On Sculpture, the Body and Dance

by Fergus Byrne

The following text was part of a performative lecture at the DLAF 2015 seminar on live art and crossing disciplines. Some amendments have been made for presentation in this context.

‘Adhere to your discipline; that which you follow’. (Write in charcoal while walking ledge)

The text discusses sculpture, movement and dance from the perspective of the modalities pertinent to each, principally – touch, proprioception and kinaesthesia. I hope to give a sense of how thinking and acting through one discipline can inform practice in another. Both my own work and that of other artists will be referenced. Throughout this discussion I will refer to the body and grant subjective experience a primary role as a means to understanding. It is in this sense a phenomenological viewpoint on the disparate subjects raised.

Observations on The Performance Collective during their two weeks at Galway Arts Centre.

There is much taping of the room’s peripheries and lines being inscribed on the wall. It seems like a delimiting of the space yet it reiterates what the walls already do. The group all hail from sculpture origins and marking the wall seems somehow innate. It prompts me to reflect on how the extremities of the body’s kinesphere precede those of the room. The hands, our most immediate tool, reach the kinesphere’s edge. By making contact with the walls the sense of space is reduced and that of touch emphasised. 1

Without friction it would be very difficult to move.

Articulate space requires joints. But these very words seem in conflict; the multisyllabic ‘articulate’ punctuates the gaping [sp]’Ace’. Vowels breathe. Consonants tongue forth. Space is unarticulated until it meets the edge of matter.

Have you ever felt that you’re not really saying anything when vocalising vowel sounds? Try it. (At this point some audience members choose to join in this vocalisation)


Such sound lacks bones.

It is imperative to warm up your foot in the morning by rotating the joint of the big toe to the foot. This joint first experiences the impact of the ground before that resonates through the rest of the body. The warm up prepares the walking body for its encounter with the day.

Message from Julie Short (via Facebook)

“I´ve only come across your message now…. it´s weird I´ve been wearing these flat ballet shoes for about 2 months now, not really appropriate attire for this time of year, well any time of year due to the lack of cushioning they afford, and well, as I was walking up the escalator this evening I was thinking about meeting the floor/ground in a less impacting way, trying to see if I could meet it with my feet obviously, they´re really like walking barefoot, to see if it was possible to spend less time impacting & therefore walk lighter and well I noticed how joints absorb the shock of meeting the ground by melding in a way and then releasing….think of all that energy we´re releasing…. anyway and then I found your message, interesting.”

I am walking on a gravel path with Cyntia. She asks whose steps are loudest. I listen to our feet, differentiating the sound. Hers are lighter. (July 2015)

But before we hit the ground, before the body reaches the exterior, there are many fulcrums of movement inside, in the dynamic interiority of the skeleton.

(I move to various parts of the gallery space, small spaces, high spaces in which I can reorient my body. The gallery supports me as a crutch for my contortions.)

To leave the support of this architecture and take the centre of the room independent of all physical and visual supports initiates dance. Even if it begins with only the small dance of Steve Paxton,

(Introduction of the small dance2) – Find yourself a bit of space, enough to stand in without contact with your neighbour. You do not need room to spread your arms. I invite you to close your eyes. Inside there are numerous grounds off of which movement occurs. I will begin to feel the friction within my own body that allows me to move.

You may keep your eyes closed’. This suggestion was for the audience. The reader may behave otherwise.

“I’m standing listening to the Quiet Club play at the RHA.3 They play sounds and respond to each other with the concentration of chess players. Each responsive sound crucially weighted so as to maintain the quiet that they enter their sound upon. I want to listen with my body and do so standing. There is thus only one joint, that of feet to floor. And relax as much as possible so that I can feel the sound and not be disturbed by any tensions in the body or superfluous points of touch with wall or chair. Perhaps I can fool the sound by being this quiet and it will pass through me unaware of my presence. I become space, bar the grinning ear, cousin of the Cheshire cat.”

Right image source: Barbara Dawson,  Berlin!: the Berlinsche Galerie art collection visits Dublin, Berinsche Galerie, 1991.

Above is the work of two sculptors from early Modernism – Boccioni and Gabo. These works are a constant reference point in early Modernist sculptural treatment of movement. I use them frequently as references for life drawing. The work of the futurist Boccioni, despite his attempts to represent a ‘universal dynamism’ was rooted in traditional bronze casting. The figure is strident though weighted in its materiality. Naum Gabo, a Russian Constructivist, here uses cardboard to make a maquette describing a body through planes emerging from its centre. He also used transparent plastic materials in his work to describe volume thus moving his work beyond the representation of mass. In a note accompanying the work Two Cubes (Demonstrating the Stereometric Method) 1930 Gabo eloquently expressed his intention.


The statement ‘to make the space occupied by an object visible without enclosing it’ has quite an affinity with the visual effect of my current choreosculpture work. Originally a sculpture with fused joints, Angel, it behaved like much other sculpture since it was static. But in making the joints mobile it invited a movement with it that draws upon techniques of contact improvisation dance.

Marion Cronin and Fergus Byrne. Studio work with choreoscultpure, 2015. Photo: Annette Moloney.

Gabo pioneered kinetic sculpture, an exemplar of which is ‘Standing wave’.

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) 1919-20, replica 1985 by Naum Gabo 1890-1977

Standing wave vibrates in space when a button is pushed. It might be interesting to drop rings of varying sizes onto this rod and see if they would stay in motion like a hula hoop.

(At this point an audience member of some skill in hula hooping kindly takes up the invitation to demonstrate while the talk continues.) We could use as a guideline the mathematics of how a hoop actually is sustained upon a moving body. For this please see the following link – http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1101/1101.0072.pdf. But it might be as interesting to take a hoop and develop one’s kinetic awareness in flesh and bone.

At this point the printed word as a record of the talk becomes quite limited. Its most recent iteration involved an audience member hula hooping while two others read a dialogue via emails between the artist and an engineer on the equations for hooping relative to embodied knowledge.

And so we return to Gabo, who interestingly designed the set, costume and sculptural props for the 1927 Ballet, la Chatte, by Balanchine for Les Ballets Russes.



So we can consider two polarities – Density and the visible space of the void. Yves Klein leaped into the void in 1960 eschewing all supportive aids to his body. It exists only as a photo. Before leaping he, like all of us, was supported by an external ground. An external surface adheres to the body, an accretion that while necessary, also limits the body’s autonomy. This necessary friction allows us to move. But an excess binds us to an encumbering materiality; A bit like the hoop. Without it the body might not gyrate to the same extent. So there is interdependence. Certainly the hula hoop is reliant on the body to move it but it gives the body a force against which to work and a frame in which to exist.

Let us return to Boccioni and his Synthesis of Human Dynamism, 1913.

 Boccioni 1913

The attempt to fuse multiple moments of motion in a frozen spatio-temporal continuum leaves the figure constricted by its prior movements. Futurists held the view that objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their surroundings. The statue’s movements are sedimented within it. The histories of our movements are embedded within us. Our body evolves to move in accord with the objects within its world. It evolves its posture based on its daily life; gestures develop according to the things and the people with which we engage.

So to dance in one’s body is perhaps to attempt to be without accretions and supports; to quarry what remains in the body after the experience of the external world. This is an approach used within contemporary dance forms – recreation of movements with someone or something without that accompaniment.


Consider in practice what it is to push downward and move upward; handstand press.

I am forever intrigued by how, in a life drawing practice, people often ignore the feet. It seems not just forgetfulness or lack of space but a lack of consciousness of the connection to the ground. An acrobat model performed a handstand one day and only two people drew his hands.

Yet our interrelation with the external is inarguable. The final words will be those of the sculptor Michael Warren who speaks of his sculptural matter in a way that can also be applied to the body.

‘Matter bespeaks limit. Limit implies the ideas of equilibrium. Downward movement is the condition of elevation and all movement upwards. The pivot or fulcrum is an awakened attention’. 4


1. Visual Arts News Sheet (VAN), Nov/Dec 2012 http://www.theperformancecollective.com/

2. The ‘small dance’ is a term used by Steve Paxton, pioneer of contact improvisation. He refers to the movement that is happening inside us that may not be externally visible. My conception of this was that it referred to the feet and the adjustment of balance through the soles. However upon research I found the following website which takes one through an inner scanning of the entire body; a sensing of the small dance. http://myriadicity.net/ci36/satellite-events/the-small-dance-the-stand.html

3. On that occasion Mick O’Shea, Danny McCarthy, Fergus Kelly, Anthony Kelly and David Stalling. Further information on The Quiet Club can be found at: http://www.dannymccarthy.ie/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=10&Itemid=36

4. Michael Warren, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin 2007. Catalogue, p. 6.

Curating, a great big onion of a thing that’s all a bit earthy

Eleanor Lawler, one of the co-curators of the Livestock — Performance Art Platform, provides insights into her experiences of facilitating these events.

by Eleanor Lawler

When curating live art events, proper planning and experience, one could suggest, are basics. But what does that mean and how can you possibly have proper planning for a live art event? Something might and frequently does require last minute adjustment, like the performer who does something not discussed or planned for, the performer who gets cold feet and doesn’t turn up, or the one who turns up two hours late. What about the performer who forgot to tell you that they need an amp, a mic and lighting? How can proper planning possibly avert what, for a curator of 2D work, might seem an impossible task? With every live art event curated, another layer is added to that great big onion that is curating a live art event. (The onion metaphor is useful as onions are useful vegetables that need compost to grow but depend on many layers to make them what they are, adding to their flavour and size. Not too big as to be tasteless, (excellent metaphor), great for a stew too).

Livestock began in 2008 at The Market Studios and was established and run by Francis Fay, Joan Healy and Louise Ward. I had attended my first Livestock and loved it so I took a studio at The Market Studios. Joan and Louise moved on to other work and new places so I volunteered my services. Myself and Francis Fay have been working on Livestock together since 2011, the rest is still unfolding.

Performance by Valerie Joyce, Livestock at Market Studios, 2010.

Livestock is about facilitating and providing a platform. The curation happens with selection of appropriate works and timing of performances. Administration and clean up, the usual delights of curating, are augmented by decisions to be made on the night like the ones of a last minute nature, unpredicted, unplanned for and hopefully none serious enough that the audience will notice (the smell of raw onions seeping into the performance area perhaps?). Proper planning, that’s what needed and perhaps experience, actually experience counts for a largest proportion of compost that helps the onion to grow.

There are, of course, moments of panic, but maybe that’s just me — but it’s not just me who sees the moments, minutes, and sometimes hours that are the pure magic of performance art. The realness, the shared experience, the subversion of an economically titled society, the pleasure and the pain of that shared visceral reality, the experience of the moment; how can that be ignored, negated and devalued by heavy handed curation? I don’t curate, I facilitate: good, bad, and occasionally awful performances (purely subjective). However, I will fight for facilitation for every last one of them. Facilitating space for real, exciting, vital, embodied voices is not an option for me, it’s an absolute essential.

Paul King performing Action Sculpture at Livestock at the Complex Dublin, March 2016. Photograph by Amber Baruch.

Facilitating Livestock is one type of curation (read onion farming). As with all curation, some artists are such a pleasure to work with, clear in what they want or need from you, turn up on time ready to perform—a level of independence that is professional and admirable —while others require a tad more looking after. Without doubt, curating live art is by far and away the best experience, compost or not. There are some artists who are so very nervous before their performances, dancing and singing afterwards with delight at having their voice heard. There are also the experienced practitioners who exude happiness at a performance going well or simply embracing the performance however they felt it went. Either way, delighting in the experience of being “heard” is something that speaks loudly to me: “I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” Curation (of live performance art) rocks! If you get the whiff of raw onions when you attend your next live art event, just think of it as compost helping to make a bigger, better and more full-bodied onion.

My Emerging Presence into Livestock

Roisin Jenkinson, a fourth year student at the Dublin Institute of Technology, describes her first experience participating in Livestock — Performance Art Platform. She made her debut during “Sacred Space” as part of the winter 2015 Dublin Live Art Festival at DIT Grangegorman.

by Roisin Jenkinson

I could feel my nerves begin to bubble up in my stomach as I took those first few steps towards the twenty meters of iridescent film I installed to hang down from the balcony of St. Laurence Church at DIT Grangegorman to stretch across the length of the floor like an iridescent pathway. I walked slowly head first into the film to then walk underneath, using my hands to control it from falling beside me rather than being above me. I walked from one end of the installation to the other, where I exited a door only to re-enter the building from another door at the beginning of the iridescent pathway, where I recommenced my walk. I did this several times for approximately twenty minutes, creating a loop of presence and absence, presence and absence. As the performance progressed, my nerves dissipated and adrenaline coursed through me instead. The light that cast through and reflected off the iridescent film was delicate and subtle, creating light pinks, greens and blues. In my absence from the installation, the film was silent, but when I entered the space and began interacting with the film by walking beneath it, my presence activated it in light and sound.While I was still aware that people were watching me, I put them in the background of my mind and as a result became more comfortable.

Roisin Jenkinson begins her performance at “Sacred Space.” Photograph by Blueprint Photography.

During preparation for the event, I received so much support and encouragement from Eleanor Lawler, Francis Fay and Katherine Nolan. Other than organising the event, they gave me feedback that helped me realise my ideas. The entire atmosphere of “Sacred Space” was easy and enjoyable. I performed at the beginning of the event, so after that I just sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the show as part of the audience. Because I was not just an audience member, but also one of the performers, I had two roles as it were, which brings me back to the notion of presence and absence. While in my performance I was either present or absent, my role in the full event was neither and both. It was a strange and intriguing experience of feeling both present and absent as both a performer and viewer. It is somewhat similar to how Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, describes the feeling of being within and without. He was present in the narrative of those peoples’ lives, yet he was also just a witness. During ‘Sacred Space’ I was present as a performer while disconnected with the audience and present as a witness to the performances that followed me while also having had performed myself. It is difficult to explain this ‘inbetween’ space, however I can say it was a positive experience that also brought me out of my comfort zone.

Jenkinson continues her loop of presence and absence in St. Laurence Church. Photograph by Blueprint Photography.


Hold Harmless

by Máiréad Delaney

It is January 29th, 2015. Today marks the opening in the High Court of the case of a woman who endured a symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy, an experimental and brutal surgical intervention practised on Irish women, severed the joint of the pelvis, supposedly to ease the delivery of a child. It is snowing in Dublin. The court’s first session commences at 11am. This is when I begin as well, on Holles Street. I came to the National Maternity Hospital to act in solidarity with a group of women who have been denied justice by their state, and whose bodies were altered for pro-life, nationalist purposes. They have since been denied access to restitution. The redress scheme presented to these women by the Department of Health requires them to indemnify and ‘hold harmless’ all bodies and people in respect to the carrying out of symphysiotomy, in direct contradiction to the recommendations for independent inquiry and prosecution of perpetrators laid out by the UN Human Rights Committee.

I hold an object that alters my body’s movements in a way that echoes the harm done to survivors but does not replicate it. This harm is held, suspended, endured, witnessed.

Máiréad Delaney performing Hold Harmless I in front of the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph by Joseph Carr.

My gait is wide, rolling around the crown of thorns stuck between my legs. The thorns have found purchase in my skin, each is snug and I feel more than anything else the cold— my body quakes with it. Tremors run along my arms and through my chest. There is a rushing wind and the noise of traffic is swallowed or magnified in that rush. My skin is a bluish white, my garments old cream silk. As undergarments they hold no appeal but modesty and fine fabric. The snow is grey. Layers of small socks have widened my feet, they sidle with every step. The little sacs of warming chemicals I placed under my arches have burst. Swollen cloth. With every step I see my distended feet, and the wet snowy cobbles, and the detritus of the street. I stop and crouch. Squatting, I hold tighter the tunnel between my legs, all it seems to be when I look down. A tunnel of thorns, a dangerous and jarring passage. I feel only heat and the lack of heat. My shivering stops after an hour. I look down at the cobbles and up at the sun, for the sun. My legs go numb, most numb around the thorns they grip. I cannot tell if I will drop them and so bear down, holding tighter. This will make them harder to extract. I grip the iron bars of the hospital’s railings. One bar, a few steps, the next, another step, I pull myself along.

Máiréad Delaney performing Hold Harmless I in front of the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph by Joseph Carr.

On February 27th, the second case is running in the High Court. This time my presence mirrors the second session of the court’s day, I begin at 2pm. I hang a large, industrial sink around my neck from heavy wire, like a yoke. I wear the same clothes. The sink is broken, the wire is wrapped around each tap. The two halves of the sink are unevenly sized, one much smaller than the other. They pull me off-balance. I have to pull the wire on the left down intermittently, to bring the smaller half back in line with my hips. It travels up. The porcelain is written with the testimony of the survivor whose case is running now, who will lose her case on May 1st. The larger half of the sink reads, “I thought both sides of my body were on the floor.” The smaller simply states “They broke the bone.” The inked words run down the broken bowl, on either side. With this object, too, I walk back and forth in front of the hospital. It is warmer today, the cobbles are dry, cool and dirty. The wire is cutting heavy on the nape of my neck. Part-way down the street I start to bend, I ever-so-slowly lower the sink to the ground and let the wire rise an inch from my neck, for a moment. The split porcelain basin makes a hollow, not-bell noise on the stones. Then I bear it up again and rise, slowly. I walk under its weight, I bend and lay it down, I duck underneath it and carry it again. I walk. Dusk falls, the air turns blue.

Hold Harmless Series II
Máiréad Delaney performing Hold Harmless II in front of the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph by Joseph Carr.

Many survivors were forced to walk immediately after their symphysiotomies and then sent home without post-operative care, including antibiotics and pain management. The damage inflicted by these surgeries was catastrophic and lifelong, as might be expected at the destruction of the seat of the spine, the cradle of the digestive and reproductive organs; one of the most integral structural components of the body. The emotional, psychic and social toll is less measurable yet no less devastating.

The first survivor of symphysiotomy I met in Dublin was a tiny woman in her late eighties, she still had red hair. She put lipstick on for her portrait. She made scissoring motions with her hands down her body, describing how they had to cut her clothes from her body as she hemorrhaged uncontrollably from the procedure. She had picked the hospital because it was Catholic. She pushed back her sleeves to show me the series of dark marks up and down the insides of her forearms, scars from the many transfusions she’d required. This woman was in a coma for three weeks. She remembers coming in and out of consciousness. The first time she was on a table, with a crowd of students and a doctor at the end of the bed. Another doctor stood at her shoulder, teaching. The second time she remembers waking again in what she thought was a black tent. She asked the nurse if she had caught something contagious and was being quarantined. Finally she remembers waking up on a black slab. She later found out she had been put in a body bag and taken to the morgue. It seems her botched operation needed to be hidden from sight. She remembered asking “Have I any stitches?”and being informed she had twenty eight. Eighteen inside, ten outside.

 She described her year afterwards, how every night she’d have flashbacks, nightmares. “During the night I’d scream and go mad.” She returned home to her parents house. The only thing that would alleviate her nightmares was sleeping in her parent’s bed, with pillows packed around her, partly to soothe her terror and partly to relieve the pain in her pelvis and spine. She spoke quietly, with downcast eyes, softly twisting her hands in her lap. “That was my first birth,” she said. “Caesarean wasn’t accepted by these bloody men.”

Practised through the 1990’s,  symphysiotomy was a pro-life operation. C-section, standard in Western medical care at the time, was seen by prominent Irish physicians as unnatural, possibly limiting the number of future births. Symphysiotomy was considered as natural because it remained vaginal. Also, as it “widened” the pelvis to prepare a woman for future prolific childbearing, it ensured a laboring mother experienced the pains of childbirth in accordance with her Catholic duty. I have witnessed survivors describe the agony of delivering a child through broken bones. The pelvis was not merely widened; it was unhinged.

The official history of this surgery remains unwritten. Medical records claimed by the state are now in danger of being destroyed. By refusing to admit to widespread medical negligence in the most recent ruling, the Irish state refused to acknowledge the memory and testimony of survivors. Erasing them as subjects, the state persists in dehumanizing these women decades after the initial intervention. When individual voices are silenced in this way, we are left with lived violence. This violence resonates on a collective level. The nature of my Hold Harmless works are affective, visceral.

I convey the story of a survivor as I witnessed it. I write from a sensory perspective because it is the position I held. Both stories engage with strain, burden, resilience and pain. We cannot conflate two, but we cannot overlook the place of compassion and empathy and hence responsibility in witnessing. Why do you need to know that I was cold? That the sink was heavy? Because some transmission needs to happen around these experiences. They have been marginalized. Some knowledge of embodiment needs to reach beyond the definition of victim and the dead-end-to-life it portrays. We need to see how power inscribes bodies and creates burdens, and how these new bodies feel, endure and articulate agency.

Hold Harmless Series, II
Máiréad Delaney performing Hold Harmless II in front of the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. Photograph by Joseph Carr.

Steps are taken. Altered steps, perhaps. The sun comes out, it vanishes. The wind rises. Traffic passes, people pass, taking notice, expressing concern. The Gardai come and leave again. The environment around me changes, I move while hampered. I make adjustments. I rest and begin again. Time passes, the state does its best to erase, and the burden does not ease. I hope these works will help people realize their connection to these women.