An exhibition of newly commissioned performances by Edwina Ashton, Jack Strange and Bedwyr Williams.
SHOW sought to examine the integral role that performance plays within an artist’s practice and its subsequent representation in an exhibition context. SHOW consisted of live performances and experiments in performance documentation.
The newly commissioned performance works took place during the opening night and throughout the exhibition.
Essays by Sarah Williams, Curator of SHOW and Catherine Wood, Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance at Tate Modern accompanied the exhibition.
Jack Strange, Zip And Zing, 2011
Duration: five minutes, intermittently
Two legs protruded from holes in the gallery wall separated from each other and surrounded by a large space of white wall. The performance bear reference to sculptural works by Robert Gober or Erwin Wurm, in which limbs are disjointed and appear detached from their human counterparts. Yet the limbs in Strange’s performance moved repeatedly in a nervous fashion for a short period of time then disappeared back into the holes in which they appeared. This motion is inflicted by the capability of the performers; their ability to move for any length of time is limited and performers, all of whom were volunteers invited to participate through an open call for entry, needed to rotate every 3.5 hours.
Strange’s performance was as much about the endurance of the performers as it was about reading the live moment as a form of moving sculpture, available to view and experience during the exhibition opening times. The piece was viewed in short fragments and not in its full duration, transforming it into an experience as disjointed as the limb it displays.
Bedwyr Williams, Urbane Hick, 2011
Performance, installation and limited edition book
Duration: 30 minutes
The live performance occurred once at the exhibition opening. The resulting installation ran throughout the exhibition. The performance, which took place on an altar-like large plinth, accompanied the launch of a new book entitled ‘Bedwyr, I’m sorry I missed your performance’. The book documents almost all of the artist’s performances to date, from art school to the present, including photographs, scripts and writings. During the performance the artist sat on a posture chair with a person dressed as an archetypal collector sat opposite him, listening with an expressionless face while the artist questioned the nature of performance and it’s financial worth.
There was a conscious decision for the artist to perform once and to leave the exhibition stage set, using projected documentation of the performance to form the basis of a gallery installation, raising questions about performance ephemera and the reading of objects or props as historical relics, but also about the role of film in representing a live moment and audience reaction. ‘Urbane Hick’ also explored the artist’s remoteness living in a village in North Wales and his connection to the city where he comes to perform, bringing with him his observations of living out in the provinces. Williams’ current art practice, which includes sculpture, painting, stand-up comedy, posters, photography and performance, often uses his own experiences as a starting point for examining a subject area in a way that is simultaneously satirical and serious.
The book ‘Bedwyr, I’m sorry I missed your performance’ – a limited edition of 1000 was launched during the exhibition.
Edwina Ashton, Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), 2011
Performance Duration: two hours, intermittently
“With some reluctance we pass from these charming prawns to their larger relatives. The lobster Homarus vulgaris, also moves inshore in the summer and occasionally appears between tide marks. There is always a chance of meeting this handsome blue animal lurking in the depths of a pool near low water level of spring tides. And in the extreme southwest of Britain the brown rock-lobster or crawfish, Palinurus vulgaris, with richly sculptured and spiny shell but with out the great claws of the true lobster, may also make rare appearance on the shore.”; C.M.Yonge, The Sea Shore, New Naturalist Collins, London, 1961 p 90–91
Across the Channel, Gerard de Nerval’s saved his pet lobster Thibault from nets off La Rochelle. They would take in walks in Paris attached by a blue ribbon. Nerval asked ‘Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? … or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do.’
The gallery wass dressed with discarded material found in the Jerwood Space basement. The performance evolved over the five week duration of the exhibition with the artist, members of the artist’s family and invited artists including: Alex Baker, Ole Hagen, Julia MacKinlay, Jordan McKenzie, Laura Phillips, Kit Poulson, Mirabel Poulson and Aaron Williamson appearing as human-sized lobsters. Ashton is interested in how matter becomes things; props, stage flats or sculptures and links between animal activity, human behaviour and language. Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging) started with the discovery in Plymouth aquarium that lobsters rearrange their caves.
Image: Jack Strange, Zip And Zing, 2011.
Photo: Thomas Rydin
An essay on SHOW
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in performance within visual art practice, leading me to ask how emerging artists are using performance, and how this fits into the wider context of visual art practices. Exhibitions I have previously curated for Jerwood Encounters stem from an interest in the live moment, the ephemeral nature of performance and how this moment exists alongside other forms of representational media such as photography, film, sound and text. An Experiment in Collaboration (2008) explored collaborative working process; Laboratory (2009) was a live, constantly-changing exhibition of artists creating experimental art work on site in the gallery; and Locate (2010) built a narrative through presentation of objects, photography and film.[i] SHOW continues this area of research by utilising the exhibition as a site for experimentation, where both the curator and the artists can formulate and realise ideas. The selected artists in SHOW work across media and performance plays a central role. These other media (painting, drawing, animation, film and sculpture) often display qualities inherent in performance such as duration, action and audience.
SHOW presents three new performance commissions by artists Edwina Ashton, Jack Strange and Bedwyr Williams: a series of ambitious new works that look at performance as the central site for consideration. Each artist was asked to propose a new performance that would be displayed within a five week exhibition, placing performance as the central focus of the exhibition. Each chose to use the traditional format of the exhibition space where there is a clearly defined boundary for performer and audience – none of the pieces will invite the audience to participate. This approach is further enhanced by the use of formal markers – the performances are housed within familiar exhibition display modes: the gallery wall, gallery plinths and gallery stage, which create a visual link through the exhibition. The resulting works include a singular performance that exists for a short moment in time; an evolving art work that will develop during the exhibition; and a repetitive performance that will be available to view live for the duration of the exhibition. An interesting rhythm forms in the journey through the exhibition where time may be experienced in different formats, either; missed, sustained, repeated or stilled and through the expression of a ‘live moment’ each of the performances contain their own unique experience of time.
Performance is a live moment occupying duration and space, where a physical performing body has a relationship to an audience. When thinking about performance history within visual arts, references begin as early as the Futurist movement in the 1920s, when the rise of the manifesto informed visual art, poetry, film, literature, music and theatre.[ii] The action paintings of Jackson Pollock and the happenings of Allan Kaprow in the 1950s-60s pushed towards a documented performance history where the action was supported by other emerging media such as photography and film. Performance art of the 1960s-70s was a time when artists tested the limitations of the body and the medium – an opportunity for artists to pull away from the restraints that classical media imposed – artists such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Laurie Anderson and Marina Abramovic. More recently work by Paul McCarthy, Matthew Barney, Tino Sehgal, Spartacus Chetwynd and Pablo Bronstein has informed artists making performance work, which can be read in some of the artists’ pieces presented in the exhibition.
Jack Strange’s practice explores the inability to express something through language, with references to creative identity, repetition, perspective, technology, biology and nature. His previous works imply a motion or performed action. For example g consists of a lead ball placed on a computer keyboard constantly typing the letter ‘g’ into a document until the computer crashes and is re-started by a gallery assistant; the lead ball taking on the role of a performer. The newly commissioned performance Zip and Zing forms a body of work that explores repeated action and time passing. The performance is ongoing on a daily basis and prominently positioned; on entering the gallery visitors will encounter two legs protruding out of the gallery wall. The performance makes reference to sculptural works by Robert Gober or Erwin Wurm, in which limbs are disjointed and appear detached from their human counterparts. Yet the limbs in Strange’s performance move repeatedly in a nervous fashion then disappear back into the holes from which they appeared. The piece is most likely to be viewed in short fragments and not in its full duration, transforming it into an experience as disjointed as the limb it displays. Strange’s performance is as much about the endurance of the performers as it is about reading the movement as a form of active sculpture. It makes me think of the Duveen Galleries Commission at Tate Britain in 2008, which saw Martin Creed present his piece Work No. 850[iii], a series of runners sprinting through the gallery in short bursts and on rotation, providing a physical presence of exertion and speed within the space, repeated over and over again.
Repeated action is also present in Edwina Ashton’s newly commissioned performance Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), an installation that will evolve over the full duration of the exhibition with performances two afternoons per week. The work began with the artist’s discovery in a Plymouth aquarium that lobsters rearrange their caves, and the gallery installation is presented as part cave, part artist studio, with discarded material found in the Jerwood Space building. Performers will include the artist, members of the artist’s family and invited artists including: Alex Baker, Ole Hagen, Julia MacKinlay, Jordan McKenzie, Laura Phillips, Kit Poulson, Mirabel Poulson and Aaron Williamson, who will be appearing as human-sized lobsters arranging materials in the space. The format of performance allows for unexpected outcomes, where performers who take on the role of a character can, and may, do unpredictable things.
Whilst the performance is paused the viewer will experience the piece as a static installation, with objects, drawings and costumes present, providing some clues that an activity has taken place. This coheres with Ashton’s interest in how matter becomes things – props, stage flats or sculptures – and links between animal activity, human behaviour and language. This is present in recent works such as No More Furniture – an installation containing sculptural creatures set within an exhibition of drawings. There is a playful interpretation of scale and representation; the sculptures are like miniature versions of the costumes that she makes. Shrunk in size, they appear as something else; toy-like in quality, defunct of use, the backdrop animates them by placing them in a scene-scape. In the recent animation Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m, (notes on mammals and habitat)’[iv] we follow the daily habits of a gentleman elephant, living in a lakeside hotel, as it carries out its day to day activities. There are similarities between Ashton’s performance works and her animations, perhaps rooted in the desire to display narratives and contexts for characters and to bring them to life.
Bedwyr Williams will perform once at the beginning of SHOW in a piece titled Urbane Hick. The performance explores the artist’s remoteness living in a village in North Wales and his distant connection to the city where he comes to perform, and looks at the nature of performance: collecting, documenting, producing and selling. It takes the form of a book launch; the book contains tales of almost all of his performances from art school until now. This singular performance will last around half an hour and will leave the exhibition stage set, books, props, projections and documentation to form the basis of an installation proposing performance ephemera as historical relics, and questioning the suitability of film to represent a singular live moment. This is further enforced by recent works including Cantre’r Gwaelod – a fish tank surrounded by picture slides floating on the surface of the water, gently moved around by the water filter. The title translated from Welsh means The Lowland Hundred, and describes the Welsh legend of an ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island. The piece is a re-interpretation, an animation of a past legend relating to the mysterious, ephemeral quality of performance.
Each performance in SHOW will be documented either through text, photography or film and represented in an online catalogue. Documentation is often seen as secondary to performance. In Peggy Phelan’s essay Unmarked: The Politics of Performance she states: “Performance’s life is only in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance.”[v] In the recent essay Pictures of an Exhibition Philip Auslander argues that performance documentation is often positioned as the “performance as cause and the document as its effect” and “something from which to retrieve the original event”. He argues that documentation “brings the event into being as a performance through the act of framing it as such. The performance document is best understood not as a secondary representation of a prior event but as a presentational space – whether that of photography, audio recording, video or the written word – in which the performance takes place for the beholder.”[vi] There is an exciting place where live art meets photography, film, text and other technologies to create interesting works in their own right where performance and documentation share an inter-reliance. This inter-reliance is highlighted in a recent exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum entitled Haunted[vii] which presented a new reading of film and photography’s impact on performance, focusing on photographic representation and its potential for not necessarily being a form of representation at all but existing as something ‘other’.
When placed within an exhibition context performance presents curatorial challenges, which relate to frequency and duration, the audience’s relationship to the work, the desire to commodify and the need to document[viii]. What makes performance so important is its unpredictability, its ability to surprise and be forthright in a way that other media are unable to achieve because performance relies on direct interaction with an audience and by being experienced during a moment in time. There are few opportunities to commission performance within a gallery context and this exhibition has allowed for three new ambitious performances to be realised, challenging the artists to respond to issues of duration and ephemerality that aren’t necessarily tackled in planning a one-off performance. Each artist has risen to this challenge, putting forward very different responses which I hope will make for a lively, questioning exhibition that can open up further debate around this area of practice.
Sarah Williams is Curator of SHOW which runs as part of the Jerwood Visual Arts programme at Jerwood Space from 16th March – 21st April. The exhibition catalogue can be found online at www.jvashow.co.uk and includes the performance schedule and performance documentation with an essay by Catherine Wood, Tate Curator of Performance/Contemporary Art.
© Sarah Williams, 2011
More information about SHOW.
Image: Bedwyr Williams, Urbane Hick, performance view, 2011
[ii] Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It was largely an Italian phenomenon, though there were parallel movements in Russia, England and elsewhere. The Futurists practiced in every medium of art, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, theatre, film, fashion, textiles, literature, music, architecture and even gastronomy.
[iii] Martin Creed, The Duveen Galleries Commission, Tate Britain, London, UK ran from 1 July – 16 November 2008. The piece titled Work No. 850 centered on a simple idea: that a person will run as fast as they can every thirty seconds through the gallery. More information:http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/martincreed/about.shtm
[iv] ‘Mr Panz at Lake Leman, notes on m, (notes on mammals and habitats), 2010, Duration: 6’01. Further information can be found at Animate Projects website:http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/2010/mr_panz
[v] Phelan, Peggy (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London. P146
[vi] Auslander, Philip (2010) Pictures of an Exhibition, On the Representation of the Performative and the Notion of Movement, JPR|Ringier, p299
[vii] Haunted (2010), Guggenheim Museum, Thames & Hudson, UK
[viii] For example should the performances run for the entire exhibition and does this impact the artist’s concept? When viewing the gallery and a performance at a random time, where does the performance start and finish? Where is the stage and where is the viewing area, how can this be blurred or made distinct? Should documentation be shown in the gallery? How will an audience navigate an exhibition of live works? Is the audience’s relationship to the works traditional in the way they would normally view works in a gallery? When a performance isn’t happening what will the audience experience and how will that affect the understanding of the work? How should the works be documented and how will this affect the reading of the works in the future? Should documentation be seen in relation to the works while they are in the gallery or should the remnants (stage set, objects, materials) left on display paint a good enough picture? What happens to objects once they have been used in a performance, are they elevated to relic status? Are the performances for sale and if so in what format would they be sold?