Axe Arc Echo, Angela Goh
Bree Richards

When Angela Goh first began thinking about Axe Arc Echo (2023), she asked herself: what does it mean to descend? The question emerged from an invitation to develop a performance for a specific space, the Tank, a 2200-square-metre container once used to hold fuel during World War 2, which now forms the lower level of the new Art Gallery of New South Wales building. To enter the Tank, visitors must travel underground through a spiralling staircase, and this sense of turning from one level to another, moving around while moving down, shapes our encounter with Goh’s work. It is also one of the choreographic elements that recur in this performance.

The Tank is immense, moodily lit and divided by a grid of 125 columns. Everywhere you look, the patina of its history is a presence, with graffiti and oily tidelines marking rough-hewn concrete surfaces. To make the work, Goh embraced what this multi-layered space already does—with distance, echo, shadow, texture, sightlines—attuning herself and her body to her surroundings. This place became a generator for ideas; Goh drew inspiration from the fact that it had lain dormant for many years. Hidden, forgotten, latent.

Goh was thinking about vertical timelines where to descend means digging into the earth; the further down you excavate, the further back in time you travel. Deep Time is a geological concept that helps us understand the length and volume of time, as well as the layers of non-human history shaping the Now. This idea is often depicted as a spiral moving upward, where timescales are found in cycles of sedimentation and erosion. In this understanding, Now rests on the top lip of a protruding curl, but it is never still.

Over two hours, Goh takes the audience on a journey through time and with time. Her movement vocabulary, Corin Ileto’s score and Govin Ruben’s lighting design, all respond intuitively to the specifics of the space while drawing on histories, mythologies and philosophical thinking that burrows into the underworld. This epic takes form through constant transformation, yet Goh does not position herself as the hero. There is no story to tell. Instead, the limits imposed by linear temporalities and human perception are ruptured. At the same time, Goh contorts all sense of direction with her body, twisting around in time, just as one can in space.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Axe Arc Echo always begins in the same place, in the far-left corner. Though it takes time to find Goh dancing there, at the back of the room. You might notice her shadow first, the elegant arc of one arm lifting slowly, then the other, hands softly held. Emerging from behind a column, she walks backwards along a diagonal. Her arms fall, wheel around, and her body follows. She turns and returns, then continues walking. One gesture propels the next. And from then on, the work never unfolds the same way twice.

The work takes place within a stage-like zone for performance, with the audience invited to sit or stand somewhere behind a line drawn across one edge of the space. This focuses attention on the image of a solitary figure dancing in a vast concrete landscape, where every sightline is interrupted by a forest of columns. To address this structuring element, Goh made a work that traverses the space, not quickly but constantly. This sense of ceaseless movement ensures her dancing body is always coming into view, rather than simply marking time in one place.

Goh travels a great distance through the performance. She is constantly moving, sometimes visible, sometimes not. When her body disappears for one person, it reappears for someone else. What you see and when depends on where you are in the room. Accordingly, the audience encounters many different versions of the same work. While you might imagine that spending two hours watching this performance guarantees that you will have seen it in its entirety, it is not possible—and seeing everything is not the point.

Axe Arc Echo reimagines the Tank as a world interconnected with other worlds. It is a place where time loops, gestures are distilled and repeated, and meaning remains ambiguous. Goh’s movement vocabulary allows her to travel through the entire space: each action is arranged, broken down and reassembled in complex patterns, recurring at different times and locations. It seems as though Goh traces every potential path through the columns while attuning herself to the floor, the walls and the shadows. She creates axis points as she dances: vertically, horizontally and diagonally. With care and control, Goh shifts from the floor to standing and back again, revolving, walking, crawling, lying, sinking, dragging, lifting. Her arms turning like clock hands or looping around like a lasso. Over time, gestures accumulate, but Goh’s fluid motions never waver. Her body is the medium, and the work fulfils a simple provocation: Just. Keep. Moving.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Goh uses her arsenal of movements to undertake an endless journey, but there is no fixed order to the way they unfurl. While developing the work, she trained her body to become aware of how each element could be placed in correspondence so that one sequence always folds seamlessly into the next. Goh describes this as a sensitivity towards connection, which “arrives in the body and space in a way that felt really possible when I was very focussed in that world.”1

Goh’s movement materials are steeped in references drawn from film, literature, geology, philosophy, history and mythology, among other things. She folds this research into her method for choreographic thinking, which takes form here as an investigation of direction, in and with the body. Goh uses non-normative coordination to mess with our understanding of the body’s facings, twisting and turning so she appears to travel one way while somehow shifting in the opposite direction. It is hard to unravel, but this work operates through misdirection, which Goh describes as a form of “smuggling”—where backward movement is hidden inside forward movement.2 This requires a great deal of technical finesse and while the choreography appears as a steady, effortless unfolding, the longer you watch, the more you realise what a feat it is.

This performance is physically challenging, but the sense of difficulty falls away as you become accustomed to the way Goh contorts her body—all while walking, crawling, spinning, looping—moving down to the floor and back up to standing. Over time, the complexity fades as movements seem to veer towards the pedestrian, though they are anything but. There is a disjuncture at play here, between something that appears both simple and complex, which produces a kind of otherworldliness.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Both the audience and Goh experience time in Axe Arc Echo. The work is two hours long, but time is also encountered through the soundtrack and the constancy of the choreography. Durational performance creates space for varied forms of audience attention, from periods of intense focus to something more akin to daydreaming. When your thoughts begin to drift, you wonder where Goh travels when she is not visible. We assume she is still there, but what if she continues her journey somewhere else in space and time—turning up in other epochs, other dimensions? This kind of eerie magic feels possible in this place. And then she reappears, emerging from behind a pillar. Or at least her arms do, one on each side, as though she is somehow inside the column, or has become fused with the concrete.

This fleeting image resembles a photograph by Claude Cahun—I Extend My Arms, 1931 or 1932, which similarly captures gesturing arms, extending from within a stone monolith—the artist ‘wearing’ rock. Goh shares with Cahun an interest in evoking a sense of the chthonic, albeit to different ends. Wherever she goes, Goh carries her gestures as symbols that she says, “cross thresholds of lengthening time, space, and meaning…changing what the body itself could be and represent.”3 The absence that lingers after she disappears is reimagined as an otherworldly presence, and embodiment is transformed into a method for communicating with the unknown.

What the choreography is and what it does, remains blurry. What are we looking at, and what are we seeing? What are we missing? There are times when the body and this place, the historical and mythological, all appear to coalesce. When dance is transformed into an image; an image is transformed into dance. However, this is always transient, one element in a more extensive sequence of interconnected movements. As soon as an image materialises, its edges are already dissolving. Looking at these moments later, in documentation, where details are cropped or zoomed in on, the sense of scale and distance is altered and the smallness of Goh’s body in relation to the Tank is lost. It is only in the real-time experience of the performance that you understand how she is able to hold this immense room. More than that, she fills it.

Goh is deeply invested in dance, the medium she works with, and her material, the body in time. As she has in other performances, here, too, Goh is interested in exploring big questions. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to dance? How did we end up here, in this moment and where are we going afterwards? While Axe Arc Echo manifests this kind of expansive thinking, Goh does not offer easy answers. Instead, she plays with the epic genre, but in a way that is not about conquering something. Goh says this: “is not a journey from one place to another, it’s just a journey in every single moment of how to exist.”4 The intensity of the choreography, together with the sound, lighting and venue, all contribute to a sense of enormity. This also emerges from the invitation the work extends to its audience: to spend time, to consider what you are seeing and how it makes you feel.

Axe Arc Echo is concerned with the presencing of time, a durational performance at once vast and finely detailed. While Goh’s choreography resists fixing, stilling, there are occasional moments of pause. When she stops to pull a lighter from her pocket, a flicker of flame materialises briefly in the gloom. As an image, it is stark, tiny, and not visible to all, yet it alters the atmosphere in the room. Only then do you realise just how long Goh has been dancing. The constancy of what she has been doing becomes more visible precisely because she has stopped for a beat. While time, for Goh, must feel quite different, for those of us watching, time is experienced relationally as a kind of entanglement. The performance sticks with those of us who have seen it and, in this way, persists in time.

The work also warps time and communicates with other phenomena, real and imagined. Each element—score, movement, lighting—operates spatially and collectively to conjure images and affects, evoking suspension, expansion and collapse, as well as invisible, more than human forces. Temporal distinctions are undone and reimagined, broken down and remade over and over again. There are moments when it feels like Goh has dropped down into the Underworld for a conversation with Walter Benjamin and Paul Klee’s monoprint Angelus Novus (1920), which he describes as a picture of the angel of history. Klee’s figure appears to move away from something while contemplating it intently, just as Goh does. When she crawls closer to the audience in a slow, stuttering shuffle, staring through us, past us, while dragging her legs behind her. It looks like a glitch, scrubbing back and forth. Progress is stalled, almost reversed, through rewind and fast-forward, somehow both.

Where the angel’s wings are spread, Goh might lean forward with her arms arcing back, one at a time, hands crossing elegantly at the wrists, face upturned. Benjamin describes the angel of history as always having one face turned toward the past: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”5 In Axe Arc Echo, Goh also turns her face away, though whether she is looking back at where she was, or towards where she is going, depends on your point of view.

Towards the latter part of the performance, Goh introduces a decisive swing of the arm, like an axe, slicing through the atmosphere. This staunch movement seems to communicate with or intervene in the score. When her arm drops, the sound of falling rubble follows soon after. Is this a break or a breakthrough? Though to where and what remains uncertain.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

Goh spends two hours navigating herself within the duration of the work, alongside Ileto’s powerful score and in relation to the Tank. This is a space that sounds, where echoes linger and intermingle. Ileto tuned the composition to this huge, resonant room, recasting it as an instrument, container, and stage. The score combines geological rhythms with industrial textures, where even familiar sounds bend and morph. At times, the composition alters the feeling in the room, a change experienced in the body as a compression in the chest or a rattle in the belly. While the intensity varies over time—echoing, hollowing, rumbling—the score keeps pushing everything further down.

Goh’s voice is a presence, too. There are several moments when she sings a clear, high note, sliding it down to meet a loop of her voice in the score, detuned and distorted. Indeed, Goh’s voice, in real and recorded time, accompanies our journey down the staircase at the beginning of the performance, when we are spiralling in the same direction—underground. This happens again towards the end, albeit with a different effect. After nearly two hours spent travelling through the depths, the tone shifts perceptibly, all other elements fade, though Goh’s voice remains. She sings the note back to herself and the looped sample in this Now. Both drift slowly upwards, rising like tendrils of smoke. Voice dancing with itself.

This doubled presence isn’t a form of speech, nor does it explain anything. In the beginning, Goh’s voice contained a weight, but the opposite is true here. The sung notes turn slowly around the traces of performance that linger as she turns into the far-right corner of the room. Enveloped in shadow, Goh steps sideways and disappears from time. We turn away, too, walking back up the stairs, towards the light.

Angela Goh, Axe Arc Echo, 2023, performance documentation, The Tank, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Eora (Sydney). Photo: Lucy Parakhina. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney.

There is always much beneath the surface of Angela Goh’s works. More than a glance is required to understand what is unfolding before your eyes. Axe Arc Echo is a doing, always in the process of becoming something other than what it was, never really done. And, even on closer inspection, meaning remains open-ended. Intentionally so.

  1. Angela Goh, phone interview with the author, October 27, 2023. Many thanks to Angela for generously sharing her time and insights about Axe Arc Echo and her practice more broadly, which have helped inform this text.

  2. Goh, phone interview.

  3. Angela Goh, email exchange with the author, May 10, 2022.

  4. Goh, phone interview.

  5. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.

Axe Arc Echo (2023) was a two-hour performance that took place at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Eora (Sydney) on 7-8 October 2023, between 11 am-1 pm and 2-4 pm.

Bree Richards is a curator and writer. Recent projects include: ‘Is the frame a writing-song’, a published work made in collaboration with Susan Jacobs (2023); ‘Tasks yet to be composed for the occasion,’ an exhibition conceived with Diana Baker Smith, Artspace, Sydney (2021); ‘When we cannot touch, art is the object that passes between us’, a mail-art initiative co-facilitated with Melissa Ratliff (2020-21); and the performance exhibition ‘Philipp Gehmacher: My shapes, your words, their grey,’ Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane (2017). Bree was the recipient of an International Curatorial Institute Fellowship at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and a French Ministry of Culture residency at Centre Pompidou, where she contributed to the inaugural edition of ‘Move.’ She was Nick Waterlow OAM Curatorial Fellow for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, working on artist projects, publications, and performance across the exhibition. Before that, Bree was Associate Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, organising projects such as ‘Trace: Performance and its Documents,’ ‘Everyday Magic,’ and ‘Embodied Acts.’

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