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MAKING THE CONCEPTUAL AND EXPERIENTIAL LINK BETWEEN PERFORMANCE ON STAGE AND PERFORMANCE IN THE GALLERY

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Dunedin Fringe 2012
BLUE OYSTER PERFORMANCE SERIES
Curator: Jamie Hanton.
Blue Oyster Art Project Space (unless otherwise stated)

at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin
From 16 Mar 2012 to 24 Mar 2012

Reviewed by Jonathan W. Marshall, 25 Mar 2012


The Blue Oyster Performance Series was a complex series of more than ten individual gallery works over the course of more than 18 days. The review below is divided into sections relating to individual contributions and issues, but is designed to be read as a larger piece for those with the patience.

The Problematics of Performance Art

The ill-defined field of Performance Art began when sculptors and painters in the 1960s tried to find new, and ever more creative, ineffable ways to produce art which might exist outside of the market (and so be only art, not a product or a commodity). This approach was consolidated by the post-WWII trend within painting to see art as tied to the 'gesture' or the physical act of making a mark by the artist (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, et al).

What was actually produced became less important than how it was made, and so just the touch of the artist, his or her body, became increasingly important. Processes and concepts behind the work became more significant than the use of materials such as paint, colour, shape, and sculptural form.

Other significant trends were avant-gardism and conceptualism, in which everyday actions (sweeping, walking, running) were elevated to the level of art in order to show that anyone and anything could be art, if you chose to see it that way.

Things have come a long way since the heady days of the 1960s New York studio scene which was the hotbed of so much of this early work, but even today in New Zealand, many of these principles remain central to Performance Art: the role of the body and the artist's physical presence (often producing what is titled Body Art), using mundane objects and experiences to make art, and a general sense of cultural and political critique (art against the market, feminist art, black art, and so on).

For several years now, the Blue Oyster Project Space has hosted a series of Performance Art works within the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Given the almost inherently experimental nature of Performance Art as a form (or as a series of form), it is not surprising that this miniature festival within a festival tends to veer from the inspired to the insipid, from the strikingly intense and weird (I am told that the performed struggle between the roped and hooded Alex Lovell-Smith and Damian Smith fell into this category), right through to the downright self-indulgent.

Nor are the distinctions between these in any way clear. When most of these works depend on a certain world-weary, highly ironic mode of viewing, it can be hard to tell the difference between a bore at the pub and the Oscar Wilde of the Performance Art world.

The 2012 Blue Oyster Performance series was however marked by the prominence of works by new and emerging artists with relatively little experience in the performing arts, or in Performance Art itself. In the 1960s, no one really cared about this, but I for one would have liked to have seen a few more well-planned or deeply historically situated works. Performance Art itself now has a history, and just as painters must know and respond to those who have worked in a similar mode prior to them, this is also true for the Performance Artist.

Despite this, some gems stood out – but not those one might have expected. Hana Aoake, Monique Jansen, Frances Hansen, Becky Richards, Barbara Smith and Campbell Walker were my own picks amongst this eclectic association of anti-arts artists.

Canker

The signature event of the Program was Canker by Audrey Baldwin. In many ways it summed up this set of conflicting requirements regarding experimentation, the body, erotics, history, criticism, spontaneity, planning, form, formlessness, and so on.

The premise was classic Performance Art in its simplicity and in the suggestion that something interesting might occur.Baldwinappeared encased in a polyhedron of hard toffee, aiming to lick her way out, like a gigantic canker grub. So far so good.

Baldwinhad not however actually done this before, and so some of the more exciting questions, such as will she even be able to get out of this massive sticky box, never became an issue.

On assembly, the panels (provided by Otago Polytechnic'sSchoolofHospitality) proved unable to support their own weight, cracking or shattering, whilst during the performance itself, whole sheets bowed inwards at an alarming angle.

Given the gaping interstices about the base of this now rather cobbled together looking structure, there was never any doubt thatBaldwincould finish the performance at any time simply by crawling through one of the already present holes.

Perhaps more significantly,Baldwinchose to perform nude, presumably because of how messy the whole process was. Nevertheless, as the audience clustered around all sides, bending down to gawk over and in, one could not help feeling transported back to such unreformed events as Yves Klein's Anthropometries of the 1960s, where no one batted an eyelid at the casual use of the non-speaking, near infantilised yet still sexualised female body as a readymade art object and focus for the voyeuristic gaze of the casual, titillated onlooker.

Given the vast amount of breath and ink which has since been spent criticising Klein and his peers for this kind of approach, it is perhaps not unreasonable to expect that Baldwin should have found some way to ameliorate or otherwise explicitly engage with the rather problematic sexual politics of looking which she set up.

It is of course asking a lot to require an experimental premiere such as this to be built around such problems, andBaldwin's unashamed commitment to the two acts which she staged within the series more than demonstrates that she is an artist to watch out for.

Nevertheless, watching Canker, I could not help but recall the old complaint of the Guerrilla Girls from 1989: “Do women have to be naked to get into the … museum?” http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/ggirls/doc13.htm

The Gallery Frame, or Where's the Irony?

At issue is not the act or the performance itself, but the nature of the critical or ironic frame which the gallery may or may not provide for such a work. Holly Aitchison, for example, was largely dependent upon the venue to do the hard work of transforming her own otherwise ordinary act into a piece of watchable art.

In this case, I tend to be of the opinion that simply putting the act of inscribing a tattoo onto one's own flesh into a gallery does not really render it all that interesting. Wim Delvoye's famous Chinese 'art farm' devoted to the creative tattooing of pigs was far from being in evidence, nor anything else of comparable complexity (http://www.wimdelvoye.be/artfarm.php ).

Baldwinfor her part would seem to be working with themes of abjection and masochism. The accumulation across her limbs of burnt sugar smears and a genuinely repulsive molten brown goo, as well as, in another of her works within the Performance Series, her repeated forcing of alcohol down her own throat even after having caught a bowlful of wine-red vomit in her lap, have promise as highly watchable acts of self-assault; works which act as a kind of artistic endurance test, where the audience must consider its own culpability in encouraging the artist to enact such forms of self-martyrdom for art.

Even so, the specific frames within which these rather interesting ideas arose was not always as well defined as one might have liked. A live performance of the drinking game I've Never Ever (read out a statement of “I have never …”, and drink if one has done whatever is described there, do not if one has not) ultimately is no more interesting than the game itself when performed by youths such as my former self as an amorphously irrational excuse for bacchanalian excess and drunken socialisation.

The statements Baldwin had access to – anonymously donated over several days by random visitors to the gallery who may or may not have bothered to attend the performance – were banal in the extreme. Endless inquiries about what particular sexual acts, drugs consumed, or acts of violence and criminality, which the performer may or may not have conducted are not only annoyingly repetitive, but also self-indulgent – for both performer and whomever authored them.

To put it simply, I for one have absolutely no interest whatsoever in whetherBaldwinhas engaged in a threesome, masturbated with vegetables, and so on, and the apparent fascination of at least some of the audience at such points strikes me as juvenile to say the least (“Oooh! She's had anal sex! Tee-hee-hee!”).

Again, the conceit has great potential. IsBaldwinin fact acting as a mirror, to show up to the spectators their own prurience and stupidity? Given that there is no guarantee however that any of the instructions available to her on the night were even authored by those present, this kind of critical exchange is short circuited from the start.

I've Never never really became anything other than what it was in the first place: a rather pointless drinking game. A piece worthy of a more self-reflexive, and intensive reworking prior to its next incarnation.

Enberg

Oscar Enberg's Further Reductions on Retail Jokes did have a strong initial conceit behind it: to spoof consumerism through a kind of DIY, bedroom-delivery inspirational speech accompanied by flashy slides of glittery text and advertising imagery.

Unfortunately, Enberg's text though never really went anywhere either. At best, he tended to simply repeat what was written on his slides (“Consumption is good!”), and then launch into mock dance sequences to 1980s and electroclash music coming from a shonky portable CD player beside him.

His interesting collection of objects and designs, mixing a high level of craft (carefully printed images on tiles which fitted together) with off-hand appropriations (scraps of metal which looked like they had come out of the window-winding mechanism of a car door), were never really set off by this rambling monologue.

Lacking the poetic skills of such notable precursors in the history of Performance Art as Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, Hugo Ball, Laurie Anderson or Spalding Gray, Enberg was ultimately unable to make the specifically performance-focused elements of his work – notably the actual words he used – cohere into anything all that interesting.

One hopes future projects will address this, maybe by experimenting with more wholesale textual appropriations à la Kathy Acker.

Hereafter

Free Theatre's Hereafter was marked by a different set of tensions, in that this was an actual theatrical work, performed from beginning to end in front of a seated audience in a theatrical frame. Its inclusion in the series was by merit of the fact that, within much contemporary performance (especially European dance theatre and avant-garde theatre), a quite sculptural approach to staging is often adopted. Influences are eclectic, and may draw from the visual arts as well as literature, drama and theatre.

Even so, Hereafter was very narrative, and was in this sense a highly literary work. Text and story drove this piece – though admirably off-set by a sculptural framing of the performers in a trinity across the front of the space.

On the left, a male bassist wearing a Frankenstein mask (Michael Kime). On the right, a disgruntled looking Hitler-figure providing vocal musical accompaniment (Emma Johnston). At the centre – literally and metaphorically – was George Parker as the protagonist, perpetually rocking backwards and forwards in a tenuously balanced, masterful performance perched atop of a masseur's operating table. Parker's energetically depraved monologue provided the core of the work.

Free Theatre is a curious beast, a professional theatre company set up by the Universityof Canterbury's Peter Falkenberg to serve as a jumping off point for graduates of his Theatre and Film Studies course. Falkenberg directed Hereafter.

In many ways, Free Theatre is an ideal creation: an experimental, almost student company which nevertheless exhibits a very high level of craft, mastery and conceptual rigor. The production reflected this.

Indeed, at the level of craft, it was near faultless. Parker more than carries the show, succeeding in being both repellent and seductive, the protean materiality of his flesh strongly felt as he palpitates his own exposed chest and engages in other acts. The singer and the bassist are both excellent performers, although in the end, the music itself acts as little more than atmospheric background most of the time.

There are some moments of high distinction in the singing and instrumentalism: the music credited to post-atonal master Luciano Berio is, I assume, the opening section which Kime played using extended technique, twanging sticks woven into the strings over the fret-board, whilst a brief moment of so-called concrete poetry and extended vocal technique was provided by Johnston's superb cover of a Diamanda Galas passage, all spiky consonants, made-up, impossible words and guttural ululations.

Elsewhere Kime's role is largely to provide a beat or pulse behind the spoken text, and offer the odd atonal tweak or squeak of the double-bass strings to punctuate movements from one dramatic scene to another. More detailed forms of interaction or counterpoint between music, song and narrative are not developed, with Parker's narration setting the tone, pace and dramatic content throughout, whilst the other elements enhance and support this.

Much the same is true of the video projected behind Parker, which other than a few interesting moments visualising the relation of the protagonist to slaughterhouses and the meat industry, does little other than add a fairly indirect series of interesting things to gaze at between listening to the charismatic Parker. My own feeling has always been that if you could do a show with the video turned off, and the music either very, very quiet or absent, then this is something of a waste of resources.

Though multi-layered, Hereafter is therefore essentially a piece powered by a pile-driver of a central performance. It is not a comprehensively multi-focal work, which is both a weakness and a strength.

The real question though is why this piece at this time?

The play-script – composed by German author Werner Fritsch – deals with one of the great obsessions of German literature since the late 19th century, the lustmord, or sex-murder (see for example Maria Tatar's comprehensive study on this trend in German writing). The protagonist is even named “Wolf” in a homage to that other decadent sex-murderer of the German literary tradition, Steppenwolf.

Wolf is in a state near death. He hallucinates recollections of his life, or more likely different possible versions of it. Fritsch is apparently renowned for crafting works in which the reminiscences of a dying figure become a kind of virtual film, and although the fractured, episodic nature of the narrative does embody this concept, neither Fritsch nor Hereafter can be said to be all that innovative in employing this familiar concept. Even the cinema-loving gangster of Juzo Itami's 1986 film Tampopo knows this idea well enough to tell his lover to be quiet while he dies so that he can enjoy his last movie.

Wolf's own flashbacks principally revolve around his depravity and sexual acts, and his confusion between his initial love – she of the breasts which reminded him of his mother's – and his second love, a Thai transsexual. That his two lovers prove to be near indistinguishable ultimately surprises no one.

As noted above, all those involved – and especially Parker – do a truly superb job of realising this tale. But why and to what end? What does yet another tale of lustmord have to offer the contemporary audience? Given how clear the main poetic motifs of doubling and repetition are, there is little really for this piece to reveal. The conclusion takes us nowhere, and certainly left me wondering quite what the point of it all was.

Yes, Wolf has some very serious sexual issues, in which he confuses and melds (at times knowingly), a pre-operative transsexual with a post-operative one and with his female lover, as well as with his mother and indeed his own self. His sexual life mixes desire with death, thanatos with eros, sexual violence with suicide, love with pain.

But we have heard this all before, in many, many, many different stories, films, plays, operas and songs, not only those of Germanyin the lead up to WWII, but also internationally. Hereafter is more explicit in its sexual language, but so what? I do not need one to tell me about sperm found in a dissected corpse to know that it is there. In the end then it is hard to be sure what this latest retelling of these themes really adds to art, experience or the life of the viewer.

This is then a must see show for the uninitiated, but perhaps requires further development before it can be set alongside the formidable literary and dramatic tradition to which it might be related.

Fall

Unlike contemporary performance in the theatre, Performance Art tends to be characterised by simplicity and reduction. A major highlight of the Blue Oyster Series was a very straightforward work which revelled in this stripped back quality so as to paradoxically hyperbolise, exaggerate and render rich, strange and emotional this phenomenon.

Fall by Hana Aoake was conceptually self-evident. Aoake dusted the ground with flour to make a slippery (and hopefully not too hard) surface. She stripped down to white underwear and a white bandage about her breasts. She then proceeded to get up, and allow herself to fall, over and over again.

Typically within Body Art and Performance Art, these kind of actions focus on time and an almost metronymic realisation of duration. Falling is not so important as just how many occurrences are realised. The repetition changes how one experiences time: duration becomes both longer and shorter to the viewer, stretching and contracting moment to moment. The transit of time becomes highly subjective and is thus rendered visible to the audience.

Fall however did not unfold simply in this fashion. Performance Art is typically made by visual artists with little experience of theatre per se, and so the default expression of the Performance Artist is that of deadpan indifference or an absented expression such as was all but patented within the 1970sNew York scene by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and others.

Aoake by contrast visibly groaned, expelled air, nursed herself, panted and cried while prone on the hard concrete floor, and generally offered a vast and almost hyperbolic array of emotional expressiveness tied to this very simple act.

The basic act then produced a highly variegated palette or vocabulary of emotional responses, writ large upon the body. The bandages soon dropped off under this assault, and Aoake too became another classic female nude of the art world (seeBaldwinabove). The deep fissure of her spine between her hunched shoulder blades as she curled over her haunches could have been one of August Rodin's famous, highly tactile studies in the musculature of the female back.

I would suggest though that – unlike the more deadpanBaldwin– Aoake's very hyperbolisation of emotion, her urgent and insistent presenting outward of every feeling she had, shattered any suggestion of her being a simple, pliant figure under the spectator's gaze. Aoake became the ultimate unruly woman.

Lying with her whitened face in the flour, tears just visible in the corner of her eyes, she often laughed before hurling herself upright again for another joyous victory over her own pain and the forces of gravity.

In terms of temporal structure, Aoake's piece was tremendous to experience. Unlike the drone-like repetition of simple actions which much Performance Art tends towards, the timing of Aoake's actions was jagged, spiky, irregular, and anything but predictable.

Some sequences of standing up and falling were fast and urgent, whilst others were drawn out like a painful tooth extraction. In between she could go fast, slow, fast, fast, slow, fast, slow, slow, slow, and so on, in an endlessly shifting and unfolding pattern of irregularity.

In short, despite Aoake seeming to have conducted, if anything, less overt preparation than many of the other artists in the Blue Oyster Series, she trumped the program with the intensity and simplicity of her conceit. A fabulous example of the kind of surprises a series such as this can offer.

Alongside Project & Castles from the Back Lot with A Diverse Cast

Beside Aoake herself, the stand out works within the program did not in fact involve any 'performances' in the usual sense of the word, but were those which instead comprehensively embodied the concept of 'the performative.' These were works in which the processes and actions of generation from which they were built were visibly writ large over the material surface of the installation.

The collaboration of Becky Richards and Barbara Smith, for example, was itself not all that striking in terms of the realised visual content or dispersal of objects. What rather set it alive was a series of essays by Campbell Walker available at the gallery which described the processes of creation.

Richards placed her rocks and plant forms in dialogue with the metal frames and extruded strips of opaque resin which Smith provided, and every poetic metaphor, every step of their uncertain tango received a suitably allusive reference inWalker's text. Overall one was left with the sense of delicately poised interactions; of a very small set of objects and conceits which only managed to cohabit together by nature of the very ineffability and tentative indirectness of the relations between them which became manifest within the performance which gave them birth.

Considerably more playful, and deploying an aesthetic which revelled in the detritus and coloured trifles of mass culture, was the simultaneous collaboration of Monique Jansen and Frances Hansen in the back room of the gallery as part of the aptly named Alongside Project.

Here the artists cut and inscribed materials. They assembled post-it notes and ran coloured tape along the walls, in a series of unassuming yet quite beautiful arrangements which never remained long in the space. A set of squares of torn, coloured paper mounted onto a larger rectangle of tissue was temporarily taped to one part of the wall before being moved 20 minutes later to the other side, and later disappearing.

Materials endlessly scattered and flew, bustled and played, whilst the tools of making and offcuts occupied much of the floor. There was almost a sense of ghosting: one could easily imagine Jansen and Hansen spread-eagled on the ground in a state of collapse after so thoroughly exhausting the aesthetic possibilities and arrangements about the space which their modest display of materiality enabled.

This then was a performance of materials, of possibilities, and of both random and computational options arranged in series over the duration of their residency. It was a fine example of how performance is a far wider term today than even the hoary old genre of Performance Art necessarily allows, and a compelling instance of how a great deal of the most interesting art work which explores space, colour and form over time need not even require the presence of the artist's body to set it off.

The Blue Oyster has indeed had a number of exhibitions in this mode of late (notably Scott Flanagan's 867 Hours Underground in February), and here is hoping that more of those accustomed to seeing theatre and dance might be able to use a series like this to help them make the conceptual and experiential link between performance on stage and performance in the gallery.

DISCLAIMER: In addition to being a freelance arts critic and a lecturer at the University of Otago, Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is the Chair of the Blue Oyster Gallery's Board of Trustees. The opinions expressed above are those of Marshall alone, as a private individual, and in no way represent those of any of the institutions or organisations of which he also happens to be a member.
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