SPILL STINGS 15: National Platform, Day 1

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Johanna Linsley and Madeleine Hodge respond to the first day of the SPILL National Platform, 23 April 2011
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.

Johanna Linsley
It is the first day of the National Platform.  It’s a hot day and light streams in through the big glass windows of the National Theatre Studios.  The light is sucked up by the black rubber floors and heat spreads throughout the building. In this first series of encounters for the National Platform I wonder what it is that these artists are asking us to witness. There is a choice about what is made visible in each artist’s work, and in exploring this territory of visibility I wonder what is being brought to light, what is left in the darkness and how clearly we are able to see.

My first encounter for the day is in a large, hot, gymnasium-like room.  A focused performer – Martin O’Brien – is lying semi-inverted on a bed to the side of the space. He slaps his chest repeatedly, working to expel mucus from his over-active body in a careful system of production and utility that is set up around the room. Small canisters catch the mucus he spits out, and he places them on a shelf. It is a slowly dawning revelation that the initial shock of spit and pounding I first witness is actually an act that could be read more sensitively as self-care, and each of the internal processes made visible through the performance make more sense with the passing of time.  As each section is witnessed across the cycle, I realise that the system is not one of radical action – although that is implied through the witnessing of this body and these expulsions – but a performance in which the artist creates a place that serves his needs entirely while allowing us to watch.

The next thing that I witness is Nic Chalmers’ All Erasable, a performance that I find slightly at odds with the context.  It’s a highly theatrical (almost over-acted) piece that involves film clips, a piano score and two girls in swimming costumes using a series of props – beach balls, monkey suits and fake palm trees – to perform interconnected or disconnected texts.  These elements are used to describe the disappearance of a girl who may (or may not be) Alice Blue. “Am I am monster or is this what it means to be a person?” All Erasable erases itself; except for a few images that fix themselves in my mind, it feels as if many of the texts disappear even as they are being spoken. This is a work that slips between different modes, creating an uneasy tension between theatricality and performance, in that what we see is not what we are supposed to see and what is being created is contested as it emerges.

In another room, Me and the Machine present When We Meet Again, which takes place in a small, dark room.  Suddenly there is a hand on my shoulder. This begins an intriguingly succinct experience in which I am not my own body; instead, I’m momentarily living another life from the inside of a pair of video goggles. I am not seeing what my eyes would see, but am inside another’s fiction and experiencing the vulnerability of strangers (I am also a stranger) meeting in a strange place.  There is the smell of strawberries, and the sound of the sea, and the tenderness of a dance in a dark place.

The piece that burns itself into my mind on this day is jamie lewis hadley’s This Rose Made of Leather, in which hadley constructs a long catwalk of tiles from a large stack that bends and wavers with my concentration. Between two lines of audience that are facing each other, each tile is laid onto the floor, forming a long runway that hadley proceeds to destroy. hadley cuts himself across the knuckle and uses the hand press – which he used moments before to get blood pumping – to smash each tile on the catwalk. I hold my breath hoping he will make it, and I feel quietly devastated as I reflect on a masculine identity that builds and destroys itself in our endless systems of risk and reward. Three days later, I am on a bus thinking about the National Platform, and there is a shudder across my knuckle as I realise that my blood is unable to forget this work.

Redo Pakistan has a mesmerising beginning in which the body of is contested as a site of jihad, as a voice on a short film speaks to remake the body with its multiple and dispersed identities.  This is followed by a short play in which a performer cries repeatedly Pakistan has been redone: “It’s been like this for hundreds of years and it needed redoing.”  This work hints at a darkness in the contemporary politics of Pakistan, the struggle with borders, and the edges of national and personal identity that are at stake in this struggle. I feel like this is a much bigger conversation that we are only able to glimpse at in this darkened room.

The lights are back on and are shining brightly on GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN as they show us External. A self-conscious attempt to show us something of another’s work, it is proclaimed to be a response to the work of Ontroerend Goed’s Internal, and yet it takes in a wide range of other connections in its wake.  With forced smiles and deliberately hideous stereotypes, these women make a wide range of references to work that we may or may not have seen.  They are Jen and Lucy and they are sometimes funny and sometimes painful and they very much like performance: that much is very clear.

The day is over and we step blinking back into the light. At the end of Saturday the National Platform is at a halfway point, and already so much territory has been uncovered. It’s a day of references and conversations and beginnings and intimacies, and its hard hold on to all that has come to light. The feeling that I’m left with is that there is an urgency of practices and a pulse that runs through these artists’ work that makes me want to come back for more, always willing to step back into that certain darkness.

Madeleine Hodge