Allison Hrabluik: The Splits
by Jacquelyn Ross
The stage is bare, save for a jacket and a shoulder bag stowed tidily in the corner. A cream-coloured Afghan hound stands stoically on a small folding table while a middle-aged man attends methodically to its coat with a small comb. Their profiles are framed by the tiny white-walled stage: the kind of stage frequently found in elementary school gymnasiums. But unlike a typical children’s Christmas play, with its colourful homemade costumes and eclectic cardboard sets, the mood here is instead that of the dusty, off-season set. Here, a diverse cast auditions for an audience of one: displaying for the camera their various skills and occupations, ranging from the quotidian, to the novel, to the strange. Someone gets a haircut. A man in drag sings opera. A guy eats a pyramid of hot dogs. Three gymnasts perform incredible collaborative balancing acts. There’s a hula hooper, a set of weight lifters, and a seriously good speed skipping team – four blonde girls with stiff double braids. A thoughtful study of human quirks and display, Allison Hrabluik’s new film takes imaginative cues from the absurd while drawing attention to the ways in which narrative is constructed in film.
Having long worked in drawing, video and animation, Hrabluik uses The Splits (15 min, HD video, 2015) to combine her craft and collagist sensibilities with the more “objective” methods of documentary film. While a clear departure from her early stop-motion animations, many common threads remain. The stage sits squarely in the frame, creating the illusion of extending directly out of the gallery’s fourth wall. In this way, I am transported into the work’s mundane tableau of moving parts, a willing spectator, as the scenes unfold with the flat-planed whimsy of a Wes Anderson film. I watch empathetically as a lone hula hooper makes small circles with his hips, his arms, like a set of hinged limbs. And though, in this case, live action takes precedent over cutting and pasting, the artist’s tactility returns in the editing process. Scenes are spliced together in a spirited audio-visual montage, generating narrative through simple exercises in compare and contrast. Images alternate between close shots of a dog’s long, blonde fur coat and the trimming of a woman’s hair; meat patties slapping against a kitchen counter, and a heavy barbell hitting the ground between repetitions.
In The Splits, sound is key. There are whistles, pings and breaths. There is swishing, slapping, tapping, whizzing, popping, rattling, whooshing. I close my eyes and am reminded subtly of the junkyard musical STOMP, with its over-the-top, apocalyptic choreography and percussive metal pails, brooms and garbage cans. Meanwhile, the film’s sound pans from right to left as I try to identify the foley effects at work, or determine whether the soundtrack is instead somehow authentic. It strikes me as unusual to find foley in documentary film, but then again, it’s unclear whether that is even the genre in question. Hrabluik deconstructs the relationships between image and sound, reconstituting them in such a way as to build in new meaning amidst the surprising violence and noisiness of human activity. One scene depicts a close-up of tap dancers’ shoes as they bang out a relentless rhythm on a wooden board; I shudder with each clapping reverberation.
The longer I watch, the more absorbed I become in the cast’s peculiar feats and personal qualities. It seems that now even the camera might be sympathetic to these small, tender miracles – which, one by one, seem to defy any possibility for objectivity. In this way, the artist forms a narrative “closeness” to her subjects; a kind of filmic empathy. Profiling the idiosyncratic talents of some twenty real-life performers, the film maintains an earnestness about the act of representation, and a genuine curiosity about the lives of those represented. The cast’s tiny gestures in turn function like allegories for broader societal conditions of synchronicity, collaboration, loneliness or humour: all the while highlighting a desire to remain authentic in the face of unwilling spectacle.I missed the exhibition opening, but the gallery assistant tells me that many of the cast members were in attendance at the reception – among them, the weight lifter, the speed skippers, the hula hooper and the haircut woman. I feel moved imagining so many plain-clothed superhumans assembled in a room together, shuffling shyly behind a cheese plate, despite their secret powers. I think, What better way to explode spectacle, than to become friends? In The Splits, performance moves messily into non-performance, and back again. I’m reminded of French choreographer Jérôme Bel, whose works frequently revolve around the notion of the “deskilled” performer (his 1997 piece Shirtology for example, involved his deadpan shedding of over thirty layers of shirts). Hrabluik draws on a similar tendency here: capturing not the deskilled, but rather, the comparable simplicity of the stripped-down gesture – actions reduced to raw movement and sound in order to better preserve their complexities. Drawing from her recent focus on dance and choreographic practices, Hrabluik’s film expresses a sensory intelligence and capacity for storytelling that leads with the body, and the ears.
As a kid, I can remember a time when life was still relatively simple. “Can you do the splits?” my friends and I would ask each other, several times a day. I was never that flexible – always stretching just short, with one knee shamefully bent – but this became a kind of ongoing competition between us, expressing our childish desire for minor betterment or accomplishment. The Splits captures something of this same desire. As we grow older, “talents” become “skills” (and eventually, “hobbies,” or even “vocations”), but the idea of the rehearsal remains. It’s unclear, though, for what exactly we are rehearsing – there will be no spectacular talent show at the end of life. But the fact that these hopeful energies continue to be exerted every day, without necessary or known outcomes, speaks to the abstraction at the heart of the human project, and all those surprising things that make a person tick.