Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes has a crop of auburn hair parted neatly at the side and a pair of round sunglasses secured around her neck with a hot pink chord. When we meet, a few weeks before her Biennale of Sydney debut, Wrånes’ petite figure is swallowed up in head-to-toe orange reminiscent of a strong, warm light.
Wrånes’ physical appearance taps directly into her artistic practice. On a superficial level, she creates crazed, sumptuous audio-visual feasts, combining music and performance. Her work is an investigation into humanity; dismantling physical impossibilities and bringing together people who are very different. Her work pulls together volunteers who are instructed to play out a particular part, as if in a play. The volunteers are set into action as Wrånes’ sings while hanging by her hair from a tree, or playing piano off a bunker – always in an obscure, absurd setting. In a performance work started before enrolling in art school, Wrånes organised 50 friends to wander a music festival in skin-coloured suits and giant ears. For a 2012 concert staged in LA’s Disney Concert Hall parking structure, entitled Spin Echo, Wrånes united bodybuilders, cyclists and accordion players to move through the hollow space on bicycles and trolleys, some singing and some playing the accordion. Wranes created an entirely new, dynamic space out of something previously vacant.
The nature of Wrånes’ Cockatoo Island performance, called Stone and Singer, will be a surprise even to her – the skills of her Australian participants will alter how she utilises them. In one New York piece, she found that senior citizens – who she had originally enlisted to play recorders – were getting stiff fingers and struggling to master their task. She found herself entranced by the slow, measured walking pace of the elderly: “an authentic quality a young person could only emulate”. Their role shifted, centering instead on the strangely powerful visual of protracted paces. At the Sydney Biennale, Wrånes’ performance will be revealed at an exclusive media preview, and debuted officially at the festival. The only certainty is its dexterous, ambitious tangling of vastly divergent individuals – something Wrånes achieves masterfully.
Laura Bannister: Your call-out for participants on the Biennale of Sydney website asks for volunteers – fat, skinny, old, young, tall, short, bearded or with big noses – whatever. Why so many different types of people?
Tori Wrånes: I like the dynamic of working with different people. I think I love humans. Just meeting them and working with them – the way I work lately can be called human composing. It’s about finding people and trying to [augment] their personalities … I like to mix people who are skilled [performers] and not skilled. This time I’m working with musicians from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – which will be great – but sometimes people who are not technically skilled in that way have other skills, equal to a trained quality. I can get really bored if people are too good.
LB: How many people are you involving in your Sydney performance?
TW: I don't know yet. You never know who will show up.
LB: And you like that uncertainty?
TW: Sometimes I like it, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, what the fuck! Why did I do this!’
LB: Your performances have been described as ‘extreme sport’ – hanging by your hair, playing piano off the side of a bunker. Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of your work? How do these ideas begin?
TW: [For me] there are no rules. Very often I have these dream images in my head, or I find a space that I really love and want to use. I love working in garages and parking structures. The building is the main character here. [Also] all of my performances are about coming closer to crisis, a drama. I love when I can create a contradiction or an opposite.
LB: Some of your images feel very surreal. Do they mostly evolve from dreams?
TW: Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming in the day – a daydream. I often see [scenes] going around in my head. Sometimes it’s disturbing, this chaos in my head. I have these images in daydreams and I hunt them down, to see if they are actually possible in real life.
LB: What is the purpose of your art making? Why create at all?
TW: I like to see the world in a different way. I think it’s necessary: a longing or a need to rearrange stuff. It’s a combination of curiosity and longing.
LB: Do you mean a longing to see certain imagined scenes be realised?
TW: Yes. I think all my work is about experimenting with different ways to exist, and then allowing it to unfold.
LB: Have you ever been frightened? So much of your art involves physical feats, but the answer could be unrelated to your art.
TW: For me, the risk is not being present in the work. I’m not afraid of falling down or drowning. I trust the people that are with me. But because I work so much with voice improvisation, it’s very much about being present in the moment. I’m afraid of self censoring and over-thinking. Sometimes my brain can occupy my body too much. That’s also why my works can be so physically challenging – I have to concentrate on these feats, which levels the brain and the body.
LB: There’s a great quote in Mono Kultur magazine by Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian smell scientist. She says all of her work is about life, and living. Your work feels the same: focused on people and humanity, on the amplification of life. When did you become so fascinated with the beauty of people?
TW: I think it’s really hard just to live. Since I choose to live, and not die, I’m trying to find out what life means, what it is … I really think every human has some potential. I believe in every human. I’m interested in meeting different people and the contrasts between how we choose to live our lives. Coming to Australia [and working with the Biennale], I got to know the brutality of the detention centres. My work is not directly political, but I guess I am political in a poetic way. I want to have a voice, and I am grateful to the Biennale for making a place for that.
LB: Is there a single performer – a person off the street, or someone you’ve worked with – who has completely fascinated you?
TW: In Los Angeles I worked with a woman whose specialties revolve around handguns, rifles and stripping. In New York I worked with Bernie Brandall, who was a retired [drag] magician. In drag she had her own show called The Poodle Illusion.
LB: Describe your Sydney performance in three words. TW: Oi, oi, oi!
Tori Wrånes will show her performance work, Stone and Singer, at the 19th Biennale of Sydney from March 22–23 at Turbine Hall in the Industrial Precinct on Cockatoo Island.