Encountering response; responding to encounter

by Natalie Pullen

Four performance artists; all female. An eclectic, random assortment of materials and props. A live audience. One hour in a formal gallery space. These are the predetermined conditions of Anticipation:Actualisation at the NCAD Gallery, creating a performer’s playground for four individual, spontaneous, un-predetermined performances to unfold alongside and amongst each other.

The audience clings to the walls, encircling the designated performance space in the centre of the room, defined as much by the toppled plinth, the glass jars, newspaper, lard, and many other materials as by the artists who inhabit it.

I sneak in and move to a gap by the window, quietly lower my bags, I freeze, embarrassed, when a coin drops from my bag and clangs to the floor.

I scan the room:

There’s a young woman methodically moving a pile of flour, from ground to arms, and back again.

Another in a pink bikini and bright pink wig. Both legs bound by one leg of a pair of sheer tights; a mermaid gazing out to sea from the shore. Except she is sitting and moving in a pile of pink salt, which is painful and nasty.

The third in plain white with a dog muzzle over her face. She starts circling the room softly singing ring a ring o’ roses, increasingly become louder, faster, more manic. She above all feels like something I’ve seen before; the mad woman.

These pieces of art all begin to evolve within the same space and timeframe, but each on a slightly different frequency, or plane of reality. As an audience member you slip in and out of these alternate frequencies, entering the narrative of one performer and then easily moving onto the next when the point of focus shifts. The ‘mad woman’ drops a glass jar and it shatters, my focus swings away from the dreamy pink mermaid and into this sudden violent explosion.

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In one of his essays on beauty, ‘Prom Night in Flatland’, which I was reading the same week as I attended this event, Dave Hickey makes reference to the “fourth wall” that a certain group of late eighteenth-century French painters (Greuze, Vernet, Van Loo…) would endeavour to drop down the picture plane, effectively sealing the scene off from the viewer, and putting them into the non-participatory position of “objective moral observer” (1993, pp. 43–4). All eras of painting have utilised this wall, inviting the viewer into the scene, or intimidating them out of it. I consider that it is an ongoing struggle for performance artists to overcome or dissemble this wall that keeps their audience at a safe, sterile distance from their work. Everything the artist does relates in some way to this wall, playing to or against it. Currently I am comfortably settled in the ‘audience sphere’, in a predetermined plane outside of the performance.

A woman in black sweeps in and out of the room freely, pausing at a point and then leaving. I momentarily wonder if she is a part of this performance, playing the part of ‘curator’, so definite are her movements. Her freedom of movement makes clear her status as an organiser or facilitator of the event, she has a right to the sacred performance ground. She attracts my attention because her movements fragment the distinct worlds between art and viewer. She is neither in the performance, nor fully out.

There is a hierarchy of art-viewers, audience-members, emerging. The photographers too have license to move freely, in the noble cause of getting the best shot.

What the audience does and doesn’t do when confronted by a piece of live art comes up in the panel discussion following the performance. The performance artists on the panel express the frustration of trying to shake a viewer out of their passive role. Nigel Rolfe states that there are two types of audience members; those that cling to the walls, and those that don’t.

I feel embarrassed at my embarrassment when my coin fell.

In response to the critical tone against timid viewers, Sarah Pierce says a rather lovely thing about considering attentive presence over the period of the hour as a valid form of participation. An immediate sense of relief, a space opens up.

The fourth artist has arrived, late and loud. She is pouring black shiny stones from a heavy sack before her, forming a pathway into the room. In doing so she forces her way from the outside, through our audience-sphere, into the performance-sphere by physically building her own path. Once ‘in’, she doesn’t stay put; she’s smashed her way through the invisible walls and can now move freely. She moves around the viewers’ circle, playing something on her phone which she holds to each viewer’s ear. One by one they get up and walk – confident, self-conscious, or amused – to the other side of the room.

Later, she has a bowl of dry leaves or flowers. Slowly, intensely, and somewhat repulsively, she presses them to her tongue and then sticks them to the window. She makes eye contact with me during the act. I feel included.

She’s successfully mobilised the sleepy audience, establishing dominance and creating a feeling of suspense. Now we’re forced to encounter the situation in an altered way, and waiting to see what she’s going to do now that she’s established control. It feels vulnerable leaving your position on the other side of the fourth wall, no longer protected by formal gallery protocol.

She continues her slobbery ritual, and I check in with the other artists.

Pink mermaid is wrapping a roll of cling film around her lower body; her tail being upgraded.

The woman with the flour is quiet—still—she has something round in her mouth.

Mad Woman is sitting against the blocks rhythmically rubbing a slab of lard through her hair, soon it’s clogged and white with fat.

Suddenly, un-expectedly, she picks up a white bedsheet and approaches a viewer sitting in front of me and asks if she can rip it. There’s a struggle; the audience member takes this task seriously. The woman sitting next to us fumbles for a key to help. There’s a slight feeling of panic rising, the wall has been broken, one of our own has been given a distinct task to complete, what if she can’t do it? How long will she keep trying before it gets really awkward?

The sheet rips and Mad Woman takes one end and hurries off with it, pulling the sheet apart.

The moment has passed, and soon she’s back circling the room again.

Anticipation:Actualisation made explicit the conditions surrounding live art, reminding me to consider the big questions: how does and should a viewer encounter a piece of work, specifically painting and performance?

I go on a date with a computer scientist, I’m telling him about the RHA open submission, and how thousands of artworks will be anonymously judged. He wonders if a robot could be programmed to screen the artworks for passable features and filter them into a more manageable next round that would be judged by people. Outraged, I fluster; but encountering a piece of art is a human, bodily, experience! Technology is not capable of this experience! The whole point of art is for human beings to encounter it!

He looks frightened.

Leaving the panel discussion I peep through the glass doors of the NCAD gallery; the people are gone and what remains is the physical evidence of their movements through the materials that filled the space. Heaped flour, shattered glass, slimy leaves on the window pane, a mangled stick of lard, pink pigment with letters scribed into it, and a path of shiny black stones leading you in the scene. It’s very beautiful, and quiet, a messy map of what has occurred here, an after-image. Very much like a painting I realise. A painting may be considered as the material evidence of the artist’s physical movements, after the act. Performance, rather, invites the viewer into the physical act itself, and in doing so sometimes makes the viewer implicit in the end result. In this case there was an encounter between artists and materials, and there were witnesses. Where the lines between art-maker and art, art-maker and art-maker, viewer and art, viewer and art-maker began and ended up is difficult to definitively say.

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Anticipation: Actualisation is the first performance event to be organised by in:Action editors EL Putnam and Sara Muthi. It took place on 21 March at the NCAD gallery and involved performers Ciara McKeon, Paula Fitzsimons, Léann Herlihy, and Rachel Rankin. The post-performance panel included Nigel Rolfe, Sarah Pierce, and Hilary Murray. Stay tuned for further written responses to the event by Francis Halsall, Tara Carroll, Jack Beglin, and Jesse Hopkins. Photography by Misha Beglin.

 

Reference

Hickey, D., 1993. Prom Night in Flatland, in: The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty. Art Issues Press, Los Angeles.

 

 

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