SPILL Festival of Performance regularly commissions writers to respond to the performance works – less as reviewers, and more as artists producing creative documents of the event. For the 2011 festival, these texts were titled SPILL Stings, and were coordinated by Theron Schmidt, with contributions from Johanna Linsley, Mary Paterson and Madeline Hodge. The following is a response to the SPILL National Platform at the National Theatre Studios, which presented work by emerging artists.
Performance art is sometimes of accused of having had its time. It’s so sixties (or so nineties, or so last year). Just as often, the study of performance is accused of fetishizing the present moment at the expense of a careful understanding of history or context. One of the exciting things about the first installment of the SPILL National Platform (Saturday, 23 April) was how this set of early career artists both demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of their predecessors, and made convincing proposals for the continued relevance of their practice.
I began my day by slipping into Martin O’Brien’s durational performance Mucus Factory. Unfolding over five hours, O’Brien’s piece involves the young artist – who has cystic fibrosis – performing aerobic activity on a trampoline, beating his chest to break up the excess mucus that develops in his lungs and characterizes his disease, combining the mucus with glitter, applying both to his body, and giving himself an enema. Seeing the piece for the second time on Saturday, I was again struck by how forcefully this work operates as a conversation with other artists, both dead and alive. An essay by Ron Athey accompanies the piece, in which the legendary performance artists discusses his mentorship of O’Brien, the legacy of Bob Flanagan (an artist who combined his lifestyle BDSM with his experiences with cystic fibrosis), and the significance of identity politics. Athey notes that the politics of queerness and disability are shot through the work, and rather than reducing the piece, as the critics of identity politics often argue, the specificity of O’Brien’s concerns opens it up to complexity. The density of reference combines with the materialities of O’Brien’s own body, made manifestly clear by the smell of sweat that struck me as I entered his room.
Jamie Lewis Hadley is another artist whose reference base includes legendary body artists. In his piece for the Platform titled This Rose Made of Leather, hadley seems to re-make one of Franko B’s most famous performances, I Miss You (2003), in which the artist created a ‘catwalk’ in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Naked and painted white, Franko B walked down the catwalk as blood dripped down his arms onto the floor. In hadley’s re-interpretation, the ‘catwalk’ was a long, white rectangle made of white tiles laid out by the artist. Each tile was then broken and spattered with blood made from cuts on hadley’s knuckles. Where Franko B’s piece dealt with commodification, image and appearance – in which the material and the virtual appeared at war – hadley’s work was literally handmade – an artisanal, shattered grid.
For Rachel Mars (Unto Us a Child Is Born), the form of the autobiographical solo performance, in the tradition of lesbian and feminist art, was a clear touchstone. This is a form that is particularly vulnerable to accusations of self-indulgence and irrelevance – accusations that tend to betray a host of veiled assumptions about whose stories are worth listening to. In her piece, Mars used pop culture, European classical music, family and religion to reject the gender binaries residing within pop culture, European classical music, family and religion. Her humour and defiance were strong reminders of the politics of personal stories.
Nic Chalmers (All Erasable) and Other Asias (Redo Pakistan) both showed pieces that demonstrated the challenges of devising performance from existing source material. They also both raised questions of collaboration and authorship. Chalmers drew on the form of the detective story, and worked with a sound artist, a video artist and another performer to create a mysterious collage that dealt abstractly with the concept of disappearance. Other Asias is an art and critical theory collective that ‘challenges contemporary navigations of Asia as region, as potentiality, as memory, as imagination and investigation through an arena of fluid exhibitionary structures’ (http://otherasias.webnode.com/). The group showed a performance in two pieces. The first was a forceful and complex video dealing with the philosophical concept of jihad, and the second, a theatrical interpretation of a short story titled ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Sadaat Hassan Manto, which dealt with the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
Finally, the group GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN showed External, which was a performance response to a piece by the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed titled Internal. While the reference in this piece was literal to the point of absurdity, the group also seemed influenced by the more general trend around performance re-dos. Responding to the seeming ephemerality of performance, a growing number of artists and curators have been interested in the critical re-performance of past works. The highest profile instance of this was Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. However, recent re-performances have also included Robin Deacon re-doing the work of Stuart Sherman at the Chelsea Theatre, among other venues, and the Once More with Feeling series at the Tate Modern. For these artists, the re-performances become both works in their own right, but also act as live, if equally ephemeral archives.
For all of these performers, then, issues of performance history were made present. The conversation between now and then has started. I look forward to seeing where it goes.