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Sam Trubridge at Oriental Bay. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

The shape of water: Sam Trubridge on his gravity-defying performance art

Artist Sam Trubridge’s new work, featuring his famous free-diving brother, William, is the latest in a career influenced by the siblings’ oceanic upbringing.

When people talk about performance art, they often speak in can’ts, won’ts and don’ts.

You can’t, for example, project a 10m-high image on to a water fountain. You won’t be able to float a mysterious container in the middle of Wellington Harbour. And don’t even think about getting strangers to strip to their underwear to share a public bath.

Sam Trubridge has heard all the naysayers, but he’s made a career out of ignoring them.

The 42-year-old is the founder and artistic director of the Performance Arcade, a free festival of art, live music, dance and theatre that every summer operates out of a series of artfully arranged shipping containers on Wellington’s waterfront (this year from February 26-March 1).

Trubridge, who dreamt up the event in 2011 and has curated it ever since, says the Performance Arcade is about “creating a third space”.

“For so long, artists have had to work in either a gallery or a theatre, but I believed there was space for something that combined elements of both.”

So, using about 30 containers, he created a gallery of “boxes you look into that have the character of a stage”.

Sam Trubridge. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

The Performance Arcade, says Trubridge, is the only one of its kind in the world. “There isn’t really a festival that does everything the Arcade does in the way we do it. There are, of course, performance festivals around the world but they’re usually in galleries and often charge admission, which changes the whole experience. They also don’t use public spaces in the way that we do, turning the waterfront into a stage and the whole city into a theatre.”

He’s talking generally about the 25 or so works slated for this year’s festival, but more specifically about Swimmers, a visual spectacle that will see footage of his brother, world-champion and double-world-record-holding freediver William Trubridge, beamed 10m into the air above the Carter Fountain, which sits 150m out in Wellington Harbour from Oriental Bay.

Swimmers follows the success of last year’s inaugural projection, Swans, which saw a 20m-tall image of a ballerina dancing above the water.

Swans was a huge success, giving us a presence on a prime piece of city architecture and bringing an exciting new experience to Wellingtonians that created a lot of buzz. On some nights, traffic slowed to a crawl as hundreds of people stopped to watch the projection.”

For the second go round, Trubridge looked to underwater choreography rather than dancers. He didn’t have to look far for his muse: William, who splits his time between the Bahamas, where he does most of his depth training, and Japan’s Okinawa, where his partner, fellow diver Sachiko Fukumoto, is from.

William roped in his partner as a performer and his friend, Japanese freediving champion Ryuzo Shinomiya, to film the images for Swimmers in a barely heated outdoor pool in Okinawa – in winter.

“It was the only pool available and to get the right kind of light, we had to shoot at night,” says William from Japan. “So, it was pretty cold and between takes we sat in tubs of warm water to bring our body heat back.”

Image of William Trubridge for Swimmers. Photo/Amber Strain

Trubridge planned Swimmers as a way to “dialogue with the surface of the water, with bodies somersaulting and tumbling in and out of the sea like giant holograms”.

To project the images for Swans and Swimmers, Trubridge sought the help of Lord of the Rings art director Joe Bleakley, who had developed a special nozzle that enabled him to get around the pesky problem of working with water.

“Water isn’t great to project on to because it’s a moving surface, but Joe attached this nozzle to the fountain for a festival he ran in 1983. It basically changes the jet of water into the shape of a peacock’s tail, which gives us a flat surface to project the image on to.”

William regularly pops up in his brother’s work. “Even though we’re involved in very different disciplines, our work does have a certain amount of crossover,” says Trubridge. “William acted in the first production I ever directed, The Tempest, for which I built a set at Auckland’s Tepid Baths, and his entrance was swimming the length of the pool and bursting out as though he’d escaped from drowning.”

William also starred in his brother’s production of Henry V, and every year Trubridge returns the favour by helping William run a freediving competition in the Bahamas.

“I go over there to set the line for each dive and basically help run that space as if it was a stage,” says Trubridge.

Image of William Trubridge for Swimmers. Photo/Amber Strain

The sea is a powerful magnet for the entire Trubridge whānau; Trubridge jokes they could all be half human, half fish.

That includes his internationally renowned furniture-designer father, David, and mother, Linda, an artist and yoga teacher who recently wrote a book, Passages, about the family’s maritime adventures.

When Trubridge was four, his parents sold everything and bought a yacht on which they set sail from their UK home. There were a couple of years in the Caribbean and another few in Tahiti. They spent 10 years in total living on the yacht, which, Trubridge says shaped not only his love of the ocean but also his creativity.

“We were always drawing and writing as children. On the boat there was no TV and although we had lots of books, there were limited resources in terms of who and what we could play with. So, we learnt to construct a lot of our play environments though writing, drawing, making and performing.”

From his home in Havelock North, David Trubridge recalls that decade as “a very happy time”. “The ocean was the kids’ life, their playground. We’d often drop them on a deserted beach where they would play together for hours, making up fantasy worlds.”

Those experiences, agrees Linda Trubridge, helped thread the needle for her sons’ careers. “Extreme isolation shaped their qualities of determination and freedom of expression that are pivotal to the projects that Sam and William have chosen to pursue in their careers.”

Trubridge toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist but the arts narrowly won out. He completed a bachelor of fine arts at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, then postgraduate studies at Slade School of Fine Arts in London before taking a masters in performance design at Massey University followed by a PhD in creative practice. At the same time, he has worked as a theatre director, designer and lecturer.

Call of the sea: Trubridge, left; with his brother, William. Photo/Supplied

It was via his students at Massey that Trubridge first began to play with the concept of the Performance Arcade. The event attracted about 30,000 visitors in its first year and the numbers have grown to three times that in recent years. It draws an increasing number of domestic and international performers to the capital, keen to showcase their multidisciplinary acts.

This year, Sweden, the US, South Korea and Germany will be represented, along with Kiwi creatives, in performances that range from an interactive dance involving robotics and a winged cyborg to an artist running on a treadmill all day.

“The artist is trapped on the treadmill as she performs a series of choreographed gestures,” says Trubridge. “The public can control the speed of the machine, offer her water or take a turn running if they want.”

He’s also excited about Muljil, a performance from four South Korean artists who are encased in glass tanks of water. “This piece works with members from the local refugee community to explore the concepts of isolation and alienation within the urban experience and echoes the haenyeo, female divers from the Korean province of Jeju who dive into the sea without equipment to gather shellfish, often risking their lives.”

For Trubridge, the last week in February is a chance to turn his adopted home-town into a theatre. “The aim is for audiences to realise how broad the horizons for artistic expression are. People can watch a diver projected on to the surface of the harbour and it can change the way they see their city in a profound way. For me, it’s exciting because if I’m working against what people think is possible, then I know they’ll be surprised and moved by what they encounter.”

The Performance Arcade runs from February 20 to March 1 on Wellington’s Waterfront. 

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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