What a Performance!
October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
This is a photograph of me becoming character in my studio – in truth this character derives from a collage of impressions and memory and is an extension of the self. I explore the boundaries between acting and performance art.
In this blog post I write about art performance and the genesis of performance in my practice.
I begin with something of a paradox. I came to art performance through a posthumous conversation with my father the Spanish Republican exile dramatist José García Lora. It was his play Tierra Cautiva (The Captive Land in English) which provided an introduction to the idea of performative spaces as sites for the reenactment of traumatic experience, and led directly to performance becoming part of my work as an artist. Yet I’m forced to examine the view that,
“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre,”…”Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.”
Marina Abramovich, (interview in The Observer newspaper).
This excerpt from one of her seminal performance pieces The Artist is Present (2010) demonstrates her point absolutely. Here Marina encounters her former life and performance partner Ulay. We know that elements of this are staged and yet it’s also wholly real in the sense she means. Hankie alert!
Abramovic polarises and simplifies to make a point and her proposition is literal and in this sense true. But there’s also a sense in which performance of any kind is both real and unreal. Theatre actors draw on real life experience and emotion in their work but theres also an emotional remove in embodying character rather than presenting self. Yet commitment to a more direct and authentic embodiment in art performance doesn’t always follow either, but this serves to draw attention to fiction and narrative in the theatre and by implication the linearity and language driven aspects of theatre which are also often in contrast to art performance.
But her words could have been made for the younger me, for whom theatre often presented an indecipherable and jarring code. I probably saw a lot of bad theatre (school productions of Shakespeare) and I’m not sure i would have got performance art either. Theatre began to make more sense to me when I encountered more naturalistic forms such as TV drama especially the work of Mike Lee.
But I’m conflicted. I can’t hate theatre, and I can’t agree that this fictional space is not also real and true in important ways in certain circumstances.
This is true I think for aspects of exile theatre where the performance space becomes an emotional stand in for a severed reality. For my father theatre became a lifeline, a site of emotional connection with country and self. It’s basis in authentic experience rendered the performance space live in my view, and provided a location to be alive in more so than in life itself. The vigour of my father as dramatist is striking to me in contrast to the blanket of silence that smothered the subject of exile in daily life. For my father the deep frustrations of exile often proved overwhelming and yet he found expression and meaning through this passionate attachment to theatre as form. His plays are a godsend in preserving his voice. The traumas of the civil war, his internment in France, and the ongoing dictatorship were suppressed (in common with many of the exiles) and not spoken of in his lifetime. I had not been aware that an entire generation of Spaniards fled for their lives in that moment of rupture in 1939, nor that they were erased from the national memory by the dictatorship. So it was a surprise to me that I was dealing with the exodus of half a million people, and my father’s palpable but unspoken grief had been lodged within me (as personal trauma) without my knowing of it’s historical magnitude.
This Unpacking Exile 2015, performance photograph comes courtesy of my curator for this piece Nimmi Naidoo.
My intimate connection with this material and it’s basis for my own work ensures that my performance is always rooted in narrative too. Much of my work is to allow the information I gather to seep in layer upon layer, and to channel the emotional landscape of my father’s sense of displacement, in as much detail as I can. This allows me to take in a wider view, so that my specific references begin to encompass a more general sensibility towards the Republican exodus and it’s people as a whole and then on into the contemporary. There are parallels with the current refugee crisis I simply can’t ignore and that also informs my performances.
My method is to collect sensory impressions through studying the history (stories mainly), collecting objects (material memory) through ritual (In the studio) and through the deeply sensory practice of painting. My studio is a particular site of connection, and in a tangible sense I use performance to transmit my studio findings. There are moments in which I loose track of time, track of myself in my studio and this is what I aim for. These moments represent detachment from the present and an immersion in a complex pool of collaged material made up of multiple data, which can best be termed impression and memory. It is true that in the moment of performance I seek to become wholly engaged. Not acting but being. It is in this sense that I find most truth in Abramovic’s words.
For this particular truth I turn to the incredible language of Amanda (Mel) Baggs, an autistic woman whose commitment to a conversation with everything in her environment has moved and inspired me deeply, causing me to reflect on my own attachment to the sensory world. Her video is called In My Language (2007).
I subsequently began an exploration of my own sensory world and it’s relation to my working methods in the studio. I’m starting to observe the extent to which my inability to follow sequential narrative (in cinema and theatre) as a child and younger adult has been rooted in alternate channels of of perceptual priority; visual and tactile. This has also helped to explain why access to verbal language is blocked in certain circumstances. It is difficult for me to access fluidity of speech when there is a lot of competing sensory data. So for example I find I am able to speak more fluently with my eyes closed squeezing sand through my hands quietly in my studio.
Now that I am more aware of the ways in which my brain filters and processes information I can begin to see how I have learnt to compensate for the lack of sequence and linearity in my cognitions, using other clues to decode cinema and theatre (as examples of the often linear narrative form). This is an area I hope to develop further and bring out in performance terms too.
I can’t talk about my work or my call to performance without mention of the deep significance of objects, which it seems to me act as fellow researchers and accomplices in my work. Quite simply, without the objects this project would not exist and there would be no performance. Objects are at the very core of what I do.
My interest in performance arrived somewhat unexpectedly, through my grandmother’s handbag, which I inherited in May of 2012. This proved to be the impetus I had been waiting for. My father, so passionate about theatre would have liked this method of transmission of testimony and found irony in it. His mother’s handbag lived on to speak the unspoken through it’s capacity to connect me to my grandmother and her flat in Barcelona and all the objects in it. This quite overwhelmed me, and brought me back to my beginnings and all my travels to Spain to visit her in my infancy, and led to the shocking and painful discovery of a secret history involving the war, her internment and her near miss with a round up to the Nazi work camp in Mauthausen. It has taken time to absorb these concealed truths and to be honest I’m still working on it. Yet I can never think about the origins of my project without conjuring Lady Bracknell’s incredulous cry, “A handbag!” from the Importance of Being Ernest, by Oscar Wild. Dad would have loved the conceit.
This video uses still photographs from a 2012, Filament 14 residency which saw the birth of the Barcelona in a Bag project in which I attempt to evoke time, person and place.
There is an obvious connection between the objects that form a crucial part both of my investigations and their transmission in my work, and the theatrical props my father wrote into his plays. This feels like a powerful connection between us, so that when I assemble the objects for my performances this acts as a tribute to him and an intention within the very fabric of performance to allow the narrative of a lost history to echo through.