in spite of myself covImage – Pier Carthew

In Spite of Myself by Nicola Gunn starts off in the Playbox foyer as a conceptual installation featuring old people, composting failures and videos of Nicola Gunn jumping about, waving sticks of celery and  insisting to the point of exhaustion how happy she is. This art show – Exercises in Hopelessness – is a retrospective of the work of Nicola Gunn, artist (1979–present). It's the opening of a detailed, funny parody of installation art which reminds you of the work of artists like Tracey Emin, even before you go into the theatre and see a double bed on stage.

'First person artist Nicola Gunn directs herself,' is one of the killer lines given to artistic curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Susan Becker, who gravely presents a lecture on the work of Nicola Gunn. Becker tells us that she could have been using a North American accent but Gunn decided on Received Pronunciation; Becker's not impressed. Over the course of the finely strung show the finely strung Becker fragments into dissassociated personalities, all Nicola Gunn. We know not to take it seriously yet there are serious undertones. Becker/Gunn's personal life leaks through her presentation performance, we empathise with Becker's frustrated artist and the 'tortured soul' that co-habit Nicola Gunn, they are each given expression so the two merge. The show deconstructs itself over and over again, going right up its own bottom, coming out and starting over, yet Gunn is always tightly in control of this work which she developed with her company, Sans Hotel. This parody of gallery presentation art speak is subtle and nuanced and funny. In Spite of Myself, however, is doing more than 'having a go' at art wank or fine art sensibilities. Without using shortcuts to create a mere piss-take or parody it unwinds itself in an exqusitely sarcastic yet poignant exploration of art, how we consume it, and the cost to the artist of creating it, all the while refusing to take itself seriously. Clever, clever stuff.

Listening to one melliflous voice for any length of time can have a soporific effect and there were moments towards the end where I drifted off for no other reason than that I got tired of hearing words. Plenty of other stuff happens on stage, mind, a mad dance opening, video, and a bit of audience interaction including Becker/Gunn distributing hand-outs so we can read the next bit for ourselves. Three aging women (the actors in the initial installation: Brenda Palmer, Maureen Hartley and Annabel Warmington) come on and serenely create little doughy objects, Willendorf Venuses perhaps, as part of a work called Very Important Person where Gunn jumps on the bed, around the stage and flattens the models. Gunn/Becker finishes up with footnotes from the lecture, an entirely appropriate finish, then hops into bed and pulling the covers over her head.

Gunn's hilarious as a performer and this work depends greatly on her focus. That she can come up with something like this and avoid any charge of self-indulgence is extraordinary. In Spite of Myself is original, hilarious and moving. Serious silliness. There's nothing else quite like it. She's brilliant.

Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Melbourne Festival presents
In Spite of Myself
Sans Hotel

Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 11 – 13 October 2013
Tickets: $39 – $25
Bookings: 1300 182 183

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