by Laura Burns
Zierle & Carter’ s Trilogy The Swan Song, Touching Silence and Walking the Dawn, delve into the shape-shifting qualities of three totem animals: Swan, Moth and Horse. Zierle & Carter respond to site, material, image, animal with a methodical combing through, a deep sifting, developing relationships with layers of dreams, stories, and the otherworlds that pass through material and body. There is a palpable concern with the self’s relationship to nature, a kind of death that might be required in order to move to the collective pool of memory and re-birth, embedded in ritual and material. These journeys over time, particularly with the animals of this trilogy, manifest during performance in a responsivity to the ways in which material carries meaning, and an ability thereafter to imbue material with new intention: a constant reciprocity, a listening-to, an attending to the immaterial through the material, re-membering the body of spirit in matter.
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There is a layering, a thickness to The Swan Song – the first work in Zierle & Carter’s trilogy. It is a density of the already-here, in part emanating from the heavy gilt ritual of the masonic temple in the Andaz Hotel of Liverpool Street, a site plastered with ritual and attention (attended-to) over time; such a concentration of consciousness requires an engagement and a listening-to, in order to meet and transform those already present energies. The density is also due to Zierle & Carter’s long-term engagement with the swan and its theme of death that travels through story, mythology, symbol, archetype; these also require a sifting, so that images carry their full weight of meaning and ritual is not only aesthetic – a process Zierle & Carter are in long before, as well as during, the performance.
It is perceivable how Zierle & Carter are on their separate yet parallel journeys. Carter holds the space from his mountain throne, dramatically collapsing after almost five hours of meditative pose; while Zierle speaks with, to, from, the ice totem swan, gathering momentum and drawing tension between herself and the swan, both energetically and physically ending up tying and twisting in feathers around the swan totem. In conversation, Zierle reveals the influences and presences she experiences coming through the material during performance; one can witness them moving through her. Every movement is precise, delivered through this relationship. The second day of Swan Song brings with it a care-taking quality, this time Zierle ritually melting, washing, tending to the totem swan, while Carter goes in and out of searching and exorcising a swanlike essence.
But the artists as mediators, as conduits, make sure we dip into that pool of ritual time also; our intentions are essential for the melting pot. What do you want your last action to be, your final swan song? What would your future ancestor tell your present self? Not often are we allowed these spaces, nor do we carve them out for ourselves, and it is of course a kind of worship. If by worship we can understand that the world and its synchronicities are our way-map, should we be listening, and that spirit exists in it, not out of it; what is required is an invocation. Zierle & Carter pave the way, and like all performance, our commitment shapes the depths with which we dive. Even if we don’t plunge in, we certainly witness them doing it.
A sort of time-travel happens right in front of our eyes. What builds is a tapestry of interactions and intentions between the personal, the ancient, the collective, that seem to spiral through these previous embodiments (an almost geological time) and propel forward (the real-time commitment to decisions and precision of action / timing in the piece itself).
To say that their work is material-led is also to say that it is spirit-led. Afterall, words, dreams, images, archetypes, material itself – all have travelled through bodies: over tongues, through teeth; objects moved through hands, images held in mind and dream over millennia. Consciousness travels through matter, is held in mind-matter. But this is not the old vitalism debate, or a case of the meat of flesh needing to be ignited by spirit. Rather, material itself, in all its agency, speaks. Whether we choose to listen, and act on that listening is another question, one that Zierle & Carter are deep in.
Through this listening, the performers come into being, taking on different energies, qualities, movements, in this state of receptivity. It begs the question where do we get our agency from? In this context, I think of agency in terms of ability to respond – response-ability – to the work, the audience, the material. It is a question about what it means to be human, something that Zierle & Carter have carried with them through many performances.
Culturally, the answer to this question seems to assume differentiation: humanness means language, not animal, means mind, not matter, means man not woman, means civilisation, not nature. Of course, all completely constructed binaries, but terrifyingly persistent – and catastrophic – nonetheless. (Think of the reactions this week to Poppy Jackson’s piece). Similarly, agency in the human realm is often perceived as an ability to think, rationalise and make decisions. But if our decisions themselves are material-led, coming from this reciprocal listening, then our humanness is deeply rooted in the material world, in animal, plant, soil, stone. Individuals do not exist as separate and then interact, but rather emerge through interactions, remembering their complex interweaving in the matrix of a world beyond the human. This awareness is evident in Zierle & Carter’s work and our discussions; agency stems from their response-ability to material; knowing what to do and when to do it comes from listening to the immaterial through material.
Since the lights went out
I’ve been searching.
I’ve been night,
moving into its darkness slow as a beetle
I’ve been urgent with my silence
I’ve been forgetting myself and suddenly remembering –
I’ve been my own repercussions, drenched in shadow
trying, trying, trying
(lean closer, if you really want to listen)
and when the search party sets out
which is to say, lets go of what it holds,
the hair becomes a blanket
covering the face in a different kind of knowledge,
and when knowledge feels with its fingers
the mind leaks out like a root system
and when the roots touch
the fingertips become a feather
finding multiple directions to float itself in
and when the directions converge
they pool their darknesses together
and when darkness gets pooled together
the moon grows out its light
from between your bellies:
beginning and ending,
panning the body for gold.
A nighttime jungle in the Barbican’s conservatory; a wandering in darkness, whispers leafing through the underworld of soft, damp uncertainty. This is a completely different kind of knowledge, animal and plant, that Zierle & Carter are tapping into. A faint trapping holds human to animal: fingers, hair, rake fluttering edges on the other side of two translucent, glowing pyramids. They are whittling themselves down to an essence, touching a quality from the inside, letting it lead their actions.
There is endless trying, and failing; falling, dropping, searching, slipping, stumbling, blindly trying, sensing, struggling. Are they looking for each other? I move between them all night. This is not a struggle that abuses the privilege of the artist, rather, it is a struggle that is lived because the nonhuman world is so delicately navigated. This is kinaesthetic empathy – the ability for flesh to be another, the body’s kind of metaphor; not the ability to imagine oneself from the perspective of another, (we can call this imaginative empathy and it is limited by its reliance on a perception of us / them, me / you and the rational side of self conscious human logic). The flesh doesn’t live by such distinctions.
Zierle & Carter are not acting like a moth, or a swan, or a horse, they are tapping into swan, moth, horse – and in this sense they are embodying metaphor. Metaphor functions by one thing becoming another and leaving space (Zierle is swan, is Persephone, is moth-man, Carter is mountain, is fighter pilot, is the unknown nighttime). This is how biospheres function (repetition breaking out into chance through these constant translations); nature’s logic is relational and poetic. Without this possibility of translation and untranslatability (with all its problematics) there can be no creativity – either in biological evolution, or in culture. Of course, the plants understand this, Zierle & Carter understand this, and their words reach out from amongst the foliage in acknowledgement of this different type of ‘mind’. Soundscapes of whispered readings from the audience members’ final wishes in The Swan Song, emerge out of the undergrowth, as though the plants themselves are speaking and of course they are, in their rooted interlocking language, reminding us that knowledge and its communication exists in a complex variety of ways.
I am reminded of a passage once read to me by the artists, about the ways in which the brain translates something it cannot recognise into something it can, therefore constantly restricting the world to its known boundaries. Keeping on the edge of perception, to linger here, in the unknown, is an act of attention, commitment, and it requires the senses to take over before naming happens. If we can move into this state, we can perceive these other world voices. The performances are set up for this – feeding the senses and the event, (take off your shoes, gorse-drink and golden letters, hidden gifts on returning; dark shoes in the undergrowth with swan feathers jutting out, voices leaning you further towards the smell of root and soil), and it is present in the performers themselves. Intention and embodiment bring about a subtle, feathering journey we witness half-hidden in the dark. It is before the nameable, the explicable, because it is an act of encounter, a questioning, not a final answer.
The different textures of their parallel journeys with the unknown are palpable and fertile. He searches, sometimes eyes closed or hand covering face, while she goes about her definite business – even in Touching Silence when both are blindly searching they punctuate the space with difference; he jolts in sudden flashes and shudders, she strokes the air, a blind old man but measured all the while. There is a tension in this, as well as a comfort, as both slip in and out of holding the space in particular ways, of responding to what is needed with difference. It is refreshing to see gender roles not stereotypically playing out, but there is also a knife edge here – what is being met, who is meeting? Is this a collaboration or a provocation, a calling? Moments of sublime timing – a kettle being ritually poured to soothe the throat of the other, who unknowingly, unseeingly, stops coughing as a result – betray a life/art blurring of boundaries, and we sense that whatever these separate journeys are, they meet and spring from the same commitment to how the work lives and breathes and what one gives of oneself in order to respond to it.
You heard me. The city plunders on, Rhiannon,
and there is much, still, to do.
the sky is a straight, flat answer ///
WAKE UP skeleton-woman!
your handiwork is needed here.
bones can slot themselves in like a puzzle
can even spiral, loosely allotted yet precisely interlocking
head, torso, pelvis: three treasure chests
writing their bodies against the wall: earth, horizon, stone
No with its red tape and regulations: I fossilise instantly.
Bridge, exposure, distraction beating in its urban homeland.
We’re at the heart of it here: the world saying no.
You walk the plank. Horse-head calling. The time for it is Now.
The sky lifts off its lid.
Throw this shackle off my chest as wide as a cathedral
and capable of echoing more spirit
If the rain keeps coming I will match it;
if the lid keeps closing on this wildness
I will send it out in a million rivulets
creaking their way under the city,
coming back up as sticks and limbs
re-membering wood, hair, bone,
this is the work, and it will be slower
and more dangerous than we thought:
how to bring back the body in the face of all this,
how to remain:
persistent, awake, wildly unknowing.
Today there is something in the air. Flicking wind, persistent rain, Waterloo bridge sending its traffic over in drones, the river the river the great slug of river, Saturday on the Southbank, bustle and hurry, this platform is exposed, its concrete unforgiving, its red tape unending. All the time the world caving in and saying no, the rain hammering down –
Something about the confluence of things on Saturday requires a strength, a backbone, and Zierle responds – gathering energy, pounding up and down the terrace against the grey backdrop of bleak London. WAKE UP! She shouts at Carter; determined to animate this place, she needs all the help she can get. These small deaths – deaths of self, death of individual, death of togetherness, death of moments in performance, death of possibility of unknown, death of spontaneity or risk in the face of institutions, death of reliance on the status quo – they happen as we watch; it is almost so fast that you could miss it, could mistake it for its guise of considered movements.
Friday’s Spill Salon rings in the flesh here – how do artists, heathens and city witches forge an urban craft? I am left wondering: if occult practices enter artists’ processes, can they also be used as ways of reading performance and the synchronicities of the event, especially for the improvised, responsive rituals Zierle & Carter enact? Walking the Dawn is performed on the Weston Terrace of the National Theatre, and there is an evident tension between the improvisatory nature of the process-led performance and the requirements and cautions of such established cultural institutions. Mentionable then, to know that this weekend the planets have been doing their thing: Saturn squaring Neptune, Jupiter opposite Chiron in pisces, Uranus and Pluto pretty much square, Venus conjunct with Mars – all the big names, shaking and shifting. It’s a time of conflict, of coming up against barriers, of the pressure of a socialisation process, which can be humbling, overwhelming, constricting. (Suddenly the full weight of London’s institutional regulations in the face of the breaking free horse spirit feels no longer coincidental.) Pluto is letting go of all stability we used to rely on; Jupiter and Uranus since 2011 are coming to break through limiting core beliefs, and the sabian symbol for all this: the butterfly or moth, pinned to the exhibition wall. A death must take place, in order for expansion.
I am not merely indulging this usually hidden side of my worldview, but a question I believe is worth asking here: what happens when we look at the event of performance in the context of these synchronicities and ancient practices, themselves originally used for ritual; do we gain anything, do we fall down a rabbit hole? Is this the next step that is needed in terms of asking what performance can do, and does, in the context of spirit? (I don’t mean everyone has to believe in astrology, but rather that we might see performance and its event as being at the forefront of a perceptual shift in how, and why, things happen, and how we in turn respond.) Performance itself becoming a mediation process, a way of navigating through the world and these increasing challenges, a recovery process to remain wild and human. Zierle & Carter’s process and performance opens the way for these connections to be seen, not because they directly reference any of this, but because they are responding to and working with these synchronicities. In that sense there is also a calmness; whatever happens was what needed to happen, and this is where the work is.
So how does this work – work that uses ritual to engage with spirit and material agency – get read in an arts context and furthermore in the context of the National theatre and a tradition of text-based plays and acting? Zierle speaks about how her actions also find their home in the context of healing practices, so what shifts in a performance context? Of course a theatricality enters, a dedication to the aesthetics as well as relationship to an image (there is something Pina Bausch like, in the scenes when you first stumble upon them), but something remains: a belief in, and therefore care with, the energies that are tapped into. Zierle & Carter are meticulous: they do not step on the body of the horse once the shape is fully laid out. In this sense the process is a decolonisation of sorts, because it looks to a way of knowing that is against the value structures imposed by late capitalism, and the mind / matter, seeing-is-believing, science-is-proving Cartesian fallacy we have been painstakingly living with post-Enlightenment. It speaks beyond text or performance as representation, instead consolidating performance as a process of encounter, capable of shifting current contexts and imagining (imaging) new portals of possibility.
To be material-led in order to access the spiritual, can be a political choice: it moves away from the neoliberal individual as sole orchestrator of her/his life, whilst simultaneously unearthing response-ability, towards a collective politicised spirit. It is reclaiming a diversity of knowledge, it is reclaiming intuition in the face of a world which increasingly closes down such diversity, such perceived and intuited knowledge in favour of twenty-four-seven surveillance, of image without activation, of ways of living and reading that limit the possibility of lingering in the unknown.
Seeing the artists come back into their selves immediately after each performance, I witness the different process each animal has sparked; it is clear how deeply they dive, how much is given over to a knowledge outside of them. It makes for humility and assurance – as people and performers – that is its own invocation, its own invitation, ready for us to respond.