked in an intense, powerfully evocative relationship with the tank, and that his steps could be stylised into a dance, a dance you could do. I dreamed that people around the world would want to take part - the brilliant choreographer Jane McKernan made it possible.
What sort of response have you received from the June 4 performances?
So far as I understand, people who actually took part felt very touched by the experience, very pleased to have made the memorial with other people. Some people told me that they felt braver, having practiced the steps, borrowing someone else’s courage. A lot of people have looked at the traces online, and many have written to me with their thoughts, sent me photos and texts, and made their own videos of their memorials.
Sadler’s Wells is one of the world’s best known dance houses, bringing international dance to UK audiences. You recently entered the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest and Tank Man Tango was selected by the judges as one of the top 10 entries from around the world.
What exactly is the Global Dance Contest?
It’s an online competition, enabled by the youtube phenomenon. The shortlist was judged by a panel which included Martin Creed, who won the Turner Prize for his controversial Lights Going On And Off work. I’m guessing that because they invited him onto the panel, their idea of ‘dance’ is pretty capacious. Big enough to include me!
What were the requirements/aims of the Contest?
They’re looking for work for their stage - I’m hoping that doesn’t mean jazz hands.
What is the prize?
A trip, a performance at Sadler’s Wells, and TWO THOUSAND POUNDS.
My dream is that some of the wonderful artists who helped bring the Tiananmen memorial to life, like performance artist Teik-Kim Pok (who you see in the video) and choreographer Jane McKernan would go to London and teach them the steps, and that a great crowd would do it together there.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I hope to publish a book documenting the work in the different cities and towns where people participated in building this memorial. That’s why I entered the competition - to raise the funds to print it.
Top Right - Deborah Kelly. Photo - Yi-Sheng Ng
Bottom Right - Tank Man Tango, 3 June 2009, Sydney. Photo - CMoore Hardy