The Anguilla Pursuit, Amrita Hepi
Hamish McIntosh

Amrita Hepi, The Anguilla Pursuit, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Naarm(Melbourne), 10 March - 15 April 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Water occupies an unusual place in the Western imagination. A symbol of purity and health, yet also a vehicle of colonial conquest, with white sailed ships spreading violence across the horizon, water holds many meanings in the West. Discussed by Luce Irigiray in terms of femininity, water speaks to a tense plurality: As it sustains mirages.1 Multiple and still far too numerous for the pleasure of the eye, which is lost in that host of sparkling surfaces. And with no end in sight.2

As beautiful as it can be, water is an imperfect medium. It can both sparkle and be contaminated by the detritus of the everyday, like leaves, oil and bacteria. It can be pleasurable and tainted, a sustainer of life and a catalyst for death. It can be, as in the Western imagination, an organ for empire that washes over the subject, or, as in Amrita Hepi’s The Anguilla Pursuit (2023), a deeply connected site of Indigenous resistance.

Through the latter, we encounter a careful commentary on colonialism and subjectivity. A performance for screen in the style and passage of a migratory eel, in The Anguilla Pursuit Hepi provides a meditation on Rolland and Freud’s ‘oceanic feeling’—the dissolution of the boundaries between subject and object.3 In this, the artist offers a contemplation of the imperfection of water and the place it occupies in so-called Australia: a pursuit defined by a struggle between conflicting meanings and colonial contexts.

Amrita Hepi, The Anguilla Pursuit, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Naarm(Melbourne), 10 March - 15 April 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Some of the notes about this work refer to the Anguilla anguilla species of freshwater eel as Hepi’s inspiration. However, it appears that Anguilla anguilla is the European freshwater eel, whose habitat is decidedly more continental than Sydney (though the darlings of Rose Bay might say otherwise).4 Other documentation from Hepi herself names Anguilla reinhardtii—the long-finned eel—as the work’s true forebear.5 These industrious eels spawn near New Caledonia before their glassy offspring make the arduous journey to the east coast of so-called Australia, mysteriously emerging in the pools of the Royal Botanic Gardens.6

Through Anguilla reinhardtii, Hepi finds her work. Serpentine, the artist ascends from the sea via a steel ladder and sprints towards the glare of the Sydney Opera House. The camera tracks Hepi uninterrupted and each footfall of her Merrell Hydro Mocs evidences her determination to arrive. Once inside, Hepi leaps from a bench as she heads to door 27. The leap, with legs and arms outstretched, throws us from the continuity of her running. A rewound, stutter cut pauses and repeats the jump in a moment of sforzando, emphasising the cinematic quality of her chase.

The Anguilla Pursuit is installed as a two-channel video at Gertrude Glasshouse and is framed as a dialogue between screens. The screens themselves act as a moderating force in our experience of the performance and we are bounced between them, unable to watch both videos simultaneously and torn between differing accounts of Hepi’s pursuit. One is more architectural, the other aquatic, with each ‘memory’ offering different experiences of the long-finned eel’s migration; each imparting a different dimension of the oceanic feeling, as Hepi integrates and disintegrates with her surroundings.

Amrita Hepi, The Anguilla Pursuit, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Naarm(Melbourne), 10 March - 15 April 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

When Hepi slithers across the Opera House floor, like Ringu’s Sadako—damp hair in a tangled crown—we note the laminated wood. As she dances through a reef of vermillion chairs, we are reminded that the coral is neatly upholstered, synthetic. The film cuts to the theatre’s skeleton, of yellow pipes and concrete mucosa. Hepi swings and lurks in the cave at the heart of the man-made opera house. She arrives at a window, overlooking the ocean. Against the glass, she reaches and splays her hand. Each finger presses against the window, melting like acid—hoping to make purchase and sink into the grey-blue harbour below. Though confident in her presence, Hepi seems to yearn for the continuity and connection granted by water.

Amrita Hepi, The Anguilla Pursuit, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Naarm(Melbourne), 10 March - 15 April 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Eventually, Hepi dives into a pool. Tumbling, her hair swims on her behalf and undulates like a grasping hand, wrought diaphanous by the water around her. Bubbles of air kiss her nostrils like opals: two beetle wings above her lips. Filmed from below, the swimming scenes are disorienting in their verticality. As Hepi swims and flips in the water, a fleck of gold passes the camera. A fragment of a leaf, broken and drawn into the current of Hepi’s dance; an imperfection.

Aesthetically, the work relishes in subtlety despite the grandness of its Sydney setting. I have to wonder whether there is an element of satire at play, too. I am aware that the Sydney Opera House is one of the funding partners for this work, but the almost commercial placement of the Opera House is slightly jarring, touristy even. Perhaps the subtlety of Hepi’s vocabulary is augmented by a similarly understated jab at the relationship between funding bodies and artists. The Opera House is a historically privileged site and opera itself remains an inaccessible if not divisive medium for most in so-called Australia.7

The poetics of the work are refined, therein, and allow the audience to reflect, with Hepi’s performance adopting the same mirror-like quality of the water she probes. For example, with one purple sleeve and one green, Hepi’s asymmetric wetsuit, styled by Romy Safiyah leaves one arm curiously exposed. The significance of her bare shoulder is peculiar, as is the green that marks the left arm as different to the right. Sinister, per the Latin for left, or perhaps a subtle reference to black magic.8 Given that feminist performance art can evoke themes of immanence—reflection and coherent subjectivity—it is striking that Hepi appears slightly fractured, both in terms of costuming and movement.9 Framed in terms of sovereignty—underscored by Hepi’s whakapapa as Bundjulung and Ngāpuhi—this fragmentation alludes to the ‘dual-identity’ that can be demanded of Indigenous artists in colonial-commercial contexts.

There is something lurking under the surface in The Anguilla Pursuit: a battle between eternity and isolation, then. Throughout this piece, Hepi moves through the white-domed Opera House all while seeking a connection to the waters beyond and below. This search locates Hepi as an avatar for the conflict between the oceanic feeling as a sense of eternity—a sacred connection to place, land and water despite its changeability—and the Western concept of water as a discrete entity that holds equally discrete, contradictory meanings. Compounding this, if we consider the use of stutter cuts and rewound film, the urgent ticking of Daniel Jenatsch’s score and subtle choreography of splash and thrash, then it seems the oceanic feeling in Hepi’s use relates to struggle.

As such, The Anguilla Pursuit enters a dialogue on the dislocating violence of colonial modernity versus a connection to place. The contrast between the natural path and migration of the long-finned eel and the artifices of human class and power, framed here as Hepi’s solo journey through the velvet maw of the opera, is a stark and necessary reminder that Western and Indigenous ideas of eternity are not one in the same. Our senses of forever are fluid and just as Anguilla reinhardtii traverse great distances to arrive in an unfamiliar place, Hepi challenges her audience to journey beyond themselves too.

Amrita Hepi, The Anguilla Pursuit, installation view, Gertrude Glasshouse, Naarm(Melbourne), 10 March - 15 April 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro. Courtesy of Gertrude and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

  1. Lynda Haas, “Review: Of Waters and Women: The Philosophy of Luce Irigaray,” Hypatia 8, no. 4 (Autumn, 1993): 150-159,

  2. Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 46.

  3. Richard D. Chessick, “The “Oceanic Feeling” and Confrontation with Death,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 69, no, 3 (August 2021): 513–534,

  4. “Anguilla Anguilla,” FishBase, ccessed March 18, 2023,

  5. “Amrita Hepi: The Anguilla Pursuit,” Anna Schwartz Gallery, accessed March 18, 2023,

  6. Mark McGrouther, "Longfin Eel, Anguilla einhardtii Steindachner, 1867,” ustralian Museum, last modified March 0, 2021,

  7. Sally Blackwood, Liza Lim, Peggy Polias, and Bree van Reyk, “Opera and the doing of women,” Artshub, published May 13, 2019,

  8. Kennet Granholm, “Left-Hand Path Magic and Animal Rights,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 12, no. 4 (May 2009): 28-49,

  9. Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

The Anguilla Pursuit showed at Gertrude Glasshouse from 10 March to 15 April 2023. Hamish McIntosh’s review of this exhibition is our third piece this year for Gertrude x Performance Review, Performance Review’s ongoing critical response to the performance elements of Gertrude’s artistic program.

Hamish McIntosh is a Pākehā artist-researcher living on Wurundjeri Country. Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, Hamish recently submitted his PhD (Dance) at the University of Melbourne, where he researched queer theory, ontology and death. Interested in dance as a site for political and philosophical inquiry, Hamish has published writing on queerness, pedagogy and dancing masculinities internationally, and exhibited his performance work at venues including the Gus Fisher Gallery (Auckland), play_station (Wellington), Temperance Hall (Melbourne) and the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne).

Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.