A live performance exhibition.
VISUAL, Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow
Curated by Amanda Coogan. Live performances from
Amanda Coogan, Neva Elliott,
Declan Rooney, Yingmei Duan,
Brian Connolly, Alastair Mac Lennan
Photography by Colm Hogan and
Video by Paddy Cahill
The following essay appeared in VISUAL, the catalogue that celebrated the opening of VISUAL, Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow, Ireland, 2009.
The gallery doors are open, the audience is free to come and go as they please, each work is not constructed to been seen in full duration, though these performances were worth the evolutionary witness. For Accumulator I wanted to be very clear about the practionners I chose. All of their practices engage with site, duration and audience in fundamental ways. I asked all of the artists to agree to the following rules of engagement:
1. The duration of the performance will be six hours. The artist must be present in the space for the duration of that time.
2. The ‘trail’ of the performance activity will be left behind.
3. Each artist will perform amid the detritus of the previous performances.
4. Documentary footage of each performance will be taken and shown post performance.
The exhibition space started empty with a simple long white table and six white chairs. Three projections played, showing previous performance work from each of the artists and the documentary footage of the live performances. These projectors were turned off during the live performances. Accumulator is a Performance Art exhibition, a conversation between six artists and their audience. The exhibition has at its core the live durational performance. Over the course of the first two months of the exhibition’s run it was in flux; shifting and changing as each artist created their performance. The exhibition was ‘finished’ when the last artists had performed and the footage of his performance was edited and projected large scale onto the wall of Visual’s digital room. Performance Art is a slippery term. In contemporary art practice video work is sometimes referred to as performance, experimental theatre and dance also come under the umbrella of performance art. What kind of performance practice to choose was a pertinent question for me as the curator. Performance in the Visual Arts narrows the field of choice somewhat but within this remit there is also a plethora of practices. The Performance Art that engages me is one where the artist is the performer and works durationally. This type of practice may be defined as one where the Artist is present in a certain place, for a certain amount of time, communicating with the audience and the lenght of time should be substantial. The artist’s included in Accumulator range from the Father of Irish Performance Art; Alastair Mac Lennan to the younger generation of practioners such as Declan Rooney. The politically charged yet gentle practice of Brian Connolly intersected with Neva Elliott’s relational practice, engaging directly with the audience to make a participatory performance event. Declan Rooney, Yingmei Duan and myself have all made post graduate studies with Marina Abramovic and are in the vanguard of the second wave of Performance Art currently showing internationally. This exhibition appears at a time in the Art World where performance practice is coming from the edges into the gallery canon. New York’s MOMA this year appointed their first Curator in Chief for Performance Art and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester cleared out its collection and installed 14 durational performance for three weeks this July. Live performance practice now has options beyond the event that enlivens an exhibition opening.
Durational performance is the dynamic element to this exhibition. All of the artists were asked to be present in the gallery for six hours. This time is substantial. It has transformative power over the work. The distinction made for live durational performances in the visual arts, living installations, is that they are un-rehearsable and un-repeatable. A practioner may try out, practice and reconfigure a new piece in their studio. It is not until the live event and the added elements of site and audience that the piece can be made in that unique configuration. The element of chance is the explosive constituent in duration and we Irish people love chance. We have a special relationship and enthusiasm for all things live, from sport, to music, to storytelling and it is in this cultural context that Ireland has developed a vibrant and outstanding practice in performance art making.
The choice of the six-hour duration gives room for the actions to develop autonomously outside of the artist’s dictate. The artist comes to a performance with a plan. But, it is with the length of time, attending, being in the here and now, that the artist’s ego is superceded by the work. A purity and clarity becomes apparent and the work sings. Live Performance in the Visual Arts is a unique and ephemeral medium and brings with it that excitement and freshness for the viewing public. This notion of the work taking over is not an indulgent artist-centric concern. As the clarity of the piece becomes more apparent over the duration, the intensity of communication with the audience heightens and the power of the work soars. This is a cyclical exchange between audience and performer. The artist offers a live image, the audience engages, the work becomes more powerful. The audience is the second performer. By their presence, their attention and their eye gaze they activate a loop of communication with the performer, assisting and allowing the performance to continue.
Accumulator is the first time such an exhibition was seen in Ireland, showing a substantial body of live work presented over the normal length of an exhibition in an innovative way. As such it was an ambitious one for a new centre of contemporary art to host. Because of the process basis of the exhibition it’s management and logistics were demanding. The exhibition was in flux for two months and its production was a truly collaborative one.
Amanda Coogan - Cutpiece Thursday, 24th September 2009. 6pm - 9pm
I was the first performer. I covered the tables, chairs and half of the room with a yellow canvas. I wore the canvas as a skirt around my waist, cutting the body in half and planting the body into the installation. It was in part homage to Beckett’s Winnie from his play Happy days and a place of transformation of that image. The image is uprooted and during Cut Piece I liberated myself from its mountainous hold. Pulling the fabric up I ripped it down the middle, turning the material and continuing to rip around it. As the ripping continued the diameter of the material crept closer to the body, slowly exposing the table and chairs. At each rip the fabric emitted a cloud of dust. During the piece a brilliant moment of the unexpected arrived. Simply put, I couldn’t rip the material by hand and so bit and tore at it with my teeth. As I bit the fabric I ate it, spat it out and dribbled with spit. With the material in my mouth I made direct eye contact with the audience, echoing a performance, The Fall, I made in two months earlier.
I left the space with strips of ripped fabric placed on the seat of one chair.
Neva Elliott - Broken Hearts United Saturday 3rd October 2009. 2pm - 8pm
Neva’s practice is collaborative and relational, depending on the participation of the audience and for this performance she advertised in the Nationalist newspaper for participants to join her in making a private process public and collective. She organised the timing of her actions precisely.
2pm – 5.15pm•Film viewing and comfort eating.
The table was laid with popcorn and heart shapes biscuits. A screen played two films about love lost and found and large cushions were strewn around the floor. As the audience came into the room they were invited to sit or lie on the cushions, eat popcorn and watch the movies.
5.15pm – 5.45pm•Wallowing in song
A song was played on repeat while Neva and participants danced, swayed and lay around.
5.45pm – 6.15pm•Button badge making
The action moved over to the long table where the badge making began. Badges emblazoned with ‘it’s not me it’s you’ and ‘I will survive’ were produced and worn by all.
6.30pm – 7.30pm•Haircuts
Neva had long red hair falling down to her shoulder blades as she began this performance. She sat on a chair in the middle of the room for Connie Byrne-Hyland, a professional hairdresser, to cut her hair short and funky. Connie was armed with a cowboy belt full of hairdressing tools and seemed to dance and flutter around Neva as she transformed her. The crowd were both witnessing the event while queuing for their own turn.
7.30pm – 8pm•Beer and getting over it
Bottles of beer were opened and passed around by the newly shorn haired artist.
Neva left the tables strewn with empty green beer bottles, cut hair and badges.
Declan Rooney - Young and Innocent - Saturday 17th October 2009 2pm - 8pm
Declan completely changed the layout of the room, installing a full drum kit and an 8ft X 6 ft mirror on rollers. One table was piled with that weekend’s Nationalist newspaper and two other tables were doubled up and left with Neva’s beer bottles, hair and badges and my strips of yellow fabric. He invited Alex Pentek to collaborate with him playing the drums occasionally throughout the performance. At intervals Declan rolled the mirror around the space, confronting the audience with their own image and fracturing our perspective of the room. The heavy and cumbersome mirror knocked into furniture and walls occasionally threatening to topple chairs and tables or knock into the feet of audience members. On placing the mirror at a certain point he then sat at the newspaper filled table black pen in each hand and X-ed the heads on photographs of people in the paper.
Approximately every hour Alex came into the room and started drumming, rhythmical, jazzy beats while Declan silently and intently moved the mirror around, showing us broken and backward images of the drummer. The room and the past performances detritus shifted and were half captured in the mirrors reflection. Playing with our perspective of what was in front of us, the moving mirror dynamically confronted us with a cubist like framing of the reality of the performance. The pace of the moving mirror changed throughout the performance, often slow and laboured but sometimes faster creating a cinematic spin as objects, audience and artists flew past themselves. Both performers had calm but intense presences.
Declan left the room with the full drum kit and large mirror installed.
Yingmei Duan - Future Imagination - Saturday 7th November 2009 2pm - 5pm
Yingmei gave us an oral guided tour around her imagined solo exhibition at VISUAL in 2013. As in a dream, Yingmei’s description did not match the physical reality of VISUAL’S spaces. This was an audience dependant performance in more ways than one. The audience did not simply look and listen, they were invited to imagine being in Yingmei’s dream, in it’s every detail. Through her heavily accented English she described several themed exhibition spaces. At one time walking us through a pastoral landscape installation she asked the audience to make the ‘voice of a cow belling’, the sound of a cowbell. She also projected her performative presence by acting out a future performance piece. She then walked in front of us, crouched in typical Asian fashion, and began to sing a haunting Chinese lullaby.
The performance was engaged with directly by an audience seated on chairs set up in horseshoe fashion around the middle of the room and also by passive observers who watched the performance from the back of the gallery. Yingmei left the room with the six chairs in horseshoe formation in the centre of the room with the detritus of the previous performances dotted around the periphery of the space.
Brian Connolly - History Lesson, Raising the Table - Saturday 21st November 2009 2pm - 8pm
Brian radically changed the configuration of the room. The chairs were moved and placed at carefully selected intervals. The room was lit by desk lamps also selectively placed. Timber lengths were piled in one corner while Declan’s mirror was moved to face into the space, providing a frame to Brian’s scene. Two tables were the main areas of action, the rising table and a second ‘workmans’ table. The audience were free to wander the room and consider the different objects and images. The two tables demarcated two areas of action, the workman’s for intricate engagement with a scorched atlas, compass, knife, pages of text (the universal declaration of human rights). An intense and introsepctive ritual-like process resulted in the text being crumpled into balls and thrown around the gallery. Images of the war in Afganistan were transferred from the table to the timber lengths (like flags) which were then used in the second area of work, the rising table.
This rising table was installed in the middle of the room with a silver tray laid on top inside of which rolled a large silver ball. Here Brian slowly extended the legs of the table, drawing on his increasingly tall lengths of timber, making the process more difficult and unstable as he went along He methodically released one leg of the table, allowing it to hit the ground, and inserted the new longer plank of wood. Holding the table aloft with his head, like Atlas, while he raised the table. The silver ball and tray rattled with the instability of the rising table. All of these actions were made with a slow steady, concentrated energy. The table rose to beyond six foot, making the final adjustments only possible from the top of a ladder. The table swayed freely with the instability of its height. Throughout the day he shifted back and forth from these two acitivites.
Brian left the room with his precarious raised table supported by the wooden ladder. The back of each chair was slotted with the flag like planks of wood, the intermittant lenghts of the table legs.
Alastair MacLennan - Dust in Gust - Saturday 28th November 2009 2pm - 8pm
Alastair sprinkled the installation, as left by Brian, with shredded paper and littered the room with odd shoes. These shoes had been collected from the local community. The seat of each chair was piled high with shreaded paper and the video footage of all of the previous performances was left running. This simple intervention effectively transformed the space, encorporating and respecting the build up of live energy that had formed it. On Brian’s ‘workmans’ table Alastair placed a pigs head, pigs trotters and four whole fish. The audience were allowed to freely move around the installation and examine its constituent parts at close proximity. Wearing the double vision of two pairs of glasses adorned with different lenghts of ribbon, Alastair moved slowly through the room or sat at the ‘workmans’ table. At times he wore one of the shoes on the top of his head, at other times balancing a six foot plank of wood with pigs ears nailed on each end on his head. As he moved gently the plank see-sawed across his head, the extended pigs ears straining to ‘hear’. At one stage Alastair was seated at the workmans table, the plank with the extended ears swaying on his head. The length of the plank echoing the length of the table. Eyes closed, two long white ribbons tied to his glasses touched the table seeming to caress the splayed pigs head. Ears were listening and eyes were searching the evidence in the room.
Amanda Coogan December 2009
Klaus Biesenbach is Chief Curator of MOMA’s Department of Media and Performance Art, this Department was broadened in 2009 to include Performance Art to as their press release states ‘reflect the Museum’s increased focus on collecting, preserving and exhibiting performance art’ This exhibition for the Manchester International Festival 2009 Marina Abramovic presents... curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Marina Abramovic and Maria Balshaw. Amanda Coogan, Yingmei Duan and Alastair Mac Lennan were exhibiting artists. Interestingly, from the 14 international artists included in Marina Abramovic Presents... at the Whitworth Gallery three of them were Irish or live on the island; Alastair Mac Lennan, Kira O’Reilly and Amanda Coogan.