Poets Perform for The Lady and the Unicorn
Watching performance poets is always a textural experience – words, flow, sound, movement. It’s such an energising process that being in the audience is a far from passive experience; a bit like REM sleep. But watching poets perform modern thoughts and words in front of the overpoweringly medieval tapestries known as ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ was like watching a battle of cultural wills – the placid versus the passionate.
‘It was the most difficult commission of my career,’ was Candy Royalle’s comment straight after her final performance, during which she is surrounded by the six woven masterpieces. Candy’s work is powerful and sensual. But she, like her fellow performers, were caught in the cleft between this medieval epoch, drenched in symbolism and detail, and our own times, which are vivid and straight-up.
The Power of Placid
The tapestries are arranged in a small dimly lit arena. The pallid tones of The Lady and her companion Unicorn glow. They loom. Too much to take in at one glance. Colours of blood-red and pale ivory dominate the panoramas which are crammed with symbolism. There is meaning and intent – you know it strongly – each detail means something. Yet, equally strongly, you know that the meaning has evaporated, the code lost and you can only stand and wonder. It is the ‘wondering’ element that is the subject of the writers and artists inspired by these works.
Our current-time poets – Candy, Mirrah and Scotty Wings – each serenade the Lady and her Unicorn in their own way; challenging her, invoking her, responding to her. But in common there was frustration over actually reaching her. The Lady travels through each tapestry and despite the richness of activity and image around her she remains passive, intensely passive. Unlike the goriness of many medieval ‘morality tale’ artworks (which depict all the sins in unappetising and lurid detail), these works seem to be transcending each of the human senses that they are said to depict (touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell). They culminate – or maybe begin – with the words ‘my only desire’. What does that mean? Who knows? The theories are endless. Mirrah sings, Candy protests and Scotty channels the monkey which can skitter its way across the scenes without too much thought. All of us, though, are chewing at her hem. Her placidity conquers all.
The tapestries, currently being exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW until 24 June, are on loan from the Musée Cluny in Paris. Candy Royalle, Mirrah, and Scotty Wings performed poetry inspired by the tapestries during the Sydney Writers Festival.