Sandra Johnston, “Waiting Out”

by Fergus Byrne

Within moments she had commanded our attention.  The simple act of opening up the doors brought a change to the room. She sat waiting in the flood of light and put on a pair of sports shoes, football or track, hard to tell at a distance. Audience flocked closer when she went outside to shovel the rubble. Clay and bricks were thrown across the floor and poured on top of a pine table. On the floor lay a saw, a hammer and a champagne glass. In the middle of the room was a huge stage cleverly suspended on the four pillars of the room.

How to write of Sandra Johnson’s work at Catalyst and acknowledge the poetic relations she creates between objects and her body whilst conveying the extent to which my nerves tense with the fear that these images might tip over into accident? As I watched this performance, memories of others recurred to me. Johnson’s personal iconography is distinctive and I have begun to note the syntactical relation of objects and actions; how she has developed a very consistent language with domestic and found objects.  Seldom are they not integrated with physical action.

Cologne, Tues 30th Sept 2014; …grinds down thick white chalk in circles on the table, leaning into it and holding it onto her hips. Her own legs replace the side of the table as its connection to floor. Already a pushing of the materiality. Drops the table down to floor nicely aware of how it has fused with her waist, bends the knees to allow it to descend.[1]

Natural actions are extended beyond themselves to strike up images that reify the improbable. Only after the Catalyst performance did I remember that specific action from Cologne and realised its continuum in the treatment of the larger pine table.

Johnson works in both durational formats of several hours and shorter times, of under an hour. These shorter actions which an audience will view from start to finish generate great tension through the urgency of her action. It is as if the potential for evolution in a longer timeframe is compressed and by so doing we are compelled to watch every moment. Nothing is superfluous.

The unusually prominent stage presented a challenge to any performer. It worked well the night before at the FIX festival to carry sound vibrations through our bodies as we sat on it during Robert Curgenven’s work. But how to deal with it, when to ignore it and use the floor would not remove it from the audience’s perception? In the event Johnson began on the floor, introduced several objects, traversed the stage and reduced it to being one amongst the varied entities within the room.

There is great imagination at play in Johnson’s work. In Cologne the squeezing of an orange over a candle threatened its flame with the most delicate quenching. Then I was confronted by the harder image where the spray was above her eyes. And I sensed the sting of citrus. Or here at Catalyst the pragmatic sawing of the toe caps: an allusion to a fragile part of the body and conjured associations of discarded mittens. The training shoes had been found outside her home some time before. After some days they remained so she took them as an object for a future performance in keeping with a habit of always using a found or gifted object amongst her paraphernalia.[2]

The more subtle activity with objects occurs later in the work after the initial moments when the space is claimed – the chalkstick skimmed across the floor at The Mac, alerting the burbling audience that the performance has begun.[3] Or the tossing away of shoes in the Orangerie of Cologne, another vigorous gesture to lay the ground for the more considered unfolding of the work.

Cologne Tues 30th Sept 2014: The balancing of the candle on the knee does not work, so instead it is put between the toes. Takes off her belt and around her ankle buckles. Raises her foot and slides down the chair. Pulling the foot with her belt I see her attempting to dribble wax toward her eyes.

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Candles which I saw used in Cologne again featured at Catalyst.  Held between her toes she lifted her leg onto the table using her belt as a hoist. The leg became strangely disembodied; a candleholder attached to her torso.  Consequently she climbed upon the table following her leg. My perception of time slowed as she rose. The image formed of a woman balanced on one leg floating the other through space, a flickering candle gripped between toes.  The investment in the action brings vitality to the moment. Poise and balance becomes a persistent feature.

The table is inclined at 45°, leaning onto the stage. Having cut the toes off the shoes for better grip she stands upon it bouncing lightly on its surface. She drops to catch the top edge and holds herself in a press-up along its incline. One foot pressed onto the surface with the other crossed over it. I’ve seen this shape before, at The Mac; balanced atop three glasses, the body as an outstretched tripod of two hands and foot.

In the transitions between passages of activity there is no easing up of focus.  I watch her climb down from the table. Despite her foot being only inches from the ground she resists dropping down. No sudden junctures in motion from one point to another. A foothold within reach, the crossbar of the table, is found. By so doing there is no moment where her activity is relieved by a casual movement.  There is a tensegrity to the performance.[4] Although the scale is not architectural, the balancing of objects with the body engenders a mutual relation between performer and object. On top of this an atmosphere of acute observation by the audience brings us into an emotional tension with the physical action.

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All objects that were set out at the start were gradually brought into the equation.[5]  The passage through a space is a strong performance device that allows actions to evolve as a consequence of travel. By the end Johnson had crossed the room and engaged the entire space. The table was cartwheeled across the stage before being slid of onto the floor. At the far end of the room from where I now stood Johnson balanced on the table’s upturned end in movements that became quite gymnastic as she focussed her weight in relation to the apparatus. The actions had a quality of childlike inquiry pushed to a point where her body was just another element in the game. The movement was a puzzling out of how to get around this object without perhaps touching the feet to the floor.  Her immersion in this focussed state is compelling to watch. And nerve wracking because from outside we wonder how long the focus can be sustained. This is the measure against which she works, the creation of images that constantly draw upon complete engagement.  To lose focus has a double risk that of rupturing the performance and that of injuring the self.

On this occasion tension was rising as she hung from the cross brace of the table and kicked at its underside taunting it with the imprecation to move. The physics of an unfortunate table flip might only take a split second. With the conclusion of this I exhaled as she walked away having achieved a response from the table. It yielded by rotating on the floor.  To conclude she surveyed the space, picked up the toe cap of one shoe, walked over to the stage and set it down beside the other.  A reordering of all objects of the performance.

[1] This and other italicized text is taken from notes written soon after the Cologne performance.

[2] From a conversation with the artist.

[3] This action was from a performance at The Mac, Belfast on 11th Jan 2014

[4] Tensegritytensional integrity or floating compression is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.

The term was coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s as a portmanteau of “tensional integrity” (Wikipedia).

I use the phrase here in a metaphorical way considering the emotional tension as a material entity.

[5] Thanks to Ciara McKeon for this observation made of the work as we discussed it afterwards.

Sandra Johnston performed Waiting Out as part of the 2017 FIX Festival at the Catalyst Art Gallery, Belfast, on Sunday 8 October. Images by Jordan Hutchings.

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