Australian Video Art Archive

Gary Willis


‘…and the Leopard Looked like ME!’ – Play for You

00:25:00 1979-1981

The question concerning ‘what does this work has to offer its audiences now’ requires a little background, since the work itself was often misunderstood in its own time.   Now, late 2008 almost thirty years after it was produced, its aesthetic has been eclipsed.  The Leopard was produced in the awareness of Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance piece Coyote (I like America, America likes Me), and is best understood in light of Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poet, that is a psychedelic/surrealist work which now speaks of a time passed.

During late 1978 - early 1979, I lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan immersing myself in the downtown post-punk art/performance culture of the time.

I spent my days visiting artists and galleries.  My interests included performance-based artists and theorists such as Richard Forman, Sam Shepard, Patti Smith, Lucy Lippard. During this time I met John Cage, Andy Warhol and Twyla Tharp and became interested in artists such as Samo/Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rene Ricard and Jenny Holtzer. My nights were spent in the down town clubs such as  the Mudd, CB-GB’s, Max’s Kansas City, seeing artists such Nico and John Cale from the Velvet Underground, The Cramps, Wendy ‘O’ and The Plasmatics.     

During this time the Sex Pistols were also living at the Chelsea Hotel.  Sid Vicious committed suicide after having killed Nancy in their room.  One night I came a cross a pair of text-based posters, anonymously pasted around the back streets of Tribecca, which seemed to name the day; ‘Timidity is laughable’; ‘People go crazy if they are too sensitive’; Happiness is an out-moded idea’;Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage’; ‘Anger can be a motivating force’; ‘Killing is unavoidable but nothing to be proud of’; ‘Abuse of power should come as no surprise’; ‘Morals are for little people’ etc. etc.  I later found these posters were the work of Jenny Holtzer (Truisms – 1978).

The hard-edged experience of post-punk New York stood in direct contrast to my experiences in the Zen and Buddhist monasteries of Japan and Thailand two years earlier.  My way of dealing with the New York experience was to give myself into the present - whatever that entailed.  Drugs played an active part in the sub-culture of the times.  Aids followed in the aftermath of the period.

The inspiration for The Leopard was a hallucinogenically induced visionary experience, which seemed so lucid and prophetic at the time that it was easily transcribed.  It obliged was a dangerous performative act which walked a fine line between two forms of death; the spiritual death of playing safe and the sudden death of becoming prey to a predatory culture.  It presents the transformation of ‘one who thinks they know’ (the ringmaster) into ‘one who knows they do not know’ (the leopard).

In essence the work is an ‘everyman play’ wherein the ringmaster, within his hood of question, stands-in for everyman, whilst the leopard stands only for himself.    Within the terms of the original vision the role of the ringmaster naturally fell to me, although I was a stand-in for ‘everyman’, that is you.  In this sense the work is ‘A Play for You’ where you become the leopard, ‘…and the Leopard looked like Me!’  Within the terms of the original it was clear that there was only one person I knew who was capable of the role of ‘the Leopard’, this was the American performance artist Richard Boulez who was living in Melbourne at the time.  It is perhaps important to understand that I did not know Richard very well at the time.   

The music for this work is an original score by Paul Grabowski.  The work was in rehearsal for 9 months prior to its first performance.  The different actions/scenes were called by megaphone; the actions were performed at risk of life and limb.   Although the structure of its conception was exact, its performance was volatile, dangerous and sometimes bloodied.  It was first performed live in the Adelaide Fringe Club at 3.30 am, for the ‘Adelaide Festival of the Arts’ in 1980 and the following year for the ‘ACT #2 Performance Festival’ in Canberra. 

This video was produced with funding from Australian Film Commission, although the funding was awarded to produce test footage for the final work, it quickly became obvious that performance art is very different practice to film or acting.  The interpersonal dynamic which had been built up in the 9 months of rehearsal prior to its first performance had begun to dissipating; Richard Boulez had already moved to Sydney where he was working as a bondage and discipline master.  The performative action was filmed in one take at Open Chanel Studios by Robert Randall and Frank Bendinelli in 1981.

The video is not to be confused with the live performance.  The objective of the video was not to film a live performance, but to present the mythic structure of the work’s original conception as a video experience.  The performance was scripted footage and faded in and out of a pre-recorded single-take video synthesis work, performed by myself on the Spectron video synthesizer in the music department at La Trobe University in 1981. 

This video was shown in the 1982 ‘Nu-View’ new wave video screenings at the AFI Cinema in Melbourne, the ‘TV Taboo’ program with 1982 Sydney Biennale; the 1982 Festival of Experimental Film and Video at the Allerbammer Halle in Munich, the 1982 ‘Continuum’ exhibition of Australian Art in Tokyo. 

 - Gary Willis

DVD available