UNHEIMLICH: Tarryn Gill, Katt Osborne & Theo Costantino

Unheimlich draws back the layers of an unfurling relationship with scalpel-like precision. A Performing Lines production commissioned by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, the play is the result of a five-year collaboration between Theatre Director Katt Osborne and artist Tarryn Gill, with the input of Theo Costantino as dramaturge.

When theatre director Katt Osborne encountered Tarryn Gill’s Guardians series of sculptures created for the 2016 Adelaide Biennale, she was drawn to their sense of duality. “ … playful and fun, and then, unsettling and surreal at the same time. I have always loved surprising and complex imagery in my own work, and I think our aesthetics have aligned.” The success of UNHEIMLICH, a Performing Lines production commissioned by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, was the result of that fusion of sensibilities. Over five years, several iterations, and with the input of Theo Costantino as dramaturge,  UNHEIMLICH draws back the layers of an unfurling relationship with scalpel-like precision. What is said, what is masked, unsaid, and intuited as the couple separate physically and emotionally is conveyed through a complex amalgam of text, music, and imagery. 

Beginning with Freud’s idea of unheimlich or the uncanny, Osborne and Gill have used the more literal translation from the German of unhomely to focus a lens on the home as a site of juxtaposition, where the safe and comfortable coexists with the frightening and distressing, where humour can morph into horror. In their suburban lounge room, the television blaring, a man and woman play games and become a couple under the disapproving eye of their menacing trickster cat. Their home soon fractures, games become omens, language is constrained, feelings masked and touching registered as shockwaves. 

In one of the most potent scenes, the loss of their child is evoked by a masked figure with electric tears who moves slowly around the stage to the haunting sound of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), 1904. Gill’s round green mask has echoes of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1902, that meshes patterns with schematised human faces. Both artists were contemporaries of Freud, living in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century in a time of repression and social control that all were addressing and trying to undermine through their work in music, painting, and psychology.  It is a moment in the performance when the pain and suffering, the unknowing and disruption are powerfully evoked. It marks the fulcrum of the slide into dysfunction and dissolution of the relationship. It powerfully reminds us that it is through art that we are enabled to make sense of our world, to seek solace, and confront our fears when other means of communication cannot suffice. 

The masterstroke of returning us to Vienna in such a subtle way underscores the resonance of time and place, of zeitgeist, that plays out in the collaboration of Gill, Osborne, and Costantino. This is a very contemporary narrative that speaks to our humanity over millennia and our struggle to connect, find peace and happiness, and security. It also reinforces the importance of art in our community as a way of managing the dark side of our lives by ensuring the unutterable is made eloquently accessible. 

The success of UNHEIMLICH is the result of an extraordinary collaboration by artists working in different media and modes whose work together set triggers and was reciprocally inspiring, resulting in a resolution that has a long fuse of memory and impact for its audience.     

Commissioned by PICA and presented with Performing Lines WA. 
UNHEIMLICH has been supported by the WA Government through the DLGSCI and its Theatre Development Initiative and PICA’s Art Commissioners. The development of this project has been supported by The Blue Room Theatre’s LOFT program. 

22 September – 2 October 2021
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth

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