Markela Panegyres: The Performance Prism

Markela Panegyres is a performance, installation, and video artist based on Gadigal land. The history of her practice is of extended performances involving quotidian repetitions that warp into the absurd.

For each artwork, she constructs fictitious personas, notable for their uncanny artifice. It’s by means of these ambiguous characters and their uneasy actions, that Panegyres works through themes of personal trauma, memory, and social commentary. Her art consequently moves between the darkly comedic and disturbing, cultivating an unnerving mix of tension and pathos. In discussing her creative approach, Panegyres underscores that she avoids a high-tech aesthetic. This reflects her aim of “resisting the glossy appearance associated with commodified art and visual culture in capitalism.” By analysing three works of the artist, we can see how the result makes for affective, cogent performances.

In I’ve Always Wanted to be a Fucking Ballerina, 2018, Panegyres performed for 2.5 hours as a ballerina to a cacophonous soundtrack she created from distorted fragments of classical music. The video documentation shows the artist wearing a white tutu and ballet shoes before a barre and mirror. As she dances, slightly awkwardly, the mirror reveals her body augmented by a prosthetic hunchback, her prettiness demarcated against this subversion. Panegyres explained she drew on her background in classical music training, seeking to push her physical limits. This laborious approach suggests the futility often felt in perfecting a creative skill. The artist also notes the influence of Degas’ depictions of young ballet dancers, such as The Dance Class, 1874. The dubious phrenological agenda in some of the distorted of Degas’ dancers, is re-formed in Panegyres’ hunchback ballerina, rendering the body a contested site of desire, discrimination, and expectation.

The Girl with the Prosthetic Heart, 2019, involved the artist interacting with a roughly constructed life-size papier-mâché doll – seemingly her double in a makeshift cardboard doll’s house. Both the artist’s and doll’s limbs are attached, like twin marionettes, to a shared wooden cross in the ceiling. Moving with the exaggeration of a controlled puppet, she concludes by beating her hand on her heart. In this curious double act, she masquerades as the doll, and the doll as a human. For the artist, “the artwork reclaims the authority afforded men who create women in myths such as Pygmalion.” Panegyres has succeeded in not catering to fantasies of external female perfection, but instead presents a crude representation of interior feeling. The “prosthetic heart” of the artwork title thus symbolises the reclaiming of personal agency through the DIY manufacture of her own sense of self.

Kangaroo Court of Australia, 2022-23, is a suite of three video performances. In each, the artist is naked, with red paint covering her pubic area and armpits. Her appearance, already erotically charged, is further made striking by the masks she wears in the first two videos: a hand-made kangaroo head in the first video, and the second a gaping mouth with teeth. In the third video, she wields a large, jagged claw. In each scene, Panegyres poses to a distorted soundtrack in front of a series of superimposed images, including Tom Robert’s Lumbering, 1894, Frederick McCubbin’s Lost, 1886, and historical scenes from parliament house. The work is informed by a “mix of personal and literary references, and Australia’s dismissal and mishandling of issues around First Nations peoples, and women and trans rights.” The tension of her body’s sexual and menacing dimensions creates an enigmatic mediation, exploring art’s role in reproducing the oppressive and violent dimensions of colonisation.

Panegyres’ practice is neither glib nor indulgent. Her biography is imprinted on her body in unseen ways. While these manifestations are often ambiguous, this is the idiosyncratic nature of anguish, and broader social concerns are impossible for an individual artist to resolve neatly. Collectively, her art is visceral and involves the politics of othering, refracting the self to work through what resides deep within.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64
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