The first time I came into contact with Sue Austin was when I discovered the book Beauty is a Verb, a stunning anthology of disability poetry and essays. The cover shows the British installation artist floating underwater wearing a small scuba mask, sunglasses and a summer dress, strapped to a wheelchair.
It’s a striking image and if you walked into a bookstore without knowing anything about the collection, you wouldn’t look past it.
Last night at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre, Austin performed live with her wheelchair underwater. Some of the audience paid for special viewing, donning their scuba gear and descending to watch what turns out to be water ballet up close, but most of us sat in the bleachers while a large screen showed what an underwater cameraperson recorded: beauty is a verb.
Austin’s performance works on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin, to decipher which aspect of it outweighs the others. Visually, it’s mesmerising. Austin and her wheelchair seem to meld in complete fluidity as she moves forwards and backwards, performing loop-de-loops in time to a dreamy beat set by music reverberating off the water.
The audience loses sense of time and place; you re-imagine a new concept of freedom. And in this way, contemplating freedom with fresh eyes, the floating dance becomes something political, a shift in the way our society views disability.
The wheelchair, with all its heavy, cumbersome chunks of metal, appears to most of us a negative – “wheelchair-bound”, for instance – and yet for those like Austin, who became dependent on her wheelchair in the ’90s after a long illness, the wheelchair means movement, possibility and, yes, freedom.
Disability art is so important today, especially as we’re on an upswing of empathy, asking ourselves daily what it’s like to be discriminated against, whether because of gender, sexual inclinations, colour or disability. Audiences are ready for this kind of performance because we’re beyond shock – now we see magnificence.
Supported by members of Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre – who begin the performance in ebb and flow fashion, expressing fear, curiosity and, ultimately, admiration for the water – Creating the Spectacle doesn’t look at disability from the eyes of those who see a lack of something, but rather from those who know their art is an exciting vision and should, must, be shared.
The final Adelaide Film Festival performance of Creating the Spectacle is tonight (Friday) at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre. See more Adelaide Film Festival stories, reviews and photo galleries here.