The Assistants

by Leona Lee Cully

In fairy-tales, and in the work of Kafka, we encounter helpers or assistants who offer clues to the protagonist on their journey. Walter Benjamin claimed that these assistants are easily forgotten but they linger on as hazy figures that we know are important in some way. They represent a complementary world, a world beyond language. Assistants are often tricksters who can laze away time without guilt. They are dreamers whose ambitious plans never seem to reach fruition like friends we know, our maybe ourselves. But only because the journey is not seen as valuable, only the happy ending which of course is never achieved in Kafka’s world. We ignore the assistants at our peril because they represent our unfulfilled desires and are the hoarders of our fears. They translate back to us, in gestures and offerings, all that we seek to forget. But if we forget then we are in danger of losing ourselves along the way.

12 Henrietta Street on Friday 8th May. A cold and wet summer’s day with a sky grey as pewter. People file in through the front door and all conversation hushes as if entering a chapel. This is a Georgian building, once home to the wealthy, then a tenement, then derelict. Now a home for the arts, and photo shoots, and for today it hosts Influence @ Livestock.

A woman upstairs, naked save for black boots and two saddlebags of water. People follow her, silent, watching. She ignores them, shameless, absorbed. The naked woman sits in front of the fire, hugging a huge glass jar like it’s her lover. She drinks from a tube that supplies her with water from her saddlebags, then spits and retches into her jar. It’s painful to watch. I want to comfort her but her self-containment refuses help. The jar, a glass stomach, fills up slowly with fluids, some essence of her.

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Katherine Nolan performing Hold in, Hold on, Let out, Let go, 2015.
Photograph by David Stalling

In the same drawing-room, before a window, half of a boat rests on a plinth. A man rows towards the window but never makes any progress. He oars steadily, eyes fixed on some other world invisible to us.

Spit of fire in the grate. The audience stands along the walls and in doorways translating strange gestures into personal meaning.

A baby dressed in black. Her mother also in black with red hair. Mother and child mirror each other, echoing sounds and gestures, an exchange on the borders of language. Identities and bodies merging and pulling apart at the same time. I, you, us. An elemental story in the making.

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EL Putnam and Sonja Stalling performing Mamädchen, 2015. Photograph by David Stalling.

A girl in an apron, rocks peacefully on a chair. She stands and mashes potatoes in a pot. She is barefoot, smiling, and wants to tell us a story about a mother who could not bear to feed her family anymore. A woman who slowly disappeared from her family and herself.

A bell rings somewhere. A woman draped in a white sheet descends the stairs, a statue come to life. Her mouth moves, soundlessly. She disrobes until she is half naked. Spreads her white sheet out on the floor and rubs at invisible strains on the cloth, her arse cocked in the air. Like an Irish caganer, a profanation of the po-faced, sacred spaces that censor and silence.

And the man in the window rows without pause towards the darkening window.

I wander through the house, trying to make sense of gestures that challenge logic.

At the foot of the stairs, in the twilit hallway, a woman in a long black dress, her face wrapped in a sheer black veil. She holds tiny egg-shaped pebbles in her hands. As people pass her, she offers them as talismans for their journey. She ascends the stairs, dropping pebbles that clatter down the stairs, heavy with sorrow because they have been refused.

Upstairs, a man in a white shirt and no trousers sits before a cake, a bottle of red wine at his elbow. A feast for one, a sacramental gluttony. At intervals he eats and drinks, belches loudly. He finishes his feast by smashing his face into the cake. He climbs onto the table and gathers the white tablecloth around his head, a heavy shroud. Then he is on his hands and knees, crawling on the floor, the tablecloth hiding his shame. He crawls, groaning and sighing his remorse, a warning to all of us.

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Francis Fay performing The Divil on Your Shoulder, 2015. First performed at ID ENGAGER, curated by John Freeman at Occupy Space, Limerick. Photograph by David Stalling.

The front door opens. A woman in a short white dress with a crown of thorns between her thighs enters the hallway. She can barely walk but no one assists her. The crown has scratched her thighs red raw because she has shuffled all the way from the High Court, in allegiance with the women who had their pubic bones sawn in half by Catholicism. She goes to the fire, looking for warmth and love in a loveless state.

Bare feet dance on bare floorboards. A flame-haired woman in a long white dress dances to silent music. She uncovers a marble bust and tries to love it back to life. Her body dips and arches as if dancing against her own will. Finally she breaks free but all that she can do is dance to her own heartbreak.

A woman at the very top of the stairs shows only women pornographic film clips, like a cheeky friend at school. She assists you by holding your hand as you realise that she is showing you the neglected spaces between female desires and the male gaze.

It’s dark now, and cold in the house. The fires are almost burned out. A woman with grey hair, dressed in black trousers, polishes a tray on the stairs. Places a pair of black boots on the tray, carries them downstairs. She is busy polishing boots and sweeping the stairs, cleaning up. Someone has to clear up the mess after the assistants, after us.

The rower stops rowing but there is no way to tell if he has reached his desired destination.

Livestock: Influence was curated by John Conway. It took place at 12 Henrietta Street on 8 May 2015. Participating artists included: Sandra Breathnach, Mairead Delaney, Francis Fay, Liadian Herriott, Josh Joyce, Eleanor Lawlor, Katherine Nolan, Áine O’Hare, EL Putnam, Lynda Phelan, and Hilary Williams.

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Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub

Justine McDonnell reflects on performing Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub as part of Amanda Coogan’s recent exhibition,  I’ll Sing You a Song from Around the Town, at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, Ireland.

by Justine McDonnell

It was 2011 in Dublin Contemporary when I stood at the entrance of a small doorway, fascinated by the large blue silk material that filled the room. The blue silk was stained, right down to the floor. The sound of music would rise, changing volume with sounds of birds, a child, a train and silence, but not a speaker in sight. I followed the stains of the blue silk, leading my gaze to direct eye contact with three women. Their lips were bright with red lipstick, drawing my eyes to their mouths, which were oozing saliva, producing large suds, which dripped from their chins and gently flowed down the front of the material. The three women seemed disembodied from the waist down with the top of their bodies enveloped in strapless blue silk. Their movements appeared slow, deliberate and interactive, becoming more intense as the music swelled throughout the space, confronting their audience in non-­verbal communication.

Five years later, on October 7th 2015, I listened to the noise of my shoes on the cobblestones of Grafton Street, as I nervously walked to the Royal Hibernian Academy to perform Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub. Walking up the stairs of the RHA building, I made my way through the large wooden doors, met by bright spot lights and The Mountain which appeared so tall and beautiful, its sound filling the room. I stroked the three blue silk bodices that lay on the floor, each one still stained and scented with saliva residue. It was 11am, an hour before the doors opened to the public and the space began to fill with performers. All I could hear were voices, as I applied my red lipstick and brushed my curled hair, no reconciliation of any conversation, only heavy breathing and fast heart beats. I walked over to the large blue structure and crawled under the blue silk, to be strapped in. This was it. Voices were rising in from outside as people impatiently paced up and down waiting for the doors to open. “One, two, three, four”, I said in my head, as I continued to count the feet tip tapping outside, wondering how many people waited, whilst also trying to distract myself from my nervousness and anxiety filled chest. Standing up straight I dazed at the door. A bright light hit me. There were people, the doors were opened and so it began.

Watching each person enter the room, I then closed my eyes listening to their footsteps growing louder as they eventually got closer. My eyes opened to catch their gaze whilst my hands moved slowly and eloquently. As my saliva started to ooze down my chin, I stared at each individual: so many colours, brown shoes, red shoes, blue coats, grey coats, green eyes, blue eyes, blonde hair, brown hair. ‘Who were they?’ I thought, as they gazed back at me. I watched their movements, moments of sitting, standing uncomfortably, impatiently, turning with awkwardness from the directness of their gaze, stepping closer, making faces, loud conversation in disgust, as my saliva continued to seep. There was one girl who stood by my right hand side. She looked directly, with a twinkle of what almost seemed like fear or sadness, her mouth slightly open as if in shock. She had wavy blonde hair, her eyes covered with large snakeskin glasses, her black coat draped down to meet her doc martin shoes and a silver satchel rested on her shoulder with a giant yellow smiling emoticon on it. She gave me comfort. Her eye contact bringing me back to life. She stood for what seemed like hours, whilst my body constantly shifted, my mouth opening and closing like a fish. My mouth was numb and my chin itched. My stomach and chest were wet, as I watched my saliva drip, missing the bodice and roll underneath the silk. I think she is trying to say something. She whispered to the person next to her. ‘Can she understand me?’, I thought. ‘Can she feel what I feel?’; ‘Why is she here?‘; ‘Why is she watching?’; ‘What does she want from this?’ I couldn’t say anything, my mouth only opening to reveal silence, my hands clenching in frustration, running the silk material in between my fingers that incarcerated my body.

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Justine McDonnell re-performing Amanda Coogan’s Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub (2010),  at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin Ireland in 2015. Photographs by EL Putnam.

As each hour and day passed. I watched bodies of colour as they watched mine. I watched their fast and slow movements as they watched mine. I listened to the pace of their shoes as they listened to the sound arise from my silk dress. My body was tired, rising up and down on my toes as if a ballerina, raising my arms and hands sharply and eloquently, from black swan to white swan, my feet and legs slowly moving, as if swimming in water, sensing it, being aware of it, my body, their body, my arms and hands beginning to move without my permission as the endurance took over. My eyes looked and followed my fingers, which moved one by one, shapes, movements unfolding, my skin cold, the smell of stale saliva filling my nose, my stomach weak and nauseous. Five days and twenty three hours had passed. Two hours still to go, we stared at each other, as if caught in a trance. The artist, Amanda Coogan, dressed in yellow, raised her arm and pointed. I rose up on my toes, my legs feeling weak, knees shaking in fear of faint. I raised my arm and pointed back. We were still. The audience disappeared. It was just her and I. Who will place their arm down first? Was she thinking what I was thinking? Was she feeling what I was feeling? Minutes had passed as she turned her head and my gaze returned to my audience. Time was the unknown to me. My audience were sitting. The room was full and the bright spot lights filled my eyes. I raised up, my hands stretching towards the audience inviting them to move forward. My eyes looked down observing my saliva drip to the bottom of the dress. Tip, tap, tip, tap. I moved my tongue out from my mouth, letting out a silent scream, the women in black. I heard their shoes. The audience began to leave one by one. Only one person left at my long silk blue dress, the yellow smiling emoticon. She walked slowly backwards out the door, her gaze still reaching mine. I raised my hand to say goodbye. She raised hers. The door closed, bodies in black moving and all of the colours were gone.

A Place for Ponderings on Performance

by EL Putnam

My first experience of Irish performance art in the flesh was in 2005. Andre Stitt was a visiting artist at the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston, where I was completing my undergraduate degree. My memories of this event are now fragments, but he left a definite impression on me. I recall sitting on the floor of room B209 — our black box classroom that provided the platform for so many mixed memories and artistic misadventures. The intensity of the performance was undeniable. Some actions that come to mind are: Stitt pulling aside one of the black out curtains that surrounded the room, only to slam a sledgehammer into the white wall beneath it, placing a pig’s head in the hole; carving a word (that now escapes me) into his arm with a scalpel; setting napalm on fire (an action, I learned later, that required turning off the room’s smoke alarm). I have no documentation from these experiences — no photographs, video, audio, or textual recollections — only these fractured recollections. I remember the profoundness of Stitt’s actions, that despite their destructive nature, he performed with such grace and certainty. I also recollect pondering what Stitt must have experienced to create such a deeply loaded performance, a catharsis for echoes of violence. There was no excess of ferocity; rather, everything felt calculated and necessary. I knew he came from Belfast, but the city was foreign to me at this point — just an abstract blur on my narrow mental geography. Despite being exposed to performance for a few years, Stitt’s presentation exceeded anything I had yet witnessed in regards to his skill and intensity.

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There is something magical about performance art. I am drawn to its embodied form, its live character, its multi-sensory make-up, and the potential for chance that opens up when art unfolds in the present tense. Photographs and video may capture flickers of experience, providing a visual (and sometimes auditory) recount of a performance event. However, the importance of writing as a means of documenting and sharing these experiences cannot be underestimated. Hence the creation of in:Action — an online forum dedicated to Irish performance art. We want this to be a site where people can share their experiences of witnessing, creating, and curating performance art. In addition to inviting some guest writers,  we have an ongoing open call for submissions (see Submitting page for guidelines). Rather than being a site for critique, we want to foster thoughtful and critical engagement with the ever-shifting medium of performance art.

And so it begins.