Spill Writing

Spill Spirits: Karen Finley (Written in Sand)


‘And after they’ve died, there is something in me that dies. Something is always lost. I have something more in common with the other side than this side.’

Karen Finley, ‘Departure’ (Shock Treatment)


Karen Finley’s writing is so fiery, so full of spirit that it haunts you; it emerges through her voice, peppered in the room, words thrown out of the body, swallowed and caressed: a staging of lives now gone (and a reminder, that time washes over so quickly, that scales of loss are forgotten).


Some incredible memories were written in sand that night; the witness to one of Freddie Mercury’s last concerts, to Finley’s ICA performance (you are amazing, you are incredible). The stories in-between that cut through, that kept us in balance – Finley as hostess, shifting between the uncomfortable, the dead, the lost, and the now. The memories between poetic interludes, the dying once, and again and again.


And as I heard these prayers, I though of Ginsberg, I thought of howls, of odes coming from the stomach, of history and the ways in which Finley’s language is embedded with affect and anger, with loss and confrontation. It travels in suburban homes, greeting politicians, greeting artists, remembering friends, chasing ghosts.


‘Tell me’, she says, ‘what to say when I visit and my sick friend says, When am I going to get better?, And all I can say is, If we could make you better we would’. This rhetoric of address (though how delicately these words stage the same act in Shock Treatment)


As I walked past Ribbon Gate, this temporary memorial of gentle remembrance, I thought about generational gaps, about histories of victims and those of victors, and about language as a mode of imprint.


Ageing plays a part here too, because there is space made for it to come to visibility. I thought of the evocative nature of Finley’s performance texts, of the ways in which the artist becomes medium, of the vantage point from which she speaks, and the landscapes and lives she recalls in-between. It washes over you, through you, you receive them all, body to bodies.


An address to a room of generations whose relationships to conflict, to oppression, to loss and illness are different, but brought together by these prayers (beats in time, language sculptures). In the nuances of the voice, the ways in which the body carries these messages, there’s an invocation at play, one that bridges and marks time simultaneously.


Finley is more than a guardian or historian here; she invokes these stories mapped onto streets and living rooms, cafes and gigs and bars, and it all smells differently, embedded in a different culture, American flags and dreams and lovers who grieve.  Patriarchies, families that forget, the homeless and the poor, the sick and the forgotten- they appear in Finley’s texts, they march through her body, passing through the gentle rhythms of the piano, punctured by occasional sound effects, by sentences that jar to give us pause.


Of course, we know of Finley not only through these psychic portraits, not only in speaking about scarred bodies and death, and grieving and not fitting in, and family and forgetting.


We know of Finley as the artist who battled representation and morality; we know of Finley as one of the NEA Four (National Endowment for the Arts), whose funding was withdrawn following accusations of obscene representations (and the battle still continues). And of course, Finley was also censored in the UK – in her own words, because ‘it’s ridiculous, women can’t take their clothes off and speak at the same time.’


In an interview with Richard Schechner (The Drama Review, 1988), Finley speaks of her work as being part of a tradition (mentioning both The San Francisco Art Institute and New York as a place for artistic communities). She cites Truman Capote, Uta Hagen, Tennessee Williams, Johanna Went and the Butthole Surfers. She speaks about automatic writing, about affect and her own relationship to text, about working from the gut. And in moving from rock to literature, performance to theatre, material to voice, she sediments histories of others peppered with intimacy and domesticity, a gentle longing that builds over time.


All these references become embodied in her performance, which sustains an engagement between narrative and voice. There are many frames brought into play: the musician (Paul Nebenzahl) and her relationship to him (pick it up, she says), the sand laid out on the floor, the burning candles, the chair downstage; it’s an intimate, domestic, but also public space that’s created. It’s a space that recalls, but also asks, what next in the process of remembrance?


What was written in sand, that night: poetic testaments, odes of remembrance.


– Diana.