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.
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.
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.