by EL Putnam
Imagine a childhood dreamscape embodied by the adult imagination: fantastical creatures, biomorphic forms, and elongated amalgamations of body parts — all constructed of household materials. Such is my primary impression of Celina Muldoon’s untitled live installation, which exudes a perfect crudeness in its performance of an engineered mythology. The work encompasses eight performers, with each adorned in a complex costume made of masking tape, hand drawn features, and in one case, a flowing plastic sheet. These participants shift through the space in a distinctive choreography that emerges from the material forms they wear. There is a delicacy to the actions that contrasts the bulkiness of the costumes. The energy builds as the gestures loop, accompanied by an electronic soundtrack that imbues an ethereal quality.
The limits of this fantasy are revealed in the theatricality of the materials; instead of striving for seamless representation, the complex constructions do not hide their rough and ready nature. However, I cannot help but get caught up in the illusion, despite its obvious staging, imbuing the performance with a captivating honesty.
Muldoon sits in the middle of this all, wearing a monstrosity of couture that transforms her into a Centaur-like creature. She gazes at the audience from her position on the ground, though over time, her face wears a pained expression as she bears the weight of her headpiece. At one point, she breaks the looping choreography as she rises from her seated position. Other performers disrupt their patterns to assist her, as the weight of her costume limits mobility. The performers form a line, circling the room with Muldoon in lead. She awkwardly navigates the space, hindered by the ampleness of the horse’s body she adorns. Throughout this process, she maintains a poise, occasionally thrusting the weight of the body she wears, which is supported in the back by a pair of roller skates. Her clumsy gait promotes laughter from the people sitting next to me; an appropriate, affective response to the scenario unfolding before us.
There is a term in German — spielraum — that literally translates to “play room,” but it is used colloquially to describe if there is “wiggle room;” some space of discursive negotiation. Martin Heidegger (2008) uses the term in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” when he describes how truth is revealed in the strife and free space [Streit- und Spielraum] that art affords. Art, therefore, opens a space for conceptual and sensory play. However, as Samuel Weber (2004) emphasizes in his reading of Heidegger, this play in not harmonious, as it is accompanied by “irreducible and generative strife” (56). In her live installation, Muldoon takes advantage of the Streit- und Spielraum opened through the work of art, letting her imaginative negotiation of theatrical materiality and performed gestures present an awkward fantasy.
Watching Muldoon’s live installation also evokes Matthew Barney’s fantastical creatures and Thomas Hirschhorn’s consumerist spectacles, though what makes her vision distinctive is her feminist position. The creatures carry an androgynous air, as gestures play with a gender fluidity, which is most poignant in the tall insect-like creature, performed by Austin Hearne. Hearne’s tall and solid corporeal structure is amplified by his costume that looks like an intersection of a medieval knight with a winged arthropod. The sturdiness of his stature is contrasted with a graceful step—his feet delicately moving along the floor, as if he is wearing an invisible pair of stilettos. The plastic sheet that floats under his masking tape wings contribute to the daintiness of his appearance, providing a contrast of gendered behaviors that embrace the freedom of play that the scenario invites.
At the same time, Muldoon presents herself as the focal point of the event, exuding a matriarchal force. As I watch the other performers assist her move around the room, countering the material weight of her costume, she asserts her role as the queen of this whimsical colony. Her sure and steady presence is affirmed through her unrelenting gaze. Muldoon’s reliance on others to catalyze her movements suggests Judith Butler’s (2004) observations of the body, which she describes as our own, but also not quite our own:
Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do (26).
The performers’ actions emphasize the human interconnectedness of bodies through the choreography of their movements, engagement with the audience with the gaze (and for one character, gestures of listening), and by providing necessary support to Muldoon as she manoeuvres the weight of cardboard and masking tape. Muldoon also manages to lay claim to her body, through the enunciating flick of her rear-end and punctuating hop of the roller skates.
In this work, Muldoon creates a mythological dreamscape, where bodies embrace the theatricality of material. The work opens a spielraum that is visually and sonically captivating, while also playing with notions of human interconnectedness that emerge from a feminist position. Delightfully subversive, Muldoon emphasizes the value of play.
The untitled live installation/performance by Celina Muldoon took place 27 May 2017 at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios. Performers include: Terence Mc Eneaney, Susan Buttner, Elaine Grainger, Stephane Bena Hanly, Austin Hearne and William Murray. The event was curated by Roisin Bohan. Photographs are courtesy of the artist.
Butler, J., 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, London and New York.