Neoliberalism made strange: a response to Jelili Atiku’s Argumenta Dialogorum (What did I buy from you?)

By EL Putnam

A body appears, made androgynous by the covering of a black, biomorph suit. This body walks with purpose to the middle of the road carrying the mask of a horse’s head and candles atop yellow and black striped sticks. Though his body and expressions are obscured, his posture denotes a resoluteness. Cars and buses continue to drive by, occasionally slowing to catch a glimpse at the unusual sight, perhaps out of curiosity or annoyance at the break from routine behaviours. The audience collects on the sidewalk, forming a mass of witnesses, enraptured by the danger building as Jelili Atiku stands between the two lanes of traffic — an intervention into the mundane. When Atiku returns to the gallery, he picks up a small teddy bear. Purchased from a local charity shop, as evidenced by the price tag still attached, he walks through the audience, showing each individual this bastardised memento while handling it with the reverence due to a relic. He repeats the process with a second teddy bear, attaching both to the wall. His body between them form an index of a crucifixion to consumerism.

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This performance, Agurmenta Dialogorum (What did I buy from you?), constitutes a series of rituals, blending gestures of spiritual reverence with elements of neoliberal existence. Transformation is a prominent theme throughout the work. As Atiku wraps his body in yellow and black striped tape, he undertakes a process of metamorphosis from a human form to a monstrous being. Winding the tape around his legs and torso, he inserts candles that create spines along his corporeal curves. The task is slow and methodical; a proprioceptive transformation that not only shifts how he moves through space, but how others relate to him. At some points, he grabs the nostrils of the horse mask that he wears, indicating difficulty breathing, though these perceived physical tensions do not deter him from his actions. He does not perform for his audience, but engages their presence, asking for them to light the candles that decorate his body using unique drawings, each of which request the individual recipient to “Kindly Light the Candles.” This gesture of hospitality warms the crowd. As he becomes a human candelabra, people grasp the long matches, seeking out wicks in need of light. We engage in a unorchestrated dance, making Atiku’s body burn brighter. The wax drips at odd angles, taking on a seminal quality in its inability to resist gravity. Atiku then returns his body to a state of self, shedding the burning candles, the tape that had become a second skin, and finally the black, biomorph suit.

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Throughout this event, Atiku creates a scenario of danger and beauty, where everyday items become the impetus for sculptural actions. The performance challenges the limits of safety, but without pushing the body over the threshold of harm. As an artist, Atiku utilises what German theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to as the transformative power of performance — where simple materials, mundane spaces, the human body, and our relations to each other are metamorphosised through actions. The intentions motivating these actions may not always be clear as the work unfolds, but such is the appeal of this medium that sits at the cross-section of different forms of expression. Existence as we take it for granted is made strange through the performance encounter. Even though these experiences are ephemeral, they alter us as we re-enter the ongoing stream of life. While Atiku undergoes a visual and spatial metamorphosis through his ritual gestures, he is also changing us witnesses through the staging of this encounter. What each witness takes from this experience may vary — I considered my interactions as an American with a Nigerian in Ireland encompass the sort of cultural reciprocity encouraged by neoliberalism. The subtitle of the work, What did I buy from you?, supports this interpretation. Just as neoliberalism as opened up channels of travel and exchange around the globe, making the world appear more open and brighter, there is a nefarious underside to this ideology. Despite impressions of new freedoms and broader horizons, there is the risk of being shackled by these privileges as we are increasingly indebted to omnipotent and ineffable creditors; the more we consume, the more we contribute to the system that provides for and entraps us. The price of compliance is financial, but also environmental, ethical, and human. Atiku’s use of tape to hold up candles we light while simultaneously binding the body provides an apt metaphor for this tension. At the same time, actions have mutual reactions — we collectively contribute to the production of a scene that entangles us. Atiku’s performance raises the question: is it possible to escape the binds of the system with our bare bodies and humanity in tact?

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Jelili Atiku presented Argumenta Dialogorum (What did I buy from you?) at the 2016 Dublin Live Art Festival, curated by Niámh Murphy at Mart Gallery in Rathmines. Photos by Blueprint Photography.

 

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Channels of Creativity

by EL Putnam

What drives a person to create? Where does the impetus to take the experiences, the emotions, the sensations that run through our beings and twist them into something to share with others? Words, gestures, and tones emerge from our bodies in attempts to share sentiments that exceed linguistic structures.

These are some of the questions that drifted through my mind when I attended the “Celebration of Creativity,” curated by Roisin Jenkinson in early February. Tucked into the heart of Howth, various poets, writers, artists, and singers came together to share their creative expressions live with others. The night began with a collection of songs, as Michaela Jenksinson’s rich voice filled the hall. Her body and sounds projected a joy that transmitted through the air, with audience members tapping their feet and humming along. This was followed by Robert Fullerton reading a short story. Even before I could differentiate the words of his text, the pronounced rhythm of his voice carried an intensity that enraptured my attention.  As the verbiage began to solidify into narrative, I let myself be carried along with the quirky tale, smiling in sync with the laughter that grew in the room. The night continued with Rauairi Conneely, a self-declared “poet by accident.” As he let his verses break the silence, he drew attention to mundane idiosyncrasies, shifting perspective just enough to bring beauty even to the humble sneeze.

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Michaela Jenkinson
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Ruairi Conneely

Even at this early point of the night, I am struck by the varieties of expression, as people slip from different corners of the imagination to craft an ephemeral expression of human existence. Next up was the performance of a theatrical scene by members of the Ballymun Writers’ Group (Nancy Matchton Owens, Maria Francis, and Hazel Masterson) that offered a playful spin on tropes of Irish hospitality and family dynamics. Beneath this humorous presentation is the pull of human tensions, the inevitable clash of emotions that accompanies conflicting desires. Their rendition was followed by Christina Molloy reading some of her poetry, who articulated another undercurrent of the evening — creativity behaves as a form of spiritual practice.

“The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” — Piet Mondrian

Even though I do not share the Christian faith expressed throughout the evening, I identify with the use of creativity as a means of connecting to something beyond myself, opening a common ground between us. In his poetry and dance, Brian Miller further emphasised how performance can be a form of prayer, where dance becomes worship.

The atmosphere of the room shifted as the lights dim and Milena Matejko shared her poetry, giving form to questions of art’s purpose through her passion fueled expression. Then, there was a bold transition as Sarah Muthi presented a work of performance art. Standing in front of the room, she let her hair swallow her visage as she twisted and molded her body within her clothing. Her limbs protruded in sculptural angles and the cloth stretched, engulfing her body into its folds. She hid in plain sight, simultaneously exposing and covering herself at a tempered pace. I glance around the room — wondering if this was some people’s first exposure to performance art. The bringing together of poetry and performance art is a particular interest of Roisin Jenkinson’s. Muthi’s body encompassed the distillation of emotion into gesture, what poetry does to language, forcing the audience to slow down, opening a space to think without direction that breaks from the flow of words that had dominated the evening thus far. The juxtaposition of Muthi’s actions with the other performers emphasizes how whatever the means of expression, people desire to share ineffable emotions, giving form to these sentiments, whether through language, melodic sound, or the body itself.

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Shay Phelan

Shay Phelan returned us back to narrative with his songs, where he shared stories intermingled with his hopes and faith. The evening ended with Seán O’Donoghue, someone who was not on the original line up, sharing a poem that recounted a traumatic experience of almost drowning while working as a deep-sea diver on an oil rig. I was humbled into silence as he transformed a horrific event into a beautiful recount, where the ripples in the ocean are traces of human labor — the unknown men and women working in dangerous conditions to fuel our lives. The image of subtle waves flowing through the water reinforced another common theme found amongst the works — as individual humans, we are connected to worlds, milieus and courses of experience greater than us all.

Throughout the night, an honest creativity drifted from the performers, emphasizing the importance of people coming together to share their imaginative escapades with each other. Despite the differences, each performer presented a story of the self, sometimes in the form of a narrative, sometimes as an aesthetic gush of emotion.

A “Celebration of Creativity”  is organized by Michael Connaughton. The next event is scheduled for 2 June 2017 and is looking for support and artistic contributions. Anything imaginative is welcome!