SPILL STINGS 16: National Platform, Day 2

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Mary Paterson and Theron Schmidt respond to the second day of the SPILL National Platform, 24 April 2011
John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, said the point at which the ocean meets the sky is the tip of infinity, and you can see God in that expanse.  Darren White has a more humanist interpretation.   In A Sense of the World, he thanks the audience for coming to the place where ‘the black theatre curtain meets the black stage floor; where the white clouds meet the white show; where the blue sky meets the blue sea; and where the green tree tops meet the green grass.’  He’s not talking about God but about the space of our collective imagination – which is to say, theatre.

White begins by chewing noisily on a long, red sweet tethered to a microphone.  When he’s finished he says, ‘I can taste red’ and, blindfolded, starts to describe the taste of other things in the room.  He gestures towards a crowd of brunettes amongst the audience and says, ‘I can taste your blonde hair.’  This calculated mistake comes as a relief, as it swerves White away from the cliché of the blind oracle – the man whose visual impairment gives him an accurate, second sight.  Instead of a replica of the real world, the space White explores through taste and sound is an imaginary construct – another world and, perhaps, another type of faith.

Towards the end of the show the audience is asked to put on blindfolds and take off our shoes.  When we remove the blindfolds we find that White has left the room and our shoes have moved, mysteriously, to the makeshift stage and the markings White left there during his performance.  It requires a large dose of trust to wear a blindfold in a roomful of strangers, and I have to admit that I was itching to get mine off again.  Perhaps I removed it too early, but when I did I saw most people standing in non-sighted stillness, and some other people moving shoes around.  The curious thing was that the people moving shoes didn’t look like performers, but like other audience members.  Were they planted there?  Or were they so swept along in this imaginary world that they spontaneously took part in the magical deceit?

Jo Bannon, in contrast, is after a more orderly type of participation.  In Foley she self-consciously sets out to recreate the magic of the foley artist – the craft of hand-made sound effects for TV and radio.  But, Bannon explains primly in front of her desk of tricks, she will need some help from the audience.  We applaud on cue (to replicate the sound of an audience), and release party poppers (to sound like gunshots).  Someone even gets up to move two men’s shoes around in order to make footsteps. There’s an occasional thrill when a sound comes from an incongruous source – milk over Rice Krispies sounds like a radio being tuned, the snap of a celery stick sounds like bones breaking – but for the most part the sounds of this foley artist, at least, are pretty much as they seem.  She tells a story to string these noises together, but it does nothing more than that, and the piece never leaves the mundane materialism of this room.  But I don’t think it’s meant to.

Bannon’s tale culminates in a violent scene, which she tackles with relish: she slaps a piece of raw meat, shovels jelly into her mouth, and blows bubbles in a bowl of water.  At this point, her performance turns into a slapstick representation of the attempt to make theatre – the energy and effort of pretending, and perhaps of losing yourself in the pretence.  The deceit, then, in Bannon’s performance, is not the magic of the sound effects – if anything, that’s a red herring.  Like White, she’s interested in the line between reality and the imagination.  But, whereas White incites the audience to take part, Bannon embodies this transformation herself.

In When We Meet Again, Me and the Machine go a step further, and invite individual audience members to embody the entire performance world alone.  Billed as ‘a wearable film’ and ‘a one to one performance’, When We Meet Again begins when you walk into a darkened room and put on a pair of goggles.  As in White’s show, this wilful blindness inspires in me a sense of panic.  But here, the goggles are a way of streaming a film, so as soon as I put them on I am transported to another world.  It makes a difference, too, that this is a one to one performance, which means that the only person I need to trust is the one whose gentle hands are guiding me round the space.  Before long, I surrender myself to the faint, lyrical story –a soft mystery, in which someone I never really meet talks about something I don’t remember.  When it ends, I’m alone again, clutching a strawberry.  The film in my goggles gives me instructions which start, ‘If you’re still here …’   Yes, I think, getting used to the light again; I’m still here, but I have been taken somewhere.

Mary Paterson
I want to think about the three performances in the final session of the National Platform – Jungmin Song’s Hamlet: (Tissues), Shabnam Shabazi’s Body House (Version 1), and Lauren Barri Holstein’s How 2 Become 1 – in terms of the idea of emergence.  This platform is framed as an opportunity for ‘emerging artists’, which I know is merely a term of convenience – we just have to call it something.  No one would argue that the term is unproblematic, and one of the problems is that it implies that these artists emerge from nothingness, rather than already bringing a richness of experience – as well as suggesting that it is a neutral space into which new artists are received, rather than one marked by lines of power and privilege.   Though I’m focusing here on these final three works, across the whole weekend I have been aware of the ways in which these artists are attempting to claim an identity, to carve out a home, to make a name for themselves.  The artistic works are ways of making such a claim, but also, particularly in these last three works, they are about this struggle for identity.

Quivering, tentative, as if the slightest breeze would blow her away, Jungmin Song appears before us.  Her materials are a box of tissues, a spray bottle filled with water, and the weightiest dramatic text in the English language: Hamlet.  With trembling hands, she performs small and unspectacular manipulations of the tissues: they flutter on the back of her hand, or drown in the thin surface of water on the table in front of her, or are bunched up into approximations of flowers, then gently misted with water until they dissolve into a single clumpy mass.  Between or alongside these actions, Song haltingly recites lines from Hamlet that more or less directly address questions of fluidity and frailty. We hear Gertrude recount Ophelia’s death by drowning.  Or Hamlet’s famous lament: O that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or the ghost of Hamlet’s father who tells of poison dripped into his ear, and his admonishment – Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.  In Song’s performance, that pun at the end of Hamlet’s line – a dew/adieu – feels like it echoes across the entire text, as each character’s departure is a kind of melting away, a dissolution back into nothingness.

However, not only do I hear these textual connections, the kind of thing that might just as easily be manifested in an essay or a conventional dramatic staging, but also the delicate uncertainty of the Korean-born artist’s habitation within a second language.  It takes visible effort for her to remember each line, to shape each word.  And it takes effort for her to be here at all: she seems demure, bashful, giggling, as if the experience of performing in front of strangers is very nearly too much for her.  And yet here she is.  Performing Hamlet.  It’s not a boldly defiant act, but it is nonetheless a gathering of strength, an act of will and of self-definition – and in this regard, too, Hamlet is an appropriate source.

Shabnam Shabazi’s Body House (Version 1) is a durational work that unfolds over several hours, but, sprawled over the studio floor in the middle of the afternoon, much of her audience stays with her throughout the event.  She stands on a small platform.  Three assistants daub her naked body with a lumpy fluid, then begin wrapping her in strips of plaster gauze, proceeding section by section as she is gradually encased.   She gazes out at us with an expression that is assertive and confident – not accusatory, but fierce.  She makes eye contact.  Against an ambient soundtrack, she flatly pronounces a series of words and phrases, such as a sequence of words that all begin with the prefix dis-: dis-able, dis-array, dis-avow, dis-ease, dis-possess.  Using metaphors from real estate, she speaks of her desire to have the right of abode. She talks about fractures, fissures, and gaps.  My body is a house, she says.  Filled with silence.  She never pauses for more than a few moments, then continues, dispassionately, squinting under the lights.  This continues throughout the afternoon.

But then her assistants reach her face.  Plaster strips are spread over her eyes, across her nose, and over her mouth.  She is suddenly silent, her body completely covered and fixed in its place as her assistants continue to work.    From moulds taken earlier, plaster casts of her feet and of her arms and front torso are produced.  They are laid on the studio floor, immaculately white and detailed: I see the outline of her fingernail, the wrinkles in her hands, the smoothness of her chest.  And a few metres away, the actual body has been encased within a sarcophagus, as if Shabazi is no longer in the room.  Maybe no longer in her body, now only a shell.  This kind of ritual entombment of the body has been deployed many times in performance practice, and so the value of this work is not its originality; instead, what comes across is what is at stake for Shabazi in doing it here and now.  The act of speaking, and of solidifying the presence of her body, is as significant as what she says or does.  I am here, the action says. I exist. Even as she disappears within it.

If these two works are marked by fragility and earnestness, then Lauren Barri Holstein’s How 2 Become 1 is completely the opposite in its exaggerated vulgarity and trashiness.  Other critics have accused her of copying Ann Liv Young – and in this performance, Holstein is herself quick to embrace this accusation, boasting that she has plagiarised not only from Young but from dozens of other performers, which she demonstrates by pulling a supposed list of those artists on a folded-up piece of paper from within her vagina, à la Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  Nevertheless, it’s Young whom Holstein most persistently mimics: in her singing along to pop songs in an apparently unplanned manner (‘Ok, let’s have the next track.  Um, no, the next one.’); in her imaginative use of her own vagina (in this show, she inserts eggs wrapped in condoms, holds them inside her for a moment, and then expels them into a bowl, all the while balancing precariously in mid-air with the aid of a ladder); in pouring fluids over her body (in this case ketchup) in a way that is both raunchy and a parody of raunchiness; and in her overall contempt for her audience, her co-performers (who perform caricatures of boredom, like sewing or continually chewing on fried chicken), and herself.  But whereas an intense rage burns behind Young’s use of this performance vocabulary, Holstein’s work is more ironic and self-effacing.  ‘Are you bored yet?’ she asks.  ‘I know, right?  It’s so boring.’

It’s forceful, attention-grabbing work, and, judging from the new crowd who turn up at the end of the day just to see her, it has clearly earned her considerable support within the sector.  But it’s exactly this in-crowd appeal that is one of the many problems I have with the work: it feels like a calculated effort to be cool, to avoid responsibility or commitment, and to indulge rather than question that particular flavour of art-school cynicism that is also a marker of privilege.  For the first time in the Platform, I feel that there’s a division within the room between those who ‘get it’ and those who are excluded; this may be an interesting distinction to expose, but I don’t sense that it’s a deliberate provocation of the work.  Or perhaps it’s just my own failure to get it.  It’s obvious from Madeleine’s account of her conversation with Holstein that the artist is savvy about her work and what she wants it to do: to explode and dissolve gender clichés, to reject assumptions about what women are permitted to use their bodies to signify, and perhaps to make something that is no more and no less than a sentimental break-up story.  However – and I know this is an odd thing to say about a work in which the artist is so literally exposed – I just want to see her be more courageous.

I write these responses knowing that these artists are along a trajectory, and that the National Platform itself is conceived as a critical role along this path.  Robert Pacitti has told me how central the Platform is to his vision of SPILL: it’s not an addendum or an after-thought, but crucial to what he wants SPILL to be and what he wants it to do.  And he has honoured this commitment; two of this year’s SPILL commissions, Sylvia Rimat and Kings of England, were artists who presented work in the SPILL Platform two years ago.  So the Platform is not just about the work itself, but also about a wider ecology, one that involves thinking about how this work is produced and how we value it.  All of it, including this critical writing framework, is part of a strategy for expansion, discovery, and growth.  In this wider sense, then, the Platform itself is concerned with the idea of emergence, not as something that only young artists do, or something that is bestowed by enlightened curators or critics – but something to be cultivated as an active, ongoing process within which we might all be transformed.

Theron Schmidt