Alien in Our Body: Justin Shoulder’s Carrion

29 June 2018
Carrion by Justin Shoulder –Justin Shoulder – Image by Bryony Jackson

Encountering Justin Shoulder’s Carrion—the shape-shifting “cybernetic demigod” with limbs made of decaying bones and hair made of Apple headphones—is deeply arresting. Simultaneously primitive, and yet highly evolved, they seem to straddle the arc of human evolution. Although Carrion appears playful and curious, the shockingly blank mask that serves as their face creates an impenetrability that is threatening and sinister. Robotic, and yet animalistic, Carrion moves with a fascinating elasticity that draws on something chillingly and paradoxically alien. It is impossible to look away.

Commissioned by Performance Space for the 2017 Liveworks Festival, and now in performance at Arts House in North Melbourne, Shoulder’s Carrion locates this figure in an archaeological site where they pick through a bizarre landscape of pseudo-artefacts: a pool of water, some plants and a set of animatronic birds. In a kind of post-apocalyptic realm, where the human body becomes contorted and unrecognisable, the performance evokes questions of environmentalism, automation and evolution. Moored by the expansive and supernatural score composed by Corin Ileto and embellished by the cavernous space of the North Melbourne Town Hall, Carrion is a haunting and impressive work.

Framed around the evolution of Carrion, the work features a series of dramatic reincarnations—including a sluggish cocoon, and an amorphous cloud from which Carrion’s face ruptures and retreats—all performed by Shoulder alone. With each evolution, Shoulder embodies not only a new physicality, but re-orders and the elements that make up Carrion’s body, challenging the stability of the very architecture of their body. Recognisable by Shoulder’s intense and menacing characterisation, each new body becomes a haunting and paradoxical image for the audience to digest. Carrion suffers, however, in its transitions between each evolution, which occur seemingly without impetus, and in which Shoulder must occasionally put aside his character to play stage manager. Although jarring, these lapses are quickly forgotten, as Shoulder once again enthrals us in each new landscape and body.

Even the plastic, animatronic birds that encircle the stage, which at first seem incongruous, only further embellish the complex negotiation of the human and non-human at play throughout the performance. Kitsch and clunky, their clicking wings are initially a confusing distraction for an audience unsure whether to laugh or stay serious. In Carrion’s final evolution, however, their obstinate whistling becomes a spectacular and haunting device. As Ileto’s thundering score rumbles and shatters through the space, you will be left with a chilling sense of dread, as Carrion seems to recoil from not only from the bleak wasteland, but from the audience itself.

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